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Canberra scientist tells of fear as giant hailstones rained down on CSIRO glasshouse

By Niki Burnside and Jordan Hayne, Wednesday January 22, 2020 - 12:27 EDT
ABC image
Evans Lagudah, a chief research scientist at CSIRO, was inside a greenhouse when the hailstorm struck. - ABC

As a hailstorm of unprecedented ferocity bore down on dozens of greenhouses containing national research projects on Monday, researchers working inside the vulnerable buildings were faced with a split-second decision.



They were among those caught out by the sheer speed and ferocity with which the storm arrived in Canberra.

People were injured, ceilings inundated and cars written off by the hailstones, which were bigger than golf balls in some places.

And for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) at Black Mountain, the experience was no less terrifying.

'I could have beaten Usain Bolt'



Evans Lagudah, a chief research scientist at the national research organisation, said the storm came on "within microseconds".

He and another scientist had been checking on projects in one of the glass greenhouses.

Canberrans had been warned of the approaching storm and many field workers associated with the CSIRO and the Australian National University had opted not to go out that day.

But Dr Lagudah said he felt safe enough to walk the short distance to the glass building to do a little work.

"It was just like a normal, reasonably clear morning," Dr Lagudah said.

"It started like just a gentle raindrop and then within a few seconds the hailstones started splattering on the [glass].

"To be honest it was scary, because it was a situation where we were just working in the glasshouse, everything was normal and then within microseconds you've just got these hailstones just dropping in from everywhere."



Dr Lagudah and the other researcher quickly moved to the anteroom of the building, but it too was made of glass, and shards were flying down on them.

"It was almost like being in a tornado situation … you have all this glass falling around you," he said.

"So it became a situation where you think 'do I hang in there and get bruised with all the glass or just get out?'

"That was a choice we had to make and we decided to get out of there."

The pair ran for cover to a nearby building that offered better protection from the hail.

Dr Lagudah said he only sustained a small bruise above his eye in the process.

"At that point I think I could have beaten Usain Bolt in a 100-metre race because it was just the adrenalin — it just got into me to get out of there," he said.

Research set back by entire growing season



Dr Lagudah said some of his younger experiments had been damaged beyond repair, forcing them to delay deadlines.

His work, in collaboration with the grains industry, focuses on finding ways to reduce the use of pesticides in grain farming.

"What we do here with our work is we develop a number of genetic stocks that has in-built resistance in the plants to try and reduce the use of pesticides," he said.

"We offer that information to breeders, breeders incorporate that into varieties and those varieties are then passed onto farmers. So it's a significant gain to the Australian economy, a significant gain to the environment."

But now they will miss an important deadline to deliver better varieties and that will lead to longer-term delays, Dr Lagudah said.

CSIRO director of agriculture and food Michiel van Lookeren Campagne said the organisation had been set back an entire growing season by the storm damage.

"We just can't continue the work that is currently underway in the greenhouses," he said.

He said there was a neat irony to the disaster.

"We always need to stay one step ahead of nature … and nature got the upper hand."

But he said despite everything, scientists were optimistic about the future.

"We're all scientists, we're passionate about our projects, and we'll use all the creativity that we have, all the resources that we have to overcome this disaster," he said.

CSIRO chief operating officer Judi Zielke said her teams were still in the process of assessing the damage to their buildings and research projects.

Almost all of the 65 glasshouses on site, along with five other buildings were impacted by the hailstones.

"The best thing about yesterday was that none of our people were hurt," she said.

"This is about work that directly impacts on farmers and the agriculture sector and a range of other areas around the country, so we're most worried about the flow-on impact on those companies."

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- ABC

© ABC 2020

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