Extreme weather in Queensland and Australia is intensifying, but is climate change the culprit?


Extreme weather in Queensland and Australia is intensifying, but is climate change the culprit?

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The birds have gone quiet and the people are on edge. Mad wind has been strafing the coast for days, turning the ocean into a roiling, spitting demon. Outdoor furniture is coming in and sandbags are going out.

The whoop-whoop of the cyclone warning signal began sounding 12 hours ago and traffic on the Bureau of Meteorology site is at a record high. Cyclone Nelly is on her way. She’ll be packing winds of 240 kilometres an hour, pounding the beaches, scouring the sand and bringing that screeching, scraping cacophony of unhinged steel.

She’ll strike in about six hours. Not in Cairns, not Innisfail, not even as far south as Rockhampton. Nelly is tracking for a direct hit on the Gold Coast – right on high tide and in the dark. In its path is the neon-lit extravaganza of the Glitter Strip, 70km of the world’s best coastline, about 500,000 people and some seriously expensive real estate.

Panic buying is rife. Residents jostle in stores as they try to grab the last transistor radio for their non-existent emergency kit. The media are scrambling to find superlatives. One reporter, all wild hair and billowing raincoat down on the Main Beach foreshore, says cyclones have never come down this far before.

Old-timers sit on their porches and shake their heads. Yes, they say to whoever will listen, they have.

What in the heavens is going on with the weather? One season there’s floods, the next the land is as dry as a dead dingo’s proverbial. Now the bushfires have taken off, chewing up brittle undergrowth that flourished in the Big Wet. Out west, waterholes are parched and cattle are dying.

It’s always been a land of extremes, you say. Read your Dorothea Mackellar. Droughts, flooding rains, it was ever thus. Or perhaps you’re convinced this violent variability is because of us, that we humans have partied too hard and too long on fossil fuels and now the climate is growing fierce.

Meteorologist Jeff Callaghan thinks both are true … and it’s going to get worse. He is one of a number of experts worldwide who have identified a pattern of wild activity in the weather of the Pacific Ocean that can be plotted on Australia’s east coast every 30 or so years. He reckons we left the rough period behind about 1976. Now he thinks it’s back.

For decades, Callaghan was one of those blokes whose words we clung to when the air felt heavy and lows started forming off the coast. His time as a severe weather forecaster with the Bureau of Meteorology was a labour of love. Storms fascinated him. It began in the late 1950s, when a keen young Callaghan would hitchhike from Brisbane to the Gold Coast to indulge his passion for a newfangled craze called surfing. A pioneer of legendary breaks such as Snapper Rocks and Kirra, he gained a reputation for being fearless, keen to get out among the waves when they were at their gnarliest. “The first time I just couldn’t believe it, I was shocked by the size of them,” he says. By 1965, he’d joined the BOM.

Big waves weren’t hard to find in the ’50s and ’60s. Cyclonic weather battered the south-east coast, bringing huge swells. In ’63, there was the New Year cyclone that crossed the Sunshine Coast; in early ’65, a formidable left break off Kirra pumped for days after a cyclone much further north. And then there was that ’67 season, when

a volley of east coast lows pummelled Gold Coast beaches and further south. The biggest was Dinah.


Retired meteorologist Jeff Callaghan. Pic: David Kelly

Retired meteorologist Jeff Callaghan. Pic: David Kelly Source: CourierMail

Callaghan, now 70, surfed for days as the Category 4 neared the coast. When two lifesavers were swept out from the inner break at Greenmount into seas measuring 10 metres, Callaghan and some mates went after them. The lifesavers were rescued near the shark buoys at North Kirra, and Callaghan and the others received bravery awards. But Dinah devastated the beaches. A slab of the Surfers Paradise esplanade fell in and roofs were lost as she crossed near Fraser Island, 300km to the north. “There was spray everywhere,” says Callaghan. “I was awe-inspired by these immense waves.”

By the early 1980s, Callaghan had a physics degree and started seriously studying the history of cyclones, rifling through meteorological records, newspaper files and shipping archives, plotting the time the storms crossed, their landfall and ferocity. He’d noticed the big swells just weren’t pumping as often as they had when he first got his board. He devoured the stories about the cyclone that crossed at Coolangatta in 1954, back when they were unnamed beasts and he was uninitiated in the thrill of surfing.

“People were caught on MacIntosh Island on the Gold Coast [near Main Beach] – where they have the [V8s car race] now – they were up to their waists in water and they couldn’t get them off,” he says. “Eventually, when the eye came across and it went calm, they got them off with a surfboat. As soon as they did, the big surge came down. They would have all been wiped out.”

Back then, MacIntosh Island was mostly bush and farmland. Back then, the Gold Coast population was about 18,000. Back then, we had not built million-dollar mansions on low-lying canal estates to house the masses of people who call the Gold Coast home, many from interstate and overseas with no family folklore of the wild days.

Callaghan does not wish to alarm, but he does want to alert. He has sensed an attitude creeping in that cyclones are the stuff North Queenslanders need to worry about, not residents in the south-east corner. That’s a furphy, he says. They can, and have, struck the Gold Coast and northern NSW and there is nothing to suggest they won’t do so again, he says. In fact, his research has him convinced the odds of Queensland experiencing more severe cyclones, farther south, are shortening.

“What fell out of it [his research] was so bleeding obvious,” says Callaghan. “Farmers or people who took notice of the weather knew there hadn’t been many cyclones since the ’70s. And when you look at [the data], it’s pretty robust. There’s this 30-year cycle, loosely, and we’re out of the quiet period and into the more wild stuff.”

As Callaghan was amassing his research on the phenomenon, so too were scientists on the other side of the globe, investigating the changes in salmon catches in the North Pacific Ocean. In 1997, they named their northern hemisphere 30-year variability the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, with the term Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation now used for the similar pattern in both hemispheres. The IPO is linked to the El Niño and La Niña cycle of dry and wet periods in the Pacific, and it is now being studied extensively.

Callaghan believes in the IPO and believes in human-induced climate change. They are not mutually exclusive. “I think this natural variability is independent – although it’s probably influenced by human behaviour – but it’s been going on for centuries,” he says. If, and how, climate change is having an effect on the IPO has not been proved. To add to the layers of complexity when it comes to the weather, other studies strongly suggest there are wild/not-so-wild climatic variations on a 100-year cycle.

Callaghan says we entered an active cycle in the mid-2000s, around the time Cyclone Larry hit Innisfail. “The only uncertainty is where [cyclones] are going to happen, but it’s more likely to affect south of Rockhampton,” says Callaghan. “The biggest change will be in the south-east corner. Things like the ’54 cyclone and Dinah are more likely to happen and, with the larger population, there’s just going to be so much more impact.”



Rodger Tomlinson on the Gold Coast. Pic: David Kelly

Rodger Tomlinson on the Gold Coast. Pic: David Kelly Source: CourierMail

RODGER TOMLINSON IS AN ADMIRER OF Callaghan’s – “What Jeff doesn’t know, nobody knows” – and his job is to determine that impact. Among other titles, Tomlinson is the director

of Griffith University’s Centre for Coastal Management. He has a fair idea what would happen to the Gold Coast if a cyclone struck. It’s not pretty.

Cyclone Nelly, a category 4, arrives at high tide. People hunker down in toilets as the shrieking, juddering, marauding monster rips off roofs and makes matchsticks out of power poles. Tumultuous waves are breaking right on the upper beach, the sand is scraped and sucked away. “We’re getting very significant erosion up on the dunes, which will take us back to the seawall, all the way along the Gold Coast,” Tomlinson says.

So that’s the beach gone. But the exposed seawall is protecting the houses, designed as it was to withstand the events of 1967 when Dinah and the series of lows ate the beach. Tomlinson says few coastal zones are managed and studied as much as the Gold Coast and the seawall should do its job. There is a chance, though, of a weak spot in the dunes or seawall giving way, especially if the cyclonic winds hang around the coast, pounding at its defences. “There are vulnerable areas; you’d have to be on a watching brief,” he says.

Then there are the natural watercourses. The Gold Coast Seaway, Currumbin and Tallebudgera Creeks – the waves, tide and wind are driving water in, spewing it out over the land. The Broadwater is swollen, surging. “The worst-case prediction for surge on the Gold Coast is up around two metres,” says Tomlinson. “If that hits at high tide, giving an absolute water level of 3-4m above mean sea level, that will have a significant effect in those waterways just in behind the beach. Take Palm Beach as an example – you’ve got Currumbin and Tallebudgera creeks, water will come in and build up.”

Canal homes, especially those on older estates where the blocks were not elevated, are now flooding. “We’ve got 600km of waterways on the Gold Coast and most of them have houses on either side,” says Tomlinson. And if it’s been raining heavily in the lead-up to the cyclone and the waterways are already full, “then a riverine flood would make the problem significantly worse”.

Of course, governments plan for disasters and conduct exercises to iron out glitches in response. The seawalls have been built and other coastline management work done. We’ve come a long way since 1967. “Will that protect us ultimately?” asks Tomlinson. “It depends on the nature of the event. But certainly what is a given is there is nothing to stop a similar sequence of events from happening again. Our view at the moment is if we have 1967 repeat itself on the Gold Coast, the impact will be greater than it was in 1967. Because the system has changed, it’s been modified by human intervention.”



Green Cross CEO Mara Bun. Pic: David Kelly

Green Cross CEO Mara Bun. Pic: David Kelly Source: CourierMail

MARA BUN HAS EVER SO GENTLY TOLD ME OFF. The chief executive officer of Green Cross Australia, an environmental group committed to sustainable development, has been talking about Queensland’s vulnerability to cyclones or flooding. I mention the Far North’s Port Douglas, much of it low-lying, some of it reclaimed, as a particularly susceptible township. “Our vulnerability is universal,” says Bun. “That’s the first thing to know. A severe storm can happen anywhere. We’ve got to get over this idea of being at less or more risk. We’re all at risk.”

That’s part of the message of one of Green Cross’s main projects, Harden Up, Protecting Queensland, a project partnered by the federal and state governments. The name is adapted from a 2009 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute called Hardening Australia: climate change and national disaster resilience. It’s a name that has raised eyebrows and prompted angry letters from those who were affected by the severe weather of 2010/11.

She apologises if the name upsets those devastated by disasters but says the idea was to make people sit up and take notice. “If we called it ‘Blah, blah, blah’, then it would just be like any other ‘Blah, blah, blah’,” she says. “I love the name. Yes, people will recoil from it but when they realise it is a call to self-reliance, then hopefully they shift a little bit in understanding that.”

Harden Up wants every resident to prepare for whatever Mother Nature might have in store. “To shift this culture that we’ve become, of ‘Someone will fix this for me and I deserve this, that and the other and how come the power’s not on overnight and who’s going to give me a new fridge?’ to a culture of self-reliance, where we realise that as a community we just cannot afford to not be prepared,” says Bun.

Green Cross – an international body established by the former president of the old Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev – believes climate change is real and humans are contributing to it. Bun knows many do not. A poll by Essential Research on the first of this month found that 52 per cent of Australians believed climate change is happening and is caused by human activity; 36 per cent thought it was the normal fluctuation in the Earth’s climate. The rest did not know.

The poll was conducted after the much-anticipated release by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change of its report that found there was a 95 per cent certainty the planet is warming because of humans, up from 66 per cent in 2001. About 600 scientists contributed to the report, which took seven years of work and was subject to rigorous peer review. The ALP has long – and controversially, through its carbon tax – accepted humans are contributing to global warming. Although four years ago, the Prime Minister, then opposition leader, Tony Abbott, said “the climate change argument is absolute crap”, the Coalition has since changed its position, with Environment Minister Greg Hunt saying last month that the new government accepts the IPCC conclusions.

Those conclusions prompted the head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström, to comment: “The robust science behind the latest IPCC report translates into a world of catastrophic losses unless there are wholesale changes in how we allocate resources to prepare for extreme weather events.”

Bun would like more people to study and accept climate change science. She says to do so does not mean you can’t also believe there are long-held patterns of variability. Look at Callaghan, for example. And Green Cross. It’s Callaghan’s work that was the “inspiration” for Harden Up, providing its website with details of 3000 weather events. Whichever way you fall, Bun says both concepts point in the same direction – the weather is set to grow more severe, more extreme.

“We don’t really care if you think climate change is human-induced or not, we still want to be strong and vibrant and respond well to these challenges that lie ahead,” says Bun. “It’s just we’re persuaded it’s going to get a little worse and more variable between the dries and the Big Wets.”



Flood victims Suzanne and Peter Davies at home at Chelmer with a removable kitchen. Pic: David Kelly

Flood victims Suzanne and Peter Davies at home at Chelmer with a removable kitchen. Pic: David Kelly Source: CourierMail

RUBBISH WAS PILED HIGH, SOGGY AND ROTTING in the sun. There were warped kitchen benches, walls that once held photographs of fun times, floor tiles. All useless in the aftermath of the 2011 Brisbane floods, which had already devastated points west including Ipswich and the Lockyer Valley. Rebuilding had to be done but Suzanne and Peter Davies wanted to do it differently at their western suburban Chelmer home. “The reality is, we live on a floodplain and there are going to be more floods,” says Suzanne. “Whether it’s in two years or 40, we don’t know, but we thought we might as well do it as sustainably as we could.”

A friend connected them with architect Mark Thomson, himself part of the Mud Army that pitched in once the brown waters had receded. He’d been troubled by how much was tossed out. “Every time we experience a natural disaster or flood, we’re making our presence on the Earth tougher because we throw things out and need to dig more materials to make more stuff.”

The wiring needed overhauling, so Thomson raised the system to the second level of the two-storey home. Now, if a flood enters just the ground floor, the Davies can live upstairs comfortably while the lower level is restored. If all goes to plan, that rebuild will be less traumatic because the downstairs kitchen and laundry are now removable.

Thomson and some enthusiastic cabinet-makers engineered the cabinetry and fittings so that within a day, those expensive parts of the home could be on the back of a truck and taken to safety before the floodwaters arrived. It’s a clever idea, albeit one requiring organisation and commitment, but it was not simply achieved. Much negotiation took place between Thomson, on the Davies’ behalf, and their insurer, to make the sustainable changes. Some were denied. And despite all the work, if the Davies get flooded again, their insurance company will pay for an entirely new kitchen

but won’t pay to have it removed and kept safe.

Adapting from old habits takes time. One of the pioneers of learning from disasters in Australia is the Cyclone Testing Station at Townsville’s James Cook University. It was set up to try to find answers to the death and destruction in Darwin on Christmas Eve, 1974, by Cyclone Tracy and the battering of Townsville by Cyclone Althea just before Christmas 1971. The centre’s current director, David Henderson, says it came about after authorities noticed engineered buildings such as hotels and hospitals had performed relatively well. But houses blew apart.

“It was seen as heretical when some of the people at this university said, ‘Well, let’s have engineered housing’,” Henderson says. “It was a completely off-the-wall suggestion then because housing is a traditional form of construction. It evolved from having to hold your roof up, not having to hold it down into the ground.”

Whole houses were put under pressure at different construction points to determine where things failed. What was learned is now an integral part of building code standards for high wind areas. (The compulsory zone ends at Bundaberg, 375km north of Brisbane, but the CSIRO suggests it be extended.) “It’s like the wrist bone connected to the elbow bone,” says Henderson. “You’ve got to make sure all those connections are in place and that the builder and the designer know the importance – that nail does this great job, it’s got to be in the right place and driven the right way.”


Bureau of Meteorology's Rob Webb. Pic: David Kelly

Bureau of Meteorology’s Rob Webb. Pic: David Kelly Source: CourierMail

Problems continue to creep in. After cyclones Larry and Yasi, street surveys showed that garage doors had a high failure rate. At the height of the storm, “some were flapping around like a metal flag and trashing the house, flicking back and destroying ceilings”. Inadequate fastening of roof tiles meant they were dislodged and became “4kg pizza plates flying through the air”. Some fascias and soffits were also dodgy. New standards have been developed.

Even the way governments approach disasters is evolving. For one, the 2011 National Strategy for Disaster Resilience has recast emergency management policy. “This shift came,” the report says ” … on the back of several devastating disasters, as it became clear that the Australian community needed to reframe its thinking and commit to a more sustainable approach. This meant rebalancing a ‘response and recovery’ mindset to one of ‘preparation and mitigation’.”

To this end, national work has been done on flood mapping, and levees are being planned or constructed in Queensland. We’ve got desalination and recycled water plants at the ready for when the drought comes back to the coast. Public awareness about the storm season is now filling the airwaves. Meteorological forecasting is vastly improved. When the unnamed cyclone of ’54 came through, reliable weather balloons were just being released. Our history of knowing facts and figures hidden in the atmosphere is shorter than a human’s lifespan.

Today we have satellites, says Rob Webb, Queensland director of the BOM, that give hourly updates. Next-generation satellites are set to cut that to 15 minutes. “Computers have led to huge jumps forward,” Webb says. “People will say things about the bureau and the quality of forecasting, but the accuracy has improved by streets.”

This season’s cyclone outlook has just been released and, with a neutral El Niño/La Niña pattern in the Pacific, the prediction is for a near average season. That means about four cyclones off, or crossing, the Queensland coast, with a 53 per cent chance of more. But the BOM can’t say where they are likely to cross and certainly will not say that the southern zones are safe.

“The risk remains,” says Webb. “The problem is when you do have such long breaks between cyclones, you start skipping generations in the folklore in the community, so that’s another challenge for the emergency management agencies and the bureau to not necessarily concern people but to say, ‘You live in this location, these are the kind of disasters that affected you in the past, what might you do if that situation happened again?’ ”

Survey the house for weak points and get them fixed. It might be a pain to get a tradesperson in to check the roof, but that’s preferable to it flying off in a cyclone. Get an emergency kit and fill it with torches and radios, water, a first-aid kit and solar-powered or wind-up chargers for phones and computers. It’s not a bad idea to put a treat, maybe a can of smoked oysters or some chocolates, in there as well.

Look at your council’s disaster management plan and develop your own, involving the whole family. Where’s the safest place in your house to shelter in a cyclone? If waters start rising, how do you get out? What will you do with the pets? As Webb says: “Having that discussion under blue skies is far better than having it when your windows are coming in.

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