We rely a lot on climate models. They not only help us understand our present climate, but also allow us to understand possible future conditions and how different regions of our planet are likely to be impacted by climate change.
Having access to this information is vital for the community, government and industries to make informed decisions – sectors like tourism, farming and transportation to name a few.
As useful as these tools are, the reality is that the Earth’s climate system is incredibly complicated. It is affected by an infinite number of variations in the atmosphere, land surface, oceans, ice, and biosphere. How these factors interact with one another, and our socio-economic decisions, further complicates the issue.
In the absence of a twin Earth to use as an experimental control, simulations are the only method we have to understand the future.
Using observed data, advanced algorithms and software systems, scientists have been developing and refining these valuable climate models for years. However in recent times, there has been conjecture about a key aspect of the reliability of these models; whether they are accurately predicting temperature trends?
A new study, published today in Nature Climate Change, shows that yes in fact, they are.
According to the study’s lead author Dr James Risbey, the key to evaluating decadal climate variations is recognising the difference between climate forecasts and climate projections.
He explains that climate forecasts track the detailed evolution of a range of factors, including natural variations like El Niño and La Niña (which put simply is, warm water sloshing around the ocean). This is important because in El Niño and La Niña dominated periods, temperature trends will naturally speed up and slow down.
“Climate projections, on the other hand, capture natural variations, but have no information on their sequence and timing. Since these can impact the climate on a short timescale as much as human activities, their omission from projections creates a mismatch with observed trends. In other words, comparing the two wouldn’t pass the old ‘apples with apples’ test,” he said.
For this latest study, James and his colleagues looked at a range of different climate models that were in phase with natural variability. In doing so, they were able to make meaningful comparisons between model projections and observed trends.
Their analysis showed that in these instances climate models have been very accurate in predicting trends in our climate over the past half century. In other words, climate change models are a lot more than hot air.
Fine out more about our research into climate in our recent report State of the Climate: 2014.
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Over the past few months, a lot of attention has been paid to the potentially strong El Niño event brewing in the Pacific Ocean. But there is also the potential for an emerging climate phenomenon in the Indian Ocean that could worsen the impacts of an El Niño, bringing drought to Australia and its neighbours.
The Indian Ocean Dipole is a phenomenon that has already been shown to have a significant impact on rainfall in countries bordering the Indian Ocean.
The main effects are drought in Australia, while east Africa suffers floods. And our new work published in the international journal Nature today shows that the frequency of these extreme events is set to increase as the world warms this century.
The Indian Ocean Dipole is a year-to-year see-saw pattern in surface temperature and rainfall across the tropical Indian Ocean. During a positive Indian Ocean Dipole phase, sea surface temperatures off Sumatra and Java in Indonesia are colder than normal. Meanwhile, off east Africa, surface waters are unusually warm.
Like an El Niño, a positive Indian Ocean Dipole brings heavy rainfall to eastern parts of Africa and drought to countries around the Indonesian Archipelago, including Australia. A negative Indian Ocean Dipole phase tends to do the opposite.
When a positive Indian Ocean Dipole is coupled with an El Niño event, rainfall declines are more widespread across Australia, and more intense, particularly in the southeast.
Currently, as we move into Australia’s winter, the outlook is for a neutral Indian Ocean Dipole in October. But some models are projecting the development of a positive Indian Ocean Dipole. This should not come as a surprise. Over the past 50 years, around 70% of positive Indian Ocean Dipole events coincided with an El Niño event.
Predicting an Indian Ocean Dipole event is more difficult than forecasting an El Niño. Like an El Niño, autumn conditions create a barrier that prevents forecasters from being able to predict accurately what state an Indian Ocean Dipole will be — positive, negative or neutral at its peak. This is because its development relies on easterly winds off Sumatra and Java which occur after autumn, and usually last until November.
So, unlike an El Niño, which peaks in summer, Indian Ocean Dipole events form in winter and then peak in spring. This creates a narrower predictability window that gives little warning to industries, such as farming, that depend on rain through spring.
What’s more, because of the strong monsoon seasonality, these events do not have a prominent warm water volume that an El Niño has as a precursor to the event, so there is no time to see the event unfolding. This is also partly because the Indian Ocean is smaller than the Pacific and is bounded by Asia to the north, which prevents a slow, large accumulation of heat like that seen in the Pacific.
In 2012, while conditions in the Pacific Ocean suggested an emerging El Niño, a positive Indian Ocean Dipole abruptly developed in July. The El Niño that year dissipated before it was expected to peak in summer 2013. The preceding two consecutive strong La Niñas helped to alleviate the Indian Ocean Dipole’s drying impact on Australia. But it could still have played a role in the January 2013 bushfires in southeastern Australia by drying out soils.
What the future holds
Just like an El Niño, Indian Ocean Dipole events can vary in size. Our work in Nature today shows that extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole events are characteristically distinct from moderate ones.
During an extreme event, the cold waters off Sumatra extend farther west along the equator as ocean currents and winds reverse their flow and head towards eastern Africa. This makes the western part of the Indian Ocean warm even more strongly than during moderate events.
Our research shows that global warming is likely to triple the number of these extreme events. This would increase the frequency of droughts over the southern parts of our continent. The research follows another recent study that showed extreme El Niño events were also likely to increase with global warming.
Even though the two climate phenomena are not directly connected, it makes sense that both would increase in frequency under global warming. This is because under a warmer climate, the Walker Circulation, which creates easterly winds in the tropical Pacific and westerly winds in the tropical Indian Ocean, is predicted to weaken.
This weakening will create a faster warming rate in the western Indian Ocean than in the east. As a result, westerly winds and ocean currents at the Equator weaken and so they can more easily reverse direction. This is exactly the environment needed in the Indian Ocean to create an extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole and in the Pacific Ocean to enable the development of extreme El Niño events.
Deadly floods and droughts
Extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole events are unusual and have only occurred three times in recent decades: in 1961, 1994 and 1997. Of these three, only the 1997 event coincided with a significant El Niño event. This El Niño turned out to be the strongest ever recorded in the 20th century.
Remarkably, Australia was spared the worst of this extreme combination, but other countries in our region and in Africa were not so lucky. There were devastating floods in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda that killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Indonesia suffered a serious drought that led to famine, riots and fires that caused smoke haze to spread across Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
What’s in store this year?
At the beginning of June this year, the conditions in the Pacific Ocean are still on track to cross the threshold for an El Niño. The characteristics of this developing event suggest we could be in for a significant El Niño this summer. With models starting to suggest a possible development of a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, could we be moving into a situation like the 1997 event? We hope not.
The picture will become clearer over the coming months, but it is vital that we prepare for this potential event. More importantly still, we need to get ready for these extreme events to become more common as global warming continues in the coming decades.
For a long time, people were hesitant to discuss adapting to climate change. Some called it defeatist, others worried it would be used as an excuse to delay action on emissions reduction. That was a long time ago. The science of climate adaptation – developing tools, systems and technologies that improve the ability of communities and businesses to survive and prosper as the climate changes around them – has come a long way.
What emerges from this substantial and growing body of work are four powerful yet simple conclusions:
First: adapting to climate change is about people.
As the world warms, people are exposed to greater levels of risk. The State of the Climate 2014 report, recently released by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, shows that climate change is here and is happening now . The risk of bushfires has increased. Communities are more exposed to extreme heat. Over the past several years, extreme flooding in Australia has caused incalculable suffering. Without serious action to reduce emissions, these trends will strengthen. Adaptation means protecting people from the impacts already occurring and that we’ll see in future by changing the way we plan, design, and operate the places we live: keeping cities cooler by retaining and enhancing urban tree canopies and greenspaces; building houses to current fire codes; continuing to improve our ability to predict fire weather and provide early warning so communities can prepare; planning housing development to avoid exposed floodplains and retrofitting existing buildings to ensure survivability. Adaptation saves lives.
Second: adapting to climate change is good business.
During the recent Queensland floods, mines were flooded, rail lines washed out, and power disrupted, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost production. Studies by Stern, Garnaut, and others estimate that climate change, unchecked, will cause economic losses in the billions. CSIRO estimates that by 2070, the value of buildings in Australia exposed to climate-related events will exceed five trillion dollars. But carefully planned and timed adaptation can reduce the damage and cost impact of climate change on businesses and our economy by up to half, and in some cases more. Many businesses in Australia are already starting to plan resilience into their operations, driving down risk levels. But many have not, and remain significantly exposed. Adaptation, properly done, saves money.
Third: Adaptation is a good deal, but the longer we wait to act, the lower the benefits.
Many of the practical adaptive actions we can do to protect our families, communities and businesses are low cost, and yield significant improvements in resilience. Some adaptation measures, like preserving coastal ecosystems (dunes and mangroves, for instance), protect homes, coastal infrastructure and industry from storm surges and sea-level rise, and cost almost nothing. Building or retrofitting homes to current fire codes costs relatively little, and substantially improves survival rates. Recent CSIRO research shows that protecting buildings from coastal flooding can yield up to $40 in net benefit for each dollar invested. Another study on protecting infrastructure from high winds shows that net benefits of adaptation are large, but drop by half if we wait 20 years to implement. Act early, reap the rewards.
Fourth: There are economic and ecological limits to adaptation.
Adaptation is good news, and compared to the challenge of cutting emissions, much can be achieved quickly and with little fuss. But it is important to recognise that there are limits to what adaptation can do.
There are economic limits. We will exhaust the lowest cost – highest benefit adaptation options first. Dunes and mangroves are great, if you have them, but they can only do so much. As the climatic changes persist and worsen, as is projected, other measures will be needed. Sea walls and tidal barriers can help protect coastal communities from sea-level rise and storms. But they can pose significant engineering challenges, and carry big price tags. In the next few decades, with business-as-usual emissions, the costs of adaptation could start not only to stress the ability of society to pay, but could begin to surpass the cost we would have had to pay to transform our energy systems in the first place.
There are ecological limits, too. While there are things we can do to help reduce the impacts on species and ecosystems, like planning reserves to provide corridors for migration, and transplanting vulnerable species into refuges in new suitable locations, the rates of ecosystem change implied by our current emissions trajectory will leave many creatures behind. Landmark work done by CSIRO predicts that at current emission rates, virtually every native ecosystem in Australia will have been replaced by something else by 2070.
Adaptation makes sense, on a number of levels. Understanding the practical and economic limits of adaptation will help us frame the case for emissions reduction, highlight the risks we face, and show the importance of starting our adaptation journey now.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II released its Fifth Assessment Report on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability today. In this video Dr Mark Howden discusses how CSIRO is developing strategies to help reduce the impacts of climate change on ecosystems and communities:
Every two years CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology get together, crunch the numbers and release a definitive report on long term trends in Australia’s climate – The State of the Climate.
The SoC 2014 released today is focused on the changes that have been observed in Australia’s long-term climate trends and it shows that temperatures across Australia were, on average, almost 1°C warmer than they were a century ago, with most of the warming having occurred since 1950.
“Australia’s mean temperature has warmed by 0.9°C since 1910,” BoM chief Dr Vertessy said. “Seven of the ten warmest years on record in Australia have occurred since 1998. When we compare the past 15 years to the period 1951 to 1980, we find that the frequency of very warm months has increased five-fold and the frequency of very cool months has decreased by around a third.
“The duration, frequency and intensity of heatwaves have increased across large parts of Australia since 1950. Extreme fire weather risk has increased, and the fire season has lengthened across large parts of Australia since the 1970s.
“We have also seen a general trend of declining autumn and winter rainfall, particularly in southwestern and southeastern Australia, while heavy rainfall events are projected to increase. Australian average annual rainfall has increased slightly, largely due to increases in spring and summer rainfall, most markedly in northwestern Australia.”
CSIRO boss Megan Clark said Australia has warmed in every State and Territory and in every season.
“Australia has one of the most variable climates in the world. Against this backdrop, across the decades, we’re continuing to see increasing temperatures, warmer oceans, changes to when and where rain falls and higher sea levels,” Dr Clark said. “The sea-surface temperatures have warmed by 0.9°C since 1900 and greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise.”
CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology play a key role in monitoring, measuring and reporting on weather and climate, contributing to improved understanding of our changing global climate system. State of the Climate 2014 is the third report in a series and follows earlier reports in 2010 and 2012.
Below are some of the main facts from the report.
- Australia’s mean surface air temperature has warmed by 0.9°C since 1910.
- Seven of the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1998.
- Over the past 15 years, the frequency of very warm months has increased five-fold and the frequency of very cool months has declined by around a third, compared to 1951–1980.
- Sea-surface temperatures in the Australian region have warmed by 0.9°C since 1900.
- Rainfall averaged across Australia has slightly increased since 1900, with a large increase in northwest Australia since 1970.
- A declining trend in winter rainfall persists in southwest Australia.
- Autumn and early winter rainfall has mostly been below average in the southeast since 1990.
Heatwaves and fire weather
- The duration, frequency and intensity of heatwaves have increased across large parts of Australia since 1950.
- There has been an increase in extreme fire weather, and a longer fire season, across large parts of Australia since the 1970s.
Global atmosphere and cryosphere
- A wide range of observations show that the global climate system continues to warm.
- It is extremely likely that the dominant cause of recent warming is human-induced greenhouse gas emissions and not natural climate variability.
- Ice-mass loss from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets has accelerated over the past two decades.
- Arctic summer minimum sea ice extent has declined by between 9.4 and 13.6 per cent per decade since 1979, a rate that is likely unprecedented in at least the past 1,450 years.
- Antarctic sea-ice extent has slightly increased by between 1.2 per cent and 1.8 per cent per decade since 1979.
- The Earth is gaining heat, most of which is going into the oceans.
- Global mean sea level increased throughout the 20th century and in 2012 was 225 mm higher than in 1880.
- Rates of sea-level rise vary around the Australian region, with higher sea-level rise observed in the north and rates similar to the global average observed in the south and east.
- Ocean acidity levels have increased since the 1800s due to increased CO2 absorption from the atmosphere.
- Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase due to emissions from human activities, with global mean CO2 levels reaching 395 ppm in 2013.
- Global CO2 emissions from the use of fossil fuel increased in 2013 by 2.1 per cent compared to 3.1 per cent per year since 2000.
- The increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations from 2011 to 2013 is the largest two-year increase ever observed.
Future climate scenarios for Australia
- Australian temperatures are projected to continue to increase, with more hot days and fewer cool days.
- A further increase in the number of extreme fire-weather days is expected in southern and eastern Australia, with a longer fire season in these regions.
- Average rainfall in southern Australia is projected to decrease, with a likely increase in drought frequency and severity.
- The frequency and intensity of extreme daily rainfall is projected to increase.
- Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number but increase in intensity.
- Projected sea-level rise will increase the frequency of extreme sea-level events.
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By Zoe Leviston, Research Scientist
Most Australians overestimate how much they are doing for the environment compared to others, and are more concerned about water shortages, pollution and household waste than climate change, a new CSIRO survey reveals.
Taken over a period of July to August last year, it is the latest in a series of annual national surveys on Australians’ attitudes to climate change involving more than 5000 people from across urban, regional, and rural Australia. (You can read about past survey results here and here.)
More than 70% of people said they thought climate change was an important issue, which has remained consistently the case since we first asked this question in 2010.
However, compared to many other issues including health, costs of living and other environmental issues such as drought, we found that climate change was considered to be much less of a concern.
Biased towards ourselves
The way we perceive ourselves and others can influence how we respond to contested issues, including climate change. However, these perceptions are subject to cognitive biases or distortions as we attempt to make sense of the world around us.
Misperceptions about what others think about climate change extend to misperceptions about what others do.
One of the questions we asked people in this latest survey was what they were doing in their everyday lives to respond to climate change, and why.
For example, did they always recycle their household waste, had they installed solar panels, or had they changed their diet? The results are shown below.
When we added up all the actions people said yes to (regardless of why they were doing them), we found a normal distribution of responses: a few people did not much of anything; quite a lot of people did a moderate amount; and a few people did a great deal.
We then asked our respondents this question: “How much do you think you do compared to the average Australian: a lot less, a little less, about the same, a bit more, or a lot more?” Here’s what they said.
So how good were our 5000 respondents at guessing how they compared with others? To find out, we cross-referenced what people said they did with their estimates of how they compared with an average Australian.
Just under one-quarter (21.5%) got it about right: regardless of how many actions they performed, their assessment of where they stood in relation to other people was fairly accurate.
The same amount (21.5%) were what we might call “self-deprecating”: they undervalued their comparative performance.
But more than half our participants (57.1%) were “self-enhancing”: they tended to overestimate how much environmental action they were compared to others.
Research tells us that it’s not just the environment where we tend to think we’re better than others.
The “better than average effect” describes our predisposition to think of ourselves as exceptional, especially among our peers. The effect reflects our tendency to think of ourselves as more virtuous and moral, more compassionate and understanding and (ironically) as less biased than other people.
In a famous example, when people were asked to assess their own driving ability relative to peers, more than three-quarters of people considered themselves to be safer than the average driver.
How important is climate change?
When we asked people how important climate change was, just over 70% of people rated it as “somewhat”, “very”, or “extremely” important. That importance rating has remained unchanged when we first asked this back in 2010.
But this year we also asked people to rank the importance of climate change relative to a list of 16 general concerns in society, including health, the cost of living, and the economy. When framed in these relative terms, climate change was ranked as the third least important issue.
Similar to previous years, we found the majority of respondents (81%) think the Earth’s climate is changing, and people are more likely to think that human activity is the cause (47%) as opposed to natural variations in temperature (39%). When we look at repeat respondents (those people who participated in more than one of our surveys), we find no significant changes since 2010, although there was a very slight increase in the small proportion of people who say they “don’t know”.
Other changes have been slight, but noteworthy. There has been an increase in the levels of responsibility individuals feel to respond to climate change. People have also become more trusting about information from environmental and government scientists.
Zoe Leviston does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Take a look at our video exploring the key findings of the survey:
What do ants, Darwin and Texas have in common? Why, it’s Fullbright Scholar Israel Del Toro.
Born and raised in Texas and currently studying at the University of Massachusetts, Israel was given the opportunity to work with us in Darwin because of his expertise in ant ecology.
He created statistical and geographical models to predict how our ant communities might react to regional climate change. This information will help us conserve habitats and species across different ecosystems.
Sadly, even our little ants aren’t immune to the warming climate. Around 25 per cent of species in Israel’s study showed major declines in their range and could possibly face extinction as their habitats change over the next 65 years.
Our Darwin lab (informally known as the centre for ants) was the perfect location for Israel to carry out his research. Here we hold the world’s most extensive collection of Australian ants with over 5,000 different species – now that’s something to brag about.
“Working with ants is what got me hooked on ecology research. But ant diversity in the US is quite small compared to the wealth of species found in Australia. So for me, coming here to expand on my research interests was a logical next step in my career.”
Israel has just returned to America to finish his PhD. He plans on defending his dissertation early next year and wants to start a postdoc soon afterwards.
“This year has really opened up new doors for me. Doing research and remote fieldwork in the Top End has been amazing. There’s nothing quite like accessing field sites in helicopters in places like Kakadu National Park.”
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Meet Peter Hoffmann, a young climate scientist from Germany who has recently joined our Climate Adaptation Flagship in Melbourne.
Peter is using his analytical skills to tackle the global issue of climate change. It’s his job to run and analyse results from advanced climate models, which reproduce features of current and past climate changes. This will help us better understand and adapt to the changing climate.
His interest in climate change has taken him all over the world – from America’s Tornado Alley to rural Southeast Asia.
Peter completed his PhD in Meteorology at the University of Hamburg, studying the impact of the urban heat island effect. This occurs when a metropolitan area is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas due to human activities.
And now Peter is continuing his work in Vietnam. Here he is reviewing the impacts of climate change on the country, looking at how heatwaves and droughts are likely to change in the future.
He is also mentoring and training early career scientists to help expand their knowledge in this field.
So why choose a career in climate science?
“I wanted to research something where I can see, feel and experience the effects of what I’m analysing. This work has such practical outcomes,” says Peter.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the forces of nature, so this job is the perfect fit for me.”
Learn more about our work on climate science.
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By Kevin Hennessy, Principal Research Scientist, Marine & Atmospheric Research
Recent fires in New South Wales highlight our current vulnerability, remind us about potential future risks and prompt us to think more strategically about risk management. Some key questions have come to the fore, such as:
Is climate change to blame for the NSW fires?
Bushfires are influenced by many factors including: warmer and drier conditions in preceding months, days with extreme heat, strong winds and low humidity, urban development patterns, fuel loads and management.
Together with accumulated fuel loads over the past few years, this provides conditions that increase fire risk. Other parts of Australia need to prepare for an active fire season.
While it’s almost impossible to attribute an individual extreme weather event to climate change, the risk of fire has increased in south-east Australia due to a warming and drying trend that is partly due to increases in greenhouse gases.
What is fire risk?
Fire is a natural part of the Australian landscape. Fire weather risk can be quantified using the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI).
Annual cumulative FFDI, which integrates daily fire weather across the year, increased significantly) at 16 of 38 Australian sites from 1973-2010. The number of significant increases is greatest in the southeast, while the largest trends occurred inland rather than near the coast. The largest increases in seasonal FFDI occurred during spring and autumn, while summer had the fewest significant trends.
This indicates a lengthened fire season.
Fire risk is different to fire weather risk, as fire risk is affected by other factors, such as vegetation and human behaviour, in addition to the weather.
What can we expect in the future?
Climate change over the coming decades is likely to significantly alter fire patterns, their impact and their management in Australia.
An increase in fire-weather risk is likely with warmer and drier conditions in southern and eastern Australia.
The rate of increase depends on whether global greenhouse gases follow a low or high emission scenario. Carbon dioxide emissions have been tracking the high scenario over the past decade.
The number of “extreme” fire danger days in south-east Australia generally increases 5-25% by 2020 for the low scenarios and 15-65% for the high scenarios. By 2050, the increases are generally 10-50% for the low scenarios and 100-300% for the high scenarios. This means more total fire ban days.
Fire danger periods are likely to be more prolonged, so the fire season will lengthen.
What should we do now?
Without adaptation, there will be increased losses associated with the projected increase in fire weather events.
Adaptation in the short-term can lead to greater preparedness, including many well established actions such as fire action plans, vegetation management and evacuations; while adaptation in the long-term can reduce the fire risk experienced by society, through actions such as appropriate building standards and planning regulations in fire-prone areas.
Kevin Hennessy receives funding from the Commonwealth Department of Environment.
Not many people get to spend their student days in the Antarctic, but Nick Roden was one of the lucky few.
Nick is a PhD student working with our Wealth from Oceans team and the University of Tasmania. In 2010 he spent a year at Australia’s Davis Station in East Antarctica looking at how the seawater chemistry is rapidly changing as part of a study that began back in 1994.
Nick’s job was to drill through 1.5 metres of sea-ice, often in temperatures as low as -30°C (yep, that’s cold) to collect seawater samples and test the acidity of the water.
And the recently released results were very surprising.
“The changes in acidity over the last sixteen years were much larger than we expected. It looks like natural and human induced changes have combined to amplify ocean acidification,” says Nick.
About 25 per cent of the carbon dioxide released by humans into the atmosphere each year dissolves into the global ocean. This causes ocean acidification, which can affect processes in living organisms that are necessary to maintain life as well as the ability of some marine organisms to form shells or other hard structures made of calcium carbonate.”
“This is important considering every second breath we take contains oxygen generated by microscopic life in our oceans.”
But Nick’s scientific endeavours are only part of his story – there is a symphony as well (sorry, it doesn’t involve dancing penguins).
Nick is taking part in an arts/ocean science collaboration called Lynchpin – the Ocean Project. As part of this work he is producing a short film about a Symphony of the Oceans based on the science of the ocean and climate change.
By combining this symphonic work with video footage from his trips to Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, Nick hopes to engage people in a new experience of ocean science.
“There are some important messages that science needs to convey to the wider world and I feel a social responsibility to do that in the best way I can, which at the moment is through science and video.”
Check out some of his footage from East Antarctica below:
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The Symphony, ex Oceano – we are from the ocean – the ocean sustains us, will be available on iTunes and by limited edition CD shortly.
Every six years, some of the world’s top scientific thinkers comprehensively assess what is known about climate change. The end result is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Several CSIRO scientists are among the lead authors.
The IPCC reports have been described as perhaps the most heavily scrutinised documents in the history of science. Each report takes several years of work. The latest report on climate science involved multiple phases of review, and more than 50,000 comments from reviewers.
“The scientists that agree to volunteer their time to be part of this effort are people that are pretty committed, and they include some of the best climate scientists in the world,” says Dr Steve Rintoul, a coordinating lead author of the chapter on oceans, and a CSIRO research team leader.
Dr Rintoul led a team of more than a dozen people to draft the oceans chapter.
“So the meetings, when we do actually all meet up face to face, are extraordinary. It’s a wonderful experience to be really thinking through as clearly as we can what we know about climate change.”
Dr Rintoul is a Hobart-based expert on the Southern Ocean, focusing on how and why the Southern Ocean is changing, and the consequences.
The IPCC report assesses what the latest science says about changes in Southern Ocean temperatures, salinities and oxygen concentrations.
“The results from our group and from others show that the Southern Ocean is warming, and it’s warming more rapidly than the global average rate of warming in the ocean,” he says.
Dr Rintoul says the main way that the oceans influence climate is by storing vast amounts of heat and carbon dioxide. If the ocean becomes less effective at soaking up heat and carbon dioxide, the climate changes more rapidly.
“That’s a type of a feedback, and part of our work in the Southern Ocean is trying to determine how likely these feedbacks are, how strong they might be, and therefore how rapidly climate is going to evolve in the coming decades and centuries to come,” he says.
Dr John Church is a Hobart-based CSIRO researcher and coordinating lead author of a team of more than a dozen people, for the chapter on sea-level change. He is a past recipient of the Eureka Prize for Scientific Research and a member of the IPCC team that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
A significant finding in his chapter is a clearer understanding of what has caused sea-level rise.
“This is the first IPCC report where we have an adequate explanation for the observed 20th century sea-level rise,” he says.
His chapter provides estimates of future sea-level rise, depicting scenarios with and without mitigation of greenhouse gases.
Dr Church says the most difficult challenge was consideration of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Of critical importance is what is known as the Greenland threshold ‑ the point at which warmer temperatures result in surface melting of ice sheets that is increasing more rapidly than the increase in precipitation.
The exact value of that threshold remains uncertain, Dr Church says. It is somewhere between one and four degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.
The water locked up in the Greenland ice sheet is equivalent to about seven metres of sea-level rise, although it would take centuries for it to melt.
“For our higher greenhouse gas emissions we could be approaching that threshold or even crossing that threshold late in the 21st century,” he says. “That doesn’t mean sea levels will rise by seven metres during the 21st century, but if we maintain high temperatures we’re committing the world to larger sea levels.”
Dr Rintoul adds that sea levels have been rising more rapidly in the past 20 years than the average over the past century.
“The frequency of flooding events will increase,” he says. “So what used to be a one-in-100-years flood will become one-in-10 years, or what was a one-in-10 years flood will happen every year.”
Carbon and other biogeochemical cycles
Dr Pep Canadell is a lead author on the carbon cycle and budget chapter, and a CSIRO senior research scientist based in Canberra. He was also recognised for the part played in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC in 2007.
His chapter focuses on the long-term perspective – taking an historical look at emissions and the industrial era going back to 1750. He draws on this to bring together the global carbon budget – combining the three main greenhouse gases contributing to global warming: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.
Dr Canadell says a key factor driving the concentration of greenhouse gases is natural sinks – mostly the ocean and vegetation – which remove more than half the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“This is like having a contract with nature for a 50 per cent discount on climate change,” he says.
It is critical to understand the dynamic of these natural sinks in the future, to ensure they continue to perform this function.
“It is very important to understand that climate change is like a global problem in the sense that the atmosphere is common for society,” he says. “What we Australians do or somebody else does at the other end of the world actually all gets mixed within a year.”
It is an incredible honour, Dr Canadell says, to work in a team with other top scientists and contribute to the IPCC process – but also very demanding.
“The whole process is about five years, since the inception of putting the teams together, the structure of the new assessment, and bringing the people together,” he says. “Then there’s a very intense three years in which there’s a number of meetings where authors come together to actually work and do the actual writing.”
An unexpected challenge was the review process.
“It seems that everyone in the world knows a lot about carbon cycles,” he says. “It’s a chapter that received the most number of comments – almost 10,000 … You need to address every single comment.”
Dr Church agrees the process was very challenging, with some very difficult issues to consider.
“But also it’s very rewarding when the final report is produced and it’s acknowledged, and people look at it and it has an impact in the world.”
What’s to come?
Five CSIRO scientists have been involved in the Working Group Two report, on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, to be released in March 2014. They are Dr Kathleen McInnes, an expert on the coastal impacts of climate change; Dr Mark Howden, an expert on climate change and agriculture; Dr Francis Chiew, an expert on hydrological science and modelling; Dr Penny Whetton, an expert on regional climate change; and Dr Elvira Poloczanska, an expert on climate change ecology.
Video: Understanding why our Earth system is warming
Dr Steve Rintoul, Dr John Church and Dr Pep Canadell of CSIRO discuss our climate science research to understand how and why the Earth system is warming.
Warming oceans are affecting the breeding patterns and habitat of marine life, according to a three-year international study published today in Nature Climate Change. This is effectively re-arranging the broader marine landscape as species adjust to a changing climate.
Scientific and public attention to the impacts of climate change has generally focused on how biodiversity and people are being affected on land.
In the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2007, less than 1% of the synthesis information on impacts of climate change on natural systems came from the ocean.
Yet marine systems cover 71% of Earth’s surface, and we depend on marine life for food, recreation and half the oxygen we breathe. A key unanswered question is whether marine life is buffered from climate change because of the much more gradual warming in our surface oceans – about one-third as fast as on land.
What’s happening in our oceans?
An international team of scientists from Australia, USA, Canada, UK, Europe and South Africa, and funded by the US National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, set out to answer this question. They conducted the first global analysis of climate change impacts on marine life, assembling a large database of 1,735 biological changes from peer-reviewed studies.
Just as the medical profession pools information on the symptoms of individual patients from surgeries and hospitals to reveal patterns of disease outbreaks, we pooled information from many studies to show a global fingerprint of the impact of recent climate change on marine life. Changes were documented from studies conducted in every ocean, with an average timespan of 40 years.
Although there is a perception in the general public that impacts of climate change are an issue for the future, the pervasive and already observable changes in our oceans are stunning. Climate change has already had a coherent and significant fingerprint across all ecosystems (coastal to open ocean), latitudes (polar to tropical) and trophic levels (plankton to sharks).
These fingerprints show that warming is causing marine species to shift where they live and alter the timing of nature’s calendar. In total, 81% of all changes were consistent with the expected impacts of climate change.
Moving poleward, breeding earlier
As temperatures warm, marine species are shifting their geographic distribution toward the poles. Most intriguingly, though, they are doing so much faster than their land-based counterparts. The leading edge or front-line of marine species distributions is moving toward the poles at an average of 72 km per decade — considerably faster than species on land that are moving poleward at an average of 6 km per decade. Plankton and bony fish, many of which are commercially important, showed the largest shifts.
Warmer temperatures are also changing the timing of breeding, feeding, and migration events. For marine life, their spring events have advanced by more than four days, nearly twice the figure for land. The strength of response varied among species, but again, the research showed the greatest response — up to 11 days in advancement — was for plankton and larval bony fish.
Currents clearly play a role in the large distribution movements seen in the ocean, but there is a more-subtle phenomenon is also at work. Temperature gradients are more gentle in the ocean than over much of the land, and this has important implications for species movement.
Consider the complex topography on land. Many land plants and animals only need to move short distances up or down mountains to reach different temperature regimes. As the ocean surface is relatively flat, marine plants and animals must move greater distances to keep up with their preferred environments as oceans warm.
Seasonal cycles are also dampened in the ocean, meaning that for a set amount of warming, marine species need to shift their timing much earlier than on land.
Although the study reported global impacts, there is strong evidence of change in the Australian marine environment. Australia’s south-east tropical and subtropical species of fish, molluscs and plankton are shifting much further south through the Tasman Sea. In the Indian Ocean, there is a southward distribution of sea birds as well as loss of cool-water seaweeds from regions north of Perth.
Some of the favourite catches of recreational and commercial fishers are likely to decline, while other species, not previously in the area, could provide new fishing opportunities. Essentially, these findings indicate that changes in life events and distribution of species indicates we are seeing widespread reorganisation of marine ecosystems, with likely significant repercussions for the services these ecosystems provide to humans.
By Jill Rischbieth
Communicating climate science in accessible and meaningful ways is always a challenge. A comical and highly resilient climate crab is now taking on this challenge across the Pacific.
We have teamed up with the Bureau of Meteorology and humanitarian experts from the Red Cross to produce ‘The Pacific Adventures of the Climate Crab’. This animation follows the escapades of a comical and highly resilient crab and aims to help Pacific Island communities better understand El Niño and La Niña and how to prepare for these events.
For people living in small Pacific island countries El Niño and La Niña can have very serious impacts. For example, the 2010/2011 La Niña event resulted in severe droughts in Tuvalu and floods in Fiji. The result can be threats to water quality, food security, infrastructure (like houses and roads), livelihoods and health.
But the good news if people are prepared the impacts can be somewhat mitigated. Weather offices can provide warnings and forecasts to help Pacific Islanders anticipate and prepare for changing risks.
The animation comes with a ‘tool kit’ to help link the information presented in the animation to decision-making and action on the ground.
The films and accompanying resources will be useful those working in fields that address climate risk such as climate change adaptation, disaster risk management, health, education, food security, community planning, environmental protection, agriculture and natural resource management.
The series continues in July with a reggae parrot, the next climate communicator to join the climate crab. For more information, visit http://www.pacificclimatechangescience.org/climatecrab
By Barton Loechel, Social Scientist, Science into Society Group.
Recent research suggests only a minority of mining companies are preparing for the biophysical impacts of climate change. Those that are preparing are going it alone: there is little collaboration on planning between miners and local government.
The preparedness of Australia’s resource communities for climate change will depend on adaptation planning across multiple sectors. For example, a range of climate change effects – drought, and conflict over water use, heatwaves and intense rainfall – will adversely affect mining operations as well as other industry sectors, communities and the surrounding environment.
Climate change in Australia is projected to lead to more frequent and severe droughts, floods and heat waves; increased cyclone intensity; and sea-level rise and ocean acidification, albeit with significant regional variations over different time frames.
Droughts cause competition between water users in rural areas – notably miners, farmers and rural townships. Intense rainfall events, such as those experienced in the Bowen Basin coal mining region of Queensland, led to extensive flooding of mine pits, damage to transportation routes, on-going disruption to production and export of coal, reduced state royalties, and community outrage over the effects on downstream water quality caused when pit water was released into streams.
Heat waves can reduce the liveability of mining communities and pose occupational health and safety risks for mine operational staff. Sea-level rise and ocean chemistry changes have implications for the integrity of port infrastructure and offshore platforms, while greater storm surge heights may affect mining-related infrastructure in low-lying coastal areas.
These various biophysical climate change impacts will not be simple, one-way relationships. They may include cascading effects between sectors and issues at multiple levels, such as the increased energy needs for emptying flooded pits or cleaning contaminated water.
CSIRO has been working with two groups that are central to these issues, mining companies and local government authorities with a focus on what they are doing to prepare for climate change.
The relationship between mining companies and local governments is increasingly important for climate change planning. Climate change is likely to affect not just mine operations and the landscapes in which they are located, but also the well-being of mining communities. But collaboration between mining companies and local government appears to be missing; it could well be central if mutually beneficial adaptation strategies are to be developed in the future, and actions designed to reduce climatic impacts do not have adverse impacts elsewhere.
We have conducted national surveys (just published), interviews with regional stakeholders, and workshops in three of Australia’s major mining regions over the last three years. Ongoing work includes case-studies of particular mining operations, regions and value chains to identify approaches to climate adaptation assessment most suitable for the resources sector.
Overall, this work shows that while there are many potential impacts from climate change for mining operations and their associated communities, there appears to be relatively little activity assessing and reducing these risks. We found only 13% of mining companies have undertaken a climate vulnerability study or have any adaptation policies, plans or practices in place. The main reasons companies hadn’t done this work were uncertainty around climate change impacts and political and regulatory settings. Only 39% of mining companies were convinced that the climate is changing (compared to 65% of local government respondents).
Local government concerns about and preparation for climate change were much higher although, even then, adaptation planning is occurring in less than half the councils surveyed. Councils said the main reasons they hadn’t undertaken adaptation planning were financial cost and lack of funding, lack of skilled personnel and inadequate information available for them to respond. They were less concerned than mining companies about uncertainty of impacts and political settings.
The level of collaborative planning between the two groups was poor. None of the local government respondents who reported adaptation planning said they had involved a mining company in this planning. Only two of the mining companies that undertook adaptation planning reported partnering with local government. A follow-up survey is currently underway to collect a larger sample of companies and local government authorities for this work.
Climate scientists studying the impact of changing wave behaviour on the world’s coastlines are reporting a likely decrease in average wave heights across 25 per cent of the global ocean.
In some of the first climate simulations of modelled wave conditions they also found a likely increase in wave height across seven per cent of the global ocean, predominantly in the Southern Ocean.
Lead author, Dr Mark Hemer, said that 20 per cent of the world’s coastlines are sandy beaches which are prone to natural or man-made changes. It is estimated that 10 per cent of these sandy coasts are becoming wider as they build seawards, 70 per cent are eroding and the remaining 20 per cent are stable. Around 50 per cent of Australia’s coast is sand.
“Waves are dominant drivers of coastal change in these sandy environments, and variability and change in the characteristics of surface ocean waves (sea and swell) can far exceed the influences of sea-level rise in such environments.
“If we wish to understand how our coasts might respond to future changes in climate then we need to try and understand how waves might respond to the projected changes in global atmospheric circulation seen as shifts in storm frequency, storm intensity and storm tracks,” Dr Hemer stated.
Dr Hemer explained that coastal impacts of climate change studies have predominantly focused on the influence of sea-level rise and, until now, not focussed on how changing wave conditions will impact the coastal zone in a changing climate.
He said sea-level rise is likely to have considerable influence along much of the world’s coastlines. However, with such poor understanding of how changes in waves and other coastal processes will also influence shoreline position, it is difficult to attribute a level of future risk to the coast under a warmer climate.
The study compared results from five research groups from Australia, the United States, Japan, Europe and Canada. Each group used different modelling approaches to develop future wave-climate scenarios.
“While we find agreement in projected change in some parts of the world’s oceans, considerable uncertainty remains. We’re continuing to quantify the dominant sources of variation with the latest generation of climate models which will be used in the up-coming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports,” Dr Hemer said.
He said climate is one of several mostly human-driven factors influencing coastline change. These findings are derived from a study which seeks to understand potential impacts on coasts from climate change driven wind-wave conditions. The study will be published in the print edition of the journal Nature Climate Change on 25 April.
Media: Craig Macaulay P: 03 6232 5219 M: 0419 966 465 Email: Craig.Macaulay@csiro.au
Biodiversity genomics was centre stage at the launch of the Centre for Biodiversity Analysis in Canberra a few weeks ago. The Centre – a joint initiative between the Australian National University and CSIRO – hopes to address the challenge of protecting Australia’s biodiversity in the face of rapid environmental change.
The launch also marked the opening of the Centre’s inaugural conference, which focussed on the exciting and rapidly expanding field of genomics.
In recent years there have been concerning predictions about the future of Australia’s biodiversity. Many of our healthy communities of plants and animals are declining due to climate change, habitat loss and competition from invasive organisms. Some species currently listed as threatened are expected to become extinct, and our natural environment to be increasingly overtaken by weeds, losing its uniqueness.
Biodiversity predictions are uncertain because scientists often lack the data to reliably predict biodiversity outcomes. Models have yet to include many aspects of organisms, particularly their ability to adapt to environmental changes through evolution and/or changing their physiology.
A combination of evolution data and adaptation strategies will help guide conservation efforts, allowing species to survive in stressful environments.
To reduce uncertainty in biodiversity predictions, ecologists emphasize the need to monitor plants and animals, run large experimental programs, and devise new models. These are important, but take time, and environmental managers need to prepare for the future now. They need to know which species are most threatened, or might need to be moved to persist, and where landscapes could be altered to conserve biodiversity and individual species.
In the climate change arena, we now know that many species need to be able to adapt to survive. Adapting requires organisms to deal with stressful situations as they are often unable to move to favourable areas. A challenge is being able to predict if this is possible, particularly within a short time frame rather than through thousands of years of evolution.
The way organisms might do this is through physiological or behavioural changes (plasticity) or through rapid genetic evolution. Predicting the likelihood of these processes occurring is difficult when using traditional approaches. It typically requires many years of experimentation, breeding programs and tests with populations moved to new areas. For many species these options are not possible because of long generation times, difficulties in growing organisms away from their home ground, and the long-term funding and commitment required to complete such work.
The CSIRO, the University of Melbourne and Monash University are fast-tracking conservation efforts by focusing on the genetic and genomic levels of plants and animals. In the conservation area, genetic tools have already been applied successfully in a number of areas. They have helped to show how populations of species are interconnected in the landscape, assisting in management. Genetic markers have shown how species like sea turtles might breed on oceanic islands hundreds of kilometres away from the seas where they are usually found, highlighting the importance of protecting breeding sites in conservation efforts. Genetic tools have also been essential in deciding what precisely constitutes a species for conservation.
A new and potentially very powerful set of tools is now on the horizon, as genomics starts to be applied to natural resource management. Genomic analyses have traditionally been regarded as too expensive and massive to apply to all but a few species. Sequencing costs have declined significantly and new projects – including this project which uses Drosophila (a genus of small fly) – will lead to sequences of many thousands of species from across all the major classes of higher organisms. Our colleagues are also using genomics technology in Western Australia’s Kimberley region to fast-track the discovery of new species.
A sequence of DNA by itself does not tell you much. It needs to be checked for errors, analysed to look at location or sequences of genes and regulatory regions, and compared carefully against already existing genomes to predict sequence differences underlying functional changes. Once this process has been completed, genomes provide a unique picture of what happened in the past, and what might happen in the future. This information is particularly relevant to understanding the ability of species to adapt to climate change.
Genes are not static entities. They can duplicate, so new functions evolve. Or they can decay as mutations accumulate, and then eventually be lost, resulting in the loss of old functions. These historical signatures can be identified by comparing the genomes of related species (or populations or individuals) from different environments.
To counter hot conditions, organisms typically turn on coordinated sets of genes like heat shock protein genes. The machinery that underlies or regulates this process can become lost through mutation. Species might then fail to acclimatise or do so under the wrong conditions.
As long as enough is known about this machinery, it’s possible to use the genome to identify a signature of climate change responses in the past. More importantly, the genome can also be used to look at the potential for adaptation in the future. Species which have functional copies of relevant genes and regulatory elements should reflect the ability to mount adaptation responses, and to evolve rapidly in response to a changing climate and other stresses.
This research is supported by the Science and Industry Endowment Fund.
Media: Josie Banens Ph: +61 2 6246 4422 Mb: +61 (0)402 913 131 Email: email@example.com