Modelling climate futures to prepare for extremes

13 October is The International Day for Disaster Reduction, focused on building more disaster-resilient communities and nations.

Staff from Metro South West and Blue Mountains regions undertaking the Pisgah Ridge hazard reduction burn near Glenbrook, Blue Mountains National Park

Extreme climate events are increasing in intensity and frequency across the world. Imagine being able to know the likelihood and intensity of what might happen so that you can prepare for it?

Thanks to climate researchers, we don't need to imagine. They're working to give us reliable climate projections so we can make good decisions now. To understand the future, Dr Nidhi Nishant says you must look to the past.

Dr Nishant is a Senior Scientist with the Climate Research team within the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment. She works to ensure local government, businesses, and communities have the best possible information, helping them prepare for future climate extremes.

Partnering for projections

Current climate projections are delivered through the New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory Regional Climate Modelling (NARCliM) project, a NSW Government-led partnership that provides high-resolution climate change projections across New South Wales. The partnership began in 2011 and now includes the New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory and South Australian Governments.

"Climate projections provide us with the range of climate change we can expect from ongoing greenhouse gas emission," says Dr Nishant. "To study hazards into the future, we begin by studying their past occurrences."

Using history to understand our future

Historical climate information tells us what climate conditions were in the past, researchers using this information evaluate the climate models that produce the future projections. "If a model can accurately simulate 'hindcast', we can have confidence in its forecasts of the future," says Nishant. She says that across Australia, climate extremes already have a huge impact on the economy and society.

The department's team models a range of extreme climate indicators – such as bushfires, droughts, hail, lightning, extremes of temperature and rainfall. By understanding future changes in temperature and rainfall extremes, farmers will be able to plan better.

For example, water-dependent crops like rice will not survive in some areas as droughts worsen. And it's not just agriculture – the tourism and energy sector also rely on good climate projection "They will be feeling the heat, and there will be less snow in future," says Nishant.

Putting projections into practice

While the future might be unknown, the work of our climate scientists is making sure we're ready for it. They're continuously refining models to ensure the climate projections we're using are based on the leading science, so we have the best understanding of the most plausible climate futures.

Knowing the catastrophic impact of some natural disasters like hailstorms, bushfires and droughts makes early adopting of climate modelling appealing to industries like insurance. "The industry might use the projections and information we produce to adjust premiums or introduce other mitigation measures."

In early 2023, the team will be rolling out the next generation of regional climate projections down to a resolution of just 4 kilometres. This will enable New South Wales to see what threats could eventuate by the end of the century. Individuals, businesses and organisations will be able to examine the projected changes in climate extremes relevant to their sectors, incorporating the information planning processes.

"Climate change is real and it's happening now. To know that the work I'm doing is helping our state to best manage the risks that it faces now and into the future is a powerful thing."