December 11, 2020 | Published by

by Prof Andy Pitman
It has been an unprecedented year in academia in 2020, a year where many people have been doing it tough in particular those of you in Victoria. The impact of COVID will take a long time to be fully realized of course, with impacts on our students, researchers, administration and technical teams that we could not anticipate. Through the efforts of Melissa Hart and Stephen Gray, in combination with excellent leadership from node leads and node admin teams, we are in a far better position than we might have been and we have weathered the pandemic as well as we could. Indeed, I think the headline achievement in 2020 is that CLEX is now strategizing for what comes next with a positive outlook to 2021. That is, I think, remarkable.

Amid a remarkable 2020, CLEX navigated our Centre’s mid-term review. It seemed to go well, and I hope we will receive a very positive report. I expect challenges however, including being asked to strengthen our industry links. We are already working to improve our connection with business on the grounds this is important. We will see how strongly the review encourages us to take this further. 

Another very positive development for the broader Australian climate science sector came with the Federal Budget announcement of $7.6 million for three years of funding for ACCESS National Research Infrastructure under NCRIS. This has been greeted warmly and gives us some research infrastructure certainty into the future.  The details of how the ACCESS National Research Infrastructure will be established is currently unclear but the business case highlighted the benefits of an ANU-based initiative and I hope this will be realized.

CLEX has been active in research as you would expect. Some of the highlights include a paper led by PhD student Chiara Holgate that revealed the origin of rainfall across Australia and gave us insight into how it may change in the future. Members of the Heatwaves and Cold Air Outbreaks program took part of an international research collaboration examining the burning embers diagrams used in IPCC reports. As part of that process the research produced a sobering result that as our science improves major climate change impacts appear to occur at lower temperatures than previously estimated. Drought RP researchers were  part of an international group that  performed a critical review of the information infrastructure that connects ecosystem modelling and measurement efforts. This group has now proposed a roadmap to community cyber-infrastructure development that can reduce the divisions between empirical research and modelling, accelerating the pace of discovery. The teleconnections and variability RP had a close look at the Indian Ocean finding that the warming in this single ocean basin has had global impacts and how changes in wind patterns here had seen a rapid warming of surface waters down to 700m. We also saw heatwaves and teleconnections researchers come together as part of a major research effort to investigate how marine heatwaves have changed and the distant influences that could enable us to better forecast them in the future. This is foundational work that will inform marine heatwave research for years to come.

A highlight of our efforts to attack blue sky research is illustrated by visualisations and extensive datasets released in version 1 of the Aus400 data set for community use. The dataset is the culmination of a collaborative project between CLEX, the Bureau of Meteorology, and the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI) Australia and is based on a 400m grid spacing right across Australia covering a 60-hour period that starts on March 26, 2017. It will be the basis for a range of scientific endeavors and will result in a detailed animated simulation later in 2021.  Another scientific visualization project by Zebedee Nicholls was part of an international team that has developed a CMIP6 visualisation tool of large-scale averaged time series aggregated to global, hemispheric and land and ocean averages. You can find out more about this and view a gallery of visualisations from this data, here.

Our citizen science project, WeatheX has evolved with version 2 being released in September. This has proven to be more popular; we saw 270 reports of storms that passed through south-east Queensland in early November. Through our partnership with the Bureau of Meteorology, IAG, Risk Frontiers and the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment we expect to see the WeatheX app continue to improve and provide us with valuable data for our research

Our researchers also continue to produce more traditional outputs, in this case textbooks that will be foundational for young climate researchers. Christian Jakob edited a comprehensive overview of research on clouds and their role in our present and future climate, covering theoretical, observational, and modelling perspectives, Clouds and Climate: Climate Science’s Greatest Challenge. More recently, Agus Santoso was a key part of the editorial team that produced El Niño Southern Oscillation in a Changing Climate published by Wiley for the American Geophysical Union. It is a comprehensive and accessible exploration of ENSO and how it is altering with human caused climate change.

These are just a few examples of the ability of CLEX personnel to keep producing extraordinary results during a period filled with unique challenges. At this year’s virtual workshop — another triumph in difficult times — we were able to acknowledge some of the outstanding individuals that make up our Centre of Excellence. Congratulations to Manon Sabot for best paper by a student, Plant profit maximisation improves predictions of European forest responses to drought; Giovanni Liguori for best paper by an ECR, A joint role for forced and internally-driven variability in the decadal modulation of global warming; Nina Ridder for receiving the 2020 CLEX career development award for women and underrepresented groups; and to our Graduate Director, Melissa Hart who this year won the Director’s Prize for her outstanding work supporting our students and ECRs. In that same week she was also awarded the UNSW Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Higher Degree Research Supervision in the Leadership Category.

Our researchers also continue to be acknowledged for their work by their peers. Lisa Alexander, Matthew England and Alex Sen Gupta were included on this year’s Clarivate highly cited researcher list. Matthew England was also acknowledged with an AMOS Morton medal and Linden Ashcroft was the second CLEX researcher to win the AMOS Science Outreach Award. Our ECRs also got in on the action with Navid Constantinou and Ryan Holmes awarded DECRAs, continuing CLEX’s fine record of talented young researchers who have received this grant. Meanwhile, Adele Morrison was one of five winners of the $25,000 2020 L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship. This is only a fraction of awards, grants and personal successes for our researchers in the latter half of this year. Last, but not least, Ben Henley received a Victorian Young Tall Poppy Award. I suggest you take time to read the Research Program reports to discover just how much has occurred over the past few months. Finally, I wish you all well for the holiday season ahead – please take the time over the Christmas and New Year period to relax and unwind. I will be celebrating our entry into 2021 with a range of inappropriate hand gestures directed at 2020 and an open-arms embrace of 2021 with the highlight of meeting many of you, without zoom, in the first quarter of the year.

Andy