Senior Professor at University of Wollongong
An open letter on the scientific basis for the links between climate change and bushfires in Australia.
This open letter is supported by more than 400 scientists with research expertise across the fields of climate, fire and weather science. This open letter is composed of the full statement, a summary statement, and lists of co-signatories and references.
Please read and share.
Georgia Watson and Sharon Robinson,
Global Challenges Program, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW, Australia
The Wold Meteorological Organisation (WMO) have just reported that 2019 capped off an exceptionally hot decade, with global temperatures 1.1˚C above pre-industrial levels last year. The Bureau of Meteorology’s annual climate statement for 2019, shows that last year was Australia's warmest year on record, with the lowest annual rainfall on record, and will rank amongst the most severe drought years ever recorded. The consequences of this hotter, drier climate are evident. The 2019-2020 bushfire season has seen the greatest area of Australia burnt with at least 10.7 million hectares (as of 8 Jan 2020, across all states and territories excluding NT). Australia has already warmed 1.52˚C above average, surpassing the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels, and we are already seeing the devastating effects of our new climate on humans and wildlife.
As scientists, we are often told we aren't doing enough to publicise the consequences of climate inaction - as though the reason for a lack of action is because we have not been compelling enough. But our job as scientists is the examine the evidence and provide factual accounts of what is happening, and while science communication is an essential skill, not all scientists are trained communicators. Governments have been aware of scientist’s predictions regarding the consequences of climate inaction for decades. Yet not enough is being done to protect everyday Australians from these consequences, whether they be the physical effects of bushfire smoke, or the psychological effects of 'eco-anxiety'.
Climate researchers, whilst resilient, are not exempt from feelings of despair about the climate crisis. As editors from the key international journal Global Change Biology, we have been publishing and reviewing research on climate change and how it affects life on the planet for 25 years. Much of that research is then communicated to the media. The science and its consequences have been clear to us. It has really been a question of how to translate that knowledge into action. For decades, that has been a political, social and economic issue, and the inaction was often unfathomable. Meeting during the week of the September Climate Strikes, we wondered how these civil actions, like school strikes, were advancing knowledge and awareness of climate change. Being scientists, we decided to compare how much media attention climate change receives from global protests versus major scientific reports.
Civil disobedience and activism has changed the discussion around the climate change emergency, bringing it to the forefront of public debate through global school strike events, disruptive acts of non-violent direct action (NVDA) and a common message: listen to the scientists . Our study found a spike in Google search terms such as "climate action" and "climate emergency" accompanying major global protests, such as the first and second Global School Strike for Climate events and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) London protests. A distinctive feature of movements such as the school strikes and XR is that they are led by young people, a group that is informed about and accept the science, and also the generation who have the most to lose from climate inaction.
To address the significant challenges facing society, we need the very best scientists, teachers and communicators capable of translating that science to motivate and inspire wider audiences, including the public and policy makers. "Science without activism is powerless to enact change, but activism without science cannot direct change where it is needed. Both science and activism are needed to achieve effective societal change."
The climate protests are giving us hope, that this wave of public opinion, grounded in science, will finally be enough to produce the change we need.
The climate marches on March 15thshowed the world what young people think we should be paying attention to.
On our Homeward Bound voyage Christiana Figueres talked about being stubbornly optimistic that the world’s people would take action on climate change in time. She also said that rather than engendering despair, the recent IPCC 1.5 ˚C report had given her hope that, if we take action now, it will not be too late. This was a very powerful message for all of us on board.
I was reminded of her wise and timely words on Friday. As a scientist who works in this area, I must admit to being tired of being told that, we as scientists, are not doing enough to make people understand the seriousness of the situation. It’s heartening therefore to see that so many school children from around the world get that climate change is happening and we need to do something about it - at all levels (individuals, communities, towns, cities and nation states).
Many of their signs on the climate march show that young people don’t understand why adults generally, and politicians in particular, seem to have such a hard time understanding the seriousness of the threat. But the student strikes for climate really do give me hope. It’s heartening to see that one person’s actions can trigger so much, from Greta Thunberg’s solo action in August 2018 to more than 200o protests over 125 counties in March 2019. Our lab was well represented with Dr Johanna Turnbull, Alison Haynes and Rafaela joining in the Wollongong March. Johanna’s kids were very excited to be on their first ‘strike’ and the march was well attended by primary and secondary children and their family and friends. So, here’s to global optimism, young people and fearless women!
On International Women’s Day it’s important to remember the women who came before and celebrate how they have paved the way for us. On a personal level I am intensely grateful to my mother and both my grandmothers who all believed in me, encouraged my curiosity and always made me feel I could do anything I wanted, even if their life options were not always as straightforward. On our recent Homeward Bound voyage Christiana Figueres introduced us to both global optimismand the term stubbornly optimistic. I think I get my stubbornness from a strong line of women on both sides of the family!
My maternal grandmother, Isobel Robinson was an extremely talented artist, she could look at the clothes at the London and Paris Fashion shows, draw them and then make patterns for others to recreate the clothes at home. Her work was published in newspapers at a time when hardly anyone could afford to buy clothes and everyone knew how to sew. Women would copy the patterns and make their own versions. My mum and grandmother both being talented dressmakers was a great boon for me as a teenager, wanting to look fashionable.
Isobel was also a rock climber, made terrain models for the war rooms and drove trucks during World War II. Here is an example of her work for the Air ministry "Communictions must be maintained".
After the war she had to give up driving but she retained a love of rock climbing, and also walking in the Lake District, which mum and I both share.
My paternal grandmother, Edith Ward, worked in the Post Office in London during the war. This was an essential job which meant she got to stay in London throughout the war while my dad and his brother were evacuated to safety in the countryside. Edith was a lawn bowls supremo and an amazing knitter and crocheter. She crocheted dresses for me and I still have those and the quilts she made for me.
My mum, Annie Robinson, was a teacher of english and history at Falmouth School in Cornwall, UK. She took an Open University Course in Science when I was 16 and then taught music and science in primary schools in North Cornwall. She is a talented musician and writer, a wonderful gardener and an excellent caller of country dances.
She took me on Ban the Bomb and anti-apartheid marches from an early age, inspired me to care about injustice and the planet and to stand up for what I believed in. Mum is a hard act to follow but it’s important to try and keep up. She can still teach me a lot about caring for the environment, she hasn't flown anywhere in years in an attempt to keep her carbon footprint low.
So, on this international women’s day take a moment to think about and thank those women who came before, both personally and professionally. They helped to get us where we are today and to realise that we are Stronger Together.
We finally get ashore again on Jan 12th. Danko Island is near Cuverville Island where we landed a few days ago and saw Gentoos. It has a steep hill and a few small penguin rookeries. It’s great to walk up the hill where there is a large plateau and stunning views towards the peninsula. Inspired by Christiana Figueres many of us also have a magical silent time, listening to the whales breaching below and the avalanches and the calving glaciers cracking across the water.
On the way up the hill there is a big patch of red snow algae. Snow algae are singled celled algae similar to the ones that cause algal blooms in water. These ones swim in the water that coats the ice crystals within the snow banks. Like algal blooms in lakes and oceans the cells divide when conditions are good and swim off to new territory. They need enough sunlight for photosynthesis and to warm the snow, they also need nutrients which are in ample supply from penguin poo in the vicinity of penguin rookeries.
Snow algae are green algae like Chlamydomonas nivalis but can appear green or red depending on the amount of red carotenoids they produce to protect themselves from too much light (including ultraviolet UV-B). Drs Matt Daveyand Peter Fretwell are using satellites to track these snow algae blooms across Antarctica so if you spot any, take a photo, log the coordinates and send them a message!
It’s a great location for photographs and Rachel Bice is also from Cornwall, where I lived from age 6 to 19 and so we team up for a Kernow flag moment!
The Cornish flag is the flag of Saint Piran, the patron saint of tin-miners. I grew up in tin mining country and the moors where the mining had formerly occurred were great places to search for rose quartz, amethysts and other interesting rocks. Tin was the most important element in the economy of Cornwall but when the mines closed the Cornish took their mining skills all around the world.
Originally, we were supposed to go further south to Verdansky Station, Prospect Point and Petermann Island but once again the sea ice and the weather are against us and it turns out there will be no landings for several days. This can be hard for people to understand in today’s world where travel is seen as relatively straightforward and we can cross the globe in 24 hours by jet. We are used to getting to places on time and can get annoyed if we are delayed for a few hours or redirected.
In Antarctica travel is still very much determined by the elements. Sea ice is still a real danger to shipping, just as it was for early explorers and sealers and whalers. Most ships have ice strengthened hulls but they are still only able to break through relatively small depths of sea ice, and ice can still damage their hulls. Ships can still get stuck in ice, like Shackleton’s Endurance which got stuck, squeezed and eventually sank in 1915. Even today rescue operations are time consuming, expensive and can divert icebreakers from their primary tasks of resupplying stations or doing science. Plus no captain wants to get stuck and have to call mayday.
While we still can’t control the weather, the main advantage we have today is that modern communication and satellites mean that we know what the sea ice looks like before we get there. We also have much better ideas of the weather systems that are on the way. And the ship’s captain can communicate with other ships in the area to find out what conditions are like at sea level. This means that the captain and voyage leader are constantly planning ahead and revising and adapting our voyage plan to ensure we get the best experience and don’t get stuck. As an Antarctic scientist I am well aware of the work that goes in behind the scenes to get expeditioners to stations and back. Because our plans are changing we ask Monica to explain to everyone what has been happening behind the scenes and why we can’t go ashore for a few days. She also gives us a lecture on ice.
Instead of going to Verdansky, we moor up and have a zodiac cruise where we observe sleeping humpback whales, seals and penguins. There are some spectacular glaciers and we see an avalanche as a huge chunk of ice falls off the face of the cliffs. We can also see how fast some of these glaciers are retreating with climate change.
The next day the ship takes up to the edge of the ice (Flanders Bay) and we see the spectacular variations in sea ice forms including the thin films of grease ice and the wonderful fluffy disks which are called pancake ice. We also see some massive icebergs (kilometers long) that have calved off the retreating glaciers.
Just last week, a ship searching for the wreck of Endurancewas forced to abandon its search because of heavy sea ice. They also lost their autonomous underwater vehicle because of inclement weather and bad sea ice conditions.
We were booked to go ashore at Palmer Station, the American base on Anvers Island, on the 9thJan, but the brashy, sea ice had blown in around the station making it too risky for the Ushuaia staff to take zodiacs in. So about 10 expeditioners from Palmer come aboard the ship to tell us about the science that is happening on the base.
I am really happy to see that one of my colleagues from the US Dr Zicheng Yu(Zic) from Lehigh University, is one of those researchers. Like my group, Zic is using stable isotopes of carbon, and also oxygen, to understand how plant growth is affected by climate change in Antarctica. Specifically, Zic is a paleoecologist and works with peat mosses. These are mosses that have been growing for thousands of years in wet, boggy sites and the older mosses become compressed and peaty as the plants above press down. The wetness helps to preserve the moss which means it can contain climate records that go back for thousands of years. Zic has sampled such mosses from Patagonia and is interested in how far South the peat mosses extend. The Antarctic mosses we work with are younger, hundreds, rather than thousands of years old, but we are working with individual plants, not peat. In peat there can be layers and layers of different mosses and even grasses and other plants as you delve down into the core. Our individual plants are only a few centimeters tall whereas peat cores can be meters deep. It’s all a matter of scale. In East Antarctica the mosses grow a few millimeters each year, whereas on the peninsula they might grow a whole centimeter in a year!
Zic and I last met at the SCAR Open Science meeting in Davos in June, when Dr Melinda Waterman and I spoke at the same session as him. Zic tells everyone on the ship about the work that we are doing on Antarctic moss which is great visibility for me! He also has a University research position in China and so I introduce him to the Chinese HB3 team.
After the formal session we go onto the front deck for photographs and also get to talk to the Palmer staff. It’s really nice to meet a range of expeditioners including scientists and the staff who keep the station running and support the researchers on the base.
All the expeditioners at Palmer were affected by the US Government Shutdown. Staff employed by the government were working for no pay and having trouble ordering supplies for the station for the coming season. Some of the scientists cannot get to their sites to do research, because the public servants in the US who prepare the permits are on furlough and can’t process the permits. This is such a waste of everyone’s time and is ultimately a waste of the NSF grant money. I am hoping that some of this has resolved since we got back and Zic and his colleagues got their work done. Lets hope the rest of the season is productive for them all.
Palmer is part of the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network with a study area extending North and South of Palmer from the coast to several hundred kilometers to the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula.
We were supposed to go ashore at Neko Harbour but it was ice bound. The wind has blown the sea ice close to shore and so we can’t get ashore in the zodiacs. It’s too dangerous to risk puncturing them.
So, we have a glorious glacier cruise and see more spectacular ice formations both cascading off the continent and in the icebergs and sea ice.
We collect clear, black ice for the bar and see glacial deposits where rocks and silt are layered into the icebergs.
We also find some moss on a Point near Neko Harbour. I am hoping it’s a new description and we can go back to study it! Although it’s on a pretty sheer rock face so it would be tough to collect. I think we would need a drone to collect samples for us.
We were on an iceberg cruise on the zodiac and our guide was Juan, a fellow plant enthusiast so when I spotted green through my binoculars and asked if it was moss or algae, he was happy to get closer to check it out. It was on a huge volcanic plug with full length dykes running down the steep cliffs.
On one side was a stream of moss cascading down terraced steps in the rock face. Very exciting. Just above the moss we spotted 2 Antarctic tern chicks which were probably helping to fertilise the moss stream.
Then of course we were miles from the ship and the weather closed in so it was foggy on the way back and for the first time we had to navigate back to the ship on GPS. It was cold and felt properly Antarctic in the zodiac and we had to keep an eye out for bergy bits of sea ice. Very exciting for us all because it felt a bit intrepid, but I didn’t want to get a reputation for being the last one back on the zodiacs and holding up the ship. Don’t want to set a bad example!
Each day the participants on the voyage spend 4-5 hours on the leadership program and we attempt to have a landing or a zodiac cruise if landings are not possible. I am leading the on board science program with Dr Katherine Duncan from the University of Strathclyde. Kate was a participant on the second voyage (HB2) back in March. We hadn’t met before this voyage but had talked on whats app and zoom calls whilst preparing the program along with the science faculty founders, Dr Justine Shaw (University of Queensland) and Dr Mary-Anne Lea (University of Tasmania). Kate is a wealth of knowledge about the HB program, the ship and what we need to bring with us. Luckily, both she and Dr Sophie Adams (our wellbeing guru and also a HB2 alumna) brought real coffee, an important component for wellbeing on the ship as elsewhere!
Having only met on the 28thDecember, Kate and I are now sharing a cabin, running a science theme together, enjoying our new-found friendship and planning future science grant applications. We also get to be on one of the first zodiacs ashore in order to supervise the landings and are often last back as we round up the stragglers who just want an extra minute ashore and, that last photograph or video.
The next landing is on Cuverville Island (7thJan) where we find Gentoo penguins nesting and skuas patrolling.
Cuverville Island is very snowy and the chicks were tiny, but at one end it has the most amazing wall of moss, a whole cliff face, green and grey against the white-grey sky. I would love to visit again and take moss samples for dating, to see how old these moss forests are.
We watched penguins rolling eggs or feeding chicks as well as well as mating. Presumably many of these Gentoo penguins have also had aborted attempts at rearing their first clutch of chicks this season.
I take the opportunity to segue from penguin sex to moss sex to the amusement of the nearby participants and Fern Hames (Arthur Rylah Institute)our on-board Sci-Comms facilitator.
On the way back to the ship we have a spectacular iceberg cruise, full of amazing blue, turquoise and white shapes against the grey of the sea.