Phil Mercer, in Sydney
It all looks, feels, and sounds slightly incongruous. Six huge cylindrical steel skeletons, each almost 100 feet tall, rise above a native Eucalyptus forest at the foothills of Australia’s misty Blue Mountains on the outskirts of Sydney. The towers and arrays of pipes are all part of an environmental “time machine,” in which giant fans pump carbon dioxide into a part of the wild Australian bush.
The idea is to study how this ecosystem responds, according to David Ellsworth, a New Yorker who’s in charge of the unique project through the University of Western Sydney. It’s called the Eucalyptus Woodland Free-Air CO2 Enrichment Project—EucFACE—and it’s meant to simulate high levels of CO2 that the planet could well face in the next half century, and predict how vegetation here will react to climate change.
Most predictions of the impact of rising temperatures and CO2 are based on computer models, historical data or small plots of land. Big outdoor carbon dioxide trials are rare, and the university says this is the world’s biggest, and the only one to use mature woodland.
It’s part of a global effort to try to figure out where we’re headed as greenhouse gas pollution rises. Climate change is raising the prospect of a world much different than the one we all know, but there are infinite variations on that future, depending on everything from where people live to how much more pollution humans as a whole to put into the atmosphere.
Australia is already feeling the largely unwelcome effects of climate change, and more dramatic change is all but certain. Ellsworth and his colleagues hope this massive, decade-long experiment in simulating the climate of the future in a real landscape will help the country better prepare for what may lie ahead.
One of the 22-metre tall modular scaffolds wobbles a bit as climbers near the top, but it provides a grand view of the project. Stretching out in front are six giant rings, three of which pump out carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas at the heart of the experiment
Senior engineering officer Steven Wolh, also from the University of Western Sydney, says the scaffold allows researchers to place instrumentation at different heights in the tree canopy.
The key questions they hope to answer is how this ecosystem will actually respond to carbon dioxide concentrations of the future, and whether or not the vegetation and soil will actually store more carbon.
Professor Ellsworth says that’s important because Australia’s bush occupies a large part of the country’s land mass, and so is a big part of the government’s carbon sequestration strategy. The hope is that the bush will soak up a lot of the extra CO2 the country emits.
“If native bush is not able to do more than it currently does,” Ellsworth says, “then we need to now that pretty urgently, I think.”
Ian Anderson, a director of research at the University of Western Sydney, says most of the experiments here are aimed at looking 30-50 years ahead, by simulating the growing CO2 concentrations and higher temperatures predicted over that timeframe.
He says they also have the experimental facilities to actually look back in time.
“So we can actually take CO2 out of the atmosphere in some of our controlled environment rooms, and look at how those plants would’ve responded back in time, I guess to build up a bit of a picture of where they’ve been, where we are now and where we are going to go to in the future.”
Other projects at the facility are investigating changes in precipitation, as well as the combined responses to higher temperatures and elevated CO2 by enclosing entire trees in large plastic chambers.
The taxpayer-funded project is the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere. It took a year to build, and will last for a decade. The government says the experiments will transform climate change research in Australia, which emits more greenhouse gas pollution per person than anywhere else in the developed world.