Vale Dr Ian Tapley

January 16th, 2023

Ian’s 35-year career in CSIRO was only broken by his two significant years’ service in the Army, which was a feature at his funeral service, following his passing on Remembrance Day, 11th November 2022 aged 73 years. A large crowd of family, friends, colleagues, and former service personnel attended the funeral at Pinnaroo on 1st December where his life and internationally recognised contribution to science was celebrated.

Ian Jeffery Tapley was born in Victor Harbour 28th February 1949 where his parents Muriel and Bill ran a dairy farm. When Ian was 7yrs old the family moved to a cattle and sheep property they had bought at Penola. Ian excelled academically while at school and Roseworthy Agricultural College. But farming held little interest compared with his love of cricket. He was an accomplished spin bowler and played for a while with Port Adelaide Cricket Club.

He commenced in Alice springs with CSIRO in 1968 in the Rangeland Group run by Ray Perry. In late 1969 he was conscripted to the Army and readily undertook advanced training in Tank warfare, gunnery, and radio. These skills were highly valued during his term in Vietnam and his tank crew became lifelong friends.

After completing his obligations in Vietnam, he returned to his work at Alice Springs. Ian was then offered a transfer to Perth with CSIRO in 1977 when Ray Perry was appointed Chief of the recently created Division of Land Resources Management. But first he had a more important milestone to complete, his marriage to Flying-Doctor nurse Christine on the banks of the Todd River at the home of life-long friend Bob Millington. The reason for the transfer to Perth was to be a foundation member of a Remote Sensing Group to be developed by Dr Frank Honey. His thorough understanding of rangeland vegetation and significant experience in airborne photographic missions made him an ideal choice to unravel the mysteries contained in Earth Observation Satellite data.

He and Chris built their first home in Greenwood where Chris says, he planted 28 eucalyptus trees in the front garden and in true Ian fashion he knew every tree botanical name, and the birth of two boys soon made up the family. Ian was a devoted and loving father to Brant and Shane, the pride of his life. His chest would expand, and eyes brighten at their achievements and life experiences. He shared in their sport at the footy games and coach at the cricket games. He was registrar and President of the Sorrento Duncraig Junior Football Club and life member. He enjoyed being a big part of their lives.

Ian continued his research into rangeland vegetation in the Pilbara and NT using Landsat Satellite data and continued his studies at Curtin. With State agencies and international colleagues such as Professors Ron Lyon Stanford and Paul Teuller from Reno, he tested and validated spatial and spectral algorithms and indices that are now in everyday use for vegetation monitoring. Together with Curtin University, the CSIRO group built a receiver that could download daily overpasses of NOAA data and Ian was one of the first people to recognise the value of the night-thermal images and soon revealed ancient river channels beneath the sands of the Canning Basin. The structural information revealed in these paleochannels was eagerly sought by geologists and oil explorationists and formed the basis for the award of his PhD. Complementary to this was an instrument onboard one of the Shuttle Spacecraft, a synthetic-aperture radar (SAR). The combination of SAR data and modern data integration capacity brought Ian international acclaim.

Ian was the complete package! He had an incredible understanding of landscapes, vegetation, soils and geology, as well, he had the tenacity and rigour to process and interpret mountains of uncooperative data. But more importantly he was an absolute pleasure to work with. His infectious laugh, his joy at being in the bush, his attention to detail and his ability to conquer any adversity were his classic trademarks.

Working under the auspices of CSIRO and the University of New South Wales, Ian and Professor Tony Milne established close links with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and NASA HQ in Washington which led to a joint US-Australia Airborne Science Mission to fly a state-of-the-art radar system called AIRSAR in the Australian region in 1993 and then again in 1996 and 2000 with the latter Mission including collecting data in more than 10 countries in the Pacific and South East Asia. These deployments became known as the PACRIM or the Pacific Region Missions and were flown on a DC8 NASA aircraft often piloted by ex-astronauts which meant that no bad weather or electrical storm encountered in the tropics was considered a problem.

On his retirement he formed a company with Tony Milne in collaboration with CSIRO and UNSW setting up “Horizon Geoscience Consulting Pty Ltd” to work more closely on radar application developments. Ian, in his role as Science Manager for PACRIM, took the lead in data processing. Using the unique characteristics of AIRSAR data he created the first Digital Terrain Model and topographic map of Macquarie Island in the Antarctic; helped map the 16th century pre-drainage network of the Angkor World Heritage area in Cambodia for the Greater Angkor Archaeological Project; developed a Digital Surface Model for the whole of PNG; mapped old growth forests and plantation expansion in both Malaysia and Tasmania and contributed to monitoring the changing stream conditions in the Macquarie Marshes in NSW.

Ian contributed greatly to the uptake in the use of SAR and optical data for environmental analysis in the years up until 2014 when health concerns unfortunately forced him to retire from active processing of airborne and satellite imagery.
In retirement he and Chris travelled widely throughout the world and every bit of accessible Australia. In later years his assistance dog, “Cliff” was always by his side and is thought by the family to be the world’s most travelled dog! The diagnosis of an aggressive Motor Neuron Disease cut short a productive and most valuable life.

Dr Peter Hick