Queensland is a state of extreme weather, and there will be more on the horizon


Queensland is a state of extreme weather, and there will be more on the horizon

by: Brian Williams
From: The Courier-Mail
February 03, 2013 12:00AM

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Inundated: There is a big recovery ahead in Bundaberg. Source: Herald Sun

BARELY a week ago all the talk was of fires, cattle dying in the thousands and Queensland slipping into the deadly grip of drought.

Wouldn’t you know it, days later large slabs of the nation’s east coast were in flood, some record-breaking.

Since the Millennium Drought that took up much of the 2000s, Queensland’s weather has seesawed between floods, fires covering millions of hectares, cyclones and even a tremendous dust storm.

The latest shattering event ex-Cyclone Oswald was deemed remarkable by Weatherwatch forecaster Anthony Cornelius for the fact that as a cyclone it lasted but a few hours yet as a rain depression it swamped more than 2000km of coastline.

Travelling at 24km/h in the north, it eased to 10km/h, a speed slow enough to drench catchments as it tracked mostly along the heavily developed eastern fall of the Great Dividing Range from Cairns to Sydney.

Start of sidebar. Skip to end of sidebar.
Huge southeast storm knocks out power
Wild weather round-up at a glance
More than 60cm of rain in 48 hours

End of sidebar. Return to start of sidebar.

It seemed perverse, travelling at a painstaking pace as if it sought to achieve maximum impact. It succeeded, with the highest rainfall for the week a hard-to-believe 852mm at Glenlands, near Rockhampton.

Torrents of muddy water tore up 5000km of roads and will most likely soon tear up state and federal government budget plans.

Bundaberg and Laidley residents, raw and still hurting from the 2011 floods, faced a deluge. Brisbane and Ipswich missed the worst of it but damage in rural and regional areas is huge.

Weather bureau chief Rob Webb labels Oswald an extreme event but not unheard of.

He warns that such major climatic occurrences are part of living in the tropics and that we should be aware of our history.

“Just three weeks ago we were talking about fires and how late the monsoon was, then it arrived and what a burst,” he said.

“This was a big, record-breaking event by any measure but it’s happened before. Cyclone Joy (1990 and one-third of the state declared a disaster area) that crossed near Townsville did similar things.

“At the same time, Brisbane has had back-to-back floods in the past so these things are not out of the question.”

Oswald and other damaging events underline arguments by climate scientists over the past three decades that warming will produce worse droughts, more intense storms and cyclones, and greater floods.

CSIRO climate scientist Dr Debbie Abbs says much of the research has stood the test of time and shows that warming does play a role in weather patterns.

“We do expect more droughts but on the other side of the coin, when it rains we expect it to be much heavier and that’s basically because a warmer atmosphere holds more water,” Dr Abbs said.

“But you cannot put any one weather event down to climate change. It’s more to do with long-term trends.

“These sorts of events have been occurring for who knows how long. We know since European settlement of similar major events in Queensland such as 1893, 1974 and in the 1950s.”

One hypothesis that has changed is the belief that more cyclones will occur through warming.

Dr Abbs said this belief had since been discarded primarily because research had shown that warm oceans, while playing a role, were not quite so important to the formation of cyclones as previously thought.

Mr Webb does not relate these dramatic events directly to climate change but says the continent has warmed by about 1C in the past 100 years.

It is not yet clear whether warming will produce worse cyclones but at the very least people should expect more heatwaves such as occurred at Christmas.

Sick of hearing about floods, cyclones and storms? Head towards the interior and people will happily talk drought.

They are in the hard grind of pulling bogged stock out of failing dams, hand feeding, selling off cattle and watching crops fail.

Conditions have been so dry that residents of the southwest cotton town of St George evacuated from floods just 11 months ago are on water restrictions after the Balonne River stopped flowing.

Darling Downs residents at places such as Tara and Condamine have a similar story. These places were saved just two weeks ago by one of those intense storms that Dr Abbs talks about and have received some follow-up help from Oswald’s remains.

Balonne Shire Mayor Donna Stewart says St George has had virtually no rain since last February. In the past week Balonne has had one flow and a second is on the way.

“This is what the old hands call a dry flood,” Ms Stewart said. “We haven’t had a drop of rain and we’re still praying for a break in the drought. This will be good for irrigators but dams are still dry, people are feeding stock and graziers are cutting scrub. Talk about a land of contrasts.”

Cotton farmers abandoned more than 4000ha of plantings because of water shortages, and Primary Industries Minister John McVeigh warns that sorghum, pulse, peanut and mungbean crops have suffered.

Cotton Australia spokesman Michael Murray says it’s not clear yet how much crop will be lost but statewide production is 1.5 million bales, down from more than 2 million last season. Despite cutbacks, it’s still the state’s third-largest cotton crop due to water stored from two previous wet years.

Coastal sugarcane crops were struggling from the dry two weeks ago, only to be drowned and buffeted by strong winds over the past week.

Ms Stewart’s grain farm remains in trouble.

“We’re dry-land farmers and we planted 3000 acres (1214ha) of wheat and chickpeas in June and since then all we’ve had is 10mm,” she said.

In a continent as dry as Australia, it’s hard to knock rain. Oswald’s burst has boosted the Darling Downs, the south and parts of central Queensland and Mr Webb warns there is plenty of time left in the season for more cyclonic action.

Western Downs Mayor Ray Brown says these fickle and damaging patterns are a great warning for anyone who chooses to underestimate Mother Nature’s capabilities.

Ms Stewart agrees and says a major factor is that much of the inland has suffered weeks if not months of temperatures in excess of 40C that have toasted the landscape.

These bush mayors are right. There are lessons in these great weather events and one that stands out is what a huge place Queensland is.

Our climate ranges from tropical equatorial to temperate.

It shows that we should prepare for and expect that every now and then we will suffer its extremes, be they raging floods, terrifying cyclones, drought and maybe even a dusting of snow in Stanthorpe’s high country.


CSIRO climate scientists say climate change involves long-term changes to underlying ocean and atmospheric patterns that generate extreme weather events as part of year-to-year climate variability.

Australia is likely to become warmer over coming decades, with a reduction in average annual rainfall in the southeast but there remains uncertainty about changes in average annual rainfall in Queensland, the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia.

A warming trend will include some cool years and many hot years and a drying trend will include some very wet years and many dry years.

In this highly variable climate, severe storms and extreme rainfall events are likely to be more intense, resulting in more severe flooding.

Knowing more about the occurrence of natural disasters will make for better preparation.

– Brian Williams is The Sunday-Mail’s environment reporter.

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