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Warming takes centre stage as Australian drought worsens

By Keith Schneider - posted Monday, 6 April 2009

On March 28, for the first time in anybody’s memory, the floodlights surrounding the soaring white shells of the Sydney Opera House were temporarily extinguished, part of Earth Hour, an international event spanning 88 countries and 24 time zones to prompt world leaders to take action on global warming.

Although iconic buildings in Paris, New York, London, and Tokyo were similarly darkened, arguably none of these symbols was as apt as the unnerving black space that suddenly opened on the shores of Sydney’s harbour. Perhaps more than any industrialised nation, Australia is contending with the increasingly dangerous effects of hotter, dryer, and more unpredictable weather patterns - changes that many of the country’s leading scientists and politicians now attribute to shifting weather patterns, at least in part due to climate change.

In February, on the same day that the temperature in Melbourne reached 46.7C - the hottest day ever recorded in Australia’s second-largest city - driving winds pushed a catastrophic bushfire across 2,400 square kilometres of eucalyptus forests in the state of Victoria, destroying 1,800 homes and farms and killing 173 people. That, too, set a record - for the most deaths from a bushfire in Australia’s history.


Adelaide and Melbourne are running out of water. The Murray-Darling Basin, Australia’s prime food-growing region, is in the 12th year of a devastating drought that is putting the country’s ability to feed itself in question. The 64,500 square-kilometre basin, larger than France and Germany combined, has been so dry that the one million tonne-rice crop was decimated last year, and production of wheat, lambs, and cotton are in significant decline.

The slowly unfolding drought in the country’s south, coupled with this summer’s heat wave and fires in Victoria, have left many Australians wondering whether these natural disasters are a taste of what life will be like in a warming world. In the aftermath of the Victoria fires, the state’s premier, John Brumby, joined John Connor, the chief executive of the Climate Institute - a respected Australian research group - in describing the disaster as “fires of climate change”.

Concerned that steadily rising temperatures in the south of Australia and the recent drought signal a permanent climate shift, a majority of the country’s states have taken the unprecedented step of agreeing to let the central government play the dominant role in managing local water resources. Growing fears of a lasting change in climate patterns has helped generate support for major public works projects to deal with water scarcity. Australia’s 2007 national election, which saw the Progressive Party come to power, was the first national election in the country’s history in which a scientific issue - climate change - played a decisive role.

“It’s testing our people,” said John Williams, the former chief of Land and Water for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the country’s premier scientific agency. “These new conditions are forcing people to move out of industries. There are many people making decisions to change radically the nature of their business. There are some industries - rice growing, cotton production - that are just failing and falling away.”

To be sure, some of Australia’s climatologists assert that such extreme events are a normal part of the country’s diabolical weather. Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth and is accustomed to long periods of dry weather and dangerous fires.

“It is fashionable to promote climate change as being a contributor to changing fire frequency and intensity,” William Kininmonth, the former head of Australia's National Climate Centre, said in a recent article in The Age and On Line Opinion. “The pattern of rainfall over the past century does not point to a trend of reduction in rainfall. Nor has any link been offered between global temperature trends and the meteorology of Victorian heat waves.”


But CSIRO disputes Kininmonth’s conclusions. A study last year by the organisation found that as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have risen, southern Australia has warmed 0.8C since 1950. On average, 15 per cent less rain falls now in the region. If present trends continue, rainfall will continue to diminish, said the study, and the temperature will be 2.45C warmer by 2050.

Australian scientists believe that warmer Indian Ocean waters are causing shifts in oceanic and air circulation that create a so-called positive Indian Ocean “dipole”. That phenomenon, which has intensified in recent years, means warmer waters to the west of Australia, and cool waters to the north, funnel drier air over southern Australia, said Caroline C. Ummenhofer, a research fellow at the University of New South Wales Climate Change Research Centre.

Many of Australia’s citizens, meanwhile, are increasingly convinced that the country’s run of unusually hot and dry weather signals changes that go beyond normal fluctuations in weather and presage a new climate regime. Just ask Greg Ogle, a 49-year-old conservationist from New South Wales who once farmed the northern banks of the Murray River north of Melbourne. Ogle came of age in the 1970s when regular floods filled the wetlands near his home and the centuries-old red gum trees - a species as iconic to Australians as maples and oaks are to Americans - provided nests for snakes and the small mammals they hunted. It was common then, he said, to see big goanna monitor lizards - stout as logs and nearly as long as a man is tall - resting on the thick branches of the towering trees.

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First published in Yale Environment 360 on April 2, 2009.

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About the Author

Keith Schneider, a former national correspondent and regular contributor to the New York Times, is director of communications at the Apollo Alliance, a clean energy/jobs advocacy group based in San Francisco. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he wrote about how green planning has revitalized American cities and Barack Obama's clean energy priorities.

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