Australia experts look to climate 'time machine'

Two of the towering frames with huge cranes beside them
Image caption The project will mimic future conditions by imposing higher levels of CO2

An ecological time machine has been set up that Australian scientists hope will provide an unprecedented glimpse into the impact of climate change.

Half a dozen giant steel frames nine storeys high tower over native bushland as part of one of the world's most complex experiments looking at the influence of rising levels of carbon dioxide.

The project, near the town of Richmond northwest of Sydney, will mimic future climatic conditions by imposing higher levels of CO2 on an entire ecosystem, from fungi and soil bacteria to the trees and insects that live in them.

Scientists say the research will give governments more information about how to plan for environmental challenges that could lie ahead.

Image caption The cranes built and continue to service the high frames

"We have six of these arrays of pipes up in the woodland designed to emit carbon dioxide in a computer-controlled system so we can study how this ecosystem responds in a rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration," explained Professor David Ellsworth of the University of Western Sydney.

The CO2 is vapourised in large tanks and pumped by large fans high into the forest from perforated fibreglass piping.

The experiment, which has taken researchers a year to construct, will last for a decade.

Academics say it is the world's biggest outdoor carbon dioxide trial and the only one to use mature woodland.

"We're hoping to find out how this ecosystem actually responds to carbon dioxide concentration of the future, and whether it will actually store more carbon or not," Prof Ellsworth added.

"That's really important from the standpoint of native bush in Australia, which occupies a very large part of our land mass and is part of our carbon sequestration strategy, which is to allow native bush to soak up the extra CO2 we emit.

"If native bush is not able to do more than it currently does at the present day then we need to know that pretty urgently," he said.

'Something new'

The scale of the research is best appreciated high on a platform in the centre of one of the steel rings.

After a steep climb, the scaffold affords hazy views of the Blue Mountains and sways gently as the wind breezes past in soothing waves.

The experimental site covers about two hectares.

"This 22-metre tall modular scaffolding allows us to place instrumentation at different heights in the canopy and also gives the researchers a unique perspective of the canopy," explained Steven Wohl, the senior engineering officer at the Eucalyptus Free Air Carbon Enrichment (EucFACE) facility.

He said it was "nice to think you are discovering something new that other people haven't had the opportunity to do yet".

The Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at the University of Western Sydney is looking both back and forward in time in search of clues that will give them a greater understanding of a shifting climate.

Image caption It has taken Prof Ellsworth and his team a year to build the experiment

In another project, a dozen single trees are housed separately in transparent chambers in precisely calibrated conditions that simulate global environmental change.

"Most of our experiments are aimed at looking 30-50 years ahead based on predictions, so our CO2 concentrations and our temperature treatments are based around looking ahead to that sort of timeframe," Director of Research Ian Anderson said.

"We also have the experimental facilities to actually look back in time, so we can take CO2 out of the atmospheres in some of our controlled environment rooms and look at how those plants would've responded back in time, 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."

Funded by taxpayers, scientists hope the experiments will transform climate change research in Australia, which emits more greenhouse gas pollution per person than anywhere else in the developed world.

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