The state of Climate Processes Research in Australia

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A report outlining the current state of climate processes research in Australia was recently put together for the National Climate Science Advisory Committee. What follows is the Executive Summary – you can read the full report here.

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This report responds to a request by the National Climate Science Advisory Committee (NCSAC) for input to its strategic discussions in the area of climate processes research. Specifically, it summarises the current state of climate processes research in Australia, identifies gaps, and provides options for moving the area forward into the next decade.

The report is founded on two major initiatives. First, it presents the results of a large community survey on climate research in general and climate processes research specifically. In doing so, it refines the results of the recent Climate Science Capability Review conducted by the Australian Academy of Science. Second, the report details the outcomes of a workshop of current and emerging climate science leaders that discussed future priorities and options for future research coordination.

The report distinguishes climate processes from climate phenomena. Climate processes are the fundamental building blocks of the climate system. An individual climate process represents a particular interaction within the climate system. Examples for climate processes are the nucleation of cloud droplets, the uptake of CO2 through leaf stomata, or the basal melt of ice sheets. Climate phenomena are the observable result of the complex interactions of climate processes. Examples for climate phenomena are the El-Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) or sea-level rise.

The key findings of the report are:

  • Climate processes research provides the foundation to all climate research efforts. It is critical to the interpretation of the observational record. It underpins the understanding of the climate phenomena that influence Australia. It provides the knowledge embodied in modelling and prediction systems. Climate processes research is therefore fundamental in the provision of solutions to the challenges Australian society faces in relation to climate variability and change.
  • A stocktake of climate processes research in Australia has revealed that:
    • A substantial effort in climate processes research exists across both government and university sectors.
    • Many of the key climate processes are well researched in Australia, but there are some gaps in which the research effort is either fragmented (e.g., cryospheric processes) or well below levels necessary to sustain the program of research (atmospheric physics).
    • In areas with unsustainably low levels of research capacity, Australia is in danger of losing critical expertise required to understand and develop prediction systems for climate phenomena such as ENSO or IOD.
  • Confirming the findings of the Climate Science Capability Review conducted by the Australian Academy of Science in 2017, there are major shortcomings in the coordination of Australian climate research. As climate processes research can be carried out by small teams in isolation, it is particularly vulnerable to fragmentation; ensuring a high impact of climate processes research therefore requires a nationally coordinated program of work.
  • Given the challenges above, this report makes the following recommendations:
    • Improving collaboration and coordination of climate processes research should be a priority for the short to medium term.
    • To maximise the effectiveness of the climate processes research program, it should be framed around compelling science questions that guide research towards solutions. We propose the following set of priority science questions to achieve this:
      • How is Australia’s weather going to change in the future?
      • Can we anticipate climate surprises and their potential effects on Australia?
      • What aspects of Australian climate are predictable?
      • How does the cycling of energy, water, carbon, and nutrients interact with Australia’s climate?
      • How does climate affect the habitability of Austral-Asian region?
  • The report outlines a possible implementation pathway for the above recommendations targeted at increasing the impact that climate processes research has on the delivery of climate services to end users. The proposed implementation pathway includes three phases:
    • Phase 1 – A community-wide research network: The report recommends transforming the existing community research effort through moderate funding for a research network. This funding would be targeted at research collaboration, rather than research itself. It would support a small number of part-time network coordinators, provide opportunities for national and international researcher exchanges and organize community workshops using the science framework discussed above.
    • Phase 2 – Accelerator Institutes: After the successful establishment of a nationwide research network, the report recommends identifying key areas of climate processes research where a small dedicated effort could provide significant impact. The report recommends the establishment of small (10-20 staff) short-term (3-5 years) Accelerator Institutes in these critical areas. The institutes should be staffed by a combination of secondments from the partners as well as new hires as required.
    • Phase 3 – A national climate research institute: If, and only if, the first two phases have been successful, the report recommends revisiting the establishment of a national climate research institute. While the establishment of such an institute would provide the most efficient framework for climate processes research, the consultation as part of this report concluded that the community is currently not ready for such an enterprise. However, this may change significantly if Phases 1 and 2 above are successful in transforming climate research in Australia.
  • The report notes that Australia has a strong foundation in climate processes research, but that there are critical gaps emerging. The most important of those are key areas of atmospheric physics, cryospheric processes and model development. The report recommends closing these gaps by targeting ongoing recruitment to these areas and embedding them into a strong science framework, such as the one highlighted above.

 

Lead Authors: Christian Jakob (Monash University) and Martin Singh (Monash University).
Community survey assistance by Josephine Brown (University of Melbourne), Martin DeKauwe (University of New South Wales), James Goldie (Monash University), Petra Heil (Australian Antarctic Division), Ian MacAdam (University of New South Wales), Richard Matear (CSIRO), Amelie Meyer (University of Tasmania), Hanh Nguyen (Bureau of Meteorology), Andrea Taschetto (University of New South Wales).