Future Of: Coastal Wetlands and Climate Change

Coastal wetlands could play a key role in mitigating the effects of greenhouse gas emissions by capturing and storing

The March instalment of the ‘Future Of’ series is from A/Prof. Kerrylee Rogers, an Environmental Scientist from the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Life Sciences and one of UOW’s Women of Impact. She is developing strategies to mitigate climate change in coastal wetland regions, and has recently published her work in the prestigious science journal Nature.

What are you researching or working on in 2019?

I have just completed my ARC Future Fellowship which was focused on determining the vulnerability of coastal carbon sinks (i.e. coastal wetlands with mangrove and saltmarsh). Over this period I have collected a lot of data and I now intend spending this year to consolidate all the information I have collected to determine some regional patterns regarding how coastal wetlands and the carbon that they store will respond to sea-level rise. To start the year off I have had a paper published in Nature which relates wetland carbon storage to sea-level rise over the past few millennia and infers that sea-level rise, in many parts of the world will result in a significant increase in carbon sequestration and contribution to climate mitigation. This is particularly important in the southern hemisphere where carbon sequestration may have been limited due to relatively stable sea levels over the past few millennia which means that the space available for carbon storage became increasingly limited. 

As an outcome of this, I am keen to start working on using a range of remotely sensed data to identify national hotspots for carbon sequestration and develop models of the response of carbon sinks to sea-level rise. 

Through my future fellowship I have met a number of researchers doing similar work in North America, South Africa and Brazil and I really look forward to working with them in the next few years, particularly with my southern hemisphere colleagues as the similarities between coastal landscapes in ecosystems and landscapes across the southern hemisphere are more evident than their differences. However the capacity to make these connections has previously been limited by the distances between Brazil and South Africa; I am hoping that we can start to bridge this gap (technology will help) and be able to share knowledge across the southern hemisphere.

What are some of the most innovative or exciting things expected to emerge from your field of expertise over the next few years?

Remotely sensed data is becoming increasingly available (many sources are now freely available) and improvements in the capacity of computers to handle big data means that our capacity to synthesise and interpret this data will be markedly increased. The accuracy of data for determining the vertical position of sea levels and land surfaces using satellites has improved over the past 10 years, and new satellites will mean that this information will continue to improve. This data will significantly improve our capacity to model the response of coastal wetlands to sea-level rise and to accurately describe the interaction between land and sea surfaces. Consequently, I think an emerging area will be the application of remotely sensed data from satellites or drones to develop global models and spatial models of how wetlands respond to sea-level rise and climate change. 

Importantly, I think this will start to address some of the spatial disparity in our knowledge of how coastal wetlands respond to sea-level rise as currently the bulk of assessments are based on studies from the North Atlantic Ocean and some from Australia. Improvements in technology will mean that research can be undertaken more feasibly for remote shorelines.

What are some of the things readers should be wary of over the next few years?

I have struggled to answer this question. I could answer this from an academic perspective, with respect to my discipline and with respect to humanity; I have tried to address each of these below. 

From an academic perspective, I think readers should be wary of the metrics used to assess academic success and research accuracy, with particular reference to research publication. I think publish or perish mentality is having serious feedbacks with research accuracy. Too many questionable papers are getting through the review process and the effectiveness of the review process is dismantling. The outcome is that reviewers are fatigued from having to review too many papers, researchers are submitting papers that are not as impactful and of lower academic quality, and papers are slipping through the process that really should not be published or require considerably more work to be suitable for publication. This undermines science and contributes to a growing sense that science cannot be believed, particularly when those questionable papers are used to undermine science. Academics are an integral part of the review process and we should take this responsibility seriously, and researchers who publish should share the load of peer review more equitably to ensure the value of science is maintained. Unfortunately, publish or perish will be here for some time, and we therefore need to be more critical of the research we read. 

With respect to my discipline, I think we should be wary of extrapolating information that has been undertaken elsewhere to new shorelines without fully understanding the pertinent processes contributing to environmental change at the location where the work was originally developed and where it is now being applied. Here I am specifically talking about the application of models of the response of shorelines to sea-level rise that have been developed in North America or Europe to mode distal shorelines of the southern hemisphere. The differences between shorelines and the processes that operate on them can be significant, and without fully understanding the influence of these factors, extrapolation should be undertaken cautiously. It is extrapolations that can lead to outlandish claims of the fate of shorelines to sea-level rise and more caution should be undertaken by researchers when applying models. 

Finally, I could not ignore our responsibility to address climate change and our need to significantly increase carbon sequestration efforts. The next 10 years will be critical for limiting global warming to a few degrees increase by the end of the century and this will require bold actions from governments, and individuals. As individuals we should be wary of being complacent about this issue or deflecting the problem by claiming that our individual contribution to climate mitigation is inconsequential. We need to be alarmed about this threat and alert with regards to carbon emissions that we as individuals are creating. 

Where do opportunities lie for people thinking about a career in this field?

Big data handling and integration with field data! Access to and the quality of remotely sensed data is significantly improving and there will be many opportunities for people with coding skills to start interpreting this new generation of data. I am excited about the prospects of working with the next generation and validating their analyses with field based data. 

I also think there are many opportunities for Australians to assist our neighbours in the Asia Pacific region and we should be stepping up to the plate to do this. Our region is amongst the most vulnerable globally to sea-level rise, and Australians have significant expertise that we can use to assist our neighbours with planning for sea-level rise and improving climate mitigation. They need our help and this will create opportunities. 

What’s the best piece of advice you can offer our readers based on your expertise?

Be persistent. Developing an academic career takes a long time (maybe too long) but I am confident that the rewards will be worth it. Working on impactful research takes a long time, but is needed and shouldn’t be shied away from.