Downed power lines and flooded streets have become commonplace during drought in the country’s Western Plains; however, the region’s severe floods prove the unpredictable havoc climate change has on the nation’s agricultural sector.
The monsoon season delivered catastrophic flooding this year, flooding that has led to the death of three people, 1487 livestock and more than $20 million in damages, according to a report from The Australian newspaper. The additional drought also will cripple agricultural output this year, with crop failures expected to approach the worst drought since 1987, when losses totaled $110 million, according to the United Nations. According to professor Justin Podur, director of the Project on Accurate Economic and Social Modeling of Disasters (PEDEST), the flooding will likely be Australia’s worst in nearly 100 years.
“There have been great floods and great droughts in the past, but I’m not thinking back a hundred years at the moment,” said Dr. David Harvey, a fellow at the ANU climate research program. He explained that during the “droughts” experienced in the past, the prairie survived largely intact because it had gained such little elevation over the centuries. However, now the prairie’s high elevations will be threatened, the ground will be saturated and the “dry wells” will be flooded, he told the Australian newspaper. “Certainly what we have seen is that … they have been high, they have been dry wells and they’ve had some major problems,” he added.
The rain and flooding is a stark sign of the havoc climate change is wreaking on Australia. Last November, an October heat wave resulted in 28 heat-related deaths, twice the number of deaths in 2012 when New South Wales had its worst droughts in 60 years. The amount of damaging rainfall at Victoria’s Wimmera, Gippsland and King Islands, as well as Tasman Peninsula, ranks in the top five disasters of Australia’s deadliest weather events. In contrast, less than one percent of the floodwater from the catastrophic 2011 floods reached the coast and killed two people, while the Brisbane suburb of Logan, one of the worst affected areas in Queensland, only received 10 percent of its average yearly rainfall.
Due to factors such as climate change, extreme weather events are set to worsen. “Is climate change as we have known it in Australia or will it be different? What we don’t know is how unpredictable and extreme that will be,” said Professor Chris Lowe, acting director of the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at ANU.
Climate skeptics say the extreme weather is random. “The fluctuations that have plagued Australia over recent decades are not attributable to climate change; they are due to a combination of natural variability and human activities,” said Julie Pearce, senior policy advisor at the Australian Christian Lobby.
Climate scientists, however, have accused conservatives of distorting the true causes of the drought and the floods. “These are not just random events; they are also attributable to humans, particularly human-induced climate change,” said Greg Johnson, the chief executive of ACES.
Climate experts attribute climate change to a trend of warming sea temperatures, which creates more evaporation. In turn, this releases more moisture from land areas like Australia’s High Plains to the ocean, which leads to more rain. According to Professor Harvey, it was drier last year than during the drought of 1917-1918, which was the nation’s driest on record.
“Global warming will be something that never goes away,” he added. “It will continue.”