Climate change research team grows

Dr Lisa Alexander
Saturday, 5 December, 2009

UNSW's Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC) is going from strength to strength, with two new high-profile appointments bringing its academic staff ranks to nine, along with almost 30 post-doctoral research fellow and postgraduate students.

The latest talented academics to enter the CCRC are Professor Steve Sherwood, who joins us from Yale University in the US, and Dr Lisa Alexander, who joins us from Monash University.

Together they bring a greater focus on the Earth's atmosphere to complement the centre's existing strengths in ocean and land-based studies of climate change.

"We're delighted with Lisa and Steve's appointments to our team," says CCRC co-director Professor Matthew England. "They bring tremendous reputation and capacity to our university in the atmospheric sciences. We're expecting our program within UNSW to ramp up even more in the future with enhanced success in grants, publications and PhD students."

Professor Sherwood studies how processes in the atmosphere conspire to establish climate, how these processes might be expected to control the way climate changes and how the atmosphere will ultimately interact with the oceans and other components of Earth.

In a recent review article he co-authored in the journal Science, Professor Sherwood confirmed that the evidence is now indisputable that water vapour released into the atmosphere adds one degree Celsius to global warming for every one contributed by humanity through greenhouse gas emissions.

"Clouds and water vapour in particular remain poorly understood in many respects yet they are very important not only in bringing rain locally but also to global climate through their effect on the net energy absorbed and emitted by the planet," he says.

Improving climate models

"One practical goal of my group's work is to figure out how climate models might be improved, as they are ultimately necessary for regional predictions of weather and climate. A more academic goal is just to unlock the secrets of our atmosphere."

Dr Alexander, a senior lecturer, has played a key role as a contributing author to the influential Third and Fourth reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and has been selected by the Federal Government for its expert group working on scoping studies for the next IPCC report.

 Much of her work has involved determining how well state-of-the-art climate models compare with high-quality global observations, with a particular focus on climate extremes.

"Changes in the frequency and/or severity of extreme climate events have the potential to have profound societal and ecological impacts," she says.  "Some 30,000 people died of heat-related causes, for example, during Europe's 2003 heat wave, which also resulted in massive forest fires and affected ecosystems and glaciers.

"The tendency of climate extremes to change considerably in frequency with even small shifts in average climate means that these changes can be a first indication that climate is changing in ways that can affect humans and the environment substantially."

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