The University of Newcastle, Australia

Tropical Cyclones - Looking back to look forward

Climate change presents us all with a lot of uncertainties. From tropical cyclones to floods – Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Andrew Magee is studying the patterns and historical data of these weather events to help better understand current and future extremes and improve forecast accuracy.

Tropical cyclones are exceptionally erratic, in terms of where they form and how many form per season.

“My work looks to better understand what drives the variability of extreme weather events, mainly tropical cyclones from when and where to how many form per season in the Australian and South Pacific regions.

“I investigate how changes in the ocean and atmosphere influence the formation and movement of these cyclones,” said Andrew.

Current approaches to understanding tropical cyclones are limited by short records, sometimes, only giving us around 45 years of data (or less) to work with. This short time period means it’s difficult to infer historical variability and establish how tropical cyclones might change in the future – something Andrew is hoping to rectify.

“My work has investigated the potential of using longer records to help improve our understanding of historical and future tropical cyclone events.

“By better understanding how these cyclones have varied in the past and understanding the drivers that result in more or less cyclones, we are able to gain a better picture of what may happen in the future.”

With an interest in the role that weather-related traditional knowledge can play in helping inform tropical cyclone prediction, Andrew travelled to the South Pacific region to observe more traditional means of weather forecasting.

“Fieldwork has taken me to Fiji, Vanuatu and Tonga to collect weather-related traditional knowledge from Indigenous communities including how plant and animal behaviour can change in the days and months preceding a cyclone event. I’ve also investigated local perceptions on the delivery and reliability of current tropical cyclone information provided by local meteorological agencies.”

Making an impact

The impact of Andrew’s work is wide-reaching – from Australia to the Pacific island nations and territories and around the world.

“My work has helped researchers and end-users better understand what drives current tropical cyclone risk and how considering a range of climate influences (instead of just one), is the most holistic way to evaluate these potential risks.

“This work means that people and communities can be better prepared for current and future weather events.

“Specific to the South Pacific region, we know these island nations are inherently vulnerable to the effects of tropical cyclones and other natural disasters.

“Understanding the how and why behind tropical cyclone behaviour enables us to produce more accurate forecasting, with the potential of improving preparedness and resilience for vulnerable communities of the Pacific islands.”

Andrew also works closely with key players in the Australian insurance industry to help them understand what climate variability and change might mean for insurers and consumers. “Along with modelling natural peril risk (tropical cyclones, bushfire, flood, storm, coastal inundation) and applying geospatial analysis to a range of data sources at the address-level within Australia, I also assist with developing weather-related insurance products for farmers in Australia.”

Climate Education

As well as being involved in cutting-edge scientific research, Andrew is a passionate educator. Recently, Andrew was involved in a project to develop short-term training courses for meteorological and environmental organisations based in the Pacific.

“These three courses teach the fundamentals of Pacific meteorology, climatology and climate change, and are aimed at capacity building in a region that is exceptionally vulnerable to the effects of climate variability and change. This course helps equip meteorological  and environmental agency staff with the knowledge and skills to better understand key aspects of Pacific weather and climate, and aims to help decision makers make more informed decisions in the face of a variable and changing climate.”

Australia's flood risk

Andrew’s work also extends to the risk that floods place on Australia and how future climate change can impact the intensity of this type of weather event.

“Recently, I’ve started working on an ARC project ‘Flooding in Australia – are we properly prepared for how bad it can get?’ This exciting research uses new historical data to investigate how floods have varied over the past 2,000 years.

“A better understanding of historical flood risk – frequency and magnitude – will enable us to better plan for potential future events.”

Preparing for the future

“I feel proud that my work helps improves our understanding of what cyclones looked like in the past and how our complex climate system influences tropical cyclone activity. This information will work behind the scenes to help improve the reliability and methodology of deriving more accurate forecasting.

“I will continue to work to understand how changes in future natural peril risk will impact people, places, business and infrastructure.”