Chief Scientist calls for national smoke monitoring

Smoke from the bushfire in Namadgi National Park covered Canberra in January. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Smoke from the bushfire in Namadgi National Park covered Canberra in January. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Australia's Chief Scientist has called for national smoke plume forecasting, after large parts of the country were choked by hazardous air during the 2019-20 bushfires.

Dr Alan Finkel told the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements on Monday there needed to be national approach to air quality monitoring and smoke plume forecasting.

NSW and Victoria use systems from the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology to monitor risks to health, aviation and Defence Force activities, his submission said.

Dr Finkel called for the tools to be rolled out to all states and territories. They could even be used to predict the movement of dust and pollen, or predict smoke patterns from planned and unplanned fires or industrial activities, he said.

He said there needed to be further development of Earth observation techniques, such as satellites and high-resolution aircraft-mounted cameras, into state and territories' disaster preparedness systems.

Dr Finkel also urged more money to be poured into developing new materials for construction, personal protective equipment and retrofitting older buildings.

Australia's Chief Scientist Alan Finkel gives evidence to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements on Monday. Picture: Screenshot

Australia's Chief Scientist Alan Finkel gives evidence to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements on Monday. Picture: Screenshot

The recommendations were developed as the coronavirus pandemic was ramping up in Australia earlier in the year.

Counsel-assisting Dominique Hogan-Doran asked how investment in disaster-resilience ranked in terms of priorities at a time the nation was in considerable financial stress due to COVID-19.

"It's always difficult, but you know, as a nation we would be poorer if we only focused on the immediate and not the medium and the long term. And it's the nature of research to provide solutions that will help us in future years and it's past research that is providing us with the expertise as well as the technologies - it's both that count - the people as well as the products of the research that enable us to, or contribute to our ability to dealing with the problem of the day," Dr Finkel said.

Dr Finkel said it was possible to use programs already run by the Department of Industry to incentivise the development of technologies to help deal with climate-extenuated natural disasters.

However he said that approach risked redirecting funds from other worthy causes.

"So we have existing mechanisms that can be used but they need funding, and I'm strongly of the opinion that investing in research today for the longer term benefit cannot be put to the side," Dr Finkel said.

"It's a false dichotomy between worrying about the immediate responses to the economic impact, versus worrying about the long-term benefits of research. We just need to manage both."

Menzies Institute for Medical Research environmental health researcher Associate Professor Fay Johnston said modelling suggested there were 445 deaths directly attributable to smoke from the fires, 3340 admissions to hospital for heart and lung-related problems, and 1373 additional presentations to emergency departments for asthma.

Meanwhile concerns have also been raised about Australia's reliance on international satellites.

All of the Earth observation data Australian agencies rely on comes from foreign-owned satellites.

SmartSat CRC chief executive Professor Andy Koronios told the commission this was a risk in today's geopolitical environment. SmartSat is a consortium of 100 organisations, including 17 universities, 30 Australian international companies, 55 start-ups, the Department of Defence and CSIRO.

"More satellite systems can offer an opportunity for Australia to develop its own capabilities in this area," Professor Koronios said.



This story Chief Scientist calls for national smoke monitoring first appeared on The Canberra Times.

Comments