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Impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on regional Australia

CHAIR —I now welcome representatives of Australian Rain. If we had more of that, we would not be having today’s proceedings. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Dr Beare —Yes. I am a former chief economist for ABARE but I now work independently as a consultant for Australian Rain.

CHAIR —Thank you. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We have received your submission and we do thank you for that. Is there any additional material that you would like to present, or would you just like to make some opening statements and then be questioned?

Mr Handbury —I have just got a brief statement, thank you.

CHAIR —Yes, thanks, Matt.

Mr Handbury —First, we would like to thank the members of the committee for the opportunity to represent to the federal government, the opportunity that the Atlant rainfall enhancement technology may hold for Australia—and this time, I might add, on a much firmer foundation than when we came to Canberra some four years ago. I believe the documents that you have received provide a clear picture of what we have been able to demonstrate of that potential and also list the questions that remain.

What I would like to do this morning is to add my personal view, not of the science or the statistics but as to why the ongoing scientific investigation and trialing of Atlant is in Australia’s interests. It can be taken as a given that the ability to substantively add to Australia’s water supply on a cost-effective and needs basis would be of immense value. The question is simply: do we have sufficient cause to believe it might work? I have put as much of my time and finances into trying to answer that question as I can and there is nothing more that on a private basis I can achieve in that area. That evidence is on the table for anyone to examine, one would hope with an open mind. It is now up to government to take this opportunity forward in the field of innovative approaches. If not, it will go unattended, despite the high promise we have been able to ascribe to it.

There is, on scientific precedent, cause to accept the null hypothesis. In other words, we have not been able to prove on a scientific basis conclusively that the Atlant effectively increases rain, but there is, on the weight of probabilities, cause to entertain the alternative; that Atlant can enhance rainfall under Australian conditions to meet a range of relevant demands. So it comes down to the cost of scientific investigations, the cost of running trials which prove inconclusive or unsuccessful versus the opportunity costs—again, the cost of opportunity foregone, given that it does work; in other words, if it is not investigated, the potential upside and cheaper water supplies that are being foregone.

So we are here today because the relativities from our investigations to date strongly favour the latter—in other words, the potential opportunity foregone—and the probabilities show that that is far higher than any cost of trials. Secondly, we need your support to ensure that opportunity is not lost to Australia. Thanks.

CHAIR —Any other comments that people would like to make? Questions? I have one in relation to international technologies. Has any work of a similar nature been done internationally?

Mr Handbury —The technology was originally investigated in the United States by the same team that developed chemical cloud seeding. They stuck with the chemical cloud seeding and it was then pursued in Russia, both on a government basis and then on a private contractual basis. In fact, the meteorologist who came to Australia four years ago was a Russian. There has been some work done in the south-western United States, in Mexico, but really I would have to say that the only serious scientific investigation has been done by us.

Dr STONE —Cloud seeding, as you are aware, has been going on in Tasmania, has been used by Tasmania Hydro, for a number of years. They budget for it each year. There has been talk about class actions from Tasmanian farmers about what they perceive to be less rainfall then in agricultural regions, so a nil sum gain from cloud seeding. Are you aware of those concerns? And are you aware of the Snowy Mountains Scheme’s use of cloud seeding, especially during the height of the drought, and can you tell us about the outcomes of that? Are you seriously proposing that your technologies would be a way to even out the incredible bust and boom seasonal cycles in the Murray-Darling Basin?

Mr Handbury —In terms of the rain shadow, as soon as I raise this subject with anybody it seems that is the first thing they think of. The scientific fact is that there is a certain balance: with the heat coming from the sun, only so much water can go up and come down. So, technically, any additional water we cause to fall here cannot fall again until it goes up again. However, through the fusion, the dispersion, as the aerosols and air leaving our machine go downwind and gets diluted and there is the introduction of new air and the mixing with that air. If you had 10 per cent enhancement, just doing the numbers on it, the relative effect downwind would be in the decimal points. So it gets spread over such an area. We have looked into this and we have been able to find nothing significant.

Dr STONE —Does that include looking at the international data on China? Do your investigations include looking at China’s experience?

Mr Handbury —The Chinese have not released any data. I am not sure if they have collected much. The Chinese seem to have taken the approach: ‘It looks like this might work. It’s very cheap. Let’s just do it everywhere.’ Of course, they are protected from too much criticism when doing out-there things.

The Snowy trials are still going; they have been going six years or something. There are some results which showed significance at the 90 per cent plus level, which is gratifying. In relation to the statistical analysis: we saw them at the American meteorological conference in January and Michael Manton admitted that they have not dealt with all the meteorological parameters, but it could have been caused by the particular pattern of weather that passed through it at that time, whereas our model has dealt with that. But it is promising and we are very supportive of what they are doing there. They have had issues—I do not think they are of a substantive nature, but everyone is very sensitive about the chemicals and the tracer agents they release.

In terms of evening out the boom-bust drought-flood, we do not claim to be able to make it rain when it would not rain. It may, but our investigation shows no increase in the probability that it rains. Rather, when there were conditions conducive to rainfall, it rained nine per cent more in Adelaide over those four months. However, it is always nice to have a bit more storage, of course. When the system is full up you do not want more and so you do not run the machine, which is easy enough to do.

Dr Beare —They have been investigating cloud seeding for about 50 years. From a scientific perspective there is still no definitive proof that cloud seeding works. On the balance of probabilities, on observation and intuition, they are still willing to commit to it and in fact they commit to it in a very broad scale in the US. I think, too, even if there were a rain shadow effect, having water in the right place at the right time, having water behind a dam wall, is valuable and in a water-scarce country you have to weigh up those trade-offs. Literally, you have to think about it. When and where you get it is an important consequence. So I think that even if there were a discernible shadow effect you would have to say, ‘Is it worthwhile to get it where you need it when you want it?’ That is quite an important point to the whole debate in that sort of space but, again, it is not an easy space to work. It takes a commitment and a need to want to take that on.

Mr SECKER —If you take the water or the rainfall and make it heavier in one area, have they done any studies on what effect that has elsewhere, taking rain away from them?

Dr STONE —That is what I was just asking about.

Mr SECKER —Okay. Sorry.

Dr STONE —The Tasmanians are actually suing.

Dr Beare —Cloud seeders have done a fair bit on this. To be honest, to say that you cannot find an effect downwind is not much insurance, because it is hard to find any effect to begin with. It is extremely hard in a semi-controlled experiment in the target areas because the rainfall is so incredibly variable across space and time. You are talking about a five, six, 10 per cent signal in a very fine target area against a natural variation that occurs 20 kilometres apart, 10 kilometres apart. It is a hard ask to get it. So then when you ask 30 or 40 kilometres downwind, ‘Can you find something?’ while you can blithely say, ‘Yes,’ you will not. The best evidence really, I think, is just from an assessment of the cloud physics. Basically, you know that if it is over land it is not going to be renewed. For example, if you did it in Western Australia, you would not have water coming in and you would have to lose that. If you are over a moist climate, then you will get evaporation and some return. Truthfully, a drop of water spends somewhere between 15 and 20 days in the sky, which means that the actual percentage of precipitation coming down is a very small percentage of what the cloud moisture content is. It is scary to know how much that stuff weighs above your head. It is massive.

Mr Handbury —Is it that one-third of the world’s fresh water is in the sky at any time?

Dr Beare —Yes. So if you take 10 per cent of one per cent, you are not really taking that much, and then you are getting downstream dispersion. There does not seem to be a really strong case, but at the same time I know how people react. People do react in exactly the way that concerns you and I think that is just something that has to be addressed, as to what the value is relative to having to deal with those concerns, but I do not think they are really all that well founded in the physics.

Mr Peak —With regard to those studies, the opponents trying to prove that there was a decrease in rainfall actually face the same difficulties and problems that we do to prove that there was an increase in rainfall, so I sort of welcome people attempting to prove that there was a decrease in rainfall because that will solve some of the statistical problems. Also, to that end, we have used our statistical analysis in each of the trials and we have attempted to find decreases in rainfall or the rain shadows and certainly we have not been able to find any adverse effects on the surrounding rainfall to our trial areas.

Mr SIDEBOTTOM —This is fascinating. My colleague just said he was glad he was indoors when you gave your information. I understand you have done four or five trials in Queensland and South Australia and I was really interested in your question about opportunity costs and so forth. Can you expand on the results of your trials?

Mr Handbury —Sure. I would say, having been there—which is a dangerous thing because you get the subjective scenario, and gradually that has been bashed out of me over the years—

Mr SIDEBOTTOM —You are allowed to be.

Mr Handbury —There certainly has been a positive effect. Early on, around 15 seemed to be the figure, but we have applied more rigorous statistics which we had not allowed for—it could have been something else before and so on—including the complicated statistical problems of using individual gauges, the correlation between those gauges and how much additional rigour you can get out of that data. The final trial in Adelaide came in at nine per cent or a little bit more than that. We had two machines, 60 kilometres apart. For scientific method reasons, one was on one day and one the other.

So, while there was an overlap between the coverage of those, certainly the overall effect would be more than nine. We are not going to say it is 18, because there is overlap. You could say that was consistent with the original 15, but we have learnt the hard way that you just keep it as conservative as you can, so we are saying that slightly over nine per cent with a statistical significance in excess of 90 per cent, 95 per cent representing is scientific proof. There is debate around that 90 per cent because of these niceties around the statistical treatment. Some people might do it another way and get 95 per cent, they might get 89, but roughly we are talking about nine per cent at 90 per cent significance; hence the probabilities we put in the document.

Dr Beare —The first two trials were basically just what I would call observational trials. You looked in the area downwind of where the device was and compared that to regions outside that area. That was done by the University of Queensland. What that showed was elevated rainfalls in what would be defined as the target areas, but when you looked back over history you could see that those discrepancies between those areas occurred naturally one in 10 times, one in 15 times, one in 20 times, so there was nothing definitive.

There was a big push to say, ‘What’s the physics of all this? Let’s demonstrate the physics,’ but when we asked the physicists what we actually know about ions and chemistry and the atmosphere, that is major science. They do not really understand the process. In fact, the best computer model that they have in the US says it takes, I think, a day and a half for raindrops to form and they know they form within less than half an hour. There are a lot of holes in the science, so statistics was the answer, and I think basically Australian Rain has engaged the who’s who of statistics in Australia.

The people involved are serious statisticians with serious standing. They have developed techniques to look at this that I think not only have done a good job in demonstrating that there seems to be a reasonable probability of effect here, but they have also developed techniques that will allow us to ask questions about things like, ‘Do the particular emissions from Latrobe Valley suppress or’—it is a hard question. There is land cover. All these things that affect local climates are hard to find. So I must give some credit for the fact that a lot has been done to try to just answer this question in the broadest terms, and I think the results have all been positive and consistent, but just not definitive enough to get people who are embedded in the scientific method to say, ‘We’ve got to really think about our science because there’s something here that works that we don’t really quite understand.’ It is going to be hard to get that additional purchase, I have to say.

The other point to make is that just because you did it in these times in these climates does not necessarily mean that it works somewhere else. You cannot depend upon this stuff to be a real thing unless you are willing to see if it is going to work. Australia has a hugely variable climate and different systems and it is a hard ask, but I think it is an ask worth asking.

Dr STONE —You have talked about trying to make rain as a purpose. There is also machinery around which tries to stop rain. These are the cloud-dispersing hail guns and so on. They were used extensively in New Zealand until fairly recently. Now they have instead invested in nets and meshes to stop hail damage. Are you aware of that technology? Is it all part of your thinking or physicists’ thinking? Of course, one of our other problems is too much rain in parts of our catchment from time to time—the flooding and the storm damage. Is that part of what you have been investigating?

Mr Handbury —We are well aware of the hail guns and other sonic devices.

Dr STONE —Cloud dispersers and—

Mr Handbury —And other forms. In fact, the Russian who came here, said that his proudest moment was stopping a cyclone in Korea. But we have decided that we would just like to demonstrate that if you want it to rain more, we can do that, and if you do not, we will turn off the machine. As Steve points out, there is a lot to be learnt about the electricity in the atmosphere: the whole sense that the cosmic rays passing through the atmosphere cause natural ionisation and when they are suppressed by solar sunspots, that affects rainfall and cloud cover, temperature of the earth; maybe it was connected with the heavy snows in the northern winter and our heavy rainfall this summer because of a renewed passage of cosmic rays. Discovering these things and the NASA type expense and scale of the physical science investigation will reveal a lot of very interesting things—and, Valeriye, you may well be proven right. It is already unbelievable enough.

Mr Peak —What I will also say is that these hail cannons and a lot of other devices that have been mentioned in weather modification have really only been reported anecdotally, particularly out of China and Russia. That was one of the criticisms of this type of technology four or five years ago when we first undertook it and over the last four years we have earnestly tried to rectify that. We have presented at three national statistics conferences. We have presented at three weather modification and meteorology conferences, the most recent in Seattle at the American meteorological conference. We have had our 2008 trial results published in the Journal of Weather Modification in America. Our 2009 trial has just been accepted for publication in the April edition of that. We are presenting at a conference in Utah in April as well and we have made all our trial results, data and reports open and available to the scientific community. As well as that, we have formed an independent scientific reference panel made up of five eminent scientists in Australia who have endorsed the document that you have been provided.

We are really trying to conduct good science here and investigate this technology and certainly that distances itself from other reported weather modification technologists who do not wish to follow that scientific program, and there are many of those out there—cloud seeding not being one of them, but I think sonic cannons and stuff sort of fall into that other category.

Dr Beare —I hate to go to another technology to say something positive, but the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in the US came out to Queensland for a five-year program to evaluate warm cloud seeding. They spent two years basically doing all the preparatory work using the technologies that we would dream to be able to use—Doppler radars and people in white coats and stuff—and two years into it they finally got ready to do the trials, but of course it rained. The response to that was, ‘Well, we don’t want to do this any more,’ so they sent NCAR packing. The chances of getting them back again is small, and yet we know in the Darling Downs there is going to be another drought.

It just seems to me that there are not a lot of tools in this kit we have to manage climate change and severe conditions; it is a pretty empty closet. We are at the speculative end of things and I think that is just part and parcel of what we have to accept. I think a lot of these speculations may prove as useful as we might hope in the end. I think it is a good strategic response to a difficult problem, and I think one of the things that Matt likes to point out is that if it is right then it takes away a lot of the angst that there is now with the increased demand between the environment and agriculture and other forms of use. Effectively, no matter what anyone says, the effect of diverting water for other environmental uses is no different, from an agricultural point of view, from having reduced rainfall. It is not different. It is a lot more pressure, and I think we should recognise it even though now it has been incredibly wet. I do not think we forget that quickly, yet sometimes we do choose to.

Ms LEY —Gentlemen, what sort of response have you had from the federal environment department SEWPaC?

Mr Handbury —As you might recall, we received the National Water Commission grant about 3½ years ago under the Howard government, which was quickly withdrawn with the Rudd government, and we have maintained contact with the National Water Commission and SEWPaC, with their scientists, and also with the previous government minister, Wong. However, we had not put anything forward until we had this independent scientific validation of our trials. We have kept them informed and a proposal was sent to SEWPaC in December which was most of what you have got. It also had Western Australia, but it did not have the full Murray-Darling menu. We did not receive a response to that, but we did not particularly push it because we did not have the independent scientific review at that point. But we will now put a more complete proposal to SEWPaC along the lines we have given to you and push it as hard as we can, hopefully with your support.

Dr Beare —Because of their initial involvement, the National Water Commission has been briefed on a regular basis just informally, and we spoke with Dr Tony Slatyer in the environment department and received a very open-minded response. The evidence was put on a ‘We’ll consider it’ basis. I felt that that was quite a good response really.

Mr Handbury —I do not know if this is the place to raise this, but for the first year or two, when we had a different opposition leader, it was something that the government gave him a hard time over because he was associated with that previous grant. The water department official kept saying, ‘Don’t mention that.’ But that has died away, I think. They said it would after—

CHAIR —You are probably right. It probably was not the right time! Thank you very much for your attendance here today and the documentation. Particularly in the whole environment we are talking about now, there should be more research into some of these things that we still do not fully understand. It is good to see people prepared to do that. There will be a transcript of the Hansard, so if there are any issues or if there is any information you would like to get through to the committee, please do so. Thank you for coming.

Proceedings suspended from 12.02 am to 12.47 pm