Climate right for new research institute at UWS
Nine storey cranes and 28 metre high ring structures in native bushland that can produce the elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations predicted for later this century are among the state-of-the-art research facilities to be officially opened today by Senator Chris Evans at the University of Western Sydney’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment.
The Federal Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research will tour the new Institute, which is one of the world’s most comprehensive climate change research facilities, and which fills an important niche in the Australian research landscape.
The Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment’s extensive facilities, in Richmond NSW, are dedicated to researching the impact of climate change on Australia’s precious land resources - native forest ecosystems, managed forests and agricultural lands.
The unique research facilities, which are among the largest and most complex in the world, allow scientists to create future climatic conditions, including elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, higher temperatures and changed rainfall patterns.
The impact of the changes on the natural environment - from genes to entire terrestrial ecosystems - will be documented and used to help better predict the consequences of climate change and, importantly, provide insights on how humans can adapt.
The Institute’s research facilities were developed as a result of a $40 million grant from the Australian Government as part of its Education Investment Fund, together with funding from the University of Western Sydney.
Foundation Director of the Hawkesbury Institute, Professor Peter Reich, says research is urgently needed as evidence mounts that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent.
“If we are to adapt to climate change, we need to know how these extreme events affect our terrestrial ecosystems. With this knowledge, we can then manage for increased biodiversity, productivity, and carbon storage,” says Professor Reich, an internationally-acclaimed plant scientist.
“Our research can also inform policy makers who are fundamental in helping to solve the problem of climate change.”
The Institute’s frontier field and laboratory facilities and technologies simulate future climates and assess their biological impacts.
“Not only can we do this from the gene to the ecosystem level, but using our unique suite of facilities we can study the interactions that occur between genes, microbes, organisms and ecosystems, rather than studying them in isolation,” says Professor Reich.
“Such integrated research will provide valuable insights into the function of ecosystems as they respond to global change,” he says.
The Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment’s key facilities, all located within walking distance of the UWS Hawkesbury campus and Institute’s headquarters, include:
- Eucalyptus Free Air CO2 Enrichment (EucFACE) – six fibre-glass and steel ring structures 28 metres high and 25 metres in diameter have been built to expose native Cumberland Plain Woodland to elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations. This is the largest free air CO2 experiment in the world and the first in mature woodland. It will provide data on the impact of rising CO2 on an entire ecosystem, from soil bacteria and fungi to the growth patterns of the tree canopy and the insects that live in them. Each ring has a 43 metre high crane which was used to construct the rings and will now be used by scientists to study the ecosystem at all heights.
- Tall Tree Chambers – 12 chambers, each with a single tree up to 9 metres tall in a precisely controlled environment where the vital signs of the tree are monitored under varied conditions that simulate global environmental change. No other facility anywhere has the capability to grow a tree under carefully controlled climate warming and continuously measure its metabolic fluxes in real time.
- Large Rain Out Shelters – 6 large structures 12m long by 8m wide by 7m tall have rain-sensing automated, roofs which open and shut, enabling researchers to subject plants to both natural rainfall and to modified rainfall patterns that mimic those predicted to occur in the future. The shelters will enable multi-year experiments with planted woodland communities to assess the risks from anticipated rainfall regimes where rain falls less often but more intensively during each event.
- Eddy Covariance (Flux) Tower – a mast (similar to a radio broadcast tower) adorned with sensors monitors the exchange of CO2 and water in a section of native woodland.
- Environment-controlled glasshouses and insectary – six closed-system large glasshouse chambers are computer-controlled to maintain air temperature and atmospheric CO2 at set conditions including preindustrial concentrations. A similar climate controlled glasshouse complex is available for studying plant-insect interaction. These facilities are designed for experiments aimed at understanding the biochemical and physiological processes underpinning the response of organisms to their environment.
- DNA sequencing facility – a collection of sophisticated equipment to rapidly analyse molecular changes in plants, microbes and insects following exposure to altered environmental conditions.
- Growth chambers – living plants housed in climate and light controlled, walk-in, chambers which maintain air temperature, humidity and atmospheric CO2 at set conditions including preindustrial concentrations.
4 April 2012
Photos: Sally Tsoutas