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Queensland

Jan 18, 2011

Climate change … where it fits into the Queensland disaster

Premier Anna Bligh’s Royal Commission and media coverage appears to have given little, if any, explicit consideration of the role of climate change, writes journalist Graham Readfearn.

As Queenslanders continue to wade through the mud, Premier Anna Bligh has started the process of finding answers in the aftermath of the floods by calling a commission of inquiry, but the wide-ranging terms of reference appear to have given little, if any, explicit consideration of the role of climate change.

This is a strange omission, given that only three months ago the state published its latest assessment of the potential impacts of climate change.

“Climate change is also likely to affect extreme rainfall in south-east Queensland,” the report said, adding that “a projected decrease in rainfall across most of Queensland, the projected increase in rainfall intensity could result in more flooding events.”

Among the terms is a request to the commission to make recommendations to improve the “preparation and planning for future flood threats and risks”, particularly when it comes to saving lives.

Last year Queensland had its wettest year on record, but the spring period leading up to the flooding in the Rockhampton and Bundaberg areas and then in Brisbane, was exceptional. The state got 248 millimetres of rainfall — almost triple the statewide long-term average.

A separate Queensland government report into rainfall intensity, commissioned to provide advice to policy makers on inland flooding risks, also agreed that “the available scientific literature indicates this increased rainfall intensity to be in the range of 3%–10% per degree of global warming.”

But if these are the risks for Queensland it doesn’t necessarily implicate climate change in the line-up of suspects likely to be paraded before the public in coming months.

Several climate scientists are already discussing the role of increased atmospheric greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, caused mainly by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, and how it impacts extreme weather events.

Dr David Jones, head of climate monitoring and prediction at the Bureau of Meteorology, says there will be “a healthy scientific debate in the next few years about the point when the probability of an event was so implausibly small before climate change”.

“The signal-to-noise ratio is so high,” says Dr Jones, referring to the difficulty in picking out the climate change influence among the natural variability of weather and climate.

“The general view is that this is one of the strongest La Nina we have had in modern history where we have data going back to the early 1900s.

“The ocean temperatures last year were the highest on record and we know the oceans around Australia are warming quite quickly and that’s the fuel for the storms and rain events. In 2010 we had the highest humidity on record and July to October was our wettest ever.”

Dr Jones adds: “We have got extreme natural variability in La Nina which makes things confused, but we are seeing signatures of global warming in the climate system over Australia. We have the highest sea-surface temperatures on record with high humidity.

“The potential intensity of rainfall goes up with rising humidity. When people estimate what the likely maximum rainfall that can occur, one variable is the amount of moisture in the atmosphere. That’s well established.”

Professor Matthew England, co-director of University of New South Wales Climate Change Research Centre, is reluctant to explicitly apportion any of the flood crisis to climate change.

But he stresses that “to exclude climate change would be premature”.

Earlier this week, he told Reuters: “I think people will end up concluding that at least some of the intensity of the monsoon in Queensland can be attributed to climate change. The waters off Australia are the warmest ever measured and those waters provide moisture to the atmosphere for the Queensland and northern Australia monsoon.”

Speaking to Crikey, Professor England explained the waters to the north of Australia have warmed by about 0.5 degrees over the past 50 years.

Those waters are currently about 1.5 degrees warmer than average, he said, so it’s likely that about a third of this warming is due to long-term ocean temperature increases, the remainder due to the normal La Nina cycle.

“The warmth of the waters north of Australia drive our summer monsoon system via evaporation — the warmer the oceans are the greater the resulting moisture content of the atmosphere. In short, a warmer ocean north of Australia means increased monsoon rains.”

Professor England added that over the next 20-30 years, it was predicted that this same ocean region would warm by a further half a degree.

Professor Will Steffen, the science adviser to the Federal Department of Climate Change, has announced he will compile a report on the floods for the Gillard government’s multiparty climate change committee, of which he is a member.

One of Australia’s leading climate researchers, Professor Neville Nicholls, of Monash University and president of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, told Crikey that in terms of the impact of climate change on Queensland floods “the simple answer is that we really don’t know”.

He agrees that the core driver of the deluge was the strong La Nina system. “The question is, is [climate change] exacerbating this? I would dearly like to find the answer to that.

“The IPCC has been projecting for a long time that as we get more warming we will get increased heavy rainfall.”

He said not enough studies had been done to have confidence about the role of climate change in single extreme weather events occurring now.

He added: “We should not confuse low confidence to mean that this is not happening. There are good grounds for believing that the warming is already affecting climate and things like heavy rainfall.”

Professor Ron Cox, of the UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said: “The recent flood events in Queensland are a clear indication of the need for improved planning to adapt future development for our settlements and infrastructure. With expanding settlements, extreme weather resulting in emergency situations can be expected to become more frequent with higher temperatures and climate change.”

Dr Caroline Sullivan, associate Professor of Environmental Economics and Policy at Southern Cross University, added climate scientists around the world agreed that “extreme events are a likely outcome arising from climate change”.

She said: “There is currently so much evidence from across the world that global weather patterns are changing, it is not difficult to find many examples of extreme events.

“Let us once and for all learn from this, that climate change is real, and we must act now in a concerted fashion, before nature wreaks further havoc on our pitiful attempts to control it.”

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54 comments

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54 thoughts on “Climate change … where it fits into the Queensland disaster

  1. roscarel

    Q. Why has the term ‘Global Warming” been changed to “Cimate Change”?
    A. Evidence shows the wotld is actually cooling.

    Climate change is real and it began thousands of years ago.

  2. mattsui

    Well done, a balanced and well written article.
    No doubt there will be more flooding in the future.
    Beginning tomorrow with the usual flood of denialist ranting in Crikey’s very own comments ‘n’ c-ups.

  3. Roger Clifton

    Professor England said “a third of this [recent SST] warming is due to long-term ocean temperature increases”.

    That is still pretty serious, when you consider that the top third of the flood water went through your house, the middle third paused in Wivenho Dam, and the remainder went down the river “as normal”.

  4. peter jonson

    If the world really is cooling Roscarel – then shouldn’t we be emitting more CO2 to try and keep the planet habitable?

    I recall we had the issue of “Global Cooling” in the 1970s. How these things constantly changed has got me bamboozled. Is it true that climate was static before the Industrial Age?

  5. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Roscarel, I’m glad you’ve found some thing called a “wotld” and some ‘evidence’ about it. Otherwise I might have felt the need to write you off as a climate change sceptic or worse, a denialist. How can you possibly know what began “thousands of years ago” when you are in denial of what happened a fortnight back?

  6. Flower

    @ Roscarel: A. “Evidence shows the wotld is actually cooling.”

    Well no there is no evidence to show that the world is cooling.

    The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at the National Climatic Data Centre advised that:

    “For 2010, the combined global land and ocean surface temperature tied with 2005 as the warmest such period on record and above the 20th century average of 13.9°C (57.0°F). 1998 is the third warmest year-to-date on record, at 0.60°C (1.08°F) above the 20th century average.”

  7. rodholesgrove

    As far as I am aware Crikey is the only Australian media outlet that has run a serious article on the relationship between the Queensland floods and climate change.

    It seems that it is just not the ‘done thing’ to raise this issue. Barnaby Joyce was recently quoted as saying that to mention the possible relationship would be to “piss people off”. In today’s Canberra Times their political correspondent Ross Peake had an article on Bob Brown’s suggestion that the Coal industry as a contributor to global warming should help pay for the flood damage. Peake suggested that this was a “tasteless” comment, but did not say why.

    As the Crikey article noted the Queensland Government flood inquiry will not look at this relationship.

    Both the State and Federal Governments have been silent on the issue.

    If Governments are not prepared to address this issue then what is the point of doing anything about climate change?

  8. stephen martin

    An interesting article on climate models in the latest edition of New Scientist for those interested ib the subject – well worth a read.

  9. nicolino

    I would like to ask Roscarel where his evidence is that the globe is cooling?Nothing I have read on the subject supports that one.

  10. Roger Clifton

    The President of AMOS has been made to sound as if meteorologists are uncertain about the influence of climate change, although he was trying to answer about this event. A climate expert would be wise to answer a posed question about the cause of a specific event with a prepared answer about the general trend.

    And when a BOM scientist says, “The signal-to-noise ratio is so high”, it is politically strangled talk for “the conclusion is blindingly obvious, you drongo”. We have to remember that these guys have been forbidden to say anything that could be interpreted as a recommendation on policy, such as, “retreat from the sea!”, or “run for your lives!”.

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