13 August 2019

Young passion for climate change warms the heart of ACT's Scientist of the Year

| Lachlan Roberts
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Dr Sophie Lewis has been named the 2019 ACT Scientist of the Year. Photos: Supplied by UNSW Canberra.

Dr Sophie Lewis admits she finds it difficult to stay positive when she sees Canberra’s dry winters and scorching summer heatwaves break long-standing weather records, but what warms the climate scientist’s heart is seeing the next generation bringing heat to the issue.

Hot on the heels of Canberra’s driest July in 37 years, Dr Lewis has been named the 2019 ACT Scientist of the Year for her groundbreaking studies on extreme weather conditions and how climate change contributes to bushfires and droughts.

The $30,000 prize money that comes with the award will help Dr Lewis establish a youth climate network, providing young people with mentorship and access to scientific information.

“The prize is a fantastic opportunity for me to do something that I am really passionate about, which will be to build up high school and college-aged students in the ACT to become future leaders within the climate space,” Dr Lewis shared with Region Media.

“There is some really growing momentum in terms of what young people are telling us about their future and a liveable planet. That really inspires me. They are so switched on and empowered that we just need to support them.

“Children have such powerful voices when we listen to them.

“It can be hard to stay positive when you’re working in a field like climate change, but I do get a lot of optimism and hope from seeing how knowledgeable and active young people are in terms of tackling climate change and acting towards their future.”

Dr Lewis is a senior lecturer at UNSW Canberra.

Dr Lewis is a senior lecturer at UNSW Canberra.

A senior lecturer and Research Fellow at the UNSW Canberra, Dr Lewis started her research on Australia’s record hot 2013 summer and has since been forecasting the long-term effects of climate change.

“There is a group of us who are looking at the really dry conditions that we have had in the last few winters,” Dr Lewis shared. “They have really severely affected large parts of Australia and we know that when we have a lack of winter rainfall – it causes problems in our agriculture which has a flow-on effect to our economy.

“We are also looking at summers [and the] extreme heat waves that we are having. They are getting worse, and quickly. We will have record-breaking temperatures and those records will be broken again rapidly.

“These are records that we don’t want to be breaking. They are coming with serious consequences like longer bushfire seasons and the Great Barrier Reef being bleached because ocean temperatures are too hot.”

Dr Lewis’ recent study believes that 50C days could occur in cities across Australia in the coming decades, with concerns that 35 degree days may soon be mild ones in decades to come.

Her extensive knowledge on the subject also resulted in her being selected as one of 721 climate scientists from 90 countries who will produce the Sixth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

While there is a lot of work to be done to tackle climate change, Dr Lewis is content that the future is in good hands.

“Another result that we have seen from our research is that the temperatures we have experienced in recent years, the ones that have been the hottest in 100 years, will be mild in a few decades,” she said.

“This is not going to get better, so we need to start preparing for summers to get hotter and plan about how our cities are going to cope with it. Personally, I am really concerned.

“Climate change is going to affect everyone who is living today and well into the future. We can really limit the impact and make the world more positive and better in the future if we act now.”

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