Aussie drought gives US experts a glimpse of their future

Published 10 February 2014

Dry river bedAustralia’s long held reputation as the driest inhabited continent on Earth may come under challenge with the impact of climate change. Researchers from the United States are currently visiting drought stricken Far Western NSW to have a look at what the future of river systems in their country might look like.

Professor Martin Thoms from the University of New England’s Riverine Landscapes Research Lab says Australia is probably the place to visit to investigate the impact of drought.

“We have less water in our rivers and a lower rate of run-off than anywhere else and a huge portion of our country produces almost no run-off at all. To add to that dynamic mix of environmental factors, our rainfall and stream-flow are the most variable in the world.”

Professor Thoms says as climate change brings about longer, drier periods of weather in the United States there is a chance that American river systems will begin to more closely resemble current Australian conditions.

To examine at first hand the impact of drought on our river systems, two American riverine systems experts will be spending February investigation the health of our rivers, during a prolonged drought phase.

Professor Thoms says while drought brings real hardship to landholders and the environment, it presents a valuable research opportunity.

“It might be hard to find someone with a good word to say about a drought, but the reality is our river systems have adapted to handle that boom and bust cycle, which means our river’s secrets could potentially help our US friends as they encounter climate change and a drier landscape.”

Dr Bill Richardson from the US Geological Survey and Dr Joe Flotemersch from the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) will work with Professor Thoms on a number of projects during their visit.

Professor Thoms says the American researchers have access to a wide range of investigative tools from satellite based remote sensing to extensive computer flood plain modelling capacity.

“They have the tools and we have the questions, so the visit down under by the US team will help us both to better understand both the environment we have now and the future they might be facing.”