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How life on the land shaped an Australian climate leader

October 26, 2017

profile photo with sea background
Dr Helen Cleugh, director, CSIRO Climate Science Centre. Hobart, Tasmania.

Helen Cleugh’s interest in the climate began as a lived lesson. Growing up on a sheep farm on New Zealand’s “deep, dark south island”, she realised early on that long-term weather patterns could be brutal.

Decades on, she has steadily built on that fascination to take on one of the most important – and unarguably most challenging – jobs in Australian climate science.

But back then she was largely driven by understanding what was happening on her family’s property. After a degree in geography at the University of Otago, she undertook an honours project that looked at her past and pointed to her future.

“We only had 12-inches rainfall a year, so water was forever uppermost in your mind, and my family was deeply engaged in working with the authorities to bring irrigation to this part of central Otago, where I lived.

“We needed to know how much water there was, and I realised I could do a project measuring how much evaporation there was on your average farm because that was the way to inform how much water you need for your irrigation scheme.

“In the pursuit of that, I found there was this amazing institution in Australia called the CSIRO that had pioneered techniques for measuring evaporative water loss from landscapes. And I thought ‘I want to work for them one day’.”

A quick CV: following a PhD in atmospheric science in British Columbia, Cleugh moved to Sydney to take up a teaching and research position at Macquarie University in late 1987. She made the jump to CSIRO in 1994, initially investigating how the land and atmosphere interact to use water, take-up carbon and create microclimates.

Over the last decade she has stepped into management; taking up several climate-related leadership positions, including heading up the National Environmental Science Programme’s Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub – a collaboration between CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and five leading Australian universities, and now director of CSIRO’s Climate Science Centre, established in 2016.

The centre was announced following a change in focus in climate science within CSIRO, including redundancies. At the time, CSIRO CE Larry Marshall said:

“The announcement today is a culmination of the ongoing consultation and feedback we’ve had from our staff and stakeholders, and this new Centre is a reflection of the strong collaboration and support right across our system and the global community.”

In August 2016, the then science minister Greg Hunt announced that $37m of CSIRO funding would be invested in developing a decadal climate forecasting capability. Delivering on a long-time request of some of the agency’s stakeholders and industry partners, the centre is now in the process of building research capability that bridges the gap between long-term climate projections and short-term weather forecasts by assessing the interaction of natural variability and human-induced climate change.

The centre now has more than 120 scientists.

Cleugh says it has brought a “clear and unambiguous focus” to CSIRO’s commitment to climate research. Universities and other research partners had stressed to the agency the importance of its work in areas they could not cover – including observations, model development and projections of future climate.

“The community said we need that. The importance that plays in the national fabric of climate research was acknowledged as a result of that change last year,” she says.

That includes an ongoing commitment to measurement of greenhouse gases and other atmospheric compounds at Cape Grim in remote north-west Tasmania, the only station of its type in the southern hemisphere operated by the Bureau of Meteorology.

The centre has also brought in funding – both for its new work on developing decadal climate projections and through a new centre-within-a-centre focusing on ocean science. The $20 million Centre for Southern Hemisphere Oceans Research, punningly abbreviated as CSHOR, is half funded by China’s Qingdao National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology. CSHOR’s researchers are examining the role oceans play in climate variability and change.

The new work of decadal forecasts is challenging, building on CSIRO’s world-leading ocean science. Cleugh says if you surveyed scientists inside CSIRO and beyond you would get two quite different perspectives on whether it can be done in a meaningful way.

“It’s pretty innovative. One group would say it is too hard, and too risky. But the scientists that are involved really think they have got something.

“This is a 10-year commitment to build a decadal forecasting system. Our scientists feel there is some predictability, so where they’re starting is to better understand where that predictability is plus developing a model system providing hindcasts (i.e. past forecasts),” she says.

What would be a good result in a decade’s time?

“That we’ve got a useful, research-quality decadal forecasting system – that it has defined predictability in particular areas, and that we have demonstrated that this information has added value to the people, sectors and agencies using it.”

Cleugh says stakeholders interested in this work include production industries such as energy, agriculture, horticulture and fisheries, managers of water resources and the broader research community. It should also be of interest to the public, helping explain “the variability and longer-term trends that we observe, and the factors that cause these”.

Asked where there is potential for early success, she nominates ocean temperature forecasting. “When you think about marine biodiversity or production fisheries, that’s an incredibly important thing to examine – especially given the impact of marine heatwaves that have been experienced in Australia in recent years,” she says.

She aims to continue the development of the Australian Community Climate and Earth System Stimulator (ACCESS), a weather and climate model developed and run in partnership with the Bureau of Meteorology and Australian universities.

“Ultimately, we would like to see the decadal system and ACCESS as a unified system – that’s the vision,” she says.

She is still motivated by lessons learned back on the family farm back in central Otago.

“My father always said life was about making a difference,” she says.

“That’s what drives me – have I got the skills to take this nationally-important capability that we’ve got, that’s gone through a bit of a tough time, and to rebuild, re-shape and realise the value that science has for the benefit of CSIRO and Australia? If I can build on the work of my predecessors and start delivering that, that will tell me we’ve done something worthwhile.”

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