Climate change and variability: Assessing regional impacts of sugarcane production

Research objective

Determine how the sugarcane industry in the Mackay Whitsunday region can best meet the sustainability challenge of increasingly extreme events which are predicted to occur with Australia’s changing climate.

In particular, determine whether the current best practices will be sufficient to keep downstream water-quality impacts within the targets required for Great Barrier Reef water quality.

Project duration

2008 – 2010


Management practices being promoted to Queensland sugarcane growers have been found to reduce nitrogen loss from the paddock by 66%, even under future climate change scenarios.

Under climate change, annual nitrogen losses are projected to rise in the Mackay-Whitsunday region.

Even accounting for different climate change projections, the research shows that using ‘A-class’ management practices could reduce a grower’s annual nitrogen losses from 26 kgs to just 3 kgs per hectare.

A-class management practices include varying the rates of nutrient applied and forming permanent bed systems using GPS guidance to control traffic.

If widely adopted, these A-class management practices could significantly improve the ability of the sugar industry to respond to climate change as well as improve water quality entering the Great Barrier Reef lagoon.

Over the next 20 years the Mackay-Whitsunday region could experience a 17% decrease in median annual rainfall, a 0.5°C increase in maximum and minimum temperature, and a significant increase in severe storms or rain events.

Moving to A-class management practices would counteract any adverse effects of these changes, which are predicted to increase annual nitrogen losses by 5 kgs per hectare.

Sugar cane covers 19% of land in the Mackay-Whitsunday region, producing one third of Australia’s sugar.

Research contact

Will Higham, Reef Catchments

Phone: 07 4968 4205

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