Sludge, snags, and surreal animals: life aboard a voyage to study the abyss



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The famous “faceless fish”, which garnered worldwide headlines when it was collected by the expedition.
Rob Zugaro, Author provided

Tim O’Hara, Museum Victoria

Over the past five weeks I led a “voyage of discovery”. That sounds rather pretentious in the 21st century, but it’s still true. My team, aboard the CSIRO managed research vessel, the Investigator, has mapped and sampled an area of the planet that has never been surveyed before.

The RV Investigator in port.
Jerome Mallefet/FNRS

Bizarrely, our ship was only 100km off Australia’s east coast, in the middle of a busy shipping lane. But our focus was not on the sea surface, or on the migrating whales or skimming albatross. We were surveying The Abyss – the very bottom of the ocean some 4,000m below the waves.

To put that into perspective, the tallest mountain on the Australian mainland is only 2,228m. Scuba divers are lucky to reach depths of 40m, while nuclear submarines dive to about 500m. We were aiming to put our cameras and sleds much, much deeper. Only since 2014, when the RV Investigator was commissioned, has Australia had the capacity to survey the deepest depths.

The months before the trip were frantic, with so much to organise: permits, freight, equipment, flights, medicals, legal agreements, safety procedures, visas, finance approvals, communication ideas, sampling strategies – all the tendrils of modern life (the thought “why am I doing this?” surfaced more than once). But remarkably, on May 15, we had 27 scientists from 14 institutions and seven countries, 11 technical specialists, and 22 crew converging on Launceston, and we were off.

Rough seas

Life at sea takes some adjustment. You work 12-hour shifts every day, from 2 o’clock to 2 o’clock, so it’s like suffering from jetlag. The ship was very stable, but even so the motion causes seasickness for the first few days. You sway down corridors, you have one-handed showers, and you feel as though you will be tipped out of bed. Many people go off coffee. The ship is “dry”, so there’s no well-earned beer at the end of a hard day. You wait days for bad weather to clear and then suddenly you are shovelling tonnes of mud through sieves in the middle of the night as you process samples dredged from the deep.

Shifting through the mud of the abyss on the back deck.
Jerome Mallefet/FNRS

Surveying the abyss turns out to be far from easy. On our very first deployment off the eastern Tasmanian coast, our net was shredded on a rock at 2,500m, the positional beacon was lost, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of gear gone. It was no one’s fault; the offending rock was too small to pick up on our multibeam sonar. Only day 1 and a new plan was required. Talented people fixed what they could, and we moved on.

I was truly surprised by the ruggedness of the seafloor. From the existing maps, I was expecting a gentle slope and muddy abyssal plain. Instead, our sonar revealed canyons, ridges, cliffs and massive rock slides – amazing, but a bit of a hindrance to my naive sampling plan.

But soon the marine animals began to emerge from our videos and samples, which made it all worthwhile. Life started to buzz on the ship.

Secrets of the deep

Like many people, scientists spend most of their working lives in front of a computer screen. It is really great to get out and actually experience the real thing, to see animals we have only read about in old books. The tripod fish, the faceless fish, the shortarse feeler fish (yes, really), red spiny crabs, worms and sea stars of all shapes and sizes, as well as animals that emit light to ward off predators.

A spiny red lithodid crab.
Rob Zugaro/Museums Victoria
The tripod fish uses its long spines to sit on the seafloor waiting for the next meal.
Rob Zugaro/Museums Victoria

The level of public interest has been phenomenal. You may already have seen some of the coverage, which ranged from the fascinated to the amused – for some reason our discovery of priapulid worms was a big hit on US late-night television. In many ways all the publicity mirrored our first reactions to animals on the ship. “What is this thing?” “How amazing!”

The important scientific insights will come later. It will take a year or so to process all the data and accurately identify the samples. Describing all the new species will take even longer. All of the material has been carefully preserved and will be stored in museums and CSIRO collections around Australia for centuries.

Scientists identifying microscopic animals onboard.
Asher Flatt

On a voyage of discovery, video footage is not sufficient, because we don’t know the animals. The modern biologist uses high-resolution microscopes and DNA evidence to describe the new species and understand their place in the ecosystem, and that requires actual samples.

So why bother studying the deep sea? First, it is important to understand that humanity is already having an impact down there. The oceans are changing. There wasn’t a day at sea when we didn’t bring up some rubbish from the seafloor – cans, bottles, plastic, rope, fishing line. There is also old debris from steamships, such as unburned coal and bits of clinker, which looks like melted rock, formed in the boilers. Elsewhere in the oceans there are plans to mine precious metals from the deep sea.

Rubbish found on the seafloor.
Rob Zugaro/Museums Victoria

Second, Australia is the custodian of a vast amount of abyss. Our marine exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is larger than the Australian landmass. The Commonwealth recently established a network of marine reserves around Australia. Just like National Parks on land, these have been established to protect biodiversity in the long term. Australia’s Marine Biodiversity Hub, which provided funds for this voyage, as been established by the Commonwealth Government to conduct research in the EEZ.

The newly mapped East Gippsland Commonwealth Marine Reserve, showing the rugged end of the Australian continental margin as it dips to the abyssal plain. The scale shows the depth in metres.
Amy Nau/CSIRO

Our voyage mapped some of the marine reserves for the first time. Unlike parks on land, the reserves are not easy to visit. It was our aim to bring the animals of the Australian Abyss into public view.

The ConversationWe discovered that life in the deep sea is diverse and fascinating. Would I do it again? Sure I would. After a beer.

Tim O’Hara, Senior Curator of Marine Invertebrates, Museum Victoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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State of the Climate 2016: Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO


Karl Braganza, Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Steve Rintoul, CSIRO

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO have released their fourth biennial State of the Climate Report.

State of the Climate 2016 provides an update on the changes and long-term trends in Australia’s climate. The report’s observations are based on the extensive climate monitoring capability and programs of CSIRO and the Bureau, which provide a detailed picture of variability and trends in Australia’s marine and terrestrial climates. The science underpinning State of the Climate informs impact assessment and planning across all sectors of the economy and the environment.

One of the report’s key observations is carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. A key component of global CO₂ monitoring is the joint Bureau and CSIRO atmospheric monitoring station in Cape Grim, Tasmania, one of three premier global baseline monitoring stations in the world, along with Mauna Loa in Hawaii and Alert in Nunavut, Canada.

CO₂ concentrations at Cape Grim passed through 400 parts per million for the first time in May 2016, and global concentrations are now at their highest levels in the past two million years.

It takes time for the climate system to warm in response to increases in greenhouse gases, and the historical emissions over the past century have locked in some warming over the next two decades, regardless of any changes we might make to global emissions in that period. Current and future global emissions will, however, make a difference to the rate and degree of climate change in the second half of the 21st century.

State of the Climate focuses on current climate trends that are likely to continue into the near future. This acknowledges that climate change is happening now, and that we will be required to adapt to changes during the next 30 years.

While natural variability continues to play a large role in Australia’s climate, some long-term trends are apparent. The terrestrial climate has warmed by around 1℃ since 1910, with an accompanying increase in the duration, frequency and intensity of extreme heat events across large parts of Australia. There has been an increase in extreme fire weather, and a lengthening of the fire season in most fire-prone regions since the 1970s.

Annual mean temperature changes across Australia since 1910.
State of the Climate 2016
Trends from 1974 to 2015 in annual 90th percentile of daily Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) at 38 climate reference locations. Trends are in FFDI points per decade and larger circles represent larger trends. Filled circles represent statistically significant trends. Trends are upward (in red), except for Brisbane airport (in blue).
State of the Climate 2016

Observations also show that atmospheric circulation changes in the Southern Hemisphere have led to an average reduction in rainfall across parts of southern Australia.

In particular, May–July rainfall has reduced by around 19% since 1970 in the southwest of Australia. There has been a decline of around 11% since the mid-1990s in April–October rainfall in the continental southeast. Southeast Australia has had below-average rainfall in 16 of the April–October periods since 1997.

Australia’s oceans have also warmed, with sea surface temperature increases closely matching those experienced on land. This warming affects both the marine environment and Australia’s terrestrial climate, due to the large influence of surrounding oceans on our weather systems. Sea levels have risen around Australia, which has the potential to amplify the effects of high tides and storm surges.

Trends in sea surface temperature in the Australian region from 1950 to 2015.
State of the Climate 2016
Estimates of the change in ocean heat content over the full ocean depth, from 1960 to present. Shading provides an indication of the confidence range of the estimate.
State of the Climate 2016

The report has new findings compared to State of the Climate 2014.

Significantly, we report that warming in the global oceans now extends to at least 2,000 metres below the surface. These observations are made possible by the Argo array of global floats that has been monitoring ocean temperatures over the past decade. When we talk about the climate system continuing to warm in response to historical greenhouse gas emissions, that is almost entirely due to ongoing ocean warming, which these observations show is now steadily in train.

The other new inclusion is the science of extreme event attribution.

In the past five years, an increasing number of studies, using both statistical and modelling techniques, have quantified the role of global warming in individual extreme events. This complements previous science which partly attributes a change in the frequency of extreme weather, such as an increase in the number of heatwaves, to global warming.

In Australia, this includes studies that used the Bureau’s Predictive Ocean Atmosphere Model for Australia (POAMA) to essentially predict observed extreme events in a modelled climate with and without an enhanced greenhouse effect.

In particular, studies of record heat experienced during Spring in 2013 and 2014 have shown that the observed high temperatures received an extra contribution from background global warming.

These studies are an initial step towards understanding how climate change could affect the dynamics of the climate and weather system. In turn, this work provides greater intelligence for those managing climate risks.

State of the Climate 2016 can be read on either the Bureau or CSIRO‘s websites. The online report includes an extensive list of references and useful links.

Watch the State of the Climate 2016 summary video.

CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and the Department of the Environment and Energy have provided a comprehensive portal for climate projection science, data and information called Climate Change in Australia. This website includes regional climate projections, a publication library, guidance material and a range of interactive tools.

The Conversation

Karl Braganza, Manager, Climate Monitoring Section, Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Steve Rintoul, Research Team Leader, Marine & Atmospheric Research, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

NASA is right: Australia needs CSIRO’s aerosol monitoring more than ever


Surya Karthik Mukkavilli, UNSW Australia and Merlinde Kay, UNSW Australia

Atmospheric scientists worldwide are seeking to save Australia’s involvement in a NASA-led global network of instruments that monitor microscopic particles called “aerosols”, which play an important role in cooling and warming the Earth’s climate.

When most people think of aerosols, their mind turns to fly spray or deodorant. But the term has a much broader meaning, covering any microscopic particle that can remain airborne for long periods. Think of household dust floating in a ray of sun through your window. It’s an aerosol. So is smoke, salt spray from the sea, ultrafine sand from beaches and deserts, ash from volcanoes, and the carbon soot emitted from car and truck exhaust pipes.

These aerosols sometimes give us blazing red sunsets. But they are also crucial in controlling the Earth’s climate, acting as both warming and cooling agents. Although, molecular gases like methane and carbon dioxide garner more attention for their strong warming effect.

A stark example of the role atmospheric aerosols can play is the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. The 20 million tonnes of aerosol ejected into the atmosphere by this eruption reduced average global temperatures by 0.5℃ for the following two years.

Crucial monitoring

An important tool in the study of atmospheric aerosols is an international monitoring network, led by NASA, called the Aerosol Robotic Network AERONET. It consists of more than 450 monitoring stations across seven continents, including several sites in Australia.

AERONET’s data help atmospheric scientists worldwide to understand how aerosols influence both the global climate, and the daily weather at local scales. The importance of aerosols in the weather is twofold. In addition to affecting atmospheric heat balance, aerosols are also responsible for seeding the formation of clouds.

CSIRO’s reported plans to withdraw from AERONET has dismayed atmospheric scientists, both at NASA and in Australia. CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall has reportedly justified his planned changes to the agency’s climate science program on the need to divert resources towards a focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

A shift in focus towards action is certainly admirable. As any rational citizen knows, climate change is a clear and present danger to our future, and the need for compelling action towards mitigation and adaptation is urgent.

Government action on climate change is highly encouraged by atmospheric scientists. But it’s dangerous to develop climate policies without reference to reliable, up-to-date environmental data on global temperature, carbon dioxide levels and aerosols, just as it would be foolhardy to develop national economic policy without reliable economic data on national debt, government revenue and expenditure, and unemployment figures.

Whether it’s the economy or the climate, without an eye on the data, how can one be sure that policy is having the intended outcome?

Aerosol tracking is vital

Aerosol data of the kind that AERONET provides are vital to the climate change mitigation and adaptation goals upon which CSIRO is now focusing its efforts. Here are two clear reasons why.

A key strategy to reduce greenhouse emissions is the widespread uptake of renewable energy sources, particularly solar energy. Australia, the sunburnt country, has enough sunshine to power not just our own population, but with future storage technologies, enough to export for national profit.

Aerosols have a significant influence on how much sunlight makes it onto the surface of a solar panel. Aerosol particles scatter and absorb the Sun’s rays, and they also help to form clouds which can reduce solar panels’ effectiveness. Thus having precise data on atmospheric aerosols in Australian skies is vital to maximising the output, efficiency and stability of our solar energy facilities.

The second reason involves adapting to climate change, rather than mitigating it. Australia’s agriculture industry is highly dependent on rainfall. Droughts and floods are highly damaging, and both are predicted to become more frequent and severe due to climate change.

Once again, aerosols’ role in cloud formation is a crucial factor here. Aerosols also affect the properties of existing clouds, such as droplet size, which in turn has a significant impact on rainfall.

Adaptation to changing rainfall patterns and climatic events such as El Niño are vital to continued output and growth in Australian agriculture. Reliable aerosol data – obtained in Australia, by Australia, and specific to the Australian atmosphere – are vital to making informed decisions about how to protect agriculture in the future.

These two examples – one focused on energy and the other concerning agriculture – show how two of Australia’s key economic sectors each rely on atmospheric aerosol monitoring. CSIRO has for many years played a major role in providing these data, and NASA is right when it urges CSIRO not to stop now.

More broadly, it’s vital to realise that climate monitoring and modelling, and mitigation and adaptation go hand in hand. We can’t build proper policy for action without reliable data and forecast models. The government certainly knows this when it comes to the national economy; the same holds when it comes to climate policy.

The Conversation

Surya Karthik Mukkavilli, OCE Scholar, Oceans & Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO + PhD Candidate, School of Photovoltaic & Renewable Energy Engineering, UNSW Australia and Merlinde Kay, Senior Lecturer, School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

CSIRO climate cuts will trash a decade of hard work with the Bureau of Meteorology and universities


Gregory Ayers, Monash University

A dozen years ago, climate science in Australia was academically excellent, but was being done in small groups, none able by itself to answer the large, complex scientific questions that were beginning to confront Australia, such as understanding the adverse trends emerging in temperature and rainfall.

We weren’t alone – all countries were grappling with their own issues, as the scale of the climate challenge was made starkly clear by a succession of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

So, early in the new century, a handful of people leading the key separate parts of Australia’s system began working together to create a truly strategic, truly national climate science capability.

CSIRO led from the front. Its executives knew that CSIRO alone could not meet the nation’s climate science needs, so they worked with government departments to support the development of a larger national architecture.

Gradually, the project took shape. In 2005, CSIRO merged its atmospheric and marine research divisions, creating a unified division focusing on a single national climate modelling system, rather than two separate ones. Sensible move.

The following year, CSIRO championed integration of all state and national marine observing systems into one federal system, the Integrated Marine Observing System.

CSIRO also turned its attention overseas, joining with the Bureau of Meteorology to adopt the UK Met Office’s state-of-art Unified Atmospheric Model as our national weather forecasting model, for an immediate improvement in forecasting skill.

Since this model could be run in climate mode as well as weather mode, we now had both agencies’ scientists supporting a single, world-leading atmospheric climate model that was also the national weather forecasting model. It was a superbly efficient outcome. The pieces of a truly national climate science program were falling into place.

Universities on board

Meanwhile, in 2007 CSIRO and the Bureau launched a joint venture now called the Collaboration for Australian Weather and Climate Research. The idea was to create a single large government-funded climate science program that, for the first time, would be easy for top university climate scientists to engage with.

CSIRO already had a fruitful collaboration with Antarctic climate researchers at the University of Tasmania, but what was needed was for all universities doing significant climate science to become engaged in the national endeavour.

This was harder than it sounds; government research agencies are typically driven by specific missions related to the agency’s charter, whereas university research often focuses on investigating science questions framed by individual specialisations and academic prowess.

As chief of CSIRO’s Marine and Atmospheric Research Division at the time, I was seconded into the federal Department of Climate Change to draft a blueprint for a national climate research agenda that would include universities along with government scientists. It gave rise to the National Framework for Climate Change Science, which was adopted by the Rudd government in 2009 and still remains current.

With the framework in place, CSIRO, the Bureau and universities signed up to use Australia’s new National Computational Infrastructure for climate research. In 2011, the Australian Research Council funded the creation of the Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, which drew together the best university-based climate research. With everything now in place in 2012 the federal government turned the 2009 climate science framework into an implementation plan to deliver on the research goals.

More than a decade in the making, Australia finally had a truly national, unified collaboration set up to deliver as fruitfully as possible on our nation’s climate science needs.

All of that hard work, planning and organisation is now at risk.

Climate cuts

The implementation plan contains a series of tables listing the priority policy questions to be answered, and who is best placed to deliver the scientific research needed to answer them. CSIRO appears in every one. If you mentally remove the word CSIRO from the document, it’s clear that if CSIRO leaves the climate science stage (and while the precise number of job cuts remains uncertain it is set to be significant) it will leave Australia’s federally endorsed climate science agenda gutted, and totally unachievable.

This brings us to the misconception promulgated by CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall as a rationale for the CSIRO cuts: that human-induced climate change is now confirmed, so there is now less need for climate science and more need for research into adaptation and mitigation measures.

The implementation plan makes it clear that mitigation and adaptation would also suffer badly from CSIRO’s climate cuts, as they would no longer be built on the national climate science framework set up precisely to enable and support those activities.

CSIRO was the main agency behind Australia’s world-leading climate science framework – a setup that serves this nation’s climate science policy needs superbly, and one of the areas in which Australia punches above its weight internationally.

Why would CSIRO retreat from one of its own (and Australia’s) most effective scientific endeavours? Why stop now, after working tirelessly for more than a decade to create a unified national platform that provides essential advice to local, state and federal governments, as well as industry, commerce and the environmental sector? I don’t know. It makes no sense.

CSIRO’s decision to pull away from climate change science is against the national interest. It should not proceed.

The Conversation

Gregory Ayers, Atmospheric Scientist and Advisory Board Chair, School of Biological Sciences, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

CSIRO cuts: climate science really does need to shift its focus towards adaptation


Peter Tangney, Flinders University

Climate scientists have recently been outraged by job losses within CSIRO. Sixty climate jobs are likely to be lost. Chief executive Larry Marshall has said the reaction to the cuts from scientists has been “more like religion that science”.

Well, in certain respects, he has a point. In reaction to the cuts, scientists are making claims about their ability to predict the future, and are failing to consider the politics of climate science.

We know it’s happening, now let’s do something

In Senate estimates on Thursday, Marshall stated that while CSIRO would not withdraw from monitoring and measuring climate change, there would be a reduction in monitoring and measurement in favour of “mitigation”.

It is unclear what he means by mitigation (whether he’s talking about reducing greenhouse gases and adapting to climate change, or just the former) but I believe that in order to justify itself, climate science should be urgently re-branded as “adaptation science”.

When scientists talk about climate science, they often speak as if it’s a homogenous research activity. But, there are different types of climate research.

This matters because some research questions are more important to policymakers than others. For simplicity, let’s distinguish between two types of climate research.

The first type involves the development of increasingly sophisticated projections of future climate change. Scientists do this using global models, which are downscaled to make projections for local and regional areas.

Ideally, this research would allow us to make specific predictions about what will happen when and where. For instance, it might tell us how the climate in 2050 will be affected by El Niño.

The second type of research looks at the vulnerabilities and tries to make communities, ecosystems, infrastructure and economies more resilient to climate extremes and climate change. For instance, we understand that planting trees at strategic locations along a river bank can enhance the resilience of fish populations that are vulnerable to heat stress

In many cases, this research does not require absolutely specific predictions of how the climate will change. What it does need is the expertise of many other environmental scientists, geographers, urban planners, engineers and social scientists.

I propose that by far the most important research agenda at this point in time is this second research question. This is not to say climate modelling is not important. Modelling is part of the picture, but the focus should be on the ultimate goal: adapting to climate change.

The problem of uncertainty

Over ten years ago, climate scientist Stephen Schneider warned that we should be careful about relying on climate models because they cannot fully account for the abrupt changes possible in the Earth’s climate systems.

For much of the 2000s, as a climate change adaptation advisor working in the UK, I listened to climate scientists make encouraging noises about improving climate change forecasts.

Even so, in 2009 when the UK’s Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP) released its state-of-the-art projections, it loudly and repeatedly warned users that they should not be used to predict future outcomes. (As an aside, these outputs have also been very problematic for many potential users). UKCIP warned these projections should only be used to understand a range of potential future climates.

More recently, a team of mathematicians from the London School of Economics and Oxford University has provided eloquent reasoning for why this is so, no matter how good the models seem, especially at regional and local scales.

In Australia, a simpler and more user-friendly set of projections have been developed by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology.

Importantly, these are projections of possibilities, not predictions.

The problem of policy

Policy-makers don’t necessarily care about the specifics of how the climate will change at a certain point in the future. They know that no one can predict exactly how the climate will change, not to mind where a bushfire will strike at a specific time in the future.

Investment decisions are based on relatively more certain knowledge of the imminent future (say, five to 20 years, at most). They assume the future will be similar to the present. Depending on their political leanings, only then will they consider climate change.

For instance, the Queensland Reconstruction Authority (QRA), was established by the state government to rebuild infrastructure after the floods in 2011.

Their mantra is “build it back better”. But the precise terms of their federal funding mean that they usually only replace infrastructure on a like-for-like basis. The funding rules require the QRA to make a special request to federal government to build anything that accounts for future climate change. In fact, their strategic plan doesn’t even mention climate change.

Elsewhere, the Thames Estuary 2100 project in the UK delays crucial pre-emptive decisions on flood defences until they absolutely have to be made and in ways that will be resilient to a range of futures.

In this article on The Conversation, Andy Pitman made the case that desalination plants in Perth were constructed following knowledge of a long-term climate shift. This was part of it, but, crucially, the desalination plants provide benefits to the electorate under a range of possible future climates.

The core message should be that vulnerabilities already exist and can be fixed, providing benefits both today and under the increasing risks of climate disaster.

For instance, to build flood defences, policymakers often only want to know how high they can afford to build them to protect the highest number of people possible. Increasingly detailed projections won’t be particularly helpful because policymakers are fundamentally unwilling to build something optimised to one specific climate future.

The key for policymakers is to avoid putting all their eggs in one basket. That way they avoid getting egg on their face by not investing in solutions that may not actually be needed. The key here for scientists, therefore, is how to frame and focus their research accordingly. This means tailoring their science and its communication to policymakers’ priorities.

The climate science community is playing a political game, whether they know it or not. If they want to participate on the same terms as political decision-makers, they need to speak their language.

The Conversation

Peter Tangney, Lecturer | Course Coordinator – Science Policy & Communication, Flinders University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Climate science will be sourced elsewhere after CSIRO cuts: chief scientist


James Whitmore, The Conversation and Michael Hopkin, The Conversation

Australia must ensure that climate programs are maintained following cuts to climate science jobs at CSIRO, according to Chief Scientist Alan Finkel.

In a statement and appearance before a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday, Finkel said there was a large capacity for climate science outside the CSIRO.

Last Thursday, CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall announced 350 positions at CSIRO would change under a new strategic direction, in a move criticised by experts.

On Monday, Marshall clarified that critical scientific programs, such as the measurement of carbon dioxide levels at Cape Grim and ocean and climate research aboard its vessel the RV Investigator, would continue.

He also said the Oceans and Atmosphere Division of CSIRO would likely lose 65 positions out of 420 staff.

Climate science is one of the commitments under Australia’s National Science and Research Priorities, which lists as one of its goals:

Build Australia’s capacity to respond to environmental change and integrate research outcomes from biological, physical, social and economic systems.

Finkel said his most pressing concerns were the maintenance of long-term data collection and modelling.

“The critical obligation that the CSIRO fulfils is in some of the continuous data sets that have had 40-year histories. If you have a gap in the data set, that can never be replaced retrospectively. If you’ve got a continuous data set you can decades on always come back and refine your models and analysis,” he said.

However, he said he was pleased CSIRO had committed to a transition process that would ensure research capacity was maintained, and highlighted the contributions of research outside of CSIRO.

“Australia has a large climate science research community. It’s not just the CSIRO. So my view is we have to look across the capacity amongst many organisations, including the university and research sectors, to assess our climate science research capacity.

“For us to fulfil our obligations internationally as the premier climate research country in the Southern Hemisphere we need to ensure our capacity is preserved. But there is very substantial capacity outside the CSIRO as well as within the CSIRO,” he said.

The Conversation

James Whitmore, Editor, Environment & Energy, The Conversation and Michael Hopkin, Environment + Energy Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.