By 2050, not only will technology and society be very different, but Australia’s climate will have changed.

In the not-so-distant future, when you settle back into an armchair with a glass of your favourite shiraz, chances are the grapes will not come from South Australia, but from Tasmania, where today the variety is only rarely grown for commercial purposes. 

Tasmania’s dairy industry will also be thriving in 2050, powered by a different selection of grasses. But Victoria’s ski industry will be all but defunct. 

These are the scenarios that have come out of Climate Futures for Tasmania (CFT), a major research project from the University of 

Tasmania that has been evolving and expanding over the past 10 years. 

The CFT was the first program in Australia – and one of the first in the world – to model the practical impacts of climate change at a local level. 

The initial project downscaled six leading global climate models to simulate Tasmania’s local climate on a 10 km by 10 km grid between the years of 1961 to 2100. It provided estimates of temperature and rainfall for every 3-hour period, and projections of 140 other climate variables every 6 hours. 

The program emerged in Tasmania partly because its geographic position in the Southern Ocean attracts world-leading oceanographers and meteorologists, but also because the well-connected community of government and industry on the island state supported it. 

And the outcomes have been significant. The CFT has been used to underpin the future-proofing of the state. The Tasmanian Government’s climate change policy, Climate Action 21, released in June 2017, includes 37 actions, 20 of which cite the CFT as supporting evidence. As the first of its kind, the project inspired similar localised climate modelling, and techniques devised in the study have been used in other countries, including South Africa and parts of Asia. 

But it wasn’t just the prospect of academic research and advances in computer modelling that attracted University of Tasmania oceanographer Professor Nathan Bindoff, who initiated the project in 2008 with Professor Bruce Mapstone, former Chief of CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research.

It was at a time when Professor Bindoff, currently Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Climate Extremes, had been working on the fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and when former US Vice President Al Gore had released the Oscar-winning documentary on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth. 

“I just wanted to do something socially relevant, and find out what all this climate change meant for us,” Professor Bindoff recalls. 
So, he and a team of 10 colleagues did just that. 

Over a decade, this team was central to the Climate Futures project. In addition to creating complex global models to provide meaningful local scenarios of the future, the team investigated how these changes would impact agriculture, extreme events, and water and catchments.

Going forward with eyes open 

The CFT is now the foundation for many state government and industry plans. 

As well as looking into the future for grape growers, the outcomes of the CFT were used by the Tasmanian Government to forecast the suitability of local areas for growing crops such as barley to the year 2050. 

Agribusiness companies routinely consider these reports when planning investments. Power generator Hydro Tasmania used CFT data in its own models of the electricity market to understand the impact of climate change on future output. 

The Tasmania State Emergency Service (SES) used it to estimate the risk of future natural hazards, such as coastal erosion and landslips stimulated by rainfall intensity. The Tasmanian Planning Scheme incorporated CFT data in building regulations that govern land use in vulnerable areas. 

The Tasmania Fire Service has been able to plot the location, frequency, and severity of bushfires over time using CFT data, and used it as the basis for estimating volunteer requirements for each region. 

And that was only the beginning. A second generation of projects was launched under the University’s Landscape and Policy Hub in 2011, which extended the program to mainland Australia. The work continues today as the Climate Futures program of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre. 

According to a report released earlier this year by Agtrans Research and Consulting, the $16.7 million total investment in the program and its spin-offs between 2008 and 2017 is estimated to have produced benefits of around $40.3 million. 

“I often say that Climate Futures is the gift that keeps on giving,” says Chris Irvine, Senior Planning and Education Officer for Tasmania’s SES. “There are so many applications of the underlying data that are helping us answer so many questions.” 

This success, says Professor Bindoff, stems from the program’s original model, where industry players and government bodies were kept closely involved in the research, and had a significant say in its outcome. 

“We brought the stakeholders with us,” he says. 

Hobart City Council’s Environment and Climate Change Program Manager, Katrina Graham, had worked with researchers on the CFT project. She requested a summary of Hobart’s forecast climate change impacts for the city’s decision-makers, which was then endorsed by council. 

“We’re probably the only council in Australia that has this,” says Graham. 

Whether formally partnered with the project or not, the results are now there for anyone to use. All data generated by the CFT have been made publicly accessible online. 

Meanwhile, the research continues. 

Professor Bindoff has chosen three target areas for his future work: “Biosecurity and water security – which builds on our relationship with Hydro Tasmania, a big customer – and ways and means to expand our platform to a national spread by aggregating all simulations available for application Australia-wide.” 

Those areas are surely at the forefront of the minds of decision-makers tasked with shepherding Australia through the uncertain times ahead, as the effects of climate change continue to hit unprecedented levels. 

Under those circumstances, our best chance is to know what we’re up against.

Fast facts about the CFT

  • Climate research that cost $16.4 million has produced benefits of at least $40.3 million.
  • Researchers can predict climate 3-hourly to 6-hourly on a 10 km by 10 km grid to the year 2100.
  • CFT climate data is written into Tasmania’s planning and building regulations.
  • CFT data helps Hydro Tasmania predict future electricity generation.
  • Climate Action 21, released in 2017, includes 37 actions, 20 of which cite the CFT as supporting evidence.

Interested in conducting your own research? Apply now to become a research student.

Interested in partnering with the University of Tasmania? Find out more here.

About Professor Nathan Bindoff

How has the earth changed? Why has the earth changed? What does it mean for the future? Professor Nathaniel Bindoff is one of the world's leading climate change scientists, and he's helping to answer these questions. His area of expertise is physical oceanography.

View Professor Nathan Bindoff's full researcher profile