Profile: David Wratt tackles climate change

The setting is short sleeves, but the topic is serious: David at a climate change meeting in Rarotonga. (Photo: Roger Lincoln, Ministry for the Environment)

When the Nobel Peace Prize was announced in October, David Wratt suddenly found himself in the spotlight, called upon by the New Zealand media to explain  the workings of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The prize was awarded jointly to the IPCC and to Al Gore, creator of the film ‘An inconvenient truth’.

The IPCC was founded in 1988 and David has been involved in various capacities since about 1990; presently he serves on the panel’s 30-strong Bureau (the steering committee), is vice-chair of Working Group 1 (which is concerned with the science of past, present, and future climate change), and is review editor for the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.

When he’s not involved with IPCC workshops and meetings, David works at NIWA’s Wellington campus. Before returning to Europe for the meeting to finalise a Synthesis Report combining findings from recent IPCC reports, he paused long enough to answer a few questions about his life as a scientist.

Congratulations! Did you ever imagine that your research would have this sort of reward?

No, I’d never even thought about the prize. I’d call it a very pleasant surprise for myself and the other NIWA lead authors and review editors: Dave Lowe, Jim Renwick, and Jim Salinger. In all, 10 New Zealanders were lead authors for the latest assessment, which is presently being published.

Winning the prize is really good because it recognises the work of the thousands of scientists around the world who have contributed to the IPCC’s findings. And it shows the value placed on a careful assessment of the science which can inform policy development and important international decisions.

How did you get into a career in science?

I grew up on a farm in Motueka and figured out early on that I didn’t especially want to milk cows all my life. I was always good at science and maths at school, so I went to the University of Canterbury to take a degree in physics. Then I stayed on to do a PhD in atmospheric science, using radar to study atmospheric physics 90 km up. By the time I’d followed this theme through a post-doc at the University of Illinois in the States, I was ready for a change and came back to New Zealand to work for the Meteorological Service at Kelburn in Wellington.

I was meant to train as a weather forecaster, but this was around the time of Think Big and the Met Service was charged with providing information to help minimise air-quality problems from the big industrial plants that were planned. So I ended up doing a lot of field work at proposed power station and industrial sites, trying to determine what would happen to any emissions, modelling how they might spread in the particular terrain, and generally developing expertise in that field rather than weather forecasting.

Later, with restructure at the Met Service, I became the R&D manager and also started doing some work with climate change.

When did you find your way to NIWA?

When the CRIs were established in 1992, the research and climate people from the Met Service were transferred into NIWA. For me it was a chance to step away from management and get back into science.

One of the first big programmes I was involved in at NIWA was a collaboration called SALPEX, the Southern Alps  Experiments. The aim was to understand and model how the Alps influence New Zealand’s weather and climate, especially rainfall in the hydro catchment. We did some really interesting field work using the Australian CSIRO’s instrumented plane – a Fokker Friendship – to measure droplet size, winds, and so forth during our big field campaign in 1996.

Since then, I’ve worked on some major studies that map present climate, climate variation, and soils within a region. We’re able to identify the areas where climate and soils suit various crops, and this helps people figure out the best use of their land. When we factor in future climate scenarios, we can help a lot of sectors – such as councils, farmers, tourism, and emergency managers – to plan ahead and adapt.

You’re NIWA’s new General Manager for Climate Change. What’s on the agenda?

Climate change and its potential impacts are becoming more and more of an issue in New Zealand. The position was created because climate change research draws on many disciplines – hazards, floods, aquaculture, water quality in rivers – and we need oversight of all these fields to understand what’s driving change, what is vulnerable, and how to increase resilience.

We’re working with other CRIs and universities to create a collaborative climate change centre that can help New Zealand Inc. by encouraging development of tools and science-based policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change.

And your ‘take-home’ message about climate change?

Climate has always changed. What’s different now is that humans are causing some of the changes through burning fossil fuels. If we continue down this track, we’re going to see major problems around the world.

There’s a strong scientific case for significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We need a combination of reducing our emissions in New Zealand and being part of international negotiations to reduce emissions globally in order to forestall the worst effects.

Learn more about climate and climate change

NIWA’s National Climate Centre:
Australian Bureau of Meteorology:
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:
UN Environment Program: