Placing geomorphology in the public domain

6th June 2020

In April 2020, Australian colleagues and I published a paper in Scientific Reports, part of the Nature Research group of journals (Larkin et al., 2020, Identifying threshold responses of Australian dryland rivers to future hydroclimatic change, Scientific Reports, 10: 6653, doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-63622-3). This paper was based on one of the chapters in Zacc Larkin’s successful PhD thesis (awarded 2019) and its production from draft chapter to published article has probably been one of the more intellectually satisfying exercises that I have been involved with. Aside from press releases, it is also the first paper where I have been involved with writing an accompanying non-specialist, online article to put the geomorphological findings into the public domain. The experience has been instructive, and in this post I reflect upon some of the lessons learned.

We wrote this non-specialist article for The Conversation, an outlet that styles itself as “an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public.” Online articles can be republished for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons licence. In just a few days, our article (Larkin, Ralph, Tooth, “Australia’s inland rivers are the pulse of the outback. By 2070, they’ll be unrecognizable”, The Conversation, 20th April 2020, https://theconversation.com/australias-inland-rivers-are-the-pulse-of-the-outback-by-2070-theyll-be-unrecognisable-136492) had generated many thousands of reads, and had been re-published in 8 or 9 other outlets ranging from Australian Geographic to Smart Water Magazine. After one month, the article had generated over 20 000 reads, mainly from the USA and Australia, and to this day still continues to generate a steady trickle of reads and the occasional highlight in other outlets. More significantly, in just 3 days the article had generated just over 100 comments (The Conversation closes the comments sections on articles after 72 hours, and earlier if community standards are at risk of being broken).

The gist of our Scientific Reports article was that although rivers provide crucial ecosystem services in the water-stressed Australian drylands, we have limited understanding of the sensitivity of these rivers to future hydroclimatic changes. In the article, we characterised for the first time the geomorphology of 29 dryland rivers with catchments across a humid to arid gradient covering nearly half of continental eastern and central Australia. By defining five specific, dominantly alluvial river types and relating their geomorphological characteristics to present-day catchment hydroclimates, we were able to identify potential thresholds of river change that may occur in response to 21st century climate change. Based on publically-available climate model outputs, we found that the projected aridity increases across eastern Australia by 2070 will result in major flow regime changes (e.g. lower flow volumes, greater flow variability), with ~80% of these dryland rivers crossing a threshold from one type to another. This threshold crossing will likely be manifest in major geomorphological changes. Dramatic cases will see currently through-going rivers (e.g. Murrumbidgee, Macintyre) experience step changes towards greater river discontinuity, characterised by pronounced downstream declines in channel size and perhaps local channel termination.

The Conversation article essentially reprised the points made above. Given our intended audience, we avoided the statistical analyses of river morphology and catchment hydroclimates and the details of the climate models that underpinned our arguments, but we included a few more examples of the sorts of river changes (in general terms) that might be expected along certain Australian rivers during the rest of the century. Notably, and partly for reasons related to space restrictions, in both the Scientific Reports paper and The Conversation article we did not address key scientific issues such the possible lag times between hydroclimatic and river changes, or the details of the likely ecological responses in changing rivers. We also did not stray into importance social science questions, such as the potential implications of our findings for environmental management policy and practice at local, regional, or national level.

Interestingly, given this inclusion and exclusion, few of the substantive comments on our article in The Conversation questioned our scientific findings or raised questions about the scientific issues that we had not addressed. Some people commented that the findings were not particularly surprising for those familiar with Australia’s rivers but most were complementary about the fact that we had undertaken the detailed research and brought the findings to public attention. As is the policy of The Conversation, we had made clear our funding sources and any links to relevant environmental agencies/organizations in the information that accompanied the article and in our author profiles, and a few comments latched on this and questioned and how this funding or our links might have biased our analyses or interpretations (short answer: they didn’t). We were criticised by some people for not specifically addressing the land use or water policy implications of our findings. A number of the same people provided their own views on these policy implications, in some cases reiterating old (contentious and largely discredited) ideas about turning northward-flowing rivers south to water the desiccating inland areas, perhaps creating an inland sea in the process. More significantly, a sizeable number of comments from a few individuals raised the highly contentious issue of population policy, essentially making the point that stricter controls on population growth (commonly meaning ‘immigration controls’) need to be in place if improved management of Australia’s dryland rivers and the wider environment is to be achieved.

As these comments rapidly accumulated in the hours after the article’s publication, Zacc, Tim Ralph and I devised a loose strategy and policy for responding. We felt if best to respond to all substantive comments, even the outlandish ones, giving thanks for the varied perspectives but not engaging in detailed critiques of the pros and cons of any policy suggestions. In other words, we would acknowledge but not antagonize. We divided our labour, with Zacc or Tim responding to those were they felt most comfortable and me chipping in where I felt best able to. This meant that I got engaged in some back-and-forth over the issue of population growth and its environmental impacts, and why we and other geoscientists generally were unwillingly to offer too many opinions in these debates. Although I have my personal views, commenting on Australia’s population policy is far outside my remit as a geomorphologist, Aberystwyth University employee, and UK citizen, and so public comment on such topics is best left to others better qualified. In any case, collectively, we made the decision try not to get dragged too far into what was effectively a side debate (albeit an important one) to an article that was about 21st century climate change and river response.

Were we successful in our approach to dealing with comments? Maybe. But the main lesson that I learned from this example of putting geomorphology into the public domain – something that reinforced lessons arising from other past public engagement events (e.g. Science Café talks, public discussions, media engagements – see https://stephentooth.wordpress.com/2014/03/06/media-encounters-of-the-third-kind/) is the need to consider in advance how any particular geomorphological issue will likely intersect in multiple ways with the myriad concerns of non-specialists, and then to decide where to draw the line in offering opinions. In advance of the release of an online article, a public talk or media interview, this is difficult to do but essential to try. One needs to be very careful not to overstretch expertise when making comments in public fora, especially on contentious, vexed issues where one has to be careful when walking the tightrope between objectivity and advocacy (for a another example, see https://stephentooth.wordpress.com/2015/05/03/frack-to-the-future/).

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Although the issue was not really raised in the comments on our article in The Conversation, we can also reflect on the possible role of geomorphology in a post-COVID 19 world, or — as appears increasingly likely — a world that learns to live with COVID-19 (see https://stephentooth.wordpress.com/2020/05/31/covid-19-conundrums/). Like many other scientists and associated ‘experts’, geomorphologists seem to suffer from two polar opposite opinions; either an unrealistic expectation that we should be able to provide all the answers to questions about future land surface dynamics in a rapidly changing world, or an inaccurate assertion that we don’t have any answers to any questions because our science is flawed, being based on incomplete data and ‘models that don’t work’. In a world after (or with) COVID-19, there will likely continue to be a battle between these two opinions, just as there will be for many other academic disciplines. Whichever opinion gains the upper hand, however, it is highly likely that funding for so-called ‘pure’ scientific research (sometimes termed ‘basic’, ‘blue skies’ or ‘curiosity-driven’ research) will be squeezed in favour of funding for ‘applied’ scientific work that can more immediately and directly demonstrate its ‘usefulness’, ‘value’ or ‘worth’ in socioeconomic terms. So what does this mean for geomorphology?

Of course, our role as geomorphologists lies somewhere in between the two polar views caricatured above; for sure, we don’t have all the answers but we certainly do have study approaches, methods and lines of reasoning that hopefully contribute to providing our best estimates of what land surface processes, landforms and landscape dynamics will look like in an inherently uncertain future. Our Scientific Reports paper provides some very clear illustrations for the specific case of Australian dryland rivers. Our estimates are not firm predictions but possible, plausible projections of scenarios that might unfold over the coming years, decades and century. Expanding our approach to include other river styles that are more widely represented outside of Australia (e.g. mixed bedrock- alluvial styles) would allow similar analyses of dryland rivers globally where hydroclimate is an important driver of change. And if this sort of early identification of dryland river responses to future hydroclimatic change could be expanded for global application, it would have far-reaching implications for the ~2 billion people that live in drylands and rely on riverine ecosystem services. So perhaps this is one area where geomorphology needs to shout louder in demonstrating its socioeconomic value; evidence-based, decision making regarding landform and landscape futures needs to have a geomorphological input.

Unfortunately, so far, geomorphologists have not been particularly good at shouting loudly. Lane’s (2013) editorial in one of the leading geomorphological journals asked a pointed question: ‘21st century climate change: where has all the geomorphology gone?’ (Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, v. 38, pp.106-110, doi.org/10.1002/esp.3362). One of his main points was that geomorphological work seemed to have made relatively little impact on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), despite several methodological advances that have enabled geomorphological reconstructions over timescales highly relevant to late 20th century and 21st century climate change. Lane argued that one area where progress was still needed was in addressing ‘geomorphic futures’, namely establishing how climate variability might change during the 21st century and what this might mean for geomorphic processes, landforms and entire landscapes. As Lane pondered (p.108): “Predicting the non-linear behaviour [in geomorphic system-climate coupling] described by many geomorphologists will be difficult. But is it any more difficult than the climate science, ecosystem science or any other kinds of science where ‘futures’ work has become more dominant?”. Based on the findings in our Scientific Reports paper, we suggest that the answer is ‘no’.

One final point is perhaps also worth making: attempts to create a false dichotomy between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research should be resisted. My experience has been that one can never tell in advance which geomorphological investigations will prove to be the most useful. Our Scientific Reports paper can be broadly characterised as ‘applied’ — or at least potentially ‘applicable’ — for it makes plausible projections of future changes to Australian dryland rivers that with development and additional data could form a key part of land and water use scenario planning. But these projections are based upon the foundations provided by many decades of investigations involving ‘pure’ (i.e. ‘basic’, ‘blue skies’, ‘curiosity-driven’) data collection, analysis and writing, investigations that at the time were undertaken with no immediate application in mind. At the time of my PhD fieldwork in the mid 1990s, for instance, I was commonly quizzed on why I thought studies of river forms, processes and dynamics in the middle of the Australian desert were interesting or useful. Typically, this quizzing wasn’t meant to be confrontational, but reflected genuine puzzlement among family and friends. At the time, my short, somewhat pat, answer was that it was interesting and useful to learn more about the workings of the world, no matter how remote my particular study region might be. Isn’t it of intrinsic value, for instance, to understand why many Australian dryland rivers run in multiple channels rather than one single channel? Or to ask why many rivers terminate on channelless plains in the middle of nowhere rather than reaching a larger river, a lake, or the sea? Or to establish why many Australia dryland rivers seemingly operate and look so different to those on other continents?

Of course, at the time I did not have a full vision of where my research might lead but that vision has gradually emerged. At the start of this blog piece, I referred to the intellectual satisfaction associated with the production of our Scientific Reports paper. Part of this satisfaction is derived from the knowledge that all my PhD and post-PhD fieldwork hours wandering along hot, dry river beds in some of the remotest parts of inland Australia have – eventually, and only decades later – been combined with the findings of others to add up to something much more impactful. The ‘pure’ research provided the essential foundations upon which the more ‘applied’ piece of work could be based. Out of many individual investigations that were seemingly esoteric to many has resulted a paper that can be perhaps can be viewed as more immediately ‘useful’, having generated public interest and debate over related issues of environmental governance and public policy. This particular lesson needs to be borne in mind as we emerge from the current immediate COVID-19 crisis and pressure is brought to bear on the direction of academic research and other related activities.