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Prestigious award for northern climate research

By Leanne Coleman

Dr Chris O'Brien has been awarded the Australian National University's School of History John Molony Award Dr Chris O'Brien has been awarded the Australian National University's School of History John Molony Award

Research detailing the history of Northern Australia’s climate, which suggests Indigenous seasons are a better fit to weather history than the Western idea of seasons has won a highly prestigious award.

History Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Chris O'Brien has been awarded the Australian National University's School of History John Molony Award for his PhD thesis entitled “A Clockwork Climate: An Atmospheric History of Northern Australia”.

“Weather and climate are truly arresting in Australia’s far north,” Dr O’Brien said. “They set the Top End – the northernmost parts of the Northern Territory – apart, not only from temperate Australia, but also from other tropical locales.

“My research was a study of stories by explorers and researchers about weather and climate between 1800 and 1942. I wanted to try to grasp an understanding of how weather was perceived and recorded.”

Dr O’Brien said his research revealed how Western ideas of time had distorted understandings of weather and climate.

“I looked into the history of science in colonial Northern Australia and records of experience-based efforts to grasp something so foreign to people from temperate environs,” he said.

“What I found was that the historical record of rain, winds, heat and humidity does not fit into the neat idea of two annual seasons: wet and dry. Instead, they are a better fit to Indigenous ideas of six seasons for the area around Darwin.

“As the effects of anthropogenic climate change unfold, this understanding is pivotal in dealing with this looming problem,” he said.

In addition to converting his doctoral thesis into a book, Dr O’Brien is working on a history of weather and climate across the Indonesian maritime continent and the Arafuru/Timor region, post 1600 CE, tentatively called “Chasing the Winds”.

Dr O’Brien is an environmental historian and is undertaking post-doctoral research with the Northern Research Futures Collaborative Research Network based at the Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods and the Northern Institute at CDU.

His research interests include weather, climate, oceans, modern scientific and environmental knowledge, Northern Australia, southern Asia and time.

The award, in honour of Emeritus Professor of History John Molony, recognises outstanding scholarly excellence in a PhD.