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(Heath Milne)

Science Is Already Being Disrupted by Climate Change, And We're Woefully Unprepared

1 MARCH 2020

The climate crisis poses an escalating threat to scientists everywhere and research of all kinds, scientists in Australia are now warning.

The unprecedented wildfires sweeping their nation have been a "brutal wake-up call" to a simple fact: their work is "far from immune" to climate change.

 

In all its physical and practical glory, science is just as vulnerable as any other industry on this planet. And yet very few universities, institutions or governments are prepared for that reality.

"Academics have analysed the climate change preparedness of almost every sector," the authors write

"Ironically, this does not include the research sector, about which very little is known when it comes to climate change, despite those involved having privileged access to climate change information."

Today in Australia, scientists are facing a myriad of challenges tied to the climate crisis. Not only are researchers dealing with devastated landscapes, they are also grappling with disrupted services, ruined belongings, insurance costs, and mental health distress.

Many of the fires have wiped out precious ecological field work, and some scientists are now facing the grim reality that many of the habitats and species they once researched no longer exist in the same way.

"As an ecologist," an Australian entomologist recently told The New York Times, "it's a very tragic thing to find yourself having to think about: What if my species is now extinct?"

Screen Shot 2020 02 27 at 8.54.32 amResearcher Guy Ballard from the University of New England, Australia, in one of his long-term ecological research sites devastated by the fires. (Heath Milne)

Even research untouched by flames have been impacted by the recent fires. Some researchers, for instance, are concerned that the consequences on the surface will seep down and alter the temperature and hydrology of Australia's caves.

Meanwhile, a cataclysmic hail storm that battered Canberra in January damaged 65 greenhouses and destroyed years of experiments and projects kept inside. The storm has not been directly tied to climate change, however, it does show the destructive potential of a future marked by more intense weather events.

Screen Shot 2020 02 27 at 9.20.53 amDamage to greenhouses and related experiments in January 2020. (Saul Justin Newman)

Still, it's not just extreme cases like these that will cause trouble in the future. Hotter temperatures are already impeding scientific research in Australia, meaning scientists can only do fieldwork at cooler times of the year.

"On the other side of the world, research in the Arctic is being affected directly by warming," the authors add, "with the melting of permafrost leading to some scientific equipment being 'literally swallowed up by the land', and mobile sea ice making some expeditions too dangerous."

 

What's more, this thawing permafrost can also threaten work on precious archaeological sites, as can rising sea levels.

Still, perhaps the ultimate irony is when climate research is cancelled because of climate change. In 2017, for instance, a multi-year climate study had to be put on hold for a whole year due to extreme ice conditions on the water.

"Researchers are more accustomed to writing about climate change than adapting their work to it," the authors acknowledge

"But as climate change impacts on the research sector become more evident, rapid adaptation is needed."

This means more universities and research institutions regardless of discipline, location or topic, should consider the risks of climate change in their strategic plans and adapt accordingly. 

If we don't, the authors warn, the value of scientific research "will be eroded", including its ability to help us adapt to our uncertain future.

The study was published in Nature Climate Change