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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee - 13/02/2012 - Estimates - SUSTAINABILITY, ENVIRONMENT, WATER, POPULATION AND COMMUNITIES PORTFOLIO - Bureau of Meteorology

Bureau of Meteorology

[19:32]

CHAIR: Dr Vertessy, I have a few questions I would like to raise to start with. First of all, can you advise me if peace has broken out between the Bureau of Meteorology and the Vatican? No, it is Cardinal Pell!

Dr Vertessy : Good evening, Chair and senators. No further update actually since the last Senate estimates.

CHAIR: So Cardinal Pell didn't take up your offer for a briefing?

Dr Vertessy : Not that I am aware.

CHAIR: We have heard a lot today about a former employee of the bureau, William Kininmonth. You are aware of Dr Kininmonth?

Dr Vertessy : I do not know him personally but I know who he is.

CHAIR: Is anyone here today aware of his work in the bureau?

Dr Vertessy : Dr Canterford would be more familiar with Dr Kininmonth's work than I would.

CHAIR: Dr Kininmonth is described as a meteorologist. Is that your understanding of the work he did with the bureau?

Dr Canterford : Yes, he was a meteorologist and he was in charge of the National Climate Centre at the time. My understanding is the work that he did undertake was on the preparation of analysis of climate data, overseeing the analysis of historical trends.

CHAIR: Would it be fair to describe him as a climatologist? What is the definition of a climatologist?

Dr Canterford : Climatology is a similar science to meteorology. Climatology obviously looks at the longer term aspects of our climate; meteorology is more specifically related to the short to medium term.

CHAIR: Are the two interchangeable?

Dr Canterford : Not necessarily.

CHAIR: In academic terms?

Dr Canterford : Within the science there are experts in different areas of climatology, obviously, and there are experts in different areas of meteorology.

CHAIR: During his employment with BOM, would Mr Kininmonth be described as an expert in climatology?

Dr Canterford : I would have to take that on notice. I do know of him and I did work with him, not directly, in the early part of my career and I do know that he was in charge of the National Climate Centre at that stage. He was overseeing a collection of data.

CHAIR: Is overseeing a collection of data the equivalent of a research scientist?

Dr Canterford : I would prefer not to comment.

CHAIR: It is a simple question. It is a very simple question, I think. Is that the equivalent of a—

Dr Vertessy : I believe there has been a misreporting in the media about the function that Mr Kininmonth fulfilled in the bureau. It has been said that he was heading up the climate change research part of the bureau. That was not the case. Mr Kininmonth was in charge of data analysis for climatology in an operational part of the agency. There is a different group of people typically in the research arm who are responsible for climate change studies and the attribution of climate change to certain things.

CHAIR: So he is more administrative than research?

Dr Vertessy : I would not say it is administrative but it was not researching the causes of climate change or the extent of climate change.

CHAIR: It is still being put that he is all of these things that I have just described. And he is on what is called a 'scientific advisory panel' for the Australian Climate Science Coalition. It says that he was a weather forecaster and worked in research and applied studies. Is that correct?

Dr Vertessy : I need to confirm that.

CHAIR: I am happy for you to take it on notice. What is the job of the head of the National Climate Centre?

Dr Vertessy : There is a large section in the agency that is responsible for pulling together data from automatic weather stations and manual observation stations and the like and curating the data, quality controlling it and, ultimately, publishing that data to the web, including showing trends in changes in the temperature over time and also seasonal forecasting of the climate conditions in the three months ahead.

CHAIR: He is also purported to have coordinated the international review of an El Nino period. Was that part of his work with the BOM? Can you check that for me?

Dr Vertessy : I am sorry, Chair, I am not familiar with that but I would be happy to look that up.

CHAIR: Also, he prepared a World Meteorological Organisation publication called Climate into the 21st century. Was that part of his work with the BOM?

Dr Canterford : I have not got access to his CV so I would not be aware of his history.

CHAIR: Could you take that on notice, because there has been a fair bit of debate? I am sorry to do this to you but it did feature quite prominently in some of our previous evidence. I would like to know how much weight to place on what he might say in publications in terms of his actual scientific expertise. That is where I am coming from.

Dr Canterford : I understand.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: A few quick ones on expense issues, if I can. It struck me in some of the responses to questions on notice that the bureau travel budgets and expense budgets were almost comparable to the department's. Whilst I know the bureau is a large organisation and it is disparate and needs to get around, $9 million plus in travel costs and $656,000 in taxi costs did seem to me to be a very significant level of expenditure in this space. Are you able to talk us through what processes are there, whether they are there to keep such costs under control, and whether there are any drivers within the bureau to try to cap or constrain them, seeing as they are, as I say, almost on par with the whole department's, which is about twice the number of staff?

Dr Vertessy : The responsibility for approving travel rests with senior managers in the bureau, typically, at the section head, branch head or division head level, depending on the nature of the travel. International travel is approved by the Director of Meteorology. Local travel could be approved down the chain to section head and possibly lower.

As you rightly pointed out, the bureau is a large organisation. We are in all capital cities and some 60 to 70 field stations throughout Australia. Of course there is very significant travel required to maintain instruments and services. We move forecasters around from one location to another as events require. That is very common in the summer when we are moving personnel to load balance around the place, and we have significant obligations with the World Meteorological Organisation that require international travel.

We undertake a fair amount of travel under section 31 receipts as well, so there is quite a significant amount of work in the Pacific, for instance, that takes our scientists and technicians abroad—sometimes for operational duty; sometimes for meetings, training workshops and the like. The bureau is very cost sensitive about travel, and we are endeavouring to keep a lid on travel as much as is possible.

Over the last couple of years we have tried our best to reduce overseas travel. I cannot remember the two values for 2010-11 versus 2009-10, but in fact our overall expenditure in travel in 2010-11 was a bit less than half a million dollars less than was expended in 2009-10.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you; that is a useful figure at the end to help put it into some perspective. I want to turn to a tad of weather forecasting from the bureau's expectations of rain events and potential inflows into the Murray-Darling Basin over the course of this year. Obviously, we have seen a third year in a row of significant falls in the northern parts of the catchment. Are there longer term forecasts for what may be expected across, in particular, the southern catchment?

Dr Vertessy : Our longest term forecast is a seasonal outlook, not strictly a forecast per se. It is a probabilistic output where we talk about the odds of what the conditions will be in the three months ahead. At the current time, I think we are predicting some higher than average rainfalls in the north of the country and the north-west, and that would likely push into the northern basin. At this stage, I am not aware of any forecasts of significant rain in the southern basin.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The forecast outlook for the southern basin is therefore simply for average conditions?

Dr Vertessy : I believe it is trending around average at the moment; yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Having had, as I say, three years in a row of significant events in the northern basin, is there something that the bureau is able to put that down to and what it potentially means for the longer outlook of the northern basin—we have perhaps come through a cycle that could see us likely return to a drier phase?

Dr Vertessy : It is a little tricky to answer that but, by and large, the current wet conditions are all attributable to the la Nina phenomenon: a movement of warm, moist air from east to west hitting the eastern coast of Australia. Often la Ninas come two years in a row, and I think about 40 to 50 per cent of the time they come in pairs. I do not know what the odds are for them coming in threes, but it would be greatly reduced, I am sure. I am not 100 per cent sure about this but I think the long-term sequences are usually that the La Ninas are short bursts of wets. I think there have been instances where there might have been two, possibly three La Ninas in a decade but it is quite unusual, and I would say that the odds are probably greater for a return to a dry sequence.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: In terms of your water information responsibilities that are part of the national water reform package and relate to the Murray-Darling, is the bureau satisfied with the progress being made, in particular by state agencies, to assist in ensuring a more accurate collection of data for inflows and extractions and the like?

Dr Vertessy : Yes, I can speak to that. I am personally very satisfied—and the bureau is, by definition, also. There has been excellent cooperation between the federal government and the states on this matter. That has been enabled by the provision of funding from the federal government through the modernisation and extension of the Hydrologic Monitoring Systems Program. That has resulted in close to $80 million over the last five years going to the states to improve their data collection systems. Sometimes that is improving the base monitoring network; other times it is improving the data curation systems in the states. But I think the states have actually lifted significantly over the last five years and, as a consequence, the hydrologic observing system for the nation is much, much stronger. We have better coverage and better currency and a lot more information coming in real time. We also have an improvement in the quality because of the use of standards for data transfer and the like. There are a lot of upsides, I believe, and I think the states have done a good job.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Does that include improvements in collecting data around flood plain diversions?

Dr Vertessy : That has not been encompassed by that particular grants scheme. I am not really up to date on that. That is not a type of information we are collecting. Here, I gather you are talking about works on flood plains such as contour banks and the like that divert flows to ring tanks and the like. That is not something we are collecting, so I could not comment on that.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Is that a gap in the framework that is being developed in terms, particularly, of those parts of the northern basin that have significant diversions?

Dr Vertessy : Yes, it probably could be argued that there is a bit of a gap in our coverage. It is probably down at a level of scale greater than we are generally looking at at this moment in time. What we are doing in the first instance is trying to build large continental scale water balances and get a rough sense of where all the water is going. The diversions, certainly on the northern flood plains, are significant, and they probably should come into focus. I would expect that to be a few years from now.

Senator McKENZIE: My question goes to a very local issue of the Wimmera and the importance of real time weather data collection and distribution to farmers—for instance, there is a one per cent increase in production if we can get the real-time weather data right and get our fertilisers and chemicals on at the right time. I am wondering where the Wimmera region rates in the national priorities for investment in the weather series.

Dr Vertessy : That is a good question. I do not think we have a lead table as such. Let me rephrase that. Naturally when we are thinking about extending networks and the like we have lists of places where we feel there is a need, and radars would be a good example. So we give consideration to gaps in networks all the time, I suppose. Generally speaking, where the Wimmera sits in the grand scheme of things, I could not comment.

Dr Canterford : We had some discussions with the Wimmera Development Association recently, and I have been provided with some detailed responses to a very good study that they undertook of the area. The bureau provides a range of types of equipment right across Australia. Radar is just one of those. We have full satellite coverage; we have automatic weather stations. One of the interesting developments just recently has been in Victoria, where we have introduced a next-generation forecasting warning system which is point and click. It provides seven-day forecasts for anywhere in Australia, including the Wimmera. The main reason for that was to enhance our performance and service delivery in Regional Australia, including the Wimmera area. I also understand that, in terms of our aviation forecasting in that area, we are scheduling the installation of a ceilometer at Hamilton aerodrome. These are used to assist us with our aviation weather forecasting in the area as well. So we have put a lot of effort into that particular region. Of course, most areas do want more. As we provide more, they request more, which is fair enough.

Senator McKENZIE: There was an article in the Weekly Times about there being a black hole from Mount Gambier to Mildura, which you would appreciate is quite a significant black hole from a Victorian grains perspective.

Dr Canterford : Yes. I presume you are talking in terms of our radar coverage. As I said, we do have a range of automatic weather stations as well. Australia has 65 weather radars around the country. Canada has about 29. Australia is well served with radars. They are a very expensive piece of equipment to install. We do have to maintain them and consider approaches from many communities wanting radars where they perceive there are gaps.

Senator McKENZIE: How do you prioritise those competing communities?

Dr Canterford : The process at the moment is that we have an annual review of our radar network, consider all submissions from various communities and work with government to decide whether or not we need to install additional radars. Two major radar projects recently—

CHAIR: Senator McKenzie, we are just about out of time.

Senator McKENZIE: Sorry. So how are the decisions made. You go through this process. Are they made by the minister?

Dr Canterford : No. They are made by the bureau. We look at the areas affected by severe weather. We look at the nearby radars and what our other networks would be—whether there would be enough satellite coverage. We run composite observing networks. So it would very much be a technical decision. We do map our radar profiles. We look at the engineering aspects et cetera. We also look at the benefit to our forecasting capability, because they do have their own limitations. They are obviously very strong in performance around tropical cyclone regions and in areas around coastal communities where you have a lot of high-level thunderstorm activity. There is a whole range of meteorological, hydrological if there are rivers in the area, aviation and other scientific reasoning behind it.

CHAIR: We have run out of time. Thank you, Dr Vertessy, for your team giving evidence.