The Charcoal Man

Professor Michael Bird - Federation Fellow, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Cairns Campus

Professor Michael Bird

Professor Michael Bird

Charcoal and carbon have been burning issues for Federation Fellow Professor Michael Bird for the past 10 years but the relatively recent spotlight on the subject has intensified more than even he may have imagined.

Ancient climates and radio-carbon dating relating to the human occupation of Australia and the extinction of mega-fauna after human arrival first caught his imagination. He developed a cleaner, more accurate method of radio-carbon dating which allowed him to reassess some of the early archaeological sites in Australia. The technique was used in the dating of the new human species of ‘hobbit’ found on the Indonesian island of Flores and is now also used in the US and the UK.

Charcoal’s makeover

There is an enduring interest in fire and its by-product because of its constant link with human evolution, but the study of its role in the survival of our species has never been greater. Professor Bird’s work with humble charcoal has morphed into researching the benefits of its makeover into biochar, opening new avenues for commercial applications.

“I’ve been talking to a range of funding bodies about developing biochar research if it becomes a full blown sequestration option,” Professor Bird says. “It’s an important area and exciting in that it seems to be moving a lot faster than many other things in science because of the commercial opportunities potentially attached to it. Suddenly there are timelines substantially shorter than simply publishing research which tends to take years and it’s interesting for that reason.”

Cave deposits of bat guano are another potent source of information for their ability to reflect environmental change. Professor Bird is working in South East Asia and is keen to carry out field work in North Queensland’s Chilllagoe caves and the Undara lave tubes, which he hopes will reveal climate change going back tens of thousands of years.

Topical and tropical

The role of fires in savannahs and the cycling of carbon through the soil, atmosphere and plants is another research priority of Professor Bird’s that has attracted a Post-doctoral fellow to his school while another has arrived to work on the rainforest canopy crane to investigate the role of carbon in rivers. He also has researchers working on large hydrological projects on North Queensland rivers and in tropical agriculture.

“There’s a set of very topical issues that underlie most of the research that’s done at JCU,” he says. “From my experience in Scotland – I was there for five years - these topics are very high on the agenda of students. The campus up here is probably going to move down the sustainable development route in terms of its teaching program as well.”

Considering Professor Bird’s focus on tropical environments, there were compelling practical benefits from his recent move from St Andrews to the Cairns campus of JCU. “It’s a very nice place to live and work and I can be in a field location in half an hour instead of getting on a plane and flying for 12 hours.” Then there’s the benefit of a very good laboratory infrastructure which he has just improved with a funding injection of several hundred thousand dollars into the lab’s analytical capability. “That’s on top of what was already here so we’re planning to become very capable in tropical environmental change research.”


Michael Bird trained as a geologist at the University of Sydney and the Australian National University, obtaining a PhD in isotope geochemistry in 1988. Following a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, he returned to Australia as Research Fellow, Queen Elizabeth II Fellow and Fellow at the Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University.

In 2000 he took up an Associate Professorship at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and in 2004 moved to the Chair in Environmental Change at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2007.

In February 2009 he returned to Australia to take up a Federation Fellowship in the School of Earth and Environmental Science at James Cook University in Cairns. His research interests include the global carbon cycle on a range of timescales, and understanding the trajectory of past and future environmental change in the tropics.