Designing climate experiments is all but impossible in the real world. We can’t, for instance, study the effects of clouds by taking away all the clouds for a set period of time and seeing what happens.
Instead, we have to design our experiments virtually, by developing computer models. Now, a new open-source set of climate models has allowed this research to become more collaborative, efficient and reliable.
Full climate models are designed to be as close to nature as possible. They are representations of the combined knowledge of climate science and are without a doubt the best tools to understand what the future might look like.
However, many research projects focus on small parts of the climate, such as sudden wind changes, the temperature in a given region, or ocean currents. For these studies, concentrating on a small detail in a full climate model is like trying to find a needle in the haystack.
It is therefore common practice in such cases to take away the haystack by using simpler climate models. Scientists usually write these models for specific projects. A quote commonly attributed to Albert Einstein maybe best summarises the process: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Here’s an example. In a paper from last year I looked at the temperature and wind changes in the upper atmosphere close to the Equator. I didn’t need to know what happened in the ocean, and I didn’t need any chemistry, polar ice, or even clouds in my model. So I wrote a much simpler model without these ingredients. It’s called “MiMA” (Model of an idealised Moist Atmosphere), and is freely available on the web.
The drawbacks of simpler models
Of course, using simpler models comes with its own problems.
The main issue is that researchers have to be very clear what the limits are for each model. For instance, it would be hard to study thunderstorms with a model that doesn’t reproduce clouds.
The second issue is that whereas the scientific results may be published, the code itself is typically not. Everyone has to believe that the model does indeed do what the author claims, and to trust that there are no errors in the code.
The third issue with simpler models is that anyone else trying to duplicate or build on published work would have to rebuild a similar model themselves. But given that the two models will be written by two (or more) different people, it is highly unlikely that they will be exactly the same. Also, the time the first author spends on building their model is then spent a second time by a second author, to achieve at best the same result. This is very inefficient.
Open-source climate models
To remedy some (if not all) of these issues, some colleagues and I have built a framework of climate models called Isca. Isca contains models that are easy to obtain, completely free, documented, and come with software to make installation and running easier. All changes are documented and can be reverted. Therefore, it is easy for everyone to use exactly the same models.
The time it would take for everyone to build their own version of the same model can now be used to extend the existing models. More sets of eyes on one model means that errors can be quickly identified and corrected. The time saved could also be used to build new analysis software, which can extract new information from existing simulations.
As a result, the climate models and their resulting scientific experiments become both more flexible and reliable. All of this only works because the code is publicly available and because any changes are continuously tracked and documented.
An example is my own code, MiMA, which is part of Isca. I have been amazed at the breadth of research it is used for. I wrote it to look at the tropical upper atmosphere, but others have since used it to study the life cycle of weather systems, the Indian monsoon, the effect of volcanic eruptions on climate, and so on. And that’s only one year after its first publication.
Making models openly available in this way has another advantage. Using an accessible proof can counter the mistrust of climate science that is still prevalent in some quarters.
The burden of proof automatically falls on the sceptics. As all the code is there and all changes are trackable, it is up to them to point out errors. And if someone does find an error, even better! Correcting it is just another step to make the models even more reliable.
Going open source with scientific code has many more benefits than drawbacks. It allows collaboration between people who don’t even know one another. And, most importantly, it will make our climate models more flexible, more reliable and generally more useful.
The Arctic has been unusually warm since the beginning of 2018. In the past week air temperatures have hovered around 20℃ above normal or even higher. On February 25, the Cape Morris Jesup weather station in northern Greenland recorded 6.1℃, despite the fact that at this time of year, when the sun is still below the horizon, temperatures are typically around -30℃.
A surprising feature of this warming event was how far into (and beyond) the Arctic it has penetrated. Warm air migrated north from the Atlantic Ocean, over the North Pole and towards the Pacific Ocean, bringing above-freezing air temperatures to large areas of the Arctic Ocean for more than 24 hours.
We have not seen a warm intrusion from the Atlantic Ocean on this scale since at least 1980.
Is this unprecedented?
Warm events in the middle of the northern winter are not unheard of. Large winter storms can bring strong winds that pump warm air into the Arctic from lower latitudes.
For example, during the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s 1896 expedition aboard the icebreaker Fram, the crew observed temperatures of -3℃ on one midwinter’s day. More recently, in December 2015, an Arctic warming event brought temperatures of 2℃ to the North Pole, and the warm weather continued into early 2016.
But, crucially, this type of event is becoming more common and longer in duration, with higher peak temperatures.
Record low sea ice extent
February 26 brought a new record low for sea ice extent: maximum sea ice extent on that day was 14.20 million square kilometres, which is 1.29 million km2 below the 1981-2010 average for that day. This follows several years with record low winter maximum sea ice extents in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
The current warm conditions in the Arctic have implications for sea ice year-round. Sea ice grows in winter and melts in summer. The warm air temperatures will slow down sea ice growth, and strong winds will push it around, breaking it up in places – as happened north of Greenland earlier this week.
Open water where the ice is broken will release extra heat into the atmosphere. By the time the spring sun comes around, the sea ice pack is thinned and weakened, and may melt more easily.
Cold weather in Europe
While the Arctic has been hot, Europe has been bitterly cold this week: London recorded -6℃; Berlin reached -14℃; and the Alps plunged to -27℃. Rome received 5-15cm of snow on Monday, and up to 40cm of snow fell in Britain on Wednesday.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but this cold weather is directly linked to the recent warming event in the Arctic.
Normally, the cold air above the polar region is contained in the Arctic by a ring-like band of strong winds called the polar vortex. But in the middle of February this year, the polar vortex split into two vortices: one over Eurasia and the other over North America.
Between these two features, a strong high-pressure system gradually formed. As a result, warm air was pumped up into the Arctic on the west side of the high, while cold air was channelled southwards to the east of it. Hence the exceptionally warm air in the Arctic and the cold snap in Europe.
Is the polar vortex changing?
The polar vortex is driven by the strong temperature differences between the warm mid-latitudes and the cold Arctic. With the Arctic warming more rapidly than the mid-latitudes, this temperature difference is decreasing and some scientists believe that the polar vortex is weakening.
Research suggests that the polar vortex has become “wavier” as a result of this weakening. A wavier jet stream would lead to more frequent cold outbreaks of polar air at lower latitudes, and at the same time cause warm air to intrude into the Arctic. However, other researchers have argued that “large uncertainties regarding the magnitude of such an influence remain”.
Generally speaking, warming at every latitude makes cold spells at low latitudes less likely, and warm intrusions at high latitudes more likely, unless the Arctic warming leads to a fundamental change in the dynamics of the atmosphere.
Since 1979, Arctic warming events have grown more frequent. However, climate projections indicate that there will be fewer Arctic storms in the latter part of this century, and thus fewer Arctic warming events.
As scientists, we were startled by the extent of this week’s Arctic warming, and will be working hard to understand the short- and long-term implications. All eyes will be on the upcoming maximum winter Arctic sea ice extent, which is likely to happen in the next few weeks and could possibly set a new record low.
Amelie Meyer, Postdoctoral Researcher, Physical Oceanography, Norwegian Polar Institute; Erik W. Kolstad, Research professor, Uni Research; Mats Granskog, Senior research scientist, Norwegian Polar Institute, and Robert Graham, Postdoctoral Researcher, Climate Modelling, Norwegian Polar Institute
On 1 July 1983, in a dramatic four-three decision, the High Court of Australia ruled to stop the damming of the Franklin River. It brought an end to a protracted campaign that had helped bring down two state premiers and a prime minister, as well as overseeing the rise of a new figure on the political landscape – the future founder of the Greens, Bob Brown.
The fact that a remote corner of southwest Tasmania became the centre of national debate reflects what was at stake in the campaigns against hydro-electric development. For many, like novelist James McQueen, the Franklin was “not just a river”: “it is the epitome of all the lost forests, all the submerged lakes, all the tamed rivers, all the extinguished species”. The campaign was a fight for the survival of “a corner of Australia untouched by man”; it was a fight for the right of “wilderness” to exist.
“It is a wild and wondrous thing,” Bob Brown wrote of the Franklin River in May 1978, “and 175 years after Tasmania’s first European settlement, the Franklin remains much as it was before man – black or white – came to its precincts.”
But it was not only the idea of “wilderness” – of an ancient, pure, timeless landscape – that saved the Franklin. The archaeological research that took place during the campaign was at the heart of the High Court decision. Far from being untouched and pristine, southwest Tasmania had a deep human history. What was undoubtedly a natural wonder was also a cultural landscape.
‘A sea of stone artefacts’
The archaeological site at the centre of the campaign was, for a time, known by two names: Fraser Cave and Kutikina. Kevin Kiernan, a caver and the first director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, was the first to rediscover the site. He and Greg Middleton recorded it on 13 January 1977 as part of a systematic survey of the lower and middle Gordon and Franklin Rivers.
They were aware that the monolithic Hydro-Electric Commission was considering the region as the site for a new dam and they were searching for something – “maybe a big whizz-bang cave” – that might save these valleys from being flooded. In an attempt to raise awareness of this threatened landscape, they started a tradition of naming rock features in the southwest “after the political figures who would decide their fate”.
Fraser Cave was thus named after the sitting Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser. There was also a Whitlam cave, a Hayden Cave and a Bingham Arch. When the Tasmanian Nomenclature Board caught wind of this tradition, they accused Kiernan and other members of the Sydney Speleological Society of “gross impertinence” for naming caves outside their state. In mid-1982, at the suggestion of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Fraser Cave became Kutikina, which means “spirit” in the oral tradition nurtured by the dispossessed Tasmanian Aboriginal community on Babel Island in Bass Strait.
But although Kiernan admired the natural splendour of Kutikina in 1977, he did not immediately recognise the artefacts it contained as human-made. It was not until he returned in February 1981 that he realised what he had found. He and the new director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, Bob Brown, and its secretary, Bob Burton, were searching the remote valley for evidence of a convict who had supposedly perished in the region after escaping the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station.
The story conjured the “wildness” of the country and the discovery of his bones might help bring publicity to their campaign against the dam. But when they climbed through the entrance of Kutikina, they were amazed to find a sea of stone artefacts and ashy hearths extending into the dark. These were no convict bones.
Three weeks later, a team of archaeologists, cavers and National Parks officers rafted down the Franklin River to investigate. It was already dark on 9 March 1981 when they tied their boats to the riverbank. They had a deep chill after hours navigating the fast-flowing river, hauling their aluminium punt and rubber dingy over successive rapids, journeying deeper into the dense rainforest. The rain picked up again as they unloaded their gear and took shelter in the mouth of the cave, which opened “like a huge, curved shell”.
Some of the team started a small, smoky fire to cook their dinner, while the others, with the light of their torches, ventured into the cavern. Kutikina opened out “like an aircraft hangar” and extended for almost 200 metres into the cliff. But it was not its scale that excited them: it was the idea that this remote cave, buried in thick “horizontal” rainforest, could have once been home to a thriving human population.
Too tired to erect their tents, they unrolled their sleeping mats on the disturbed floor at the cave entrance. It later occurred to them that they were probably the first people to sleep there in around 15,000 years.
Over the following days, as rain poured outside, the team carefully surveyed Kutikina. The archaeologists, Rhys Jones and Don Ranson, opened a small trench where the black sediment of the floor was covered by a thin layer of soft stalagmite. The test pit only extended to a depth of 1.2 metres before it met bedrock, but it yielded an extraordinary 75,000 artefacts and 250,000 animal bone fragments.
This small pit represented about one per cent of the artefact-bearing deposit, making the cave one of the richest archaeological sites in Australia. “In terms of the number of stone tools,” Jones said to one journalist, “much, much richer than Mungo.”
The archaeological remains at Kutikina told a remarkable story. The tools appeared to be a regional variant of the “Australian core tool and scraper tradition”, found across the mainland during the Pleistocene, suggesting immense chains of cultural connection before the creation of Bass Strait. The bone fragments were also curious. Most had been charred or smashed to extract marrow, and almost all (95 per cent) were wallaby bones, suggesting a finely targeted hunting strategy, similar to that found in the Dordogne region in France.
But most surprisingly, underneath the upper layer of hearths, there were angular fragments of limestone that appeared to have shattered and fallen from the cave roof at a time of extreme cold, forming rubble on the floor. It was one of the main pieces of evidence that led Jones to speculate in his diary: “Is this the late glacial technology?”
Home to the southernmost humans on earth
The possibility of Ice Age dates conjured the image of a dramatically different world. Pollen records in the region revealed that what is now rainforest was once an alpine herbfield like the tundra found in Alaska, northern Russia and northern Canada. Twenty thousand years ago, the mighty trees of ancient Gondwanaland had retreated to the river gorges, where they were irrigated and sheltered from fire, while wallabies and wombats roamed the high, open plains above.
The cold blast of Antarctica, only 1000 kilometres to the south, had dropped temperatures by around 6.5 degrees Celsius. A 65-square-kilometre ice cap presided over the central Tasmanian plateau, feeding a 12-kilometre-long glacier that gripped the upper Franklin valley. Icebergs floated off the Tasmanian coast.
At the height of the last Ice Age, Kutikina was home to the southernmost humans on earth. The people of southwest Tasmania hunted red-necked wallabies on the broad open slopes of Franklin valley, they collected fine stone from glacial melt water gravels and chipped them into tools, and they sheltered beside fires in the mouths of deep, limestone caverns. “They alone,” Jones reflected, “may have experienced the high latitude, glacier-edge conditions of a southern Ice Age.”
Significantly, during a separate excavation near the confluence of the Denison and Gordon Rivers, archaeologists also discovered tools and charcoal dating to 250–450 years ago, long after the ice cap had melted and the rainforest had returned. It revealed that the river valleys of southwest Tasmania had a recent, as well as a deep, Aboriginal history.
The rediscovery of Kutikina made the front page of the local and national newspapers, and was discussed on the floor of Parliament, but, surprisingly, it was restricted to the margins of the conservation campaign. John Mulvaney later reflected on the productive, albeit tense alliance between archaeologists and conservationists during the campaign:
We claimed an Ice Age environment of tundra-like grasslands, where their dearly loved primeval forest was supposed to have stood eternally. By discrediting the image of a forest wilderness, we were ruining their image and battle cry!
Added to this tension was the animosity the Tasmanian Aboriginal community felt towards both the archaeologists, for fossicking on their land, and the conservationists, for suggesting they had never lived there. Their activism during the campaign had profound implications for the Australian archaeological community. But while Aboriginal leaders such as Rosalind Langford and Michael Mansell were eager to regain control of Kutikina – “the most sacred thing in the state” – they also recognised the value of the history that had been uncovered. As Mansell said:
The fact that the Aborigines could survive physically and culturally in adverse conditions and over such a long period of time … helps me counteract the feeling of racial inferiority and enables me to demonstrate within the wider community that I and my people are the equal of other members of the community.
At the 1981 Tasmanian Power Referendum, 47 per cent of the electorate voted in favour of the Gordon-below-Franklin dam. But, remarkably, there was also a 45 per cent informal vote. Tens of thousands of voters had scrawled “no dams” on their ballot papers. The unprecedented “write-in” had been organised by the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, led by Brown. It repeated this highly organised, campaign-oriented strategy at local, state and federal elections throughout 1982.
The federal leader of the Australian Democrats, Don Chipp, also recognised the mood of the electorate against the dam and in August 1981 he initiated a Senate inquiry into “the federal responsibility in assisting Tasmania to preserve its wilderness areas of national and international importance”. Jones, Mulvaney and the executive of the Australian Archaeological Association were among the many to make submissions to the new Senate Select Committee.
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre also made a submission, drawing upon the archaeological research to underline the cave’s “great historical importance”. But they also made a more personal plea. The Franklin River caves “form part of us – we are of them and they of us. Their destruction represents a part destruction of us.”
This advocacy had a profound influence. Several members of the Senate Committee flew into the Franklin valley to see the ongoing archaeological work and when the committee presented its report on the Future Demand and Supply of Electricity for Tasmania and Other Matters, the archaeology dominated the “other matters”. “Apart from any other reasons for preserving the area,” they concluded, “the caves are of such importance that the Franklin River be not inundated.”
Prime Minister Fraser heeded the conclusions of the report. He did not want the Franklin dam built, but he was reluctant to intervene in what he regarded as a state matter. So he did not act when construction on the dam began in July 1982.
Protests and political shifts
On 14 December 1982, the same day the region was formally listed as a World Heritage site for its natural and cultural value, a chain of rubber rafts blocked the main landing sites along the Franklin River, protestors occupied the dam site and rallies were held in cities across Australia.
By autumn 1983, 1272 protestors had been arrested during the Franklin blockade, and nearly 450 had done time in Hobart’s Risdon Prison, including Mansell and Langford, who were charged with trespass on their return from visiting Kutikina.
While the blockade continued, and with a federal election just around the corner, the ALP made a snap change in its leadership on 3 February 1983. It replaced Bill Hayden, who had voted against Labor’s policy to stop the dam at the party’s national conference, with Bob Hawke, who had voted for it. And in a tumultuous few hours of Australian political history, Fraser called an early election on the same day. It would turn out to be a grievous political miscalculation.
Neither Fraser nor Hawke believed the Franklin River dispute decided the 5 March 1983 election, but the outgoing Deputy Prime Minister, Doug Anthony, was adamant: “There is no doubt that the dam was the issue that lost the government the election.”
On 31 March the new Hawke government passed regulations to prevent further construction on the Franklin dam. Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray took the matter to the High Court, challenging the constitutionality of Hawke’s “interventionist” legislation. His appeal failed by the narrowest of margins.
The judges in the majority considered that the Commonwealth had a clear obligation to use its External Affairs power to stop the proposed dam, as the inundation of “the Franklin River, including Kutikina Cave and Deena Reena Cave”, would breach the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act and damage Australia’s international standing. They also invoked the Commonwealth power to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people.
The Franklin River campaign has entered “the folklore of Australian environmentalism” as a green victory: a battle won, in Clive Hamilton’s words, through “the intrinsic worth of wild places.” But behind the scenes it was the deep Aboriginal history of the region that pushed the decision over the line. The archaeological evidence featured in every report about the judgement, and privately Malcolm Fraser considered it to be the deciding factor.
This is an edited extract from Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (Black Inc., 2018).
After Barnaby Joyce’s demise as Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader, and his replacement by Michael McCormack, we might wonder what the junior Coalition partner’s leadership change means for Australia’s climate policy.
Perhaps the answer is “not a great deal”, given the apparent similarity between the two men’s outlooks. But then again, confident predictions about the future of Australian climate policy are a mug’s game.
Joyce joined the Senate back in July 2005, as part of the tranche that gave the Liberal and National Coalition absolute control. At the time, another new senator, the Greens’ Christine Milne, was ready to talk with the likes of Joyce, arguing that both of their parties should share common concerns about climate change, drought, salinity, loss of native vegetation, and more.
Joyce evidently didn’t see it that way. When federal Liberals Brendan Nelson and Alexander Downer tried to get a debate going about the purported climate benefits of nuclear power, Joyce joined with Queensland’s Labor Premier Peter Beattie in arguing that nuclear power should not be on the agenda while Australia’s coal resources remained plentiful (although he opted against echoing Beattie’s “clean coal” push).
A year later, however, Joyce was more attuned to Milne’s concerns. In the context of the seemingly never-ending Millennium drought, and with Nationals leader Mark Vaile urging his cabinet colleagues to spend at least another A$750 million on drought relief, Joyce fearfully noted that:
The drought really has to be seen to be believed. It’s a case of creeks that haven’t run for months, sometimes years, (and) bores that are going dry. There is a real concern amongst a lot that maybe there is a final change in the climate. That’s really starting to worry people.
Six months later, with the “first climate change election” looming, Joyce used some leaping logic to describe proposed rail spending as a climate measure:
We can go up to every mother and father and ask them if they can drive their tree to work and see how they go… I think that rail is greenhouse friendly. It is going to be taking all prime-movers off the road.
Of course, this support for rural industry didn’t mean that Joyce supported any form of emissions trading put forward by either Liberal or Labor. He instead voiced fears that Australia “could soon resemble communism” unless farmers are paid properly for the carbon stored in their land.
In 2011 Joyce voted against Julia Gillard’s voluntary Carbon Farming Initiative, which in 2014 was absorbed into Tony Abbott’s Direct Action program. A 2017 report argues that it is now helping farmers, but not reducing emissions.
Perhaps his most (in)famous claim came in 2009, as Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme staggered towards its demise, bleeding credibility and support at every lobbyist-inspired softening. Joyce predicted that with the advent of carbon trading, the Sunday roast would cost A$150 (a figure that was later downgraded to a far more measured and believable 100 bucks).
The same year, Joyce told political journalist Laurie Oakes:
Everywhere there is a power point in your house, there is access to a new tax for the Labor Government – a new tax on ironing, a new tax on watching television, a new tax on vacuuming.
In November 2009, the Nationals told the Liberals that support for carbon pricing could lead to a split in the Coalition. The then Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull was challenged by Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott, the latter winning by a single vote. The rest is history.
Joyce joined in the ultimately fatal attack on Gillard’s carbon pricing scheme by upping the ante on his Sunday roast claims. Using some impressively creative reasoning, he argued that the A$23-a-tonne carbon price could lead abattoirs to end up being slugged A$575,000 for slaughtering a single cow.
A party of one mind
Of course, Joyce is far from alone among Nationals for baiting the greenies. Fellow backbencher George Christensen’s dangerous and lamentable Facebook post is just the latest in a long line of provocations.
Back in 1997 Tim Fischer, then Deputy Prime Minister, spoke at a conference in Canberra organised by climate denialists called Countdown to Kyoto. Years later, at about the same time that Joyce first entered the Senate, his party colleague Julian McGauran reportedly flipped the bird at Greens leader Bob Brown after the Coalition voted down a Senate motion criticising the government on climate change.
More recently still, the Nationals have joined in many Liberals’ hatred of renewable energy, despite the fact that it would make a lot of money for farmers.
Will anything change except the climate?
Joyce is gone, but the Nationals don’t exactly have hordes of tree-huggers waiting in the wings. The efforts of Farmers for Climate Action to influence the Nationals’ leadership succession seems to have amounted to nothing.
Michael McCormack (who was interviewed by Michelle Grattan for the Conversation) is already under Twitter scrutiny over his maiden speech in 2010, when he said:
When it does not rain for years on end, it does not mean it will not rain again. It does not mean we all need to listen to a government grant-seeking academic sprouting doom and gloom about climate changing irreversibly.
The journalist Paddy Manning has given an overview of his positions since then. It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same (unlike the climate).
It is impossible to predict how and when the Nationals’ policies might change, especially in places where One Nation is waiting with open arms for any wavering voters.
But as ever, it is the voters who hold the key. If enough of Barnaby’s “weatherboard and iron” rural base decide that climate change is a serious, vote-deciding issue, that will be the day when the Nationals finally give up their cast-iron opposition to climate action.