The University of Newcastle, Australia

Keeping our heads above water

Hydroclimatologist Dr Danielle Verdon-Kidd studies climate to help us better manage our most precious natural resource of all – water.

Danielle’s primary research focuses on studying the drivers of climate variability and change in Australia and the Pacific and investigating how to use these insights to improve natural resource management, particularly with respect to water availability.

An important aspect of this work is helping us future proof our nation through risk assessment and adaptation planning for climate change vulnerability.

At the crux of her work is the puzzle regarding what change in climate is due to human intervention, and what is merely reasonable variability.

Danielle notes that memory and perception can remember climate conditions quite differently from those expressed in recorded data.

“We certainly can’t judge the frequency or magnitude of major weather events solely based on human memory,” Danielle says.

Instead, Danielle uses models and records to assess and forecast short and long-term climate conditions to inform our management of water.

RECORDS AND MODELS

Although anecdotal data contained in diaries and records of early settlers is being further explored, official Bureau of Meteorology records in Australia only stretch as far back as a hundred years, with many areas only holding records for a much shorter period.

To explore conditions past to understand the present, and to predict the future, a much longer-term picture of climate variability is needed.

To redress this absence of instrumental records, a worldwide network of paleoclimatolgists are collecting much older data, determining past conditions by reading environmental indicators recorded by nature in tree rings, coral growth, and cave deposits.

“You determine how the environmental indicators have responded to climate variability in the period where we have been measuring with instruments, and then you take that relationship back further, up to thousands of years in some cases,” Danielle explains.

“While global sea levels and temperatures are rising due to anthropogenic climate change, for the most part we haven’t yet experienced anything outside that of the natural variability in terms of floods and droughts and other extreme events if you take into account paleo records.”

“That in itself is almost scarier, because it means we can have bigger events than what we have experienced since we began to keep records. We really need to take this into account when managing our resources.”

THE FUTURE OF WATER

To project long-term future climate conditions, climatologists also use global climate models (GCMs), while short term forecasting is based on weather models.

“Their fundamentals are based on the laws of physics, including conservation of mass, energy and momentum.” Danielle explains.

“In Australia, our weather is dependent on both the Indian and Pacific Oceans, with variables such as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, Southern annular mode and The Indian Ocean Dipole and these are not always reproduced accurately in the climate models.”

“There is a whole host of modes from the large-scale to the synoptic that influences Australian rainfall, and so forecasting is about trying to capture all of that in one model, which is a challenge.”

“What I have done in the past is to gather a lot of information relevant to us and see overall what the picture is, instead of relying on one record or model for the whole story.”

She warns that a constantly growing population coupled with a lack of new water storage facilities, and the over allocation of water in our river systems such as the Murray Darling Basin, could see the impacts of drought on Australia becoming increasingly disastrous.

CONSULTATION AND COLLABORATION

Using these records and models, Danielle works on major projects to apply her research in a readily translational context.

From small consulting teams through to Federal Government, Danielle’s climate expertise has been applied to inform water based resource and environment management systems.

Another area of translation on which Danielle is focused, is improving communication of information between researchers and decision makers.

“We did a project with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility looking at what is creating this communication gap and how can it be actually bridged.”

“One of our main recommendations was that there be an independent body to act as a communicator between the two.”

“Because scientist are not politicians, and politicians aren’t necessarily from a science background.”

Having completed a major collaborative study comparing drought in Texas and the Murray Darling Basin, Danielle is keen to extend collaborations with her American colleagues, especially in regard to exploring novel sources of water.

“They seem to have overcome the stigma attached to recycled water, so we can learn from them drought mitigation strategies that could work here.”

TEACHING AND FUTURE

Danielle is an active member of the UON’s Environmental and Climate Change Research Group (ECCRG) within the School of Environmental and Life Sciences.

As well as teaching into GIS and Remote Sensing, and River Basin Analysis, Danielle works closely with several post-graduate students.

“One of my PhD students has just finished off their dissertation on a project we were working on together looking at tropical cyclone variability in the South West Pacific,” she says.

“Now I've got another PhD students following along from that, and one is going to be looking at tropical cyclones in the Indian Ocean. “

Danielle has been studying the link between bushfires in the Northern territory and climate variability in the Indian Ocean with an honours student.

“Bushfire is so climate-driven, that you can pretty much foresee based on the state of the Pacific and/or Indian Ocean if you are likely to have a year of bad bushfires.”

In the works is collaboration with the University of Melbourne to develop tree ring analysis skills at Newcastle, to further our understanding of local climate variability.

As far as future directions are concerned, Danielle is committed to continue teaching and exploring her passion - climate and water management.

“I'm going to continue what I'm doing to try and solve the puzzle of climate variability and Climate Change issues, and extreme events for Australia and the wider region.”