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The challenge

Collecting in situ data to better understand and model our weather and climate

Australia is an island continent surrounded by vast oceans and seas that play an integral role in our weather and climate, as well as economy and lifestyle.  Observations, reconstructions and climate modelling paint a consistent picture of ongoing, long-term climate change interacting with underlying natural variability. Associated changes in weather and climate extremes - such as extreme heat, heavy rainfall and coastal inundation, fire weather and drought - have a large impact on the health and wellbeing of our communities and ecosystems. They affect the lives and livelihoods of all Australians.

Lightning strikes the Arafura Sea viewed from RV Investigator. ©  CSIRO, Rob Ryan

Climate change has the potential to significantly impact on the health and wellbeing of our species, communities and ecosystems. The data shows Australia is experiencing higher temperatures, more extreme droughts, fire seasons, floods and more extreme weather due to climate change. Since national records began in 1910, Australia’s climate has warmed on average by 1.44 ± 0.24 °C. We are seeing more extremely hot days and fewer extremely cool days, with more intense short-duration heavy rainfall events throughout the country. In the oceans surrounding Australia, the absorption of heat and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is leading to continued ocean warming and acidification.

Australia needs to plan for and adapt to the changing nature of climate risk now and in the decades ahead. To do this, we need access to wide ranging and sustained observations from monitoring of our weather and atmosphere. This needs to take place across the whole of the Australian marine estate to better improve the accuracy and benefit from modelling. In addition to this, study of the weather and atmosphere above our oceans is essential for managing the prosperity of blue economy.

Australia’s marine industries are predicted to contribute $100 billion each year to the Australian economy by 2025 .

However, most weather and atmospheric monitoring is land-based and widely spread across the continent, meaning there is a need for in situ measurements above our oceans and seas. Measuring and understanding the atmosphere in these locations is a priority for Australia, to help us better understand, model and predict our changing weather and climate. Only with this understanding can we prepare for the great challenges the future will bring.

Our response

An advanced capability to collect atmospheric and weather data anywhere in our region

RV Investigator is a state-of-the-art research vessel that enables multidisciplinary study of the weather and atmosphere anywhere across our vast marine jurisdiction. The vessel’s range (up to 10,000 nautical miles) and endurance (up to 60 days) allow it to conduct atmospheric research in the farthest reaches of our marine estate and beyond. Combined with the vessel’s extensive suite of scientific equipment and systems, along with teams of specialist seagoing technical staff to operate them, this enables researchers to collect both high-quantity and high-quality data from our atmosphere.

Prof Zoran Ristovski, QUT in the Aerosol Laboratory on RV Investigator. ©  QUT, Adam Harper

RV Investigator is the first Australian research vessel with laboratories dedicated to analysing the interaction between the ocean and atmosphere. This enables research to help us understand and predict changes in local, regional and global weather and climate patterns. 

The vessel’s atmospheric research capabilities include an advanced weather radar Air Chemistry LaboratoryAerosol Laboratory, and space for two dedicated container laboratories on the foredeck. The vessel possesses instruments to measure sunlight, aerosols, cloud condensation nuclei, and other components of the atmosphere. While at sea, an air-sampling system on the foremast continuously pumps air directly into the laboratories for analysis using the latest technology, including:

  • an atmospheric nephelometer
  • greenhouse gas spectrometers
  • cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) counter
  • a multi-angle absorption photometer (MAAP)
  • a nitrogen oxide monitor
  • an ozone monitor
  • a radon detector.

RV Investigator’s unique capability was recognised in 2018 by the World Meteorological Organisation when the vessel was accepted as the first Global Atmosphere Watch Regional Mobile Station.

RV Investigator and it is one of only a few research vessels around the world fitted with a weather radar. This is a 1.75 tonne new generation C-band Doppler weather radar mounted within a protective dome – also known as the ‘soccer ball’ – on top of the vessel’s main mast. It sends and receives 800 microwave pulses per second, which collect information about the number, size, shape and movement of rain, hail, ice and snow. Weather data can be gathered from 20 km up into the atmosphere and in a 150 km radius from the ship. The information provided by the radar allows meteorologists, for the first time, to collect data about the atmosphere high above the oceans around Australia. The vessel also has an extensive suite of meteorological instruments to measure wind speed and direction, air temperature and humidity, rainfall, radiation and atmospheric pressure.

Since commissioning in late 2014 , RV Investigator has delivered 6 voyages with a primary focus on atmospheric research. However, every voyage includes meteorological and atmospheric data collection via the vessel’s underway data collection capabilities, regardless of the primary research project. These data collected make a substantial contribution to aggregated national and global datasets including the Global Atmosphere Watch program. This research is generally highly collaborative, involving Australian research partners and their international collaborators.

Significant contributions by RV Investigator to atmospheric research efforts include:

  • Multi-voyage project: Natural iron fertilisation: linking terrestrial dust, marine biogeochemistry and climate. Led by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), this ongoing multi-voyage project has been included on 10 voyages to date and is quantifying the importance of iron-rich dust and bushfire smoke emanating from the Australian mainland for marine biogeochemistry, ocean health and climate.
  • IN2019_T03: Optimizing Radar Calibration and Attenuation Corrections (ORCA). Led by the Bureau of Meteorology, researchers collected an important in situ dataset using the weather radar on RV Investigator to assist in the evaluation of the Australian weather radar network calibration monitoring technique that uses spaceborne radar observations from the NASA Global Precipitation Mission (GPM).
  • IN2019_V06: Tropical observations of ocean and atmosphere to our far north. Led by the Bureau of Meteorology, researchers collected unprecedented oceanic and atmospheric observations in Australia’s far northern waters to provide fundamental scientific knowledge to improve weather forecasting and climate models through better simulation of tropical convection and ocean  atmosphere coupling.
  • IN2018_V01: Detecting Southern Ocean change via repeat sampling. Led by CSIRO, researchers collected unprecedented cloud, precipitation and surface radiation data to allow for better understanding of cloud-radiation interactions and pinpoint the large-scale conditions that hinder climate models from accurately representing them.

The MNF Publications database records 21 journal articles primarily related to atmospheric research delivered by RV Investigator (representing approximately 9% of all articles and reports). While likely an incomplete record of all research publications related to the research by RV Investigator, the impact on knowledge creation is substantial. Insights and research findings are published in many of the world’s leading scientific journals. Commonly, publications from research delivered have a high diversity in co-authorship, demonstrating engagement between Australian researchers and the global scientific community. This signals that the research being conducted is of global importance. 

Significantly, in the absence of RV Investigator, some areas of research would remain understudied.

Beyond the research, there is also a significant contribution to training and development of future generations of marine researchers on RV Investigator voyages through student participation, as well as education and outreach activities. Supporting such activities is one of the strategic pillars for the operation of the Marine National Facility (refer MNF2030).

The results

Improved modelling and an ability to predict the weather and climate in our region

The atmospheric research delivered by RV Investigator is globally significant and provides data to address the grand challenges being faced by Australia, our region and globally. The data collected informs baseline measurements and constraints for different scientific models for weather and climate and is dramatically improving our understanding of the atmosphere above the Southern Ocean. Without RV Investigator and its multidisciplinary capability, much of this research would not otherwise be undertaken. The atmospheric data we collect informs weather and climate forecasting, which results in improvements in forecast models that benefit Australian households and the agriculture industry.

The foremast on RV Investigator contains air sampling and meteorological instruments. ©  Kendall Sherrin

Emphasising the importance of the atmospheric research delivered by RV Investigator, a recent independent impact assessment by RTI International estimated median benefits from improvements to weather and climate forecasting of $137.9M through FY2029/30.

These data address key challenges we face including building resilient and valuable environments, protecting food security and quality, and safeguarding maritime security and sovereignty.

Using our capabilities, researchers have delivered atmospheric research to:

  • Improve weather and climate forecasting. The data collected by the RV Investigator are being used to inform, refine and calibrate weather and climate models at both the regional and global levels. This includes forecasting from the tropics to the Southern Ocean. Improvements to weather and climate forecasting have been shown to have positive economic impacts on the domestic sector, as well as improve efficiencies and outcomes of agricultural activities through reductions in variable costs and improved application of inputs.
  • Provide data for the calibration of shore-based weather radar networks. Ship-based weather radar observations collected from RV Investigator have been used to evaluate the Australian weather radar network calibration monitoring technique that uses spaceborne radar observations from the NASA Global Precipitation Mission (GPM). This research has helped ensure the accuracy of the Australian operational radar network, which plays a major role in providing situational awareness and forecasting in severe weather situations, including heavy rain, flash floods, hailstorms, and wind gusts.
  • Increase our understanding of cloud formation over the Southern Ocean. RV Investigator has enabled expansive data collection in the Southern Ocean, an area that lacked reliable atmospheric data prior to the vessel’s arrival. The data collected has increased our understanding of the factors influencing weather formation above the Southern Ocean and increased the ability of scientists to calibrate weather and climate models.
  • Improve our ability to detect tropical storm formation in northern waters. Using RV Investigator, unprecedented oceanic and atmospheric observations have been collected for the ‘Maritime Continent’, a region which comprises the northern part of Australia, and the islands and seas of Indonesia, Malaysia, New Guinea, and surrounds. The data collected has been used to improve weather modelling and forecasts and contributes to international research efforts. Importantly, the research has helped improve our ability to detect tropical storm formation hundreds of kilometres offshore, assisting in maritime security and safety, as well as that of communities and industry.
  • Make significant contributions to global atmospheric monitoring efforts such as Global Atmospheric Watch. RV Investigator’s combination of atmospheric monitoring systems allows high quality and quantity data to be collected from across our marine estate. These data, which are continuously collected by the vessel both in targeted surveys and underway data collection, make a significant contribution to aggregated atmospheric data sets for various monitoring efforts. Globally, the data we collect contributes to Global Atmospheric Watch of the World Meteorological Organisation.
  • Increase understanding of the influence of ecological systems on local and regional weather. Coral reefs have been found to produce the sulfur compound dimethyl sulfide (DMS), a climatically relevant aerosol precursor predominantly associated with phytoplankton. RV Investigator enabled world-first research on the Great Barrier Reef to quantify the role of coral-reef-derived DMS within the climate system. Scientists found that corals, and the DMS they release, effectively play no role in regulating climate or weather. This is an important result as it’s in contrast with previous observational literature on the subject and increases our understanding of the influence of biogenic aerosols on the climate system.

The atmospheric data streams collected by RV Investigator provide tangible real-world benefits. These are used by researchers, industry and other stakeholders to inform their operational activities and decision making.

In addition to primary research projects, the underway data collection by RV Investigator enables scientists to better parameterise satellite observations; distinguish between biogenic aerosols and anthropogenic aerosols; and perform sensitivity analyses around weather and climate data availability.

Significant advancements in weather and climate forecasting are expected from the improved data streams and capabilities of RV Investigator. These have been estimated to deliver economic benefits to households of $44.5M (median benefit) and to the agricultural sector of $93.4M (median benefit) between 2022-23 and 2029-30.

Importantly, all data collected on voyages and through MNF capability, whether from CSIRO or user supplied equipment, are made freely available for the use and benefit of all. Data can be accessed through a CSIRO data portal where it can be discovered, accessed, used and reused. CSIRO engages directly with various end-users of our data to ensure it is accessible and meets their needs. 

This ensures the greatest benefit is delivered from every voyage and from every unit of data collected by RV Investigator.

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