The record warm temperatures in October 2015 and March 2016 prolonged the summer of 2015/16 across most of the Australia.
22 April 2016
This week, representatives from 174 nations and the European Union are gathering in New York to ratify the historic global climate change agreement that was reached in December. The Paris agreement is aimed at cutting global greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit global warming to 1.5–2°C, compared with pre-industrial times.
The global science community has demonstrated that global warming is unequivocal and that the human influence on the climate is clear. Now that there is a global effort to address our changing climate, does this mean the job is done as far as climate science is concerned? And, if not, what are the important next directions for climate research?
Record breaking times
It has been an extraordinary 12 months – both in terms of the observed weather and climate, and its effects in Australia, and the world’s commitment to limit climate change.
Lately, the headlines have been full of rising temperatures and falling records – Sydney recently experienced its hottest April day on record and March* was Australia’s hottest on record. February was the hottest month on record globally; and 2015 was the warmest year globally since record-keeping began in 1880. The 3 ppm growth rate in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, measured by the global network in 2015, was the largest ever recorded.
The record warm temperatures in October 2015 and March 2016 prolonged the summer of 2015/16 across most of the Australia. December was noteworthy for above-average temperatures across most of south eastern Australia, with exceptionally high minimum temperatures and numerous December records being set for maximum temperatures.
While such weather extremes are not unusual in Australia, and some of the unprecedented warming is due to the ‘super’ El Nino, it is clear that their intensity and frequency is changing, and that this is the result of global warming due to increased greenhouse gas concentrations.
Why climate science is important
The Paris agreement demonstrates a global acknowledgement that climate change needs to be addressed through a combination of effective mitigation and adaptation. The agreement also calls for a strengthening of climate science, including ‘research, systematic observation of the climate system and early warning systems, in a manner that informs climate services’.
Adaptation and mitigation solutions need climate research – observations, modelling and investigation of climate processes – to answer fundamental questions about the impacts of climate change, such as:
- What will the climate in the Murray Darling Basin (Australia’s food bowl) be like in the future?
- How will extremes such as heavy rainfall, storm surge, tropical cyclones, heatwaves and fire weather change?
- How will climate variability, and underpinning drivers such as ENSO, change in a warming world? What does this mean for water availability?
- What thresholds are we at risk of crossing that will lead to irreversible and severe impacts?
- Are we on track to meet our emissions reduction targets?
The only way we can answer these questions is to learn more about the climate system and its influences.
Why Australian climate science is important
Australia’s climate is influenced by a unique set of factors, and the impacts affect an environment not found anywhere else in the world. For this reason, fundamental questions about the processes and impacts of climate change in Australia cannot be answered by Northern Hemisphere research. It is up to us to understand the processes and drivers underpinning our climate and how they may change in the future.
Australian climate science has always punched well above its weight. Our national climate science capability is globally recognised. For 27 years this capability has been driven by the Australian Climate Change Science Programme (ACCSP) and its predecessors. This programme, funded by the Australian government and delivered by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, has made an enormous contribution to our understanding of climate change.
From 1 July this year, the baton will be passed to the National Environmental Science Programme’s ESCC Hub to build on the ACCSP’s legacy of national and international climate science excellence and, for the first time, to do this jointly with our university partners.
The role of the ESCC Hub
The ESCC Hub is the last of the NESP Hubs to ‘come online’. We’ve been working hard for the past year to develop a research program that will maintain Australia’s climate science capability at the conclusion of the ACCSP and build our collaboration with our university partners.
Our research projects have been designed to help us address some of the main climate challenges facing Australia’s water resources, food security, ecosystems, natural resource management, coasts and disaster management. Our work tracking carbon budgets will inform Australia’s emissions mitigation response.
We’re committed to delivering knowledge, information, and data products and services to our broader stakeholder base to ensure that decisions about our environment, our industries and our communities are informed by an understanding of Australia’s past, current and future climate.
There are challenging times ahead, with many important questions about our climate to be answered, but I am confident that we have many of Australia’s best climate and Earth systems scientists working to answer them through the ESCC Hub.
*Global land and sea-surface temperatures in March 2016 broke the previous March record (set in 2015), seeing an unprecedented streak of 11 monthly global temperature records.
Helen Cleugh is the leader of the ESCC Hub.