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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Bureau of Meteorology

Bureau of Meteorology

CHAIR: I call officers from the Bureau of Meteorology. Good morning, Dr Johnson. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Dr Johnson : No, thank you. Let's go straight to questions.

Senator URQUHART: I wanted to talk about the AEMO and their forecasting. Are you aware of why AEMO do not rely on your forecasts to estimate electricity demand? Instead they subcontract that work to private companies.

Dr Johnson : Not, I am not. I suggest that that question is best directed to them directly.

Senator URQUHART: To the AEMO?

Dr Johnson : Yes.

Dr de Brouwer : Just to help, AEMO does not appear. Maybe in item 5.1, on energy, we can see whether we have any feedback from AEMO. Mr Heferen can take up that issue.

Senator URQUHART: Yes, that is fine. It was really a question of whether or not you realised that. Do you believe your forecasts are superior to those of companies like, say, Weatherzone?

Dr Johnson : I do not think it is helpful to undertake a comparative assessment. What I can say is that the forecasts that we provide we provide with a very high level of skill, and that level of skill is increasing over time.

Senator URQUHART: What is the key difference between the BOM and companies like Weatherzone? What would you say are the differences?

Dr Johnson : Again, I am not familiar with the inner workings of some of those companies. All I can speak to is the capability and the calibre that exists within the Bureau of Meteorology. We have some of the best forecasters in the world. We have a very high intensity coverage of observations throughout the country. We have outstanding high-performance computing capacity and the capability to bring all those dimensions together to provide the Australian community with an outstanding service.

Senator URQUHART: Since the recent South Australian blackout due to the heatwave, have you been approached by AEMO to provide them with weather forecasts?

Dr Johnson : We have certainly been in discussion with colleagues from AEMO about how the bureau might be able to assist them with their ongoing operations.

Senator URQUHART: Is there any evidence they have learned their lesson in terms of going to another organisation?

Dr Johnson : I think that is really a matter of speculation and opinion. I am not going to venture anything on that.

Senator URQUHART: But you have certainly been in discussions with them?

Dr Johnson : Absolutely. I think, for the record, it is important to understand that the bureau has had a longstanding relationship with AEMO. We know that they access our general data services and we have collaborated with them in the past—for example, on matters of vulnerability to interruption to services through space weather. We have collaborated with them on research that they were interested in around renewable energy and so on. There is a longstanding relationship that the bureau has had with AEMO. We are keen to continue to engage with them and we will do so.

Senator URQUHART: I want to touch on climate issues. We have recently had some dramatic heatwaves around the country. Have they increased in frequency? Is that what the bureau has seen?

Dr Johnson : Certainly, and I draw your attention to our State of the climate 2016 report. There is certainly no doubt that the frequency of hot weather has increased in recent times.

Senator URQUHART: Do you anticipate more heatwaves of this type in the future?

Dr Johnson : It is likely. There are a number of factors that drive the frequency and intensity of heat events, but if the current trends continue to manifest then I would expect that to continue, yes.

Senator URQUHART: Are you able to put any figures on what you might expect in terms of increasing heatwaves—how often, how high the temperatures might possibly go? Do you do that sort of stuff?

Dr Johnson : We can, but, as I said a moment ago, the extent to which they manifest or not depends on a whole lot of other factors, some of which are weather related and some of which are not.

Senator URQUHART: Does the 2016 report that you talked about—I have not seen it—shine any light on any figures or anything that you may be able to help us with?

Dr Johnson : Specifically?

Senator URQUHART: In terms of the expectation of increasing heatwaves.

Dr Johnson : Our report shows that if the current trajectory of global greenhouse gas emissions remains the same—and that is big 'if' because there are various activities underway to address that matter—the likelihood of increased heatwaves and severity of those heatwaves is likely to increase.

Senator ROBERTS: With the chair's permission, could I organise for a copy of material?

CHAIR: Are you seeking to table some documents?

Senator ROBERTS: I am seeking to table them but also to give a copy to Dr Johnson.

CHAIR: Can you just explain what the documents are?

Senator ROBERTS: The documents form the basis of some of my questions. They provide comments about the Bureau of Meteorology and about the data from the Bureau of Meteorology and also the comparison of forecasts.

CHAIR: While we—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: The committee needs to consider them.

CHAIR: I was just going to say the committee needs to consider them, so what we will do is circulate them and have a look at them. I might go to another senator while we are looking at them. You have only got one copy. Is that right?

Senator ROBERTS: Two copies.

CHAIR: What we will do is move on to another senator so that we can circulate them and have a look at them.

Senator URQUHART: Maybe Senator Roberts could explain them.

CHAIR: Okay. Can you explain what these are?

Senator ROBERTS: One is from—as it says down the bottom of the printed copy—Dr Bill Johnston, who managed a weather station for the Bureau of Meteorology and that was used by the Bureau of Meteorology for a number of decades, and the other is a comparison of the bureau's forecasts with actual events.

CHAIR: So you have a series of charts here that you want to table and also for Dr Johnson to comment on.

Senator ROBERTS: Correct.

CHAIR: We have a series of questions from Dr Bill Johnston. Are you seeking to table those, or are these questions on notice?

Senator ROBERTS: Table. Some of my questions will go on notice because there will not be enough time.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Could I comment on process, Chair?

CHAIR: Please.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It is unfair to give Dr Johnson and others documents and ask questions when they have not seen them yet. I think it is actually bad process.

Senator ROBERTS: My questions do not depend on that. They just show the ultimate source of where some of my material comes from. They are the basis of my questions.

CHAIR: At this stage, this is an appropriate forum for senators to ask questions directly of the officials of the department. So we will have a look at this one further, but I am not sure that one is appropriate. These are just the charts.

Senator URQUHART: If the others are BOM things then that is fine.

CHAIR: If these are BOM charts, is the committee happy for them to be given to the witness?

Senator URQUHART: Yes. I am sure they are very well aware of them. They are off their website, probably.

CHAIR: But we will put this one aside.

Senator ROBERTS: Could I have a copy of the charts back?

CHAIR: Yes. These are two separate charts?

Senator ROBERTS: Yes.

CHAIR: Okay. Senator Roberts.

Senator ROBERTS: Thank you all for attending. My question is to Dr Johnson. Why did the bureau adopt an internal policy in 1996 of not databasing and apparently routinely destroying thermometer data at sites where thermometers are observed in parallel with automatic weather stations?

Dr Johnson : Senator, I have no knowledge of that taking place. I would have to take that on notice. It is news to me.

Senator ROBERTS: What thermometer data still exists in hard copy form and why is an effort not made to digitise it and have it accessible in the public domain?

Dr Johnson : Again, I would have to take that on notice.

Senator ROBERTS: If no comparative data exists and no rigorous multisite comparative study is done, how is it possible to be assured that automatic weather station data is comparable in all respects with the historic thermometer record?

Dr Johnson : Again, I would have to take that question on notice.

Senator ROBERTS: How can temperatures measured by a single rapid sampling one hertz platinum resistance probe in a small Stevenson screen at an airport be reconciled with data observed using thermometers housed in a large screen, whose internal volume is 3.8 times larger, and which was at another location, possibly at a town post office?

Dr Johnson : Senator, I would have to take these questions on notice. I am not an expert in measurement technology. I would be happy to engage with officers in the bureau who have expertise in those matters.

Senator ROBERTS: Thank you. Why should the bureau's recent claims about temperature trends extremes and trends in extremes be believed, as they appear to be poorly researched?

Dr Johnson : I am sorry. Could you repeat the question.

CHAIR: Is that a question to Dr Johnson or is that a statement, Senator Roberts?

Senator ROBERTS: Why should the bureau's recent claims about temperature trends extremes and trends in extremes be believed as they appear to be poorly researched?

Dr Johnson : I would disagree with the premise of your question, to start with, Senator Roberts. All I can say is that I stand 100 per cent behind the data that the bureau produces. That data has independently been verified by a panel of esteemed Australians in the field. The forecasts that emanate from the data, we stand behind 100 per cent.

Senator ROBERTS: In view of your answer to that, I will skip some questions and come back to them. One of your, I believe, indicators or maybe KPIs that are used to assess is:

Forecasts meet accuracy, coverage and timeliness specifications, and are used extensively and satisfy users.

How can the Senate be assured that these forecasts are more accurate than the ones that resulted in the desal plants, which have cost Australian taxpayers billions of dollars?

Dr Johnson : I am not aware of the forecasts that you are referring to that influenced or did not influence the commissioning of desalination plants. All I can say to you is, again, I stand behind the very high calibre and highly skilful forecasts that the Bureau of Meteorology produces for our country every day.

Senator ROBERTS: I will send you a copy of some material put together by Dr Bill Johnston who is a retired New South Wales Department of Natural Resources senior research scientist. He and his colleagues undertook regular weather observations and ran a site that was used by the Bureau of Meteorology. He and other people have compared rain outlooks, which the bureau has provided, and they contradict what actually occurred. It is the same with the temperature forecasts, which contradict what occurred just months later.

CHAIR: Is there a question here?

Senator ROBERTS: I had to explain the background. My question is: why do independent checks of BoM one- and three-month forecasts show 70-plus abject failures? I can give you 18 that I can send you on notice.

Dr Johnson : I would be happy to take those on notice. My colleague Mr Webb who leads our forecasting area might want to comment on this as well.

Mr Webb : Thank you. With the information you have handed out here, Senator Roberts, I note that it is probabilistic information. It is not a categorical or deterministic forecast. It says that, say, 60 or 70 per cent of the time we would expect above-average conditions. The flipside means that 20 or 30 per cent of the time you expect below-average conditions. What you are comparing there is individual occurrences with a probabilistic statement. This needs to be gathered over time. What we have found is that our climate outlooks do show skill over time. That skill varies throughout the year as the climate system changes, but scientists are showing skill in their predictions.

Senator ROBERTS: Thank you. As I said, I will send them to Dr Johnson. My questions continue. At many individual sites the introduction of automatic weather stations, mostly housed in small screens, has caused temporal changes, which are mistakenly attributed to the climate. Why are site data not individually checked? Where data are inflated why are they not adjusted down relative to past data before being reported?

Dr Johnson : I reject the premise of the question. As I said, I stand behind our temperature record. That temperature record has been examined by an independent panel. The panel has confirmed that this dataset is well maintained. The panel also has confirmed that the methods we use to adjust those temperatures, to make sure they are correct for artificial or to remove artificial bias, is robust.

Senator ROBERTS: Have those experts scrutinised the existing data going back to the start of the data collection?

Dr Johnson : The experts have scrutinised our methodologies and they have scrutinised the ACORN-SAT dataset.

Senator ROBERTS: So I take it that they have not scrutinised the entire record going back.

Dr Johnson : You would have to direct that question to the panel themselves. But my understanding is that they have looked at the dataset as a whole and they have given a very clear indication back to me as director that the dataset is well maintained and the methods that we use to remove artificial bias from the dataset are vigorous and robust and justified.

Senator ROBERTS: My understanding is that the introduction of the automatic weather stations and small screens is a major time-synchronous change in the bureau's network. Bias resulting from synchronous changes cannot be detected by differencing one dataset with another—for example, Kent Town with Adelaide Airport; Sydney Observatory and Sydney Airport. Why does the bureau use differencing to investigate data inhomogeneity?

Dr Johnson : I am not in a position in this hearing, here today, to comment on individual weather stations or individual sites. Again, if you have specific feedback, I would be happy to take that on notice.

Senator ROBERTS: I will put it on notice.

CHAIR: I will need to go to another senator now because we only have a few minutes left. Just to confirm, Senator Roberts, if you can, through the committee, pass on additional questions that you have—because they are quite extensive—the committee will get them through to the department.

Senator ROBERTS: Thank you, Chair.

Senator DUNIAM: I just wanted to ask about the seasonal forecast—the program is rolling out this year, is that right?

Dr Johnson : We have a regular program of seasonal outlooks and seasonal forecasts. Was there a specific area that you are interested in?

Senator DUNIAM: With regard to rural and regional communities, particularly farmers, I was just wondered how that was progressing and if there is any high-level summary of the benefits that are going to flow from that particular project?

Dr Johnson : Sure. Maybe I can make a couple of introductory remarks and then Mr Webb might also wish to comment. The bureau has had a longstanding tradition of delivering seasonal outlooks for the Australian community. Obviously, for those fellow citizens who are in the farming sector it is an incredibly valuable resource. There is very strong evidence that farmers use those seasonal outlooks to inform their decision making, and literally billions of dollars worth of value to the Australian economy relates to the quality, the accuracy and the skill of those seasonal forecasts. So certainly we are in discussions more broadly with agricultural customers and stakeholders about how we can improve the reach of those seasonal forecasts. We look at how we tailor them so that the way that information is presented can be even more useful than it already is at the moment.

Senator DUNIAM: Excellent, and I could not agree more with the value of that for our regional communities and farmers. You mentioned reach there. Noting that we do not have much time left, I just wanted to see how the app was going—how many people have downloaded it?

Dr Johnson : We are absolutely delighted. I think the last time we met we had a few hundred thousand individual users, and last week we had 1.1 million individual users. I will just check the numbers, but I think there is a return rate of about 97 or nearly 98 per cent there—people who download that app have come back again. The best I can tell, this morning that app had been accessed 46.2 million times by members of the community.

We are absolutely thrilled with the take-up of that. It is another way in which the bureau can extend its reach into the Australian community, and we are taking a lot of positive and constructive feedback from the community about how that app can be improved. We are certainly putting a lot of thought and effort into how we can improve the app and make it even more useful than it clearly is already.

Senator DUNIAM: As a user, I am a big fan, and I commend the bureau on it.

Dr Johnson : Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Whish-Wilson?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I might just defer to Senator di Natale, if you do not mind. I only had one question but perhaps I could just ask that after Senator Di Natale.

CHAIR: No more props?

Senator DI NATALE: No more props.

CHAIR: Okay.

Senator DI NATALE: Can I just ask about the New South Wales heatwaves—those record heatwaves in New South Wales? We saw some research out of the University of New South Wales indicating that they will be twice as likely as they once were as a result of climate change. Do you agree with that proposition?

Dr Johnson : I am aware of that piece of work by the University of New South Wales but I have not had a chance to look into it deeply. The question of attribution of individual events to climate change is a challenging issue, scientifically. As I said in my response to Senator Urquhart before, the trend is clear that the frequency and intensity of hot weather is increasing over time as the earth's atmosphere warms. So I am really not in a position to comment on that particular study, but the general trend is very clear.

Senator DI NATALE: They are not making specific attribution. What they are saying is that they expect those heatwaves to be twice as likely as they once were.

Dr Johnson : As I said, I have not ready the study and I am not in a position to comment. I will just repeat my earlier comments: we think the frequency and intensity of those heat events will increase. What their magnitude will be, I think, is still for us to see.

Senator DI NATALE: You talked about the trend. I am a parent. Do you have kids?

Dr Johnson : Do I have kids?

Senator DI NATALE: Yes.

Dr Johnson : Yes, four.

Senator DI NATALE: All right. Put the politics aside, business as usual. We are looking at the trend at the moment. What do you think the world looks like in terms of your specific area of expertise—

CHAIR: This is bordering on a very hypothetical—

Senator DI NATALE: This is a very straightforward question. I have kids, they are six and eight; I do not know how old your kids are. Cast your mind forward. Let's say they are my age now—that is, another 40-odd years. On current trends, business as usual, what do you expect the world to look like—obviously looking at it through the prism of your expertise?

CHAIR: And a crystal ball, by the sounds of it!

Senator DI NATALE: It is called science.

Dr Johnson : It is a hypothetical because, as you have alluded to in your question, there are so many variables in addition to the climate which will determine those trajectories. What I can say though is that our observations, which are repeated and are not just here in Australia but globally, are showing that the earth is continuing to warm both at the land surface and also in the oceans, as Dr Reichelt indicated in his evidence in the previous session. We know that a lot of that excess energy that has been accumulating in the atmosphere is being taken up in the oceans, so the earth will continue to warm under current trajectories. Regarding the magnitude of that heating and what its consequences are for the earth's climate systems, yes, research is still going on to work that through. But I think, as we have already discussed in this hearing today, there are some trends that we are already seeing here in Australia that reflect that heating in the atmosphere and reflect that heating in the ocean. I am really not in a position to speculate out into the future, but our projections are on the record—

Senator DI NATALE: You do projections. That is the whole point of the work you do.

Dr Johnson : We do projections. They are on the record.

Senator DI NATALE: And what is the impact of those projections? We can look at lines on a graph, but tell me what it actually means in terms of weather systems—extreme weather. I want you to tell me what it means.

Dr Johnson : It goes to this question of attribution. We know from the traits that we are already observing that just in the Australian context there are some parts of our country that are likely to be drier than they currently are. For example, we know that there has been a drying trend evident in the south-west of Western Australia since the 1970s. Whilst we see interannual variability—it was very wet over there just when it was very hot over here—the long-term trend in the south-west of Western Australia is continuing dry. We know that the long-term trend, all other things being equal, in the south-east of Australia is a drying trend. We know that the frequency of heatwaves and the intensity of those heatwaves are likely to increase. I could go on. There is a general trend there.

Senator DI NATALE: I am happy to go on.

Dr Johnson : I think the answer is clear that there is a general trend in a number of those major variables. The extent to which they manifest and what their impacts are on communities is a much broader question and certainly beyond the remit of the bureau.

Senator DI NATALE: Sure, and I am not asking you to do that. I am talking specifically about your remit, your expertise. We have just gone through this incredible heatwave in New South Wales, the hottest January on record in Sydney?

Dr Johnson : It was the hottest February, I believe, in New South Wales.

Senator DI NATALE: It was the hottest February in New South Wales and the hottest January in Sydney. Am I right in saying that?

Mr Webb : Mean temperature, yes.

Senator DI NATALE: Do we expect on current trends to see that pattern continue and those records continue to be broken? Is it fair to say that, over the coming years, on current trends that is what we are looking at?

Dr Johnson : Again, I do not think we are in a position to say whether records will continue to be broken. But again, consistent with my earlier answer—

Senator DI NATALE: I am sorry, let me pick you up on that.

Dr Johnson : Can I finish my answer please?

Senator DI NATALE: Sure. I am sorry.

CHAIR: Senator, we are now running over time and you are now at the end of your allocation. You have had six minutes and five minutes were allocated to everyone. Could you wrap it up so we can move onto the next program?

Dr Johnson : Consistent with my earlier answer, it is not helpful to speculate on whether records will be broken or not. But I reaffirm my earlier answer to you that that warming trend will continue. We know that 15 of the last 16 years have seen the warmest average temperature here in Australia since records have been kept and, based on our knowledge and our evidence that we have at the moment, we expect that warming trend to continue. How that warming trend manifests in particular locations is a much more complex matter.

Senator DI NATALE: Can I ask one final question, then, given that I have been given the wrap-up. Have you provided advice to the government about extreme weather? If so, what action has been taken in response to that?

Dr Johnson : Maybe I need to take the specific question on notice. What I can say is that the bureau provides advice right across government around extreme weather—to defence, to aviation, to land transport, to agriculture, to water—

Senator DI NATALE: I should have said I am talking specifically relating to climate change.

Dr Johnson : Our advice is extensive right across the whole of the Australian government. We have close relationships with almost all the portfolios in government. One of our key roles is to provide the latest information on the climate and weather to those portfolios, and we do that as a matter of routine.

Senator DI NATALE: The second part of that question is: has any specific action that you are aware of been taken in response to that advice?

Dr Johnson : I think there are actions everywhere. I could give some examples. We provide to the Agriculture and Water portfolio a lot of information about seasonal outlooks that manifests in decisions made in that portfolio, for example around water allocations in the Murray-Darling Basin. The list would be long, Senator, but I think the general message is that our high-quality information is used extensively, as it should be.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Dr Johnson, you may not know it off the top of your head, but could you give the committee the latest readings from Cape Grim, in terms of ppm of particulate matter?

Dr Johnson : No, I cannot give it to you today, but I am aware that the concentration of CO2 did go past 400 parts per million late last year.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It was back in July last year. I just heard a rumour that it was 403.

Dr Johnson : I do not have that today.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Dr Johnson, for appearing here today.


CHAIR: I now call officers from the department in relation to program 3.1 Antarctica: Science, Policy and Presence. For the information of the committee, I understand that Dr Gales has been called away at very short notice because of a family issue, but there are other officials who will be able to provide information.

Senator URQUHART: Could the division comment on the recent reports of the splitting of the Larsen C ice shelf, including what this means in terms of global warming and what the implications are.

Dr Fenton : I am Dr Gwen Fenton, the Chief Scientist of the Australian Antarctic Division, but I am also here today representing Dr Nick Gales as Acting Director. I am happy to answer your question on the Larsen C ice shelf. The Larsen C ice shelf is the fourth-largest ice shelf in Antarctica and is located in the Antarctic Peninsula.

This region has experienced one of the highest regional atmospheric temperature increases on the planet—about 2.8 degrees in the last 50 years. The large rift that is occurring on the Larsen C has been happening since about 2014. In late 2016 this rift accelerated in its splitting, and we expect a very large iceberg to split off in the very near future. That iceberg will be about 5,000 square kilometres in size, so it will be a very sizeable berg, though not the largest one calved in Antarctica by any means.

This iceberg calving in itself will have no impact on sea-level rise because it is already a floating ice shelf. I can assure you of that straight away. I guess the interest in it is that there is no indication that it is directly attributable to climate change at this point; icebergs calve off glaciers all the time. This is a very big one, so it is a very notable one. Big calving events can have the impact of glaciers behind them speeding up in some ways. We know that can happen. But we know that the tributaries that feed this ice shelf are not very huge, so in that sense it is not expected to have a very large impact down the track.

Senator URQUHART: I take it that the division is involved in monitoring that Larsen C shelf. Is that correct?

Dr Fenton : That is not in our area of particular interest, but we do keep across the science of it, so we are familiar the berg monitoring—

Senator URQUHART: So who does that monitoring?

Dr Fenton : That is probably more over in the British Antarctic area and other countries over there, the US as well. There are a number of scientists interested in that role.

Senator URQUHART: Has the division been involved in discussions with scientists from other research bodies in relation to the Larsen C?

Dr Fenton : All the time, Senator. We have an incredibly international program. We work with programs all around the world on Antarctic science and on all aspects of our program.

Senator URQUHART: Are the predictions of those scientists the same as yours, in terms of what the breaking off of Larsen C means?

Dr Fenton : I guess this is the consensus of opinion that is out at the moment; that is what I am reflecting.

Senator URQUHART: I note that the AAD welcomed the marine protected area in the Southern Ocean—that was in a media release in October last year. Are marine reserves good for the environment, and what benefits do they deliver, if any?

Dr Fenton : Australia has certainly welcomed the establishment of the new marine protected area in the Ross Sea region; that has been a great outcome through CCAMLR last October. Australia has long supported the adoption of a representative network of MPAs in the CCAMLR area. The objectives of the MPAs is literally as a representational network to protect the environment—to make sure that we are doing the best for the environment that is possible.

Senator URQUHART: What progress has been made towards finalising the East Antarctica marine protected areas?

Dr Fenton : The two proposals have been going through CCAMLR simultaneously for a number of years now. It is a complicated process of negotiating these MPAs and, in the last year, the focus moved to the Ross Sea one. It was particularly important that one MPA was established at least, so the Ross Sea one is the one that got up this time.

Senator URQUHART: Do you have a time line on the East Antarctica marine protected area, as to when the discussions might start again and what the process will be?

Dr Fenton : Sure. The CCAMLR cycle is an annual one, so Australia is still committed to go forward with the East Antarctic proposal again this year. We are working through aspects of that with the Europeans, who are also our co-proponents on that. The intention at this point is to take it forward again in October this year. It is a complicated negotiating position on these things, but it is an important one.

Senator URQUHART: When you say 'take it forward', what do you actually mean?

Dr Fenton : I mean that it is presented at the CCAMLR meeting.

Senator URQUHART: So discussions would be put forward there and would then occur over a period of time. You said it was complicated; do you have any idea of what that time frame might be?

Dr Fenton : It is very hard to predict time frames in CCAMLR. We are heartened by the establishment of the MPA in the Ross Sea, so there is certainly a great interest in CCAMLR about these MPAs. It is very hard to predict a time when we might be successful or how it will really go, or otherwise.

Senator URQUHART: I notice that you celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Hawke government signing the Madrid Protocol to protect the icy continent from exploitation, including a mining ban. What is the biggest threat to the Antarctic?

Dr Fenton : It was very good to see the mining ban supported in that sense. The anniversary was a very important step, and it was reaffirmed at the Antarctic Treaty System meeting last year. In terms of threats to the Antarctic, changes in climate are certainly one of the major ones that we are researching. I think mining is not the threat that it is said to be in the media, if you like, because of this ban.

Mr Thompson : To add to Dr Fenton's answer, Australia and this government in particular have made a huge financial commitment to the Antarctic program and science. Science is the currency of our engagement with the Antarctic Treaty and with other partners in Antarctica. It is a very high priority for the government—the Antarctic Treaty and also the other conventions that support sustainable use of resources in Antarctica; in particular, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. CCAMLR, as Dr Fenton has referred to, is respected by all nations, and that is an ongoing commitment of this government and an ongoing commitment for officers in the department, too—to make sure that that reduces the threats that are being faced by the Antarctic environment.

Senator URQUHART: Does Antarctica have coal deposits?

Dr Fenton : It would.

Senator URQUHART: Are you aware that the Treasurer brought a lump of coal into parliament last time the House sat?

Dr Fenton : I am not particularly aware of that.

Senator URQUHART: You are not aware of that. I will leave my questions there, thanks.

Senator Birmingham: That was such an insightful question to finish on, Senator Urquhart.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Dr Fenton or Mr Thompson, Senator Urquhart asked you some questions specifically about the ice sheet when you talked a bit about the iceberg. I would be interested in reports around the extent of ice and changes to the ice. As you have probably seen just a few weeks ago, we have had reports that the Antarctic ice sheet has shrunk to its smallest ever extent, especially in different parts of the Antarctic. Can you give the committee a brief update on that?

Dr Fenton : I would preface this statement that there is enormous variability that occurs in Antarctica. When there is a minimum seen we also see maximums happen as well. There is still a large amount of work to be done in really understanding how the ice sheet performs.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I understand that, Dr Fenton. On 13 February it was reported that the sea ice extent contracted 883,015 square miles, which is less than the previous record of February 1997. In relation to that variation, we had large increases in sea ice in the two years previous to that. That is a very big variation. What is going on? What the hell is going on?

Dr Fenton : It is a very good question, Senator. That is exactly why we are doing the research we are, to try and understand this variability. That is internationally collaborative research that we are looking at—really what the story is with sea ice. It is a complicated picture. I know that is a difficult thing to say as an answer, but it is really important that we get better estimates of the sea ice and what is going on. It is related to a number of other factors—the atmospheric conditions that are changing, winds and temperature as well. There are a number of factors playing into this. That variability is one of our major research programs.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So it would be too early to say that the trend that seemed to be extending sea ice has been reversed because of one—

Dr Fenton : It is always too early to say.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Would you agree, Dr Fenton, that it was widely reported that the findings surprised a number of scientists?

Dr Fenton : It is certainly a very interesting finding. There is still a lot of work to be done to really confirm that.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: In relation to the IPCC report, can you tell us what the last IPCC report said about the likely future extent of the Antarctic sea ice?

Dr Fenton : I am just checking my notes on that.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I am just interested in whether you think the IPCC may revise their sea level projections based on the new data that has come to light.

Dr Fenton : Each IPCC report has the benefit of additional scientific information to consider. They will definitely look at all the data that has come in in the last few years and see where that leads them in terms of their determinations. If you want me to take on notice exactly what they said, I can do that, but otherwise I think IPCC do an excellent job of considering all the data that has come in in the intervening period to make their determinations.

Mr Thompson : I am just looking at the briefing here. It appears that the IPCC took a similar approach to the answer that Dr Fenton gave earlier, which is that there are many incomplete and competing scientific explanations for the causes of change and low confidence in estimates of natural internal variability, and admitting to the lesser scientific understanding of the small observed increase in Antarctic sea ice.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I suppose what I am most interested in is projections of sea level rise. We are not just talking about climate change per se here; we are talking about managing risk. This is a very serious issue for every council around the country that is facing the ocean and waterways. Could you take on notice if the department has any views on whether the data is substantial about changing those projections for sea level rise. Recently we have seen some cuts to CSIRO and we have had lots of discussions in these hearings about the potential impact of climate science and that the climate science is real and we do not necessarily need to spend money on understanding it. The AAD is down there doing this important work—how important is sea level rise to a country like Australia, and understanding it and getting a better ability to manage that risk?

Dr Fenton : I might just separate two issues here. It is the icesheet itself that would contribute to sea level rise, and sea ice is a separate issue. I was answering about the sea ice before. In terms of the icesheet itself, yes, the mass loss of ice from the continent is potentially the biggest impact on sea level rise on the planet. It stores the most ice of any icesheet, so that is a very important and very active area of research for us—in particular the marine ice, that is the floating ice shelves, and what that means in terms of releasing, if you like, the cork of glaciers—moving incredibly slowly, I might add, out to the ocean. We do research, as I think I reported last time, on the Totten Glacier, and we are doing more work on theSorsdal Glacier as well. So we are looking at a few glaciers quite closely in the program.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Has the department done any work on the thickness of the sea ice?

Dr Fenton : Yes, we have. On various voyages we have done into the sea ice we have done very detailed measurements of that.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Are there any changes you can tell the committee about?

Dr Fenton : Again, it is too early to say about that because it is so variable and we have had so few records over time of ice thickness. It is one of the hardest things to measure. The Arctic had a lot of advantage in the measurements they have done, having a lot of submarines working under the icesheet there. We do not have that in Antarctica, so it is the researchers who are providing the data—and we do a lot of research on that.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Were they military submarines?

Dr Fenton : In the Arctic, yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It is more difficult in the Antarctic?

Dr Fenton : Yes, of course. It is kind of the reverse—the Arctic is open ocean underneath the ice while Antarctica is a solid continent.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Is it your understanding that we are facing for the third year in a row a new record low of Arctic ice, as well as a record low in Antarctic ice?

Dr Fenton : These are the figures that are being presented in the media and certainly scientifically, yes—these are the records that are there.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So at both ends of the world—we have record low ice coverage at our two poles?

Dr Fenton : Yes we do, but we have also had record highs of sea ice in recent times in Antarctica.

Senator DUNIAM: What progress has been made with the $50 million commitment to improve the research facility at Macquarie Island?

Mr Bryson : I look after the modernisation program within the Antarctic Division. Macquarie Island is proceeding well. We are in the budget process at the moment. The government has given us $917,000 this year to commence all our pre-work for that budgetary process and to go into the Public Works process as well. We are well underway in that regard. We have been looking at our procurement strategy; we have also established a team to look after the project. On voyage 4 in a couple of weeks time we have five members of the team, including some geotech people, going down and doing some site investigations on the island, looking at two potential sites for the new research station. So it is well underway.

Senator DUNIAM: Over what period of time do you forecast that the works will be completed? I cannot recall if I have seen that publicly anywhere?

Mr Bryson : Fully operational by 2022.

Senator DUNIAM: I am wondering how we are going with our hunt for the million-year ice core.

Dr Fenton : The site selection has been the major focus from the science perspective in terms of it being very important to find the right place to do this. It is going to be a major exercise when we undertake it, so we want to be very sure we are going through ice that is not moving much, that is very old, very thick, and we are able to retrieve it from that site. So in terms of the kit that is being purchased and secured to make this possible, perhaps Rob would like to answer that.

Mr Bryson : Thanks, Gwen. At the moment, funding for the capital procurement does not start till the next financial year but, at the same time, we have been out talking to our stakeholders and getting a set of requirements ready for that. We have also been exchanging personnel with both the French program and the British Antarctic survey, so we are building up our skill levels. One of our project team has actually been embedded with the British traverse this year, so he has just finished that and is back at Rothera. So we are actually building up our skill levels as well and we are actually getting the people ready to go for next year to start the project in earnest.

Senator DUNIAM: That is all very exciting, thank you.

CHAIR: Any other questions of these officials? Thank you very much for appearing here today.


CHAIR: We now move to program 1.4: Conservation of Australia's Heritage and the Environment.

Senator CHISHOLM: I think it was in December 2015 that the environment ministers state and federal announced that they were going to progress potential World Heritage nominations. I was just curious as to what progress has been made since that announcement.

Mr Johnston : Yes, in December 2015, the environment ministers at their meeting discussed an update to Australia's World Heritage tentative list. The biggest outcome since that meeting was in January this year when Budj Bim cultural landscape was added to Australia's tentative list.

Senator CHISHOLM: So that has really been the only progress since that announcement in 2015?

Mr Johnston : Queensland is separately working on some consultation with traditional owners in Cape York to try and identify a potential site for a future World Heritage listing, but Budj Bim is the only one that has been at the point where it can be added to the tentative list.

Senator CHISHOLM: In terms of the tentative list, can you confirm what is on that?

Mr Johnston : At the moment there are three sites on it—two of them date back to 2010, and it is an extension to the Gondwana rainforest property, an extension to the Cooloola Great Sandy, which is basically the Fraser Island listing, and then Budj Bim is the third.

Senator CHISHOLM: In terms of the tentative list, what are the goals or objectives around that? Are there time frames in place?

Mr Johnston : The tentative list is essentially a list where countries indicate future nominations for the World Heritage list. Sites have to sit on the tentative list for at least 12 months before they can be brought forward as nominations, and then every year nominations have to be submitted by 1 February.

Senator CHISHOLM: What do you see in terms of that tentative list developing into the future? Do you think that other items or other locations are going to be placed on it? Is there a future projection of when that is likely to occur?

Mr Johnston : The rationale behind the meeting of the environment ministers was because there is a limited number of properties that the World Heritage Centre can assess in any time period. By doing it collaboratively with the states, the intent was to identify all of the places that might be put forward for the tentative list over a period of some years but the states, as the primary land managers, are sort of leading the background work to bring places up to the point where they could be considered for the tentative list. Budj Bim was at the front of that pack, so it has been the first on it. The others, I think it is fair to say, are some distance behind.

Mr Oxley : If I might also add to the answers of Mr Johnston: within the World Heritage system, we are talking about more than 1,000 properties globally which are on the World Heritage List, and we are talking about a system that is struggling under a weight of nominations and trying to find the right balance between the inscription of new properties on the World Heritage List and scrutinising the management effectiveness for those properties that are already on the World Heritage List. Over a number of years, the World Heritage Committee itself has called for state parties to show constraint in the number of nominations that they bring forward and has been working to shift the focus away from those countries that have large numbers of properties on the World Heritage List to those countries that have few or no properties on the World Heritage List.

In that context, our assessment has been for a number of years that, for Australia, realistically we would be bringing on somewhere between three and four new properties for inclusion on the World Heritage List over the course of a decade, if that helps in framing where we would be heading generally. With three properties on the tentative list, that looks like just about a full dance card, but that does not preclude bringing further places forward.

Senator CHISHOLM: Can someone give me a figure on the staff allocated to World Heritage within the department?

Mr Johnston : We have a figure, but it needs to have a caveat. It is hard to identify who does World Heritage because a lot of people do some World Heritage amongst a suite of other activities. We worked out that at 27 January we had about 40 staff of Stephen Oxley's division who were working in some capacity on World Heritage, and this ranges from the secretariat to people in the Heritage Branch who might do some work on, say, Budj Bim as part of a broader suite of work on national heritage as well.

Senator CHISHOLM: Do those 40 staff include people who work on the Great Barrier Reef as well?

Mr Johnston : That does include those in the Wildlife, Heritage and Marine Division who do some work on the Great Barrier Reef, including in the World Heritage Centre secretariat section, but it does not include the people in the Biodiversity Conservation Division.

Senator CHISHOLM: I will just come back to Cape York. You mentioned the state government leading that. Can you just detail to me what involvement the federal government has with that and particularly with consultation with Indigenous stakeholders?

Mr Johnston : It is essentially a Queensland process which they are running. They have allocated some funds to it. They have allocated some staff to it. We are supporting it but not in a staffing sense, and we will not be running co-consultations with them. We are looking to try to unlock some leftover funds from a previous World Heritage consultation. That has not been finalised as yet, but, subject to that happening, we will support them through that means. We talk to them occasionally about their plans and give them some advice on how they are running it, but it will be a Queensland-run consultation.

Senator CHISHOLM: Has the federal government allocated money at the moment for that process?

Mr Johnston : There is $500,000 left over from the previous Commonwealth engagement on Cape York from about 2013, from memory. That is sitting in what is called the Single Holding Account. We are just negotiating to have that released and made available to Queensland. We have discussed what it will be used for, and I think there is agreement on the scope of the works. It is just the mechanics of having the money released that are taking some time.

Senator CHISHOLM: So no money has been allocated at the moment, but there is potential for—

Mr Johnston : There is potential but none so far; that is right.

Senator CHISHOLM: In terms of the Indigenous groups that have been consulted, is the federal department aware of which groups have been consulted yet?

Mr Johnston : I would have to check that one. I have not spoken with my counterpart there on Cape York specifically for some time. I know that they have done some. They had some consultation with some people, but it was, at that point, more a preliminary consultation. In the last couple of months I am not entirely sure whether they have done more formalised consultation.

Mr Oxley : If one casts back to the period that Mr Johnston referred to around 2012 to 2013, there was a first round of consultation done. It was managed through a number of traditional-owner groups throughout the cape. Really it was, I think, a warm-up more than anything else in terms of having a first round of discussion with them about the extent to which they would be open to their country being included in a future World Heritage List nomination. There was a desire largely for more information to be provided and to understand the role that they would have in future management should a nomination be taken forward and be successful. I think the best way of characterising it would be in-principle support from some traditional-owner groups but a desire for more information. Enter the Queensland government and the process that they are now stepping into.

Senator CHISHOLM: In that process before a potential listing is made, is it the federal department that should lead it, or is it the state department, or is it the traditional owners who should really be the ones who are leading the process in terms of potential World Heritage listing?

Mr Oxley : The government has made it pretty clear that a nomination for inclusion on the World Heritage List in Cape York would only go forward if there were the consent and support of traditional owners, and that is very much the approach that has been taken with the Budj Bim nomination in Victoria, where that has been driven substantially by the traditional owners in Victoria. Under the Australian World Heritage Intergovernmental Agreement, it is the responsibility of the states and territories to actually do the preparatory work, to do the analysis and to take forward and develop the case for the inclusion of a place on the World Heritage List, and the role that the Commonwealth plays is to support, engage and provide them with guidance about how to bring forward that assessment with the best chances of success.

Mr Johnston : Can I just clarify an earlier answer. I cannot recall the number I gave you for the number of staff working on World Heritage.

Senator CHISHOLM: 40.

Mr Johnston : Sorry, that is actually for heritage including national and world. The correct figure for World Heritage is 27. My apologies.

Senator CHISHOLM: I am just looking for an update on national heritage listing for the Coral Sea.

Mr Johnston : The Coral Sea at the moment is sitting on what is called the Finalised Priority Assessment List for the Heritage Council. There is no timetable for its completion at this point.

Senator CHISHOLM: No timetable?

Mr Johnston : No timetable.

Senator HUME: I have a question about something that one of my Queensland colleagues raised, which was the yellow crazy ant problem and the funding that has been allocated to yellow crazy ants. Who am I asking that question to?

Mr Murphy : You could try me, Senator.

Senator HUME: My understanding is that at the last federal election the coalition allocated $8 million or so to the eradication of yellow crazy ants, which have just gone berserk in Christmas Island, but this is specifically for Queensland in the Wet Tropics area, and that that money has only recently been released. Can you outline to the committee what that project exactly involves and why it is so important?

Mr Murphy : I can answer part of the question about the risk that crazy ants pose and what they are doing, but the funding component to your question would be best answered in outcome 1.1. There are yellow crazy ant infiltrations. There are sites where they are present across Queensland. That includes the area surrounding the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, with some infiltrations in the area and also into the catchment area of Cairns. There have been control activities led by the Wet Tropics Management Authority for the last four years, I think, which had some success in trying to control the ants. With the new range of funding they are trying to move it into an eradication phase.

Senator HUME: Just to enlighten the committee, I suppose, and me as well: if we cannot eradicate the yellow crazy ants, what is the environmental impact of that?

Mr Murphy : They form large colonies. Essentially, they are a bit like farmers: they try to control the local area to manage food sources. So in those areas they wipe out all the biodiversity. I am a bit more familiar with the ones on Christmas Island, which are a bit different to Queensland. They form supercolonies there, and they are after the sap that comes from a scale-type insect. That is what they are trying to farm. So in the areas where the colonies form they have quite a lot of damage.

Senator HUME: I think you said that the funding for the program in the wet tropics, which is different from the program on Christmas Island, is probably a question better asked elsewhere. But my understanding is that it was supposed to be a joint venture between state and federal governments—the Queensland and federal governments.

Mr Murphy : The Australian government specifically committed two components of funding. There was $7.5 million from Landcare and $1.3 million from a fund under the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. The announcement of the $7.5 million was made as part of the election campaign, and the Australian government called for Queensland to match the funding.

Senator HUME: And has that happened?

Mr Murphy : I do not believe they have matched the funding, although they have contributed some funding. Again, outcome 1.1 is the best place to answer the details of that.

Senator HUME: Thank you.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Can I ask a question in relation to an EPBC-listed threatened community, which is the giant kelp forests off Tasmania's east coast? Who would I direct that question to?

Mr Richardson : That is us too.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: This committee heard evidence in our references inquiry last week, including from the Eaglehawk Dive Centre and from a number of scientists, that the last of those giant kelp forests have now disappeared completely. I understand they were listed in 2012, and there was the suggestion of a plan to be put in place to better understand the impacts and what could happen. Have you investigated the loss of those kelp forests and confirmed that is the case?

Mr Richardson : I am not aware of the evidence you are referring to from that references committee. As we said in answers to questions on notice from the October hearings, no, we have not put in place a recovery plan for that ecological community. We have had some discussions with Tasmania more recently. The principal threats to that ecological community revolve around climate change—warming oceans et cetera—and we have not put in place a recovery plan as yet.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I know you have a million things on and that you do not have enough resources—that is life. I am just interested in whether the department will actually investigate whether it is the case that they are completely gone? I am asking this for a couple of reasons. I was also supposed to dive on them last year and was warned that they were in fragile shape, so because of my lifestyle I cancelled three times. And now I have been told that they are completely gone, so I have missed my chance.

But I am not the only one. People from all around the world have come to dive on these giant kelp forests. It would be good to know if you are going to investigate whether that is actually the case.

Mr Oxley : We can engage with, and will engage with, the Tasmanian government and relevant scientific agencies to get a very contemporary understanding of the status of that ecological community and convey that back to you.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Evidence also given by IMAS was that a very small patch is left on the south-west of Tasmania. But they believe that will not last very long either. So would the department be interested in investigating that?

Mr Oxley : We will have a look at the evidence that was given to the references committee last week and determine whether we need to ask any further questions and come back with some advice through questions on notice, if that is all right.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. Part of that issue was the sea urchin, the invasive species that have come down with the warming waters and added to stress of the ecosystem. Is this the right place to ask questions about the Tarkine tracks legal case?

Mr Oxley : That would be in outcome 1.5.

Senator URQUHART: I just have a few questions around whaling. In terms of the government of Japan's current Southern Ocean whaling season drawing to a close, what options are now available to the Australian government to ensure that Japan does not return to the Antarctic at the end of 2017 to hunt and kill more whales under the guise of scientific research?

Ms Callister : As you would be aware, Australia was deeply disappointed at Japan's decision to return to the Southern Ocean and undertake so-called scientific whaling. We currently continue to investigate all means that we can to try and get them to stop that. That includes some measures through the International Whaling Commission. At the October International Whaling Commission meeting, Australia led a resolution which will put additional scrutiny looking at all scientific whaling programs, including Japan's program in the Southern Ocean. We are also continuing to take efforts at the highest diplomatic levels, including the Prime Minister raising this with Japanese Prime Minister Abe when they met in January. Australia also is leading in terms of non-lethal research, to demonstrate to Japan that you do not need to kill whales in order to study them. We are also continuing to look at what possible legal avenues may be available for us to try and bring Japan to account to stop the so-called scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean.

Senator URQUHART: You mentioned the Prime Minister of Japan's visit, and he met with the Prime Minister. Did the department provide a brief to the Prime Minister for that meeting?

Ms Callister : The department contributed to the whole-of-government briefing and assisted the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Senator URQUHART: Were the options included in that, or other briefings, the types of things that you have just gone through in terms of legal, diplomatic and the Whaling Commission? Were there any other options that may have been included?

Ms Callister : I think they are the broad suite of what we were looking at. The research, the diplomatic efforts and our international efforts through the International Whaling Commission were the primary things that were canvassed.

Senator URQUHART: Has the department taken any steps to pursue the approximately $1 million fine that was issued to the Japanese whaling company in 2015?

Ms Callister : I think you would be referring to the legal action under the EPBC Act that involved Humane Society International against the Japanese whaling company. That is actually a matter for the Federal Court and for Humane Society International to resolve.

Senator URQUHART: Is the minister aware of that fine? Has he been informed of that fine?

Ms Callister : I cannot recall whether specifically the minister has been informed, but he has received details briefing around a range of whaling related matters.

Senator URQUHART: I guess the question would be, then: does the minister have any role in any action in relation to that?

Ms Callister : At this stage, as I said, it is a matter for the Federal Court and for Humane Society International.

Senator URQUHART: How many times has the minister been briefed on whaling issues, other than when he attended the International Whaling Convention?

Ms Callister : I would have to take that on notice. I cannot recall specifically.

Senator URQUHART: If you could take that on notice.

Senator HUME: Can you explain to the committee how we are trying to prevent further whaling from occurring, in the light of that ICJ decision?

Ms Callister : In relation to the ICJ case, you may or may not be aware that, following Australia's successful court action under the International Court of Justice, Japan then took into account the findings of the ICJ and actually amended their scientific whaling program. They now have a new program which they call NEWREP-A. Our view is that the findings and the issues that were raised in the International Court of Justice would apply to that program equally. But since that time Japan actually removed itself from the jurisdiction of the ICJ in relation to whaling matters, which of course means that the options of taking them back under their new program have effectively been removed because of Japan's actions. But we are continuing to look at whether there may be other legal avenues that we could take and also working through those other activities that I mentioned, including, particularly, work through the International Whaling Commission and trying to bring more scrutiny on to Japan to call them to stronger account for what they do.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Well done for everything you have done, but the Japanese do not give a damn about it.

CHAIR: Senator Whish-Wilson, is that a gratuitous comment or are you interrupting Senator Hume?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Sorry, take that as a comment.

Senator HUME: Crossing back again to World Heritage listing, speaking as a Victorian, I think the potential listing of the wonderful Lake Condah area, the Budj Bim heritage area in Victoria, is particularly important, and I am wondering whether perhaps the panel can enlighten the committee as to the very unique characteristics of that particular area and why it is so important to put that forward, particularly with reference to the people from that community.

Mr Johnston : The heritage value of the Budj Bim cultural landscape relates to the extensive system of aquaculture engineering that has been undertaken by the Gunditjmara over many thousands of years. There is some archaeological evidence that some of the traps have been in use for over 6,000 years and that the extent of the eel trapping and farming is very large and it is perhaps one of the most extensive and long-running systems in the world. The nomination has been driven very largely by the Gunditjmara themselves, who have put enormous energy into the area, into securing lands and into reflooding Lake Condah, which was drained in the 1950s. We are now going to work with the Victorians and the Gunditjmara on putting together a World Heritage nomination for that site. If it is inscribed in the World Heritage List, it would be the first Australian property listed solely for Indigenous cultural values.

Senator HUME: Terrific. Thank you. Good luck with that. It is very important.

CHAIR: Thank you. Are there any other questions? If not, I thank you very much for appearing here today.