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Australia urgently needs climate change scientists

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Australia’s climate research is in “urgent” need of dozens more scientists to help prepare farmers, businesses and governments for the expected worsening effects of global warming, the Australian Academy of Science said.

The academy’s assessment, prompted by last year’s decision by CSIRO to axe as many as 100 of 140 climate scientists, identified 77 extra research positions that should be created in the next four years, reports Pacnews.

Australia now has about 419 climate researchers, or less than 1 per cent of the 50,000 in public science. The additional tally includes 15 staff announced by the Turnbull government last year for the CSIRO after a public outcry forced the agency’s chief executive Larry Marshall to reverse most of the planned cuts.

“Climate change is affecting and will affect every business and every bit of the environment in Australia,” said Trevor McDougall, an academy fellow and professor at the University of NSW, who led the review.

Professor McDougall cited uncertainty over how a warming climate will alter rainfall and evaporation in the Murray Darling Basin, the country’s biggest food bowl.

Only Australians would prioritise such a topic, he said: “That’s an issue models in the northern hemisphere won’t even look at.”

Australia’s already highly variable climate – particularly for rainfall – made it critical for the economy and national security that the community understood how conditions were likely to change in the future. With much of the population living near the coast, those risks are also well worth knowing, the scientists said.

“Coastal inundation is a complex issue which looks at the interaction between sea levels, which are increasing, storm intensity, which is also likely to change within a warming planet, and also the structure of the coastline,” said Graeme Pearman, a former CSIRO climate chief and another author of the report.

“It’s highly specific and it’s not something you can use in a global model – you have to have detailed information about particular areas of the coastline.”

Josh Frydenberg, the environment and energy minister, said the review would be “an important input” for the work of the government’s National Climate Science Advisory Committee.

He said the report noted Australia’s “substantial climate science capability” and “well funded and supported” climate science infrastructure.

The Turnbull Government continues to make “a significant financial investment” in the field, including the new CSIRO Climate Science Centre in Hobart with 40 staff and a $37 million (US$29 million) investment in long-term climate science monitoring capability, he said.

In addition, the government is spending $23.9 million (US$18.9 million) on a climate change hub as part of its National Environmental Science Programme, and has committed $255 million (US$202 million) as part of the Australian Antarctic Strategy, some of which will be spent on climate research.

Of the 77 new positions, 33 should be created in climate modelling, the Academy report said.

A shortage of computer scientists and software engineers had become “particularly acute in the past few years as the complexity and size of climate models has continued to increase”.

“In terms of adaptation, you need to have answers at the farm level or at least the council level, rather than [just] the state level,” Professor McDougall said.

The team building Australia’s main weather and climate model, known as ACCESS, was only “a small fraction of the size of groups building equivalent models” in other regions, the report argued.

Other priority areas include micrometeorology and boundary-layer dynamics, as well as multi-year forecasting to pick up variability across years including identifying emerging El Nino or La Nina events in the Pacific.

The report also noted the short-term nature of many contracts in the field, particularly among university climate researchers.

It also called on the federal government to extend funding for the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Co-operative Research Centre and its 26 full-time staff beyond 2019 when its current funding runs out.

It also recommended considering a dedicated climate centre to co-ordinate national funding and reduce time and money now spent on writing research applications.

The Bureau of Meteorology could be one home for such a centre but the CSIRO – given its multidisciplinary breadth – was “the obvious place” even after the recent push to cut staff, Professor McDougall said.

“[We] shouldn’t be swayed by the whims of the current CEO [Dr Marshall], as CEOs come and go,” Professor McDougall said.

The report did not put a price of the extra staff and centre. But with about 100 people potentially needed, and the cost per scientist in the order of $200,000 (US$158,000) a year, the cost would be about $20 million (US$15 million).