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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Queensland's big wet, disastrous floods and climate change

Rockhampton in flood

Have you noticed that no-one in the media is discussing Climate Change and the devastating Queensland floods? Floods that are directly affecting over 200,000 people, closing down three quarters of the coal mining industry in the state, plus major highways, rail links and public airports. Estimates of the damage are now running into the billions of dollars with at least 10 people killed so far.

The extent of the flooding has been described as a ''disaster of biblical proportions'' affecting an area the size of New South Wales, or of France and Germany combined, with at least 40 towns and cities suffering innundation. The flooding has set new river flood height records, with some saying the flood is the worst in living memory, at least a one in a 100 year event. Widespread flooding of mines has also caused Heavy metals to be released into flood waters.

While Queensland is in the middle of the disastarous floods, one of the world's largest insurers, Munich Re announced that the number of climate related disasters soared in 2010 killing as many as 295,000 people. "The high number of weather-related natural catastrophes and record temperatures both globally and in different regions of the world provide further indications of advancing climate change." said Munich Re in a press statement. Nine tenths of the disasters in 2010 were severe weather-related events.

As the atmosphere and oceans continue to warm, the ability for more water vapour to be carried in the atmosphere intensifies leading to more frequent and more intense precipitation events. The weather in Australia during the latter half of 2010 and into 2011 is being affected by a strong La Niña event bringing increased precipitation to Eastern Australia. According to the Bureau of Meteorology 2010 has become Queensland's wettest year on record with the state annual average rainfall being 1109.73 millimetres, eclipsing the previous record of 1103.77 millimetres in 1950 in 110 years of rainfall records.

The Bureau of Meteorology described the floods in the annual climate statement for 2010: "Floodwaters were fed by heavy rain over the Christmas period falling over areas already saturated by persistent above-average rainfall during the preceding months. The most severe impacts were in central Queensland and in the state’s southern inland regions. Thousands of properties were inundated in Emerald, Bundaberg, Rockhampton and many smaller centres, while the communities of Theodore and Condamine were evacuated. Numerous rivers throughout the region reached record levels."

Of course any one extreme weather event can be put down to just natural weather variability. But the disaster fits the statistical trend for a warming climate.

Dr. Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research stated in June 2010:

I find it systematically tends to get underplayed and it often gets underplayed by my fellow scientists. Because one of the opening statements, which I’m sure you’ve probably heard is “Well you can’t attribute a single event to climate change.” But there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapour lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.

Extreme weather events can now be statistically modelled by climatologists to assess the attribution of extreme weather events to climate change through "fractional attributable risk" studies. The most notable example of this modelling is the Human contribution to the European heatwave of 2003 (PDF).

One of the few people to publicly join the dots between the Queensland floods and climate change is Ewan Saunders, Socialist Alliance Queensland co-convenor. "The latest flood crisis in Queensland underlines the urgent need for serious action on climate change," he said in a media release.

"Why? There is ample evidence that the wild swings in weather we have experienced in Australia lately are linked to worldwide, human-caused climate change."

"How can it be an accident of nature that Queensland's most devastating floods closely follow on the worst bush fires in Victorian history near Melbourne in February 2009."

"Yet, the elephant in the room -- climate change -- is rarely mentioned in official reports of these events. The recent findings of the Royal Commission into the Victorian bush fires failed to mention climate change as a factor in the disaster, which cost nearly 200 lives."

"Climate change is causing a noticeable rise in overall ocean temperatures and levels. This will undoubtedly contribute to even worse flood disasters in future, in Australia and elsewhere."

"Far from being sheltered from the worst effects of climate change, Australia will be one of the countries most seriously hit -- by both fire and flood. Our governments need to heed the message, and take radical action to tackle climate change -- by rapidly phasing out reliance on coal, and urgently changing to renewable sources of energy, such as solar, wind and geothermal."

"Moreover, federal and state governments need to urgently expand and co-ordinate national emergency action to combat fire and flood by creating a National Emergency Rapid Response Council, combining firefighting, SES, medical, police and military forces, under the control of expert officials elected by workers and volunteers in the various fields."

"In this way, the vast good will and energies of the dedicated people who staff our disaster relief agencies can be best mobilised to confront this growing threat to our society," Saunders concluded.

Emergency services workers were put on standby pre-Christmas with the Premier warning Queenslanders to prepare for torrential rain associated with tropical cyclone Tasha. The level of preparation of emergency services workers and the warnings to the public probably prevented many deaths associated with this severe weather event - the death toll currently stands at 10 people. Health issues are becoming more prominent as the floodwaters continue and then slowly subside in the coming weeks with electricity, water and sewerage services being cut to many houses affected by floodwaters, water contamination, increased risks of disease and snakebite.

Ironically, the State Government announced on November 10, 2010 an Inland Flooding study (Scientific Report - PDF) to help councils with local planning and development to take into account future increases in rainfall intensity brought about by climate change.

"Flooding cost state and local governments more than $200 million in damage to infrastructure following heavy rain across North West Queensland and in Mackay in 2009," Environment Minister Kate Jones said at the time. "That was followed by extensive flooding in March this year in South West Queensland and more heavy rains fell in October in the South East. These weather events are a reminder of why we need to ensure councils have the information and support they need to better plan for these risks."

"We're recommending that local governments adopt a climate change factor for increased rainfall intensity of 5 per cent per degree of global warming and incorporate this into local flood studies and planning schemes." Kate Jones said.

At the initial launch of the study in November 2009 the Premier Anna Bligh said "Climate change means weather patterns are changing in severity and frequency of extreme weather events and this joint project will give our councils the tools to better manage flood risk," Prophetic words indeed but little comfort to the many people affected by the present crisis.

Such long term adaption planning is a necessary and vital response to climate change, but is like applying a band aid to a major bleed - a symbolic action which fails to stem the cause of the problem - carbon emissions. Mitigation action is required to reduce carbon emissions, and an excellent way for this to be done is a carbon tax on coal at the point of production.

Coal mined from Queensland is a major source of global carbon emissions, but because most of the coal is exported, the resulting emissions are not included as Australia's problem. Climate scientist James Hansen has said repeatedly we need to stop burning coal to reduce emissions and tax carbon, "It's as certain that as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, we will just keep burning them. So we have to put a tax on carbon which rises over time." he told the Independent.

In December Premier Bligh cancelled plans for a new coal fired power station near Rockhampton citing that carbon capture technology was not viable at the moment. A small start, but what needs to happen is a transformation of the electricity sector from coal power to renewable energy. Queensland has excellent potential for future large-scale solar generation projects. Beyond Zero Emissions Director Matthew Wright said in December: “Queensland’s solar resource for a state in an OECD nation is second to none, and contains locations with some of the highest levels of solar radiation on Earth. It is the perfect location for baseload concentrating solar thermal plants with storage.”

But don't hold your breathe for any strong mitigation action soon, while our politicians at State and Federal levels remain in the metaphorical bed with the coal and fossil fuel lobby.

"The repair bill will amount to billions of dollars," said Ewan Saunders, "Worse still is the suffering of the people of this state, and the loss of irreplaceable belongings, heritage and livelihoods. While floods are periodic natural occurrences here and throughout Australia, the size and severity of this flood exceeds any on record in recent times."

As the climate warms further we should expect more extreme weather events like the Queensland big wet and the big flood.

Photo: Rockhampton in flood by Tatiana Gerus on Flickr Creative Commons Attribution licenced.

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