Cli­mate and wa­ter use the hot top­ics

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Research Round - Up - Bren­dan O’Keefe

AS Aus­tralia be­comes hot­ter and drier by the year ( with more of the same to come, ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists), re­searchers in cli­mate change and wa­ter man­age­ment have sud­denly found their fields firmly in the head­lines.

The two is­sues, whose re­la­tion­ship re­mains a point of de­bate, have be­come po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and eco­nomic hot top­ics.

Top re­searchers in the fields wel­come the ramped- up at­ten­tion, but at the same time say gov­ern­ments still don’t un­der­stand the long- term im­pli­ca­tions of na­ture’s swing to­wards arid­ity.

Univer­sity of Queens­land re­searcher Clive McAlpine says de­spite the re­cent in­crease in in­ter­est, money is still hard to come by and in­volves com­pe­ti­tion with other ar­eas of science.

He says the field will grow. ‘‘ It will have to . . . How well it will be man­aged is a chal­lenge for us,’’ he says. ‘‘ The Com­mon­wealth Gov­ern­ment is in­vest­ing $ 150 mil­lion in cli­mate change re­search. The ques­tion is how much of that will be ded­i­cated to pro­duc­ing qual­ity re­sults.’’

McAlpine’s most re­cent study found that wide­spread land clear­ing for farm­ing had re­sulted in in­creased tem­per­a­tures dur­ing drought. His team found that the 2002- 03 El Nin o drought in east­ern Aus­tralia was on av­er­age 2C hot­ter be­cause of veg­e­ta­tion clear­ing. Na­tive veg­e­ta­tion mod­u­lates cli­mate be­cause it holds mois­ture that evap­o­rates and is re­turned as rain, and its dark- green colour keeps the sur­face tem­per­a­ture cooler.

‘‘ Cli­mate change been creep­ing up on us for the past 20 years but has now come to the fore,’’ says McAlpine, of UQ’s Cen­tre for Re­mote Sens­ing and Spa­tial In­for­ma­tion Science.

‘‘ The last drought made it re­ally im­por­tant. The re­al­ity is we’re fac­ing a drier cli­mate and we need to make ad­just­ments.’’

Wa­ter re­searcher Jorg Im­berger says the higher profile that his field has achieved in re­cent years has not brought in­creased fund­ing.

‘‘ There’s very lit­tle ev­i­dence that any money is flow­ing into re­search,’’ he says.

‘‘ And there is lit­tle ev­i­dence that the po­lit­i­cal process has any un­der­stand­ing.’’

Im­berger, di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Wa­ter Re­search at the Univer­sity of West­ern Aus­tralia, is baf­fled by gov­ern­men­tal ap­proaches to wa­ter man­age­ment.

‘‘ Melbourne is to spend $ 3 bil­lion on a de­sali­na­tion plant to put out 50 gi­gal­itres . . . it’s much bet­ter to go and buy farms and get the wa­ter rights and route it right down the river,’’ he says.

‘‘ Aus­tralia ex­ports food for 150 mil­lion peo­ple . . . each time we ex­port an ap­ple we give a cou­ple of cu­bic me­tres of wa­ter away as a present.

‘‘ My true feel­ing is frus­tra­tion that we can’t get the po­lit­i­cal process to fo­cus on the is­sues.’’

Univer­sity of NSW cli­mate change re­searcher Matthew Eng­land is more pos­i­tive. ‘‘ This is an area that has been recog­nised as of na­tional sig­nif­i­cance; whole com­mu­ni­ties are be­ing dis­placed by droughts,’’ he says.

‘‘ That means that when we go for re­search grants we can say, ‘ This is of high na­tional sig­nif­i­cance.’ ’’

He says re­search could have told the NSW Gov­ern­ment that dam lev­els would be higher in 2007 than in 2006, when the de­ci­sion was made to build a de­sali­na­tion plant in Syd­ney.‘‘ 0.1 per cent of the cost of the plant could fund re­search that would tell you whether the plant would be es­sen­tial in 10 or 20 years,’’ he says.

The fu­ture of cli­mate change and wa­ter re­search for Aus­tralia is in the com­plex com­puter modelling that un­der­pins pre­dic­tions, Eng­land says. ‘‘ Aus­tralia is the only na­tion in the south­ern hemi­sphere with cli­mate modelling ca­pac­ity and we are try­ing to keep up in this area,’’ he says.

Modelling, for in­stance, could help to find out why the east coast has long- term rain­fall de­fi­cien­cies.

McAlpine says the next move has to be to­wards mit­i­ga­tion through sys­tem­atic land- use man­age­ment.

‘‘ A lot of work has been done to look at adap­ta­tion and more could be done on mit­i­ga­tion,’’ he says. ‘‘ We can only adapt so much; if we are go­ing to­wards an arid cli­mate, a lot of our land uses will not be sus­tain­able in the fu­ture.’’

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