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7 March 2017 6 min read

Every five years, the Australian Government commissions an independent national assessment of the state of the Australian environment. Australia State of the Environment 2016 is the fifth national assessment and includes nine detailed thematic reports exploring: atmosphere, built environment, heritage, biodiversity, land, inland water, coasts, marine and Antarctic environment. CSIRO's Dr Melita Keywood, Dr Kathryn Emmerson and Dr Mark Hibberd prepared the chapter on the atmosphere over Australia.

Dr Melita Keywood at the Cape Grim Baseline and Air Pollution Monitoring Station, northwest Tasmania, where she goes twice a year in her role as Lead Scientist for the Particles and Multiphase Atmospheric Chemistry.

ECOS spoke to Dr Melita Keywood, Senior Research Scientist at CSIRO with expertise in Atmospheric Chemistry, about the state of Australia's atmosphere.

ECOS: What were you working on in 2011 when the last State of the Environment Report was released?

MK: My focus in 2011 was on three major projects. The first was a collaboration with the Department of Environment and Energy, which involved establishing a monitoring network for persistent organic pollutants in air over Australia. The aim of this was to collect data that could be used to assess whether the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which is in place to remove these dangerous chemicals from the environment, has been effective.

The second big project that year was the Sydney Particle Study. This involved the first comprehensive measurement campaign of particles and gases in a city in Australia. Because particles are a complicated mix of different sizes and chemical components, in order to understand their sources, how they are formed and how they change in the atmosphere you have to measure them in lots of ways. The project shared this understanding so that the regulatory authorities have good information on which to base policy and actions to reduce particles in the air, since particles are known to harm human health.

The third project is in fact one that I have been working on for 15 years or so and that’s the work I do at Cape Grim which is the air pollution baseline station located in northwest Tasmania, operated by the Bureau of Meteorology. I lead a team of researchers who are investigating the chemical composition of the remote marine atmosphere by making measurements of particles, rainwater, mercury and persistent organic pollutants. In this work we are looking at long term changes in the atmosphere.

You will probably notice a number of references to these projects in the chapter!

ECOS: What was the scope of your chapter?

MK: To document the state of the atmosphere over Australia between 2011 and 2015 with a focus on what has changed in that time. We discuss the main pressures on the atmosphere and how effectively we are managing these pressures. A really interesting part of the chapter describes how the atmosphere is able to recover from the changes the pressures cause. The risks faced by the atmosphere and the outlook for the future of the atmosphere complete the chapter.

Our chapter is divided into two parts; climate and air quality.

ECOS: How do you go about gathering so much information and drawing conclusions with such a wide scope?

MK: We spoke to lots of experts. In fact a number of experts worked on sections of the report for us which was really great since the Atmosphere is a big topic covering a lot of disciplines. We held a workshop with the state and regulatory air quality authorities to get their input for ideas on case studies to use and to understand what air quality data were available. Then lots of perseverance in gathering the data available as well as relevant reports and peer reviewed literature.

ECOS: What are the top 3 changes since the last report covered in your chapter?

MK: As in 2011, climate change continues to be a major issue. Since 2011 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (known as the IPCC) have confirmed that humans have been the dominant cause of increases in greenhouse gas concentrations since the 1950s. Also, there is now international cooperation to address this global issue, with 195 countries, including Australia, agreeing to the Paris Agreement.

The climate change projections for Australia, which model how Australia’s climate is likely to evolve during the next century, are also new in our chapter. These projections have increased our confidence that mean temperatures and extreme temperatures are likely to increase, with more hot days and fewer cold days. Increased risk of heatwaves will lead to increased risk of wildfire incidence and health problems (heat stress). Other risks are longer droughts with greater geographic coverage, flooding from more intense storm activity, sea level rise leading to coastal damage, and loss of ecosystems.

In the air quality space, an important new initiative is the National Clean Air Agreement, which provides a framework for all environment ministers to work together to identify and prioritise specific air quality issues, and to develop effective and efficient policy. Despite set-backs caused by the restructuring of operational and expert support for the National Environment Protection Council, the extensive work undertaken for the review of the National Environment Protection Measure on air quality standards bore fruit with the tightening of the particulate matter (PM) standards in early 2016 (including the small particulates PM2.5 finally becoming a standard) and the requirement for a PM2.5 population exposure metric to be reported annually from 2018.

ECOS: What have been some of the developments in technology or methods to improve the science since the last report?

MK: The technologies used to measure the atmosphere are constantly advancing and in the time since the last State of the Environment report a number of new and exciting ways to measure the atmosphere have come into play. For example Himawari-8 launched by Japan in 2014, is a geostationary satellite that scans across Australia every ten minutes, thus providing near real-time information on weather, clouds, volcanic ash and smoke. Closer to the ground, state-of-the-art instrumentation now allows us to make near real-time measurements of various chemical species that in the past we had to collect on filters, in canisters or on tubes and take back to the lab to analyse. And of course, there are now hundreds of different low-cost sensors available, which while not terribly accurate or precise as individual units, when used correctly as a network of sensors can provide information on the spatial coverage of pollutants at a fraction of the cost of a network of more standard instrumentation. These low-cost sensors also allow communities to participate in assessments of their environment. I anticipate that a lot of the atmospheric data presented in State of the Environment 2020 will be derived from the three developments I have described here.

Our modelling capability has also developed significantly since State of the Environment 2011. The development the Australian Community Climate Change and Earth System Simulator (ACCESS) has led to improved weather forecasts so that 3-day forecasts are now as accurate as 2-day forecasts were before 2009. This makes for greater certainty in planning and responding to weather events such as fire weather danger. ACCESS provided Australia’s major input to the Fifth Assessment Report for the IPCC and will also provide Australia’s major input to the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC on the world’s climate future.

ECOS: If you were writing the next State of the Environment report, what would you like to see?

MK: More data! If we consider that most of the impacts of the changes we see in the atmosphere are the result of changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere (e.g. increases in CO2 concentration resulting in increased temperatures, particles recognised by the World Health Organisation as a human carcinogen), we should be measuring atmospheric chemistry in a lot more places than we do at the moment in Australia.

A data-driven report will ensure we can report even more accurately on the state of Australia’s atmospheric environment.

Read the full Atmosphere chapter in the 2016 State of the Environment report.

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