The University of Newcastle, Australia

Managing climate extremes in Australia

Dr Danielle Verdon-Kidd is researching the nature and triggers of extreme weather events, such as droughts, bushfires and storms to help our nation better prepare for what lies ahead.

Danielle Verdon-Kidd

Lying at the nexus of climate science, hydrology and palaeoclimatology, Danielle’s research seeks to understand what causes climate-related disasters, and what can be done about it.

Climate-related disasters are becoming devastatingly more frequent in Australia and worldwide. From the bushfires that ravaged our nation in 2020, to the 2000s Millennium Drought and the Queensland floods of 2010-11.

“These disasters take an enormous toll on human life and our country, with significant environmental, economic and social costs,” says Danielle.

Her research provides a deeper understanding of climate-related disasters that could help us to predict, prepare and mitigate future catastrophes in Australia.

“Any advancement in the ability to predict and measure climate-related risks benefits a wide spectrum of the community, industry and economy.

“This idea is at the forefront of all my research projects, from studying large-scale climate drivers and their role in modulating drought, bushfire, tropical cyclones and other extreme events, through to stochastic weather modelling for landform analysis and water resource planning and assessment.”

A strong career trajectory

Danielle was first exposed to climate research during her honours project, for which she studied the impact of Pacific climate drivers on bushfire risk across eastern Australia.

This early work led to Danielle’s first publication in an international journal and sparked an ongoing curiosity about climate extremes and teleconnections. It also prompted her PhD research exploring the behaviour of droughts.

“My PhD work was taking place at a time when Australia was experiencing one of the most significant events in our history: The Millennium Drought. The implications of this work for improving adaptive capacity were clear and inspired me to continue in the field of climate extremes research until today.”

Danielle’s research career has gone from strength to strength ever since, expanding into new terrains such as water management, weather modelling, palaeoclimate reconstructions and more. In 2018, Danielle secured the prestigious Women in Research Fellowship and in 2019, she was mentored under the externally run Envisage Program.

Harnessing new knowledge

Danielle’s work is providing new insights into previously under-researched factors that affect Australia’s weather patterns. Her work over the years has established that, in addition to the well-known El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), other large-scale climate modes play a significant role in modulating the frequency, intensity and location of extreme weather events across Australia. The Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) is a good example of this.

“I am proud to have made significant contributions to our understanding of what drives Australia’s extreme climate variability and how to harness this knowledge into practically useful scenarios for risk assessment and extreme event management.”

Danielle champions the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration that provides an integrated approach to research and leads to more practically applicable solutions. One of Danielle’s partnerships—with USA academics to promote shared drought management knowledge and strategies—led her to establish water management as one of her key research areas.

“I want to raise awareness in the water sector about the need for integrating the palaeoclimate record into modelling to properly define risk.”

Challenges of data and risk

An important aspect of Danielle’s work is risk assessment and adaptation planning for climate change vulnerability. To do this, her research delves far into the past, using natural archives such as tree rings and coral growth to supplement limited instrumental weather records and build a picture of the earth’s major weather events throughout history.

“One of the key challenges to understanding, modelling and ultimately adapting to infrequent climate extremes, such as major droughts or bushfires, is the lack of data available.

“The instrumental weather records are comparatively short, and most likely do not represent the full range of variability we have experienced in the past.”

“This not only hinders the calculation of probabilities (return periods) but also means we are unlikely to be planning for the worst-case scenarios, since they are simply not captured in our short instrumental records.”

To provide a window to the past, Danielle is working on the development of new palaeoclimate reconstructions that depict our region’s climate history. The information generated can then be applied to better quantify extreme event risk.

Danielle is interested in using the data to understand the pressing issue of anthropogenic climate change—that is, how human activity is influencing and contributing to extreme climate events and the envelop in which we need to adapt.

“My high-level goals are to develop new and novel ways to address this significant issue by integrating past, present and future datasets to understand, model and robustly adapt to climate driven risks.”

“In particular, I am excited about developing new pre-instrumental climate reconstructions from native plant material such as the Grey Mangrove and contributing to the wider palaeoclimate research community in Australia and abroad.”

Future-focused partnerships

Danielle regularly partners with federal, state and local governments for work, including the Department of Agriculture, Water, and the Environment, the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, the VIC Department of Environment and Primary Industries and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

Danielle has also worked with water authorities and agricultural corporations to better assess their climate related risks. In 2015-2016, she developed stochastic data input for assessing rehabilitation landforms for Ranger Uranium Mine and contributed to the development of the CoastAdapt tool, an online coastal climate risk management framework, that was subsequently rolled out across local coastal councils.

In 2018, Danielle collaborated on a project with University of Melbourne and Hydro Tasmania to demonstrate the usefulness of tree ring-based flow reconstructions for their reservoir modelling. Most recently, in 2019, she developed palaeoclimate-informed rainfall and evaporation sequences for the Lachlan Regional Water Strategy.

“I will continue to foster and develop these partnerships as I see a growing need to understand the requirements of end users and produce research that is connected across industry.”

Danielle shares that one of the most enjoyable aspects of her job is the supervision of research students, both honours and PhD. She is excited and honoured to inspire the next generation of researchers.

“While my overall theme is climate extremes, my research students work on a wide variety of projects, which keeps life interesting.

“I always tell my undergraduate students that I work in one of the most exciting fields of research and I don’t think I will ever run out of problems to solve or enthusiasm to solve them!”