Where Computing Meets Climate Change

Engineering and IT Collection
Head of the University of Melbourne Meteorology Department, Fritz Loewe undertaking research in Antarctica in 1951. He was awarded the Polar Medal in 1955 for his work on ice sheets. University of Melbourne Archives and Special Collections.

Computer modelling is now integral to our understanding of climate change— helping to inform the ways we can reduce human impact on our ecosystems. Australia’s use of computers to model weather and climate stretches back to the late 1950s to the work of a University of Melbourne graduate student. 

The University of Melbourne commenced operating the CSIRAC computer in June 1956. At the time, it was the only computer in an Australian university. Within one year, Ditmar “Dick” Jenssen, a masters student in Physics, was experimenting to see if he could program the computer to produce weather forecasts for Australia.  

It was a laborious process. With its 2000 vacuum tubes and mercury delay line memory, CSIRAC only had two kilobytes of memory, meaning it would take hours to feed the computer instructions and data and to wait for a result to be produced on punched tape. Jenssen, alongside his supervisor Uwe Radok, would work all night from 11 pm to 9 am when they had the computer to themselves. 

Computer engineer Jurj Semkiw at the console of the CSIRAC computer. Engineering and Information Technology Collection.

A faster computer was needed, and Jenssen used the fastest available in Australia— the UTECOM at the University of Technology in Sydney. Using his barotropic model, Jenssen could calculate a 48-hour weather forecast in the span of about 40 minutes. The results from UTECOM were fed into CSIRAC back in Melbourne to produce a visual representation of atmospheric pressure across Australia. Performed in 1958, this was the first data visualisation by a computer in Australia. 

Radok was glaciologist of international repute, and he and Jenssen turned their attention to using CSIRAC and newer computers to create a model of the Antarctic ice sheet. The computer modelling in turn shaped Australian scientists’ fieldwork in Antarctica, as they sampled ice across long traverses to feed into the computer model. By 1971, alongside glaciologist Bill Budd, they had created a virtual whole ice sheet and Melbourne had become an international leader in glaciology. 

Australia continues to play a major role in international meteorological and climate change research, and computer modelling is central to analysing the impact of global warming. The models for political change, however, have been harder to come by. 

Dick Jenssen’s visualisation of atmospheric pressure across Australia, from his 1959 MA thesis. The University of Melbourne Library.