My story

I was born in Karachi, Pakistan. When I was young, our family moved from city to city frequently because my father was an Air Force pilot. My siblings and I thought of it as an adventure. As a result, we changed schools often but I didn’t find it difficult to make new friends. Email had not been invented back then so we wrote letters to stay in touch with our friends. Sometimes even sending letters in locked diplomatic bags, which made me feel important!

I finished my high school in Karachi (the biggest city in Pakistan) and graduated at the top of my class. I used to study hard to be a high achiever but was also a keen participant in sports even if not an outstanding athlete. I did manage to win a trophy in Tennis when representing my college in an inter-college tournament. In the early 80s, the curriculum in Pakistan required the students to choose from pre-engineering, pre-medical or humanities in high school in Year 11/12 (at the age of 16 or 17). Biology used to be my favourite subject, and my teachers and my family assumed that I would choose the medical pathway to become a doctor. However, I couldn’t bear the sight of human parts being sliced or the sight of blood, so I chose engineering instead. I completed a Bachelors of Civil Engineering in Pakistan. Listening to a seminar in coastal engineering during the course of my Bachelor’s program motivated me to study Oceanography and I decided to pursue a PhD at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, in USA.

For my PhD dissertation, I undertook research in sediment transport in bays and estuaries. I spent many days boating in lakes, and paddling in muddy waters to collect mud samples. After the completion of my course, I was not eligible for a work permit in the USA, therefore I applied for Australian immigration and sent job applications to Australia. I was thrilled at being offered two jobs: a consulting engineering job in Sydney and a research job at the University of WA in Perth. I chose Sydney over Perth and moved to Australia in 1995 to work for a small ocean engineering company. Since then I have called Australia home (though second home! First home will always be Pakistan!) The engineering company that I joined was the only consulting firm in Australia (at the time) with the capability of undertaking numerical modelling for the prediction of waves, tides, currents, and sediment transport. I learnt the art and science of coastal modelling from the very best of ocean engineers. The company’s clients included major engineering and resource companies, port authorities, developers, Defence, Local and State governments all over Australia and the Asia Pacific. My work involved setting up and running coastal models for the purpose of estimating beach erosion for beach management and protection, design of groynes, sea-walls and marinas, predicting wave climate for port design and dredging projects. I worked for 20 years as a consulting engineer including spending two years in Dubai as a Coastal Specialist for the Dubai Government. Along the way, I took 2.5 years of maternity leave when my daughter was born. Although my partner took over more than 70% of the home chores in addition to his full-time job, I did not wish to race back to work! Instead I enjoyed maximum time with my child before returning to work.

In 2012, during a severe economic decline in Australia that occurred mainly due to a downturn in the mining industry, several engineers lost their jobs. The engineering companies fiercely pitted against each other in a bid to win scarce projects. In these bidding wars, I felt that scientific methodology was being seriously undermined in preference for lower costs and higher profits. I became disheartened and in 2014, I returned to research and academics at the Swinburne University of Technology.

The focus of my work shifted from engineering to scientific research, and I also engaged in teaching. From Swinburne, I moved on to the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM), where I have been involved in ocean modelling and tropical cyclone studies. I continue to teach coastal modelling at the University of Melbourne as a visiting lecturer. My current research at BoM consists of verification of ocean currents from the BoM’s operational global ocean models against field observations and comparing the BoM’s ocean model performance with the operational global ocean models from Europe. This provides validation of BoM’s oceans models against international standards and also gives confidence to stake-holders in the accuracy of BoM’s ocean model predictions. The ocean currents forecasts are widely used in search and rescue operations and in port management operations, fisheries, and aquaculture.

I am quite happy that the turn of events in my life enabled me to return to research. Consulting ocean engineering has been the highlight of my career, and research in oceanography is a bonus or the proverbial icing on the cake! I enjoy my work immensely, and it has been a great journey. I feel very fortunate for all the opportunities that I have had in the past and the current opportunities at BoM. I am grateful to my colleagues, employers, and my family for the enormous support and encouragement along the way.

The organisations that I have been associated with had nearly always an equal representation of men and women, which is unusual for the engineering sector. However, the unfortunate fact is that while women formed 50% or more of the workforce, the senior leadership consisted of less than 5-10% women. A mere 3% of women were in senior management roles at a major global engineering company that I was employed in 2012. This trend continues (albeit slightly improved) today across Australia. There is a lot of hype about diversity and equity in all organisations in Australia, however few successful outcomes have emerged so far. Therefore, I would urge all young women (and minorities) to step up not just as equals (to men) in their chosen profession but to make a concerted effort to achieve their well-deserved leadership status.

Amidst the COVID pandemic over the past two years, my focus has been largely on my research work as social activities have been often curtailed by the Government because of lockdowns. However the lockdowns sparked my new-found hobby in gardening. In addition, I discovered some spectacular scenic spots in my own suburb during my walking and biking trips. All through the lockdown, my colleague and I teamed up for weekly virtual walks, and recently were finally able to indulge in a real 4-hour bike ride.

Coastal engineering

During the course of my career, I switched from the role of a coastal engineer in private industry to a research oceanographer at the University and now at the Bureau of Meteorology, a public organisation. Numerical modelling of waves, currents, and sediment transport remained a common theme for both jobs but with slightly different motivations. In consulting, the main focus was on the application of coastal engineering studies to real-world problems, while the purpose of research is the scientific understanding of the meteorological and oceanographic phenomena and their impacts on the public and the environment.

In an engineering project, design of a coastal or port structure requires knowledge of various environmental conditions that would directly impact its structural integrity, which in turn would make it safer for its users. For example, when designing a break-water or sea-wall, we need to assess whether the structure can withstand the forces from the motion of waves, currents, tides and winds. Based on the magnitude of these forces, the strength (for example, size and density of rock) and quantity of construction material is then estimated. Depending on the location of the structure in water or along the beach, we would also need to calculate the sediment transport to safeguard the toe of the structure from erosion or from being undermined. Estimation of environmental and oceanographic conditions is done both for regular (everyday) and extreme storm events.

As a Coastal Specialist for the Dubai government, I undertook some interesting and challenging projects. There were a large number of luxury hotels and exclusive housing estates and marinas built “on” the beach and on reclaimed land (artificial land created by filling coastal waters with millions of cubic meters of sand). Such developments alter the natural wave patterns, which in turn cause serious changes in sand transport leading to massive erosion in some areas and deposition in others where it can be detrimental (for example in marinas). In some instances, the developments were causing blocking of tidal flows, which would then result in deterioration of water quality in marinas and inlet areas. My responsibility was to assess the adverse impacts of these developments on the beach and coastal areas and recommend mitigation measures.

A recent project at the Bureau that I was involved in was estimating extreme winds and waves for the design of offshore platforms in North-West (NW) Australia. This area is known as the ‘tropical cyclone capital’ of Australia, therefore we were required to predict extreme wind and wave conditions arising from severe tropical cyclones. Ideally we would need long-term (hundreds of years) cyclone data (tracks and intensities) to compute the extreme states. These are not readily available, therefore we use numerical models to generate synthetic tropical storms. For this particular project, we undertook several thousand computer simulations on a supercomputer to compute synthetic tropical storms, then used the output from the computations as input into wind and wave models to produce extreme wind and wave conditions. In another project in the same area (NW Australia), we improved the accuracy of available tropical cyclone forecasts using statistical methods so that the offshore industry could get an improved forecast in a shorter lead forecast time period. This would increase not only the company’s response-time for evacuation and hence save lives but would also lead to a financial benefit from minimising downtime for operations. For example, a company can lose several million dollars in revenue when they temporarily cease operations.

Designing to reduce environmental impacts

When undertaking construction projects in a sensitive marine environment, we need to consider the environmental impacts resulting from the construction project. This is particularly important for construction of ports, dredging of shipping channels, or construction of marinas or large coastal power plants.  All marine construction (especially dredging) causes turbidity (cloudiness due to suspended sediment particles) that can adversely affect marine life. It can also impact the water quality at a beach thus affecting public recreation and public health. In Australia (and most countries around the world), preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (Study) (EIS) is required by law that would determine the adverse impacts on the environment as a direct result of the proposed project. Proposing of potential mitigation measures to alleviate the impacts also forms part of the EIS. I was involved in the preparation of such an EIS as a coastal engineer when I conducted sediment modelling to assess the impacts of dredging for one of the largest dredging projects in Australia (at the time) for the Port of Melbourne Dredging project.

Power plants including desalination and thermal power plants are generally located near the coast so that wastewater can be discharged into the ocean. The wastewater is treated before being discharged, and numerical modelling is employed to assess the optimal volumes and rates of discharge that would ensure that the discharge effluent is of similar temperature to the ambient (local) temperature of the ocean. Also, that the contaminant load (if any, that may prove toxic to the fish or the marine flora) poses minimal risk to the marine environment. The modelling also informs us the extent and rates of dilution of the effluent plume and whether the concentrations of pollutants are within the safe thresholds for the marine environment.

Recently I was part of a large numerical modelling project of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). The aim was to develop high resolution models to predict the ocean circulation around the GBR, and more importantly to determine the impacts of agricultural runoff via river discharges on the GBR. We used a hydrodynamic model to simulate the ocean currents and river discharges and predicted the extent and dispersion of the river plumes during storms and high river discharge events.

Impact of climate change on my work

Sea level rise due to climate change has had a huge impact on coastal areas. Sea levels from tide gauge data dating back to more than a hundred years show an irrefutable increase in mean sea levels since the start of the industrial era. In particular, the global sea level has risen dramatically in the last 20 years. Therefore, sea level rise needs to be taken into consideration when designing any coastal structure or any coastal planning scheme.

The increased air temperatures are a direct consequence of climate change. Changes in air temperature affect the moisture in the air, which in turn influences cloud formation, thunderstorms, winds, and rainfall. The atmosphere is intrinsically linked to the ocean. The temperature at the ocean surface affects the temperature in the ocean. The combination of moisture in the air and ocean temperature is a major driver of tropical cyclones. Climate change has caused changes in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones. The ocean temperature further drives the ocean water densities and ocean currents, which affect the ocean circulation, and ocean salinity. The processes from the atmosphere to the ocean-atmosphere boundary to the deep ocean are all dynamically linked to each other.

Events such as coastal flooding are also influenced by climate change through changes in extreme meteorological and oceanographic (met-ocean) conditions. Flooding can be caused by meteorological effects (such as storm surge) or oceanographic processes (such as tides, storm waves, tsunamis, sea-melts) or torrential rains. One of these events or a combination of these events can lead to major flooding. Louisiana in the USA, for example, faces the brunt force of the ocean combined with river flooding, and this is exacerbated during the cyclone season. For protection against both kinds of flooding, the authorities in Louisiana have upgraded the seawalls and flood-controlling system of levees.

The extreme events and climate change have a greater impact on the coastal communities of our neighbouring Pacific Islands. As a consultant for the Asian Development Bank, I have worked in Samoa on climate change projects, both for the Samoa Port Authority and for the Samoan Government. We evaluated and recommended adaptation measures that would make their communities more resilient to climate change. Although the adaptation measures can serve to minimize adverse impacts, we cannot escape the natural disasters or attempt to build overly costly or non-feasible control structures. For example constructing 20m high seawalls stretching along entire coasts would only lead to more serious coastal issues, and would be a waste of precious resources. Planning and adaptation is the preferred strategy over hard control measures. In the case of Samoa, the future planning would require people and infrastructure to be gradually moved away from the coast onto higher ground. Samoa is a relatively big island with large sections of high elevation areas, which would offer safety from sea level rise impacts.

Oceanography

My work has focused largely on coastal areas and physical oceanography, but Oceanography is a vast multidisciplinary field. It is directly related to meteorology where the atmospheric winds are the driving forces of the waves and currents, and the atmospheric temperature and fluxes directly impact the ocean temperatures and ocean circulation. Marine chemistry and marine biology are major components of oceanography where the thermal, chemical, and hydrodynamic characteristics of the water flows impact the trajectories, spawning, and food supplies of fish and aquatic organisms. Marine biologists study marine life from molecular organisms to microorganisms to marine mammals. Marine bio-chemists extract and harvest marine products that are used in medicines, food, and everyday objects such as cosmetics.

Geomorphology is the study of beachforms and sediment processes. For example, the assessment of how the jetties and marinas built along the Eastern coast of Port Phillip Bay have historically altered the natural sediment transport flows, starving some of the southern beaches. Marine geology and geophysics focus on plate tectonics, submarine canyons, and ocean and coastal sedimentary processes. Tsunamis are difficult to predict, these can be triggered by both sub-surface and terrestrial disturbances (earth-quakes). However with a vast number of seismic measuring instruments around the world, combined with state-of-the-art numerical tsunami models, there is progress being made in prediction of tsunamis. Study of sea-ice is being widely recognised as critical as sea-ice melting due to climate change becomes rapid and wide-spread. Other fields such as acoustics, seismology, hydrology (and others) form part of the oceanographic phenomena through underwater acoustics, subsurface earthquakes, tsunamis, rivers flowing into oceans etc.

Ocean current forecasts are widely used in search and rescue efforts. The most famous in recent times was the extensive search for the Malaysian airplane that crashed and sank in the Indian ocean. Ocean models were used to track currents and pieces of aircraft or debris that the currents would have carried over large distances and depths of the ocean. The ocean forecasts are routinely used by commercial and military shipping and navigation. In addition ocean currents and waves forecasts are also regularly used by surfers, recreational boaters, and currents in particular are critical in sailing competitions. The small ocean engineering company in Sydney (my first employer in Australia) simulated the currents for the Australian sailing team during the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games using numerical models. That was two decades ago, now with the advances in technology, mainly several-fold increases in computation speed and storage and wide-availability of supercomputers and satellite data, the prediction capabilities have immensely improved. It is now common practice for oceanographers to be present on board during sailing regattas where they execute sophisticated, real-time numerical models on board the sailing vessels.

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