Mike Raupach: the scientist who tallied the world’s carbon budget

Mike Raupach. CSIRO, Author provided

Dr Mike Raupach died earlier this week after a brief illness. He passed away peacefully at home with his family in Canberra, Australia. He was 64.

Mike was a brilliant and outstanding scientist. He was one of the nation’s foremost climate researchers, focusing on interactions between the climate, the carbon cycle and humans. Crucially, he excelled in communicating with the broader Australian and international community.

His legacy lives on through the Global Carbon Project, which Mike co-founded and which now engages hundreds of scientists, practitioners, and policy-makers. His research, leadership, and personal commitment have made the project a scientifically rich, innovative and socially relevant international collaboration.

It also lives on through the scientific advances he pioneered; the rigour of his analytical approach to solving problems; and beyond this simply by being an example of integrity, clarity of purpose and humility.

Mike was a CSIRO Fellow in the former Marine and Atmospheric Research Division, working at the Pye Laboratory in Canberra for most of his 35-year career in CSIRO. Last year he moved to take up the directorship of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute.

His roles as Science Leader of CSIRO’s Earth Observation Centre from 2003 to 2005 and at the Global Carbon Project from 2000 to 2008 were important domestically (for instance, through the Australian Water Availability Program) and also hugely influential internationally.

His work on the global carbon cycle and the global carbon budget showed the rapid growth of emissions and declining efficiency of natural carbon sinks, explored current and future emission trajectories linked to economic development, and devised ways to think about the responsibility of nations to address climate mitigation.

Strong moral duty

As his own research and that of scientists worldwide demonstrated the urgent need to mitigate climate change, Mike increasingly felt a strong moral duty to speak out. His move to ANU’s Climate Change Institute in February last year gave him the opportunity to do this, drawing on both his scientific and his communication skills. He remained an Honorary Fellow with CSIRO and continued to collaborate and publish with many of his CSIRO colleagues.

We remember Mike as a caring, intelligent and insightful colleague and mentor to many colleagues in CSIRO and around the world. One US-based colleague described him as “both a shining intellect and a genuinely warm and helpful human being. What a loss we’ve suffered, but what a gift it was to have such a colleague these past decades.”

Mike received his BSc in mathematical physics from the University of Adelaide in 1971. For his PhD at Flinders University, he presciently wanted to work on global climate change, but was warned that it was a speculative theory and was instead steered towards micrometeorological research, measuring the turbulent processes that exchange energy and carbon dioxide at the Earth’s surface. During his PhD studies he built his own measurement and data processing system, becoming a pioneer in a technology that is today replicated at hundreds of flux towers in a global network.

Upon completing postdoctoral studies at the University of Edinburgh, Mike joined CSIRO in 1979 as a Research Scientist. Over the ensuing three decades he held many senior positions, and in 2010 he became a CSIRO Fellow in recognition of his outstanding and innovative research.

Global change

Thus, in a trajectory that took him from his PhD research on micrometeorology to the global change issues that always motivated him, Mike made groundbreaking contributions in many areas of environmental science, including the storage and cycling of energy, water and carbon in Australia’s landscapes.

More recently he drew on his continuing interest in social dynamics to lead research that transcended biophysical science, such as his report to the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council on the importance of taking an integrative approach to managing energy, water and carbon in Australia; and the Australian Academy of Science’s Australia 2050 project, which explores the implications of Australia’s population trajectory for economic, social and ecological sustainability. The impact of his work will reach far beyond CSIRO and Australia for decades to come.

Mike was an inspiring, intelligent, creative and exceptionally rigorous scientist, who was committed to making a difference. Throughout his career he authored or co-authored more than 150 research papers, more than 80 conference papers and technical reports, and edited two books. His work has received more than 10,000 citations.

He led the publication of influential and popular Australian Academy of Science publications, including its Science of climate change: questions and answers series. He was a contributing author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Assessment Report on the scientific basis of climate change in 2007. As a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and the American Geophysical Union, Mike commands enormous respect from scientific peers around the world.

Mike has been a role model to many and communicated widely to researchers and the public. His legacy will endure far into the future.