New climate science centre doesn’t make up for CSIRO cuts: experts


James Whitmore, The Conversation

Hobart will be home to a new climate science research centre in plans announced by the CSIRO. The centre, which will focus on climate measurement and modelling, will be staffed by 40 climate scientists and guarantee research for ten years.

In February 2016, CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall announced broad job cuts at the organisation. The latest announcement reduces the total job losses from 350 to 275.

Around 75 positions will still be lost within the CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere division, which is responsible for climate science, from around 420 full-time staff.

The cuts were widely criticised by climate scientists in Australia and overseas.

The new centre will be housed within the Oceans and Atmosphere division. It will be overseen by a new National Climate Science Advisory Committee, including experts from the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, answering to federal Industry Minister Christopher Pyne. Environment Minister Greg Hunt will help establish the committee.

Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, who has previously urged CSIRO to ensure climate science is maintained, has welcomed the announcement.

CSIRO research fellow John Church said the new centre was “a step forward from where we were a few weeks ago”.

“But it’s only 40 people so it’s significantly less than we had previously. I don’t see how that few people are going to deliver on what Australia’s requirements are,” he said.

Church said the ten-year research guarantee was longer than most CSIRO research cycles.

“I would hope that with such commitment maybe it will be possible to grow the areas over that time frame,” he said.

He also welcomed co-ordination across the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and universities under the advisory committee.

However, Matthew England, a researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at UNSW Australia, said he was “worried about the very small size of the centre”.

“Forty staff is woefully low in number. Equivalent centres overseas house five to ten times this number, even in nations not nearly as vulnerable to climate change as Australia is. [It is] great to set up a centre – now we need it to house real capacity.

“CSIRO management needs to get realistic about what this centre needs and how important it is for the nation,” he said.

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, also at UNSW Australia, said there were “small positives” but “it seems like they’ve [CSIRO] basically rebranded what they were doing in the first place”.

“They’re just shuffling people around. I fail to see how they can operate a national climate centre with just 40 staff.”

Cuts to other CSIRO divisions, particularly land and water, would also affect climate science, she said.

But she welcomed a commitment to maintain CSIRO support for ACCESS, the model used to develop climate projections and weather forecasts for Australia.

She called for a national government-funded centre separate from the CSIRO, perhaps modelled on the UK Hadley Centre, which works alongside the UK Met Office.

Steven Sherwood, director of the UNSW Climate Research Centre, said the cuts still represent a decrease in research investment. He said the UK Met Office generated at least A$6 of economic benefit for the UK per dollar spent on it.

“So, from a broad perspective, we appear to be downsizing an activity that was probably already underfunded even from a purely economic perspective.”

Comments compiled with the assistance of the Australian Science Media Centre.

The Conversation

James Whitmore, Editor, Environment & Energy, The Conversation

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Rising carbon dioxide is greening the Earth – but it’s not all good news


Pep Canadell, CSIRO and Yingping Wang, CSIRO

Dried lake beds, failed crops, flattened trees: when we think of global warming we often think of the impacts of droughts and extreme weather. While there is truth in this image, a rather different picture is emerging.

In a paper published in Nature Climate Change, we show that the Earth has been getting greener over the past 30 years. As much as half of all vegetated land is greener today, and remarkably, only 4% of land has become browner.

Our research shows this change has been driven by human activities, particularly the rising concentration of carbon dioxide (CO₂) in the atmosphere. This is perhaps the strongest evidence yet of how people have become a major force in the Earth’s functioning.

We are indeed in a new age, the Anthropocene.

How do you measure green?

Plants play a vital role in maintaining Earth as a habitable place, not least through absorbing CO₂. We wanted to know how people are affecting this ability.

To do this, we needed to know how much plants are growing. We couldn’t possibly measure all the plants on Earth so we used satellites observations to measure light reflected and absorbed from the Earth’s surface. This is a good indicator of leaf area, and therefore how plants are growing.

We found consistent trends in greening across Australia, central Africa, the Amazon Basin, southeast United States, and Europe. We found browning trends in northwest North America and central South America.

Updated figure to 2015. Source: http://sites.bu.edu/cliveg/files/2016/04/LAI-Change.png

We then used models to figure out what was driving the trends in different regions.

A CO₂-richer world

Plants need CO₂ to grow through photosynthesis. We found that the biggest factor in driving the global greening trend is the fertilisation effect of rising atmospheric CO₂ due to human activity (atmospheric concentration grew by 46 parts per million during the period studied).

This effect is well known and has been used in agricultural production for decades to achieve larger and faster yields in greenhouses.

In the tropics, the CO₂ fertilisation effect led to faster growth in leaf area than in most other vegetation types, and made this effect the overwhelming driver of greening there.

A warmer world

Climate change is also playing a part in driving the overall greening trend, although not as much as CO₂ fertilisation.

But at a regional scale, climate change, and particularly increasing temperature, is a dominant factor in northern high latitudes and the Tibetan Plateau, driving increased photosynthesis and lengthening the growing season.

Greening of the Sahel and South Africa is primarily driven by increased rainfall, while Australia shows consistent greening across the north of the continent, with some areas of browning in interior arid regions and the Southeast. The central part of South America also shows consistent browning.

A nitrogen-richer world

We know that heavy use of chemical nitrogen fertilisers leads to pollution of waterways and excess nitrogen which leads to declining plant growth. In fact, our analysis attributes small browning trends in North America and Europe to a long-term cumulative excess nitrogen in soils.

But, by and large, nitrogen is a driver of greening. For most plants, particularly in the temperate and boreal regions of the Northern Hemisphere, there is not enough nitrogen in soils. Overall, increasing nitrogen in soils has a positive effect on greening, similar to that of climate change.

A more intensively managed world

The final set of drivers of the global greening trend relates to changes in land cover and land management. Land management includes forestry, grazing, and the way cropland is becoming more intensively managed with multiple crops per year, increasing use of fertilisers and irrigation.

All of this affects the intensity and time the land surface is green.

Perhaps surprisingly, felled forests don’t show as getting browner, because they are typically replaced by pastures and crops, although this change has profound effects on ecosystems.

The greening trends in southeast China and the southeastern United States are clearly dominated by land cover and management changes, both regions having intensive cropping areas and also reforestation.

Although this management effect has the smallest impact on the greening trend presented in this study, the models we used are not suitable enough to assess the influence of human management globally.

The fact that people are making parts of the world greener and browner, and the world greener overall, constitutes some of the most compelling evidence of human domination of planet Earth. And it could be good news: a greening world is associated with more positive outcomes for society than a browning one.

For instance, a greener world is consistent with, although it does not fully explain, the fact that land plants have been removing more CO₂ from the atmosphere, therefore slowing down the pace of global warming.

But don’t get your hopes up. We don’t know how far into the future the greening trend will continue as the CO₂ concentration ultimately peaks while delayed global warming continues for decades after. Regardless, it is clear that the benefits of a greening Earth fall well short compared to the estimated negative impacts of extreme weather events (such as droughts, heat waves, and floods), sea level rise, and ocean acidification.

Humans have shown their capacity to (inadvertently) affect the word’s entire biosphere, it is now time to (advertently) use this knowledge to mitigate climate change and ameliorate its impacts.

The Conversation

Pep Canadell, CSIRO Scientist, and Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project, CSIRO and Yingping Wang, Chief research scientist, CSIRO

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