April 1, 2020 | Published by |

CLEX Director, Prof Andy Pitman
A long time ago, a wise climate scientist who we will not name – but we might call him David – said something like “we should not be the Centre for climate extremes” rather “we should be the Centre against climate extremes”. I know COVID-19 is not a climate extreme but reflecting back on the last report where I wrote about drought and fires we now find ourselves confronted by a new emergency which is dramatically affecting everything we do. 

For some of you, this is impossibly challenging – you actually cannot cope with everything you desperately want to do. For some of you, managing home-learning for kids, or channeling that inner daycare worker, share house conditions or worry about friends and families you cannot help is simply not compatible with requests to finish that manuscript, debug that script or engage with another zoom meeting. Some of you have gone from long hours of quiet concentration to minutes grabbed here and there throughout the day or night.

CLEX is managing these circumstances as best we can. There are now zoom coffee mornings, Slack channels, social media and other ways to keep you in touch. I’ve been adding these up, and for some of you they might be excessive where you have very constrained diaries. There is no obligation to attend most things, but fear of missing out can be a strong feeling that is difficult to overcome. It is vital that there is clarity in communication, so I have asked Chief Investigators to be clear when meetings are required, and when they are optional. Similarly, those of you struggling need to be clear in your communication that this is the case, so we do not ask things of you that are infeasible.

I am endeavouring to not send e-mails out every time I think about something. I am trying (and this is really hard for me) to resist and collate everything I can into the weekly bulletin sent by Alvin once a week. Please read these as they provide some important information.

There are some highlights from CLEX despite the challenges thrown up by COVID-19. For example, Christian Jakob recently led the Climate Processes Research in Australia Report which summarises the current state of climate processes research in Australia, identifies gaps, and provides options for moving the area forward into the next decade. It will be a key document that I hope will inform the infrastructure and direction of Australian climate research into the future. Christian has written about the process involved in writing such a report in this newsletter, which you can find here along with a link to the report itself. You will find that there were multiple authors from CLEX who all deserve a round of applause for their considerable efforts.

A considerable amount of new research has been published since the previous report, and before everyone’s activities were profoundly perturbed. We were involved in the publication of a major review in response to a discipline-wide debate around Southern Ocean fronts. The resulting paper explained how “fronts”, sharp boundaries between water masses, are defined, and what their effects might be on the biology of the Southern Ocean. This review will help focus future research.

Other research coming out of CLEX has seen some impressive and challenging results. Some of this research, like the Nerilie Abram led work that produced a reconstruction of positive Indian Ocean Dipole events, stretching back to 1240, or the impact of the Montreal Protocol on the speed of climate change led by Rishav Goyal have generated plenty of media coverage.

There has also been research that while it may not have received similar mainstream media coverage is still important to the research community. Some of it has challenged some of our fundamental assumptions about the climate system. The Heatwaves and Cold Air Outbreaks program has questioned whether the Southern Annular Mode can be interpreted as a descriptor of mid-latitude variability, suggesting that it has little imprint on the weather of the storm track. The same program also looked at the impacts ascribed to sudden stratospheric warming events and found that it wasn’t the sudden stratospheric warming events themselves that led to these impacts but the reversals of winds around the Antarctic that mattered, no matter what the cause.

The Drought program also produced a new perspective on drought in Australia. Research coming from the program suggests that instead of looking at what causes droughts, it may be far more useful to understand why widespread drought-breaking rainfall fails to appear over extended periods.

These are just a few examples of the research we have published since early December. What is particularly rewarding is to see our researchers recognised for their efforts. The honour roll of awards over the past few months is quite something and it would be impossible to acknowledge all here but let me mention a few highlights. Our researchers were prominent successes at the recent AMOS conference in Fremantle with Nerilie Abram acknowledged with a Priestly Medal, Ariaan Purich receiving the Uwe Radok award for her thesis, Understanding the drivers of recent Southern Ocean sea ice and surface temperature trends, Joelle Gergis receiving the AMOS Science Outreach Award, and Lisa Alexander being made an AMOS Fellow (along with Rachel Law from CSIRO). We also saw Kim Reid win best poster at the conference and Charuni Pathmeswaran awarded best talk. Matthew England was awarded one the Royal Society of NSW’s most prestigious awards when he received the 2019 James Cook Medal. Jan Zika received the Anton Hales Medal by the Australian Academy of Science. Sopia Lestari was selected as one of just two recipients of the Australia Awards’ Hadi Soesastro Prize for 2020. As always you will find a full list of awards as usual towards the end of this newsletter.

Finally, we have had some PhD submissions – yeh! This might not be a complete list but: Rob Ryan, Bethany Ellis, Sonya Fiddes, Sushma Chen Reddy, and Fabio Boeira Dias. Congratulations to each of you.

 As we look ahead, the coming months will not be business as usual. The CLEX community must draw together, support one another, and understand that the demands and conditions we work in will require flexibility and consideration. These are challenging times, but if we make it a priority to support each other we will get through this. If you, or if you think someone else is particularly struggling tell someone – Stephen Gray or Melissa Hart are excellent people to raise concerns with and will typically know what to do.

Please read the weekly bulletins for on-going updates on anything I learn or can share. Events are obviously moving to rapidly to effectively communicate in a quarterly newsletter.

Andy