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Environmental Intelligence for Managing Hydroclimatic Variability

Rob Vertessy CEO of the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) gave a very engaging keynote address this morning at the Hydrology and Water Resources Symposium in Hobart Tasmania. Dr. Vertessy is an unusual choice Director of Meteorology at BOM in that his PhD is in fluvial geomorphology. I personally think his background complements and enhances the power of meteorological analysis by way of his ability to clearly articulate processes that are active across many time-scales.

Australia is a land with very high hydrological variability and an economy with high hydrological sensitivity.

This has been a constant theme across most of the sessions at this conference but the point of Dr. Vertessy’s address was about the use of environmental intelligence to better inform water use and management decision-making. I last wrote about Environmental Intelligence (EI) after listening to Dr. Kathryn Sullivan give a keynote address at the AWRA conference in 2014.

What I particularly appreciated about Dr. Vertessey’s perspective on EI is that the step-wise accumulation of intelligence with each step supported by data.

Australia recognizes the fundamental importance of making the most of their data investment and has invested millions in building a robust infrastructure to make data available where it is needed when it is needed.

  1. Historical hydroclimatic variability – Historical water data is shared online along with analysis products such as intensity-duration-frequency, flood frequency, and flow duration so that the past can be used as a benchmark of knowledge for future variability.
  2. Climate change nudging of hydroclimatic conditions – Tools for trend detection in long term datasets are provided to allow for investigation of systematic patterns in the data. Climate projections provide prognoses of the precipitation outlook.
  3. Temporally evolving risk – The transitions for drought to flood and back can result from synergistic or antagonistic interactions of the Southern Annular Mode, the Trade Winds, and Monsoon events colliding over the Australian land mass. These meteorological forcings are further overlaid on Sea Surface Temperature anomalies indicated by the ENSO index.
  4. Atmospheric circulation changes – The Southern Oscillation Index is an important factor that contributes to the intensity and duration of regional scale climate dynamics.
  5. Rainfall decline – Cumulative precipitation from rainfall gauges for the previous 6 months, and previous 3 years are provided for all rain gauges in the context of cumulative plots from last year and the historic median.
  6. Soil moisture decline – The Australian landscape water balance provides soil moisture mapping at a 5 km grid scale over the whole country and various soil depths.
  7. Streamflow decline –Water data online is provided as residuals from the long term mean. Seven day forecasts are provided for 100 sites. Seasonal outlooks are provided for as tercile plots (i.e. low, medium, high) and as predicted probability density. The impact of EL Nino on Murray Darling Basin streamflow is provided using the ENSO tracker showing that low fows dominate during El Nino events.
  8. Water storage decline – Reservoir storages are tracked. Replenishment rates are highly sensitive to the ENSO signal providing a robust predictive for storage recovery.
  9. Water allocation reduced or regulations imposed – Harmful economic outcomes resulting from inadequate water supply can be avoided or mitigated by the use of environmental intelligence in the following behaviours:

Assessment: Understand where we have come from and know where we are at the moment.

Evaluation: Think about how we can be better.

Foresight: Anticipate the likelihood of future events.

Accountability: Build Trust.

Educate: Improve water literacy and explain what we do and why we do it.

Dr. Vertessy’s message is obvious in hindsight.

If you have relevant, reliable data, you can build systems that can get the right information to the right people at the right time to make the right decisions. What we need are more leaders with the vision, foresight, and ambition to build robust environmental intelligence from the ground up.

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