In profile: Philippa Higgins

Pacific Island countries are among the most vulnerable to climate change. While sea level rise is a hot topic and clearly a major risk, the impact of changing precipitation patterns on water resources also requires urgent attention.

Philippa Higgins’ PhD research seeks to better understand how climate change is impacting aquifers in small Pacific Islands, offering some guidance in the South Pacific where a lack of data makes research and decision-making very challenging.

While she is just one year into her PhD, in future Philippa hopes to join a research-intensive academic institution or a governmental research organisation, providing robust scientific evidence to underpin policy development in the area of climate change and water resources.

Her current research is putting her on the right path, combining an interesting scientific study with a real chance to improve water management in the Pacific.

“We know that rainfall patterns across the Pacific are changing, but we don’t know what impact this will have on groundwater,” says Philippa.

“This project will improve our understanding of the water-related vulnerabilities of Pacific island countries to climate change, with direct implications for water management and sustainable resource development in both Vanuatu and the broader Pacific region.”

This project will improve our understanding of the water-related vulnerabilities of Pacific island countries to climate change

Philippa Higgins, PhD Student

Small island countries face seasonally variable rainfall and insecure water supplies, and also lack the institutional capacity necessary to manage water resources effectively. Moreover, climate data records in these Pacific Island nations are usually very short, making it hard to make robust predictions for the future.

Philippa’s novel approach uses remote tree-ring datasets to reconstruct historical wet and dry periods across the islands. She is currently working with colleagues in Vanuatu’s Department of Water Resources and the University of the South Pacific, with benefits of this knowledge-exchange partnership flowing both ways.

 “There are so many questions to be answered, especially in the South Pacific where the lack of data makes research really challenging,” says Philippa,

“By working together with local partners, I can draw on the existing knowledge about climate, groundwater resources, and aquifer vulnerability from in-country experts. Meanwhile, outcomes for Vanuatu and the Pacific Region are improved, because the research methodology is developed in collaboration with the end users of the information.”Measuring water depth in the Tagabe well field, April 2019. Credit: Martin Andersen.

Philippa says that one of the major benefits of the project is that she has the opportunity to work across a number of different disciplines.

“I really enjoy the interdisciplinary aspect of this project,” says Philippa.

“I get to dabble in dendrochronology, climate science, statistics as well as hydrogeology; I am learning new things every day and its never boring!”

Philippa has a Bachelor of Environmental Engineering from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and a joint Master in Groundwater and Global Change from UNESCO-IHE Delft. She received a Scientia PhD scholarship to study at UNSW, which she says has provided her with many opportunities for personal and professional development.

“I get to work with experts across multiple fields, participate in international collaborations, attend training courses and conferences, and of course, do fieldwork in a truly beautiful part of the world,” says Philippa.

“Above all, my favourite thing about studying at UNSW is working in the Water Research Centre, where I have the most lovely and supportive colleagues you could hope for.”

Philippa’s research is supervised by Dr Martin Andersen, Prof Chris Turney and Dr Jonathan Palmer.

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