Over the past months, the world has been watching the multiple bushfire fronts in many parts of Australia with great dismay and sadness. Some of the affected areas and communities are home to TERN sites and staff are now starting to assess the consequences for their sensitive monitoring equipment and research projects.
An understorey fire swept through TERN's Tumbarumba Wet Eucalypt SuperSite in NSW on 31 December 2019. The tower is upright and the canopy mainly intact, but TERN and its site partners, CSIRO, have a busy period ahead to make the site safe and restore the data stream (images courtesy of NSW Forestry Corporation)
But fire is just one form of extreme event that impacts the operation of land, coastal and ocean-based research infrastructure in Australia. Cyclones and floods cause havoc while extreme heat and long-term drought provide additional challenges for the kit and the dedicated people maintaining it.
NCRIS-enabled TERN is mandated to collect data on the ecological impacts of extreme events and our network of monitoring sites located in a breadth of ecosystems make that possible. The data collected from across the continent are essential for improving our understanding of the role that extreme events play in driving environmental change and also help to develop appropriate ecosystem policy and management strategies.
With this in mind, and faced with predicted increases in the frequency and severity of extreme events under a changing climate, TERN asked a group of Australian and international experts how Australian research infrastructure providers, including TERN and its NCRIS siblings, might best safeguard their globally important equipment and reduce gaps in their data streams? And, what is the future direction of data collection technologies that may help alleviate some of the challenges posed by extreme events?
Dr George Burba is a bio-atmospheric scientist with LI-COR Biosciences, the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a global expert on in-situ micrometeorology, ecosystem gas and energy exchange measurement methods.
Such tactics are standard practice in TERN and we have also where feasible, buried wiring to our automated sensors to limit damage to TERN’s ecosystem observatory.
Perhaps the best example of a fire-resistant research infrastructure site is the fire-prone TERN Litchfield Savanna SuperSite in the Northern Territory. Almost every year, low-intensity fires pass right through the SuperSite, singeing on-ground monitoring equipment and getting caught on camera by automated camera-traps.
Like the ecosystem, TERN too has adapted over time and manages the site’s instruments to keep damage to a minimum.
The Litchfield site, along with all of TERN’s research SuperSites across the Northern Territory and much of Queensland, are not only adapted to survive fire, but also cyclones. As a result, TERN is able to provide valuable data before, during and after multiple cyclone impacts, allowing scientists to study ecosystem recovery and better understand the underlying ecosystem processes.
TERN’s NCRIS sibling, the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) has also worked hard to protect its ocean monitoring research infrastructure from the impacts of extreme conditions, including cyclones. IMOS Director, Dr Michelle Heupel says their equipment is specifically designed to produce high-quality data in harsh environments.
TERN infrastructure and data are facilitating research, including the above following TC Monica in 2006, to better understand the impacts cyclones have on carbon dynamics in tropical savanna ecosystems (pictures courtesy of Garry Cook)
The vast majority of TERN instrumentation is research-grade and protected from dust, water and heat (and cold). Most instruments are rated from about -20℃ up to +70℃ and they tend to be white to maximise the reflection of heat, says Dr Craig McFarlane of CSIRO, TERN’s operating partner in the Great Western Woodlands SuperSite in Western Australia.
Researchers are using TERN infrastructure in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and at the TERN Great Western Woodlands SuperSite in Western Australia (above) to take part in a landmark global experiment that investigates ecosystem response to drought. The experiment’s findings will help to predict and mitigate the impacts of drought in Australia and around the world (photo courtesy of Suzanne Prober)
Given that extreme events are important drivers of Australian ecosystems and long-term monitoring of this change is in the national interest, what is the future direction of data collection methods and what role can technology play to help alleviate some of the problems extreme events present?
Dr Burba presents his view of a future environmental exchanges-monitoring research infrastructure operation (flux data):
These predictions are already a reality in many places, but it’s important to emphasise the essential role people play, and will continue to play, in delivering such automated RI and their data.
Images capturing ecosystem recovery following a severe bushfire at TERN's Calperum Mallee SuperSite in 2012. TERN has detailed vegetation, soil and flux data from this site since 2012 openly available via the TERN Data Discovery Portal.
The role of remote sensing in extreme event data collection is ever-increasing as it allows timely and repeat data capture without the risk to personnel or on-ground instrumentation.
Many experts, including Dr Cindy Ong of CSIRO’s Earth Observation calibration and validation facility and chair of the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) Working Group on Calibration and Validation (WGCV), recognise this vital role but stress the on-going need for on-ground data for ensuring the integrity of Earth observation data and derived data products.
Both TERN and its NCRIS sibling IMOS, utilise both in-situ and remote sensing technologies. Dr Michelle Heupel says that IMOS has established a “New Technology Proving” facility which aims to improve observational efficiencies and effectiveness. This could potentially include testing of new technologies which help mitigate some of the extreme conditions IMOS infrastructure may face.
No on-ground news from our Tumbarumba site. Post-fire 3Jan false colour Sentinel EO 🛰️image (vegetation as red) indicates canopy mainly intact & understorey fire moved through. Short data gap expected but we remain optimistic all considering. Work continues... @w_woodgate @CSIRO https://t.co/Cc1ofjtnLE pic.twitter.com/ixor8lK2IB— TERN (@TERN_Aus) January 7, 2020
The next step for environmental research infrastructure, says Dr Burba, is to link all data collection activities together and directly feed the information into real-time modelling and predictions.
Thankfully, due to NCRIS investment in the scoping of a National Environmental Prediction System (NEPS) for Australia, Dr Burba’s vision may be more than a pipe dream in Australia. If a future NEPS capability is funded, it will provide a federated national research infrastructure that enables the integration of environmental observations with predictive modelling and would provide the necessary processing and distribution system for trans-disciplinary data after it is collected and made model-ready by research infrastructure projects such as TERN and other agencies.
A NEPS would enhance the impact and uptake of research data and information products and services by decision-makers managing the environment, economy and the well-being of Australians.
You’re invited to join a consultation event in February 2020 and help shape the development of a National Environmental Prediction System
As work continues in scoping an environmental prediction capability, TERN is focused on providing continuity of data collection at all its sites, including those already impacted by the recent fires, to facilitate research into areas such as rate and extent of regeneration to deliver insights into spatial and temporal changes to biodiversity and carbon budgets in a changing environment.
In addition to on-going data collection from its network of surveillance plots and more particularly, at burnt TERN SuperSites in New South Wales and Tasmania, in 2020 TERN will prioritise detailed vegetation and soil surveys in Western Australia and South Australia to track ecosystem recovery at a number of sites along burnt and unburnt environmental gradients.
We’re examining ways in which this can happen while also gathering additional information on WA climate transition zones - it will be a busy year and to a large extent, it will be shaped by the changing priorities of researchers and as they become more focused on impacts from extreme events.
Similarly, the ARC LIEF-funded Australian Mountain Research Facility (AMRF) is reassessing its data collection and research plans, faced with the unique opportunities presented by operating equipment in regions impacted by fire.
Zach Brown of the Australian National University is the AMRF’s Senior Technical Officer and says that fires at planned sites across alpine New South Wales and Victoria have led to a rethink of their research.
With tips and techniques for safeguarding Australia’s research infrastructure in hand and confidence that Australia’s brightest minds are hard at work using the collected data to improve our understanding of how extreme events drive environmental change, TERN, like Zach Brown, remains optimistic about the future of Australia’s precious ecosystems.
In late November 2019, TERN’s Ecosystem Surveillance team joined UTAS and Sustainable Timber Tasmania at TERN's Warra Tall Eucalypt SuperSite to collect extensive information on soils, vegetation structure and composition, alongside information on species occurrence, community composition and assemblage distributional patterns across the landscape following the January 2019 bushfires
Congratulations @austmountresfac! 🎉— TERN (@TERN_Aus) December 8, 2019
Fantastic to have another flux data stream coming online in #Tasmania to complement the long-term data from our Warra forest site in the Huon Valley! #carbon #environment https://t.co/oM3ujXjeTq
Published in TERN newsletter January 2020