Climate and water use the hot topics
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.’’