Research project: Fine-scale climate data collection in the Hunter Valley


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Photographer: John Gollan © Australian Museum

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Ecological studies routinely make use of Bureau of Meteorology data to explain the distribution of species or predict how they will respond to future climate change. A potential weakness in this approach is that weather stations are deliberately placed to avoid the influence of vegetation, topography, moisture, and other factors that affect the climate in the habitats that most species occupy. Data on local climatic variables is also restricted to a very small number of locations across the landscape, which further hampers attempts to understand the influences of current climate, as well as predict future changes.

In early 2009, the N.S.W. Government through the Environmental Trust and the Great Eastern Ranges Conservation Initiative awarded a grant to the Australian Museum to fund a pilot project to collect fine-scale climate data in the Hunter Valley, N.S.W.. The Hunter Valley comprises one of the most complex parts of the Great Eastern Ranges (GER) in terms of habitat and ecosystem diversity, industry and land use, population and urban expansion and changing socio-economic conditions. The aim of the project was to secure high quality climate data across a range of habitats that could be used for biodiversity and climate change modelling and informing species selection in landscape rehabilitation projects. The data generated will provide the basis for a powerful dataset for decision making as part of the GER Initiative and provide further opportunity for collaboration between GER partner organisations and landholders.

A total of 150 purpose-built mini weather stations each containing a DS1923 iButton™ temperature logger were installed across the greater Hunter Valley in May 2009. Ninety-nine private landowners agreed to have a weather station on their property, while the remaining stations were installed on public land such as National Parks and State Forests. Stations were positioned to capture a range of environmental variation; from high-elevation forests to coastal heath and swamps. Every three months until December 2010, Australian Museum officers, Dr Michael Ashcroft and Dr John Gollan, downloaded hourly temperature and humidity data using portable laptop computers.

This project produced a unique and powerful dataset and provided new perspectives on the distribution of climate in various habitats. The large number of stations allowed us to identify complex non-linear, and temporally variable effects of factors such as canopy cover. Furthermore, we found further evidence that factors such as cold-air drainage have dominant effects under some conditions, and cannot continue to be ignored by studies that predict how species will respond to climate change.

The success of this pilot project led to an expansion and extension of the project under an Australian Research Council (ARC) linkage grant with the University of New South Wales, N.S.W. Office of Water, and the Central West Catchment Management Authority. We are now monitoring climate at 250 locations throughout the Hunter and Macquarie valleys until 2013. The project page for the ARC project is hosted by the University of New South Wales.

Dr Mick Ashcroft , Spatial Analyst
Dr John Gollan , Scientific Officer
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