Science Direct: Dr Neil Saintilan

Dr. Neil Saintilan works for the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change co-ordinating research into the rivers and wetlands of New South Wales. He is one of our featured experts on Climate Change.

My role is to co-ordinate the research of the NSW government into the rivers and wetlands of New South Wales. Sadly, many of the great wetland systems in the Murray Darling Basin have suffered from declining rainfall and river flow, and some scientists have suggested that we are seeing the first indications of the effects of climate change. On the coast we have the opposite problem, with sea-level rise increasing the inundation of wetlands with greater tidal flow. We are studying the changing patterns of flooding within all these wetlands, and the resulting changes in the extent of wetland plants and animals. The good news is that there has been a strong commitment from governments and private landholders to redress some of these problems, and to provide more much-needed water to wetlands.

I studied for a Bachelor of Science at the University of Sydney and afterwards completed my PhD in wetland ecology. From there I taught at a number of universities including the University of Sydney, The University of New South Wales and Australian Catholic University. Though much of my time is currently spent studying the wetlands of the Murray-Darling Basin in inland Australia, most of my research has centered on the impacts of sea-level rise on the coast. In collaboration with the US Geological Survey I have been involved in the establishment of a global monitoring network seeking to measure the effects of sea-level rise in mangrove and saltmarsh environments.

Relevant links:

NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change
Wetland Recovery Plan
Coastal wetlands and sea-level rise


General/personal questions:

  1. What did you want to be when you grew up? When I was about 13 I watched a program on TV which featured National Parks and Wildlife Scientists studying birds on Lord Howe Island. From that point on I wanted to be an ecological research scientist
  2. The idea/s that changed my life was/were....That humans beings have a role as environmental stewards. We are responsible for the state of our environment and have an obligation to pass it on in a state as good or better than we found it.
  3. I'm always being asked about....Whether we can just pump more water into the Murray-Darling Basin from Northern Australia, where there is plenty of water. The problem is that it would cost too much, and why create the same problems in northern Australia that we have in the south?
  4. My worst job has been....I worked in the bowels of David Jones department store as a teenager, putting price labels on books.
  5. I often wonder...Whether the research we are doing now will change the way people think and act in 100 years time
  6. I hope that...We begin to see the positive results of the investment of money and hard work that so many people are putting into the better management of wetlands. We need more rain, but we now have a new culture emerging around the preservation of these important sites.
  7. The best thing about my job is....Discovering interesting things about the natural world.
  8. The hardest thing about my job is...Encouraging people to work together for the sake of a better environment.

Climate change specific questions

  1. What climate change means for me personally is...Changes we are already seeing in the distribution of plants and animals in New South Wales. People talk of climate change as if it is something that will happen in the future. As scientists we are seeing it now.
  2. Climate change affects my work by...Defining what we need to study. We are drawn into studying ecosystems under stress from drought and sea-level rise.
  3. My work may affect how we respond to climate change by...Suggesting that we need to accommodate sea-level rise by setting aside land into which coastal wetlands can migrate. These are decisions that need to be made now before options are closed off. We also need to find the right balance between river water allocated to the environment and the needs of agriculture.
  4. What I would say to climate change skeptics is...The scientific community presents a unified view on this issue because we are dealing with the evidence every day. In my own work, I am seeing changes to coastal wetlands that our research suggests have not happened at any time in the past 5000 years.
  5. What I would say to you about what you can do about climate change is...Become as well informed as you can about the consequences of global warming, both in Australia and across the globe.
  6. What I think Australia can do is...Provide leadership, because we are an influential country and have unique opportunities to adopt, safe, clean, economic and lasting ways to replace fossil fuels.


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