Letter for AuScope submission to the National Research Infrastructure Roadmap Capability Issues Paper

Members of the National Research Infrastructure Review Committee,

Australia is a vast and complex continent.  It contains some of the world’s oldest rocks, and some of the youngest.  It has regions that have been undisturbed for billions of years while at the same time the margins of our plate are actively deformed as they are subducted beneath our neighbours.

The Earth holds the clues that allow us to understand how our planet works, how the solar system was born, how life evolved, and how our dynamic planet continues to change.  The Australian crust hosts some of the richest mineral and energy systems on the planet (currently contributing approximately 10% of Australian GDP and >50% of exports) and has been the foundation on which our economy was built. Our economy will continue to grow and provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of Australians over the next decade based on the resources the Australian crust provides us.

In order to ensure the stability and growth of industry two critical challenges need to be addressed by the geoscience community. Firstly, we need a more effective method of exploring for minerals under areas of sedimentary cover and, secondly,  we need to sustainably manage competing demands for energy and water resources in Australia’s sedimentary basins.

Exploration under cover

From an exploration perspective Australia is, quite incorrectly, considered a mature region.  The “easy” mineral deposit discoveries that have some expression in the rocks exposed at the surface, have mostly been identified.  However, the Australian crust has only given up the smallest of its secret mineral potential.  The vast majority of our mineralised provinces remain largely unexplored due to the fact that they are buried beneath younger sediments, which obscures them from discovery with our current exploration capability.

Our ability to understand the nature of these cover sequences, developed as layers over geological time,  and what they inform us about the crystalline rock beneath, is one of the critical scientific challenges of the coming decade. Key to the sustainability of the minerals industry as an underpinning economic pillar in Australia will be the development of new sensor technologies, the acquisition of national high-resolution geophysical and geochemical datasets, and the development of eResearch tools that will allow us to intelligently analyse and process the deluge of observational data that is beginning to be collected.

The UNCOVER initiative is an industry led research program designed to address these issues.  This initiative brings together researchers from industry, government and academia. It recognises the value of existing AuScope and Geoscience Australia programs like large-scale geophysical instrument deployments, national drilling and sampling programs and, the acquisition of 3D geochemical and geochronological profiles for the entire country.  These new national datasets and the latest transformational data analysis tools, that include machine-learning and Bayesian approaches to big data integration, will revolutionise the way mineral exploration is undertaken in Australia over the next 25 years.

Sustainable basin management

The emergence of new ways to extract energy resources from our sedimentary basins (shale gas, coal seam gas, geothermal) coupled with the development of alternate uses for subsurface reservoirs (compressed air storage, waste storage, geosequestration) and an ever increasing demand for fresh water puts more, and increasing, pressure on our sedimentary basins than ever before.  Resource sterilisation, groundwater contamination, surface subsidence, salinity and human induced seismicity are just some of the risks Australia faces if poor or ill-informed management policies relating to these basin bound resources are implemented.

The problematic complexity surrounding resource management is compounded by the historic practice of collecting data to support exploration for energy resources in basin environments. This practice traditionally focused only on the data relevant to a specific commodity or part of the basin that may contain it.  However, a recent paradigm shift has seen resource managers starting to consider the pore-space of the crust as the resource of value, rather than whatever fluid it may contain. This has fundamentally changed the way that we think about basins as a source of sustainable resources.  In order to make this new paradigm shift a reality, a new generation of geoscience data is needed. Data, allowing earth scientists to constrain the geometry of entire basins and the aquifer systems within them, along with more complete geochemical datasets and deployments of surface based monitoring systems that allow the tracking of earthquake activity, groundwater flow, surface movements and build up of stress, is critical for the future health of these complex geological formations.

The capture of this new data will allow the behavior of entire basins, in response to natural and human induced change, to be constrained and accurately predicted.

The investment opportunity

Australia’s Earth and geospatial science research has reached a tipping point. The size and remote nature of our landmass, combined with our ability to measure and sample, only the shallowest portions of the crust, has made Australian researchers expert at the efficient use of sparse datasets.

However, the reduction in cost to produce the next generation of Earth monitoring and imaging sensors combined with increased portability and sensitivity, will, facilitate a revolution in the way we can image and monitor the Earth’s crust and create a new understanding of the nature of what lies beneath our feet.  The deployment of grids of multi-sensors in boreholes or surface based locations will facilitate the development of datasets that will be enable research into:

  • the current state of the Earth (stress, groundwater movement, human impacts, natural hazards),
  • the processes leading to its formation (mantle process, crustal architecture, plate tectonics), and,
  • more efficient discovery and use of earth-bound resources (UNCOVER, mineral and energy systems).

AuScope’s Australian Earth Observing System is a distributed sensor system, a 10 Million Square Kilometre Array, that will allow us to make Australia the most intensively monitored, deeply imaged, best understood and most efficiently utilised continent on Earth.

It is fortunate that the infrastructure requirements associated with large scale distributed sensor deployments to facilitate significant advances in both exploration under cover and, the sustainable management of our basins are remarkably similar.  Both need access to:

  • large fleets of a variety of state of the art, field deployable geophysical instruments,
  • access to existing or new boreholes for in-situ sampling and subsurface sensor deployment,
  • the development of new workflows and observation techniques, including the use of miniaturised sensors and drones, to revolutionise the speed and fidelity of geophysical imaging programs,
  • ongoing time-series observational monitoring to build up models of the architecture and composition of the deep Earth, baseline data for monitoring changes to the crust and assessment of potential for associated geo-risks,
  • robust data infrastructure for transfer, discovery and storage of large datasets, telemetered time-series data and geospatial data,
  • Simulation and modelling codes that can utilise this data to develop national Earth models (analogous to the ACCESS models in the climate science community), and,
  • access to eResearch tools and High Performance Computing (HPC) and related storage to allow these very large and complex datasets to be interrogated and modelled.

AuScope and the Australian Earth Observing System

The AuScope Infrastructure Program has been a collaboration between Australian and State research institutions in universities and government, with funding support from the Australian Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS). A ‘world class research infrastructure to characterise the structure and evolution of the Australian continent in a global context from surface to core in space and time’ has been our vision.

Since its inception in 2006 AuScope has served the Australian Earth and Geospatial communities through the development of the AuScope Earth Model.  This is an integrated observing system that involves geophysical, petrophysical and geospatial facilities serviced by a robust Grid based eResearch infrastructure, virtual laboratories and simulation and modelling tools.  It is upon this foundation that the Australian Earth Observing System will be built.

A recently completed Impact Assessment Study, undertaken by Lateral Economics, assessed the economic impact of the development of the existing AuScope infrastructure for Australia.  This study identified a variety of direct and indirect user groups of AuScope-related outputs incorporating:

  • individual researchers in universities or structured research collaborations (e.g. cooperative research centres, specialist research groups or facilities, industry partnerships) with clear examples across the breadth of AuScope’s ten partner universities and beyond,
  • State and Territory geological surveys (geoscience agencies) and Geoscience Australia with relative activity and usage skewed towards those jurisdictions with greater size and scope of geological survey work, notably Western Australia and Queensland, and,
  • individuals or firms that utilise data or analysis and interpretation produced by the above groups (e.g. mineral or energy exploration firms, natural resource managers).

The research and other benefits resulting from AuScope-related physical and data infrastructure is equally diverse. Key areas of impact influenced by AuScope, each of which are reasonably distinct, include:

  • fundamental Earth science,
  • resource exploration,
  • spatially sensitive industries, and,
  • natural and built environment.

Based on an initial investment of $41.4 million, the indicative economic assessment suggests a net benefit to Australia from AuScope between $2.3 billion to $6.2 billion – with our best estimate of $3.7 billion (net present value in 2015-16 terms, over the period to 2040-41).

A net benefit of $3.7 billion is equivalent to $15 of benefit for every $1 in economic cost – a substantial return on investment. While substantial, the scale of these estimates is consistent with other economic assessments of similar initiatives, in Australia and the United States.

Planning for the AEOS

In 2011 AuScope undertook a community wide engagement exercise to develop a future plan should new capital investment become available.  This resulted in the development of the AEOS concept and a series of projects were developed and costed at a variety of activity levels.

These are presented in the AuScope Earth Observatory Roadmap document – http://www.auscope.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/AEO_AuScope_Nov_2011.pdf.h A second updated roadmap was produced in 2015 which further refined the Australian Earth Observatory concept and incorporated the requirements of the fledgling UNCOVER and Sustainable Basin Management initiatives – http://www.auscope.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/AEOS_Strategic_Overview_2015.pdf.

The full quantum of funding required to support the infrastructure requirements of AuScope’s research initiatives will need to be assessed in the future particularly in light of the recent progress made by partner organisations in the detailed planning of their future research programs.  However, based on previous costings, and calculated at a minimum and full level of support, the quantum is likely to be between $10 to $20 million per year for a 10 year program.

We hope that this information, and the specific responses to the questions related to the issues paper that follow, help with the panel’s review of research infrastructure requirements in Australia.  Also attached is the Executive Summary from Lateral Economics’ Impact Assessment (mentioned briefly above), a brief document outlining key science questions that will drive the AEOS and brief description of some of the programs that will support that science.

If you have any questions regarding this submission, please contact me for clarification. I would end this submission with a word of appreciation, on behalf of Australia’s Earth and Geospatial research community to the Australian Government and the Office of the Chief Scientist, for undertaking what we regard as a critical step to secure a brighter more sustainable future for our continent and its people.


Dr Tim Rawling
CEO AuScope Limited