Ex-tropical cyclone Oswald has left a trail of damage and destruction from it's origins in the Gulf of Carpentaria to crossing Cape York and working it's way down the Queensland Coast. The storms brought destructive winds, tornados, rough seas, storm surge and torrential rain, followed by flooding. Quite a few rain records were broken for 24 and 48 hour periods in Rockhampton, Gladstone and Bundaberg with some rain gauges recording well over one metre of rain in 48 hours. Now flood level records are being broken for many river basins and towns like Bunderberg and Gympie.
Although the flood levels in Brisbane city may be lower than the devastating floods in 2011, largely due to better management of water storage in the Wivenhoe Dam, in many regional towns and areas these floods are much much worse and are at record levels.
While the Brisbane CBD may be spared flooding damage, many low lying suburbs around Brisbane will feel the force of the muddy dirty water swirling through their yards and houses. And regional towns are faring much worse in these floods than in 2011.
Thousands of people are being displaced, and hundreds are requiring rooftop emergency rescues from rapidly rising floodwaters. Thousands will utilise emergency disaster assistance provided by State and Federal governments.
Asking whether climate change 'caused' these storms and floods is the wrong question. As climatologist Kevin Trenbeth outlines below, all weather events now have a component of climate change in them. It is now a part of our weather system contributing to all extreme weather events.
Climate change now affects all weather events
Dr. Kevin Trenberth explained in a 2012 paper "Framing the way to relate climate extremes to climate change":
Scientists are frequently asked about an event "Is it caused by climate change?" The answer is that no events are "caused by climate change" or global warming, but all events have a contribution. Moreover, a small shift in the mean can still lead to very large percentage changes in extremes. In reality the wrong question is being asked: the question is poorly posed and has no satisfactory answer. The answer is that all weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.
So we shouldn't be surprised when temperature records tumble in extreme heatwaves. Or when rainfall records fall, and new high flood levels are set like they did in the 2013 Queensland floods. This is a consequence of increasing greenhouse emissions to the atmosphere.
Climate change didn't cause Tropical Cyclone Oswald. But climate change is warming up the hydrological cycle - the water cycle, making things worse. Here are a few ways climate change is underpinning the increase in extreme weather events:
- Warmer atmospheric temperatures mean the atmosphere can carry more moisture for heavier rainfall and precipitation events
- Climate change elevates sea surface temperatures providing more energy for storm systems to form and assists with uptake of moisture into storm systems.
- Warmer oceans, melting of glaciers, and collapse of ice sheets is increasing sea level rise which provides a higher base level for storm surge to damage coasts.
- Global warming can impact major circulation patterns like the northern jetstream, shifts in the rain band of the South Pacific Convergence Zone, the dynamic of the sub-tropical jet stream which can all impact the frequency, intensity and direction of storms.
Unusual tornado activity
Australia doesn't experience tornado's like in the US mid-west. We average about 16 tornados per year, most associated with formation over water in coastal areas then travelling over our coastal towns inflicting damage. The current event of 8 tornados in a 24 hour period is unprecedented.
A Bureau of Meteorology spokesperson said at the 2pm Sunday press conference: "It is unusual to have so many. Tornados aren't unheard of in Queensland in these kind of situations. We do often see them around these big strong lows. To have so many in one area was very unusual."
Cost of stormy weather much greater than bushfires
Interestingly, the increase in the damage cost of cyclones and floods are much more concerning to Insurance companies than bushfires. This article - Expect to pay more for risky lifestyles - in the Sydney Morning Herald January 12, 2013, argues that bushfires are less of a worry to insurance companies than extreme precipitation events like we are currently seeing in Queensland's current Bigwet Flooding event.
According to Paddy Hannam, "the reinsurance giant Munich Re says research shows Australia is more exposed than other regions to climate change but fire is not the foremost hazard, according to Ernst Rauch, head of the company's corporate climate centre."
He quotes Ernst Rauch: "water and precipitation are probably the most significant issues related to climate change, in both directions", he says. "There are risks from too much water - extreme precipitation amounts and flooding but also sea-level rise and storm surges - and from too little water [drought]".
The Insurance Council of Australia declared a catastrophe for large parts of Queensland affected by storms and inundation caused by ex-Tropical Cyclone Oswald on January 27, 2013. It is the third insurance disaster declared so far this year, the other two being the Tasmanian bushfires and the NSW Bushfires.
Mr Rob Whelan, CEO of the Insurance Council, said in a media statement "Insurers are greatly concerned about extreme weather expected over the next few days in Queensland, with severe inundation already having been experienced in several towns and cities, and major flood warnings now in place for every river from Cairns to the border," Mr Whelan said.
"The general insurance industry had anticipated a very wet summer this year while also hoping Queensland might avoid a repeat of 2011. Unfortunately, this catastrophe declaration is the result of the first cyclone to come close to the coast this season, and the weather bureau has warned it's highly possible we will see more before the end of summer." he said.
Little flood mitigation done after 2011
According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Insurance council has been calling for increased spending on adaptation efforts to limit the damage from flooding, such as the construction of flood levees around flood-prone towns. But no actual flood mitigation work has been undertaken to prevent or lessen flood impacts.
Campbell Fuller, general manager for communications at the the Insurance Council of Australia told the newspaper there had not been much money spent in Queensland since the last big floods there in 2011. "I'm unaware of any substantive mitigation that has taken place over the past two years," he said.
Cuts to emergency service programs and conditions
The Campbell Newman conservative Government have also engaged in job cuts to emergency services and in reducing working conditions since the state budget in May. Budget cuts scrapped essential Firefighter training and recruitment as part of the Queensland Governments' cost cutting drive.
"We are worried that our training facility does not produce sufficient numbers of appropriately trained people to maintain crew safety as it is. Scrapping training now is short sighted and is an unacceptable threat to our member's safety." said United Firefighters Union Secretary Mr John Oliver in a May 2012 press release.
The Firefigters union has been engaged in enterprise bargaining talks with the state government for several months, with the government demanding that fire and rescue staff fund a pay increase by trading off working conditions, strip 20 conditions from their current agreement, abolish consultation and move towards a casualised workforce. Firefighters instituted work bans in protest from 27 November 2012.
The union has made several requests to meet with Emergency Services Minister, Mr Jack Dempsey, the member for Bundaberg, to no avail. The union issued pamphlets that asked Jack Dempsey "Why aren't you supporting Firies and Ambos and why won't you meet with us, Jack?" Indeed. These are the people we rely upon in a time of crisis and the Minister refuses to meet with them over their working conditions.
These are the people that risk their lives to save our lives in emergency situations, including fighting bushfires, current swift water rescues, and flood rescues. They deserve every penny of the wages they are paid, and working conditions which guarantee their safety. UFUQ State Secretary, John Oliver said "The government even refused to agree to a basic occupational, health and safety clause. In work like ours, that is simply irresponsible."
Coal is the culprit
The torrential rains and flooding have also caused problems for the mining industry and their industrial tailings dams. Louise Mathieson reports that 21 coal mines have released dirty water containing heavy metals and other pollutants to Fitzroy Basin rivers, plus one mine release to the Burdekin River. Most of these releases were made with Environment Authority Government approval. These pollutants will be carried in flood waters downstream and out through coastal estuaries to settle on the Great Barrier Reef.
— Louise Matthiesson (@LouiseLouiseM) January 27, 2013
Most of those greenhouse emissions that warm the atmosphere and ocean waters have there origin in fossil fuels: oil, coal and natural gas. And Queensland is addicted to coal mining, rapidly expanding coal mining and export to increase those atmospheric greenhouse emissions, which will increase temperatures and further increase the power of extreme weather events. Development is occurring placing the World heritage Status of the Great Barrier Reef in danger. But still the mining continues under ex Premier Anna Bligh or current Liberal National Party Premier Campbell Newman.
Get used to it. The coal being dug up today is the fuel for tomorrow's extreme weather disasters. And until we challenge the supremacy of coal, the world is going to get a lot warmer and more dangerous, for all of us.
To prevent even more severe storms and flooding in the future, the future of our children and grandchildren we need to come to grips with sharply reducing carbon emissions. This is the only effective way to combat climate change.
But at the same time we need to adapt to extreme weather events, which will increase in severity as a long term trend for many years ,even if we take the necessary climate mitigation action.
- Queensland Government Emergency Services media release 25 January 2013 - Be prepared for a wet Australia Day long weekend
- Queensland Government Emergency Services media release 26 January 2013 - Wet weather update as at 6.30am Saturday, 26 January 2013
- Courier Mail, 26 January 2013 - Rescues, inundations and wreckage across Central Queensland as rainfall records go under
- ABC Rural, 25 January 2013 - Records tumble as Queensland rain keeps falling
- Dr. Kevin Trenberth, March 2012, Climatic Cange, Framing the way to relate climate extremes to climate change doi:10.1007/s10584-012-0441-5
- Paddy Hannam in the Sydney Morning Herald 12 January, 2013 - Expect to pay more for risky lifestyles
- Insurance Council of Australia media release, 27 January 2013 - Queensland Storms and inundation trigger statewide catastrophe
- Paddy Hannam in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 January 2013 - Early insurance claims from Qld floods top $27m
- United Firefighters Union Queensland media release, 25 May 2012 - Firefighter Training and Recruitment Suspended