January 12, 2011
By: Nick Engelfried
Close on the heels of a year of floods, fires, and earthquakes in 2010, the first weeks of 2011 have already seen their slew of natural and weather-related disasters. The Australian state of Queensland is experiencing one of the worst flooding events in its history, with at least ten dead and thousands affected by rising floodwaters in an area the size of France and Germany combined. Like at least some of the extreme weather events from last year, the Queensland floods can be looked at as a preview of the kinds of weather-related disasters likely to become more and more frequent in a warming world.
Professor Will Steffen, who directs the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, has said there may be a link between unusually heavy floods and global warming. While cautioning that no direct connection can be made between changes in the planetary climate and the severity of this winter’s floods, Steffen warned in a statement to The Australian Online that climate change is likely to make heavy flooding events more and more frequent in many parts of the world.
“We’re starting to see the impact of climate change in this region,” said Mayor Brad Carter of Rockhampton, one of the cities being affected by the floodwaters.
Just as Hurricane Katrina in the US corresponded with unusually warm water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, this winter’s Australian floods may be connected to abnormally warm seas off of Queensland. More immediately, the floods are the result of what may be the most extreme La Nina weather event in history. The exact extent to which climate change might have contributed to a particularly severe La Nina this year remains unknown.
Australia is not new to the kind of extreme weather that will become more common in a changing climate. The country only recently began recovering from a years-long drought—one of the worst in Australian history. The drought and accompanying forest fires cost Australians untold millions in economic damages, wreaking havoc on agriculture and putting many farming families out of business. Unlike the flooding in Queensland, which is too recent an event for scientists to have studied in great depth, the connection between climate change and the drought that started in 2002 is well established. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated in 2007 that the frequency of drought in Australia will increase 20% by the year 2030.
As many other parts of the world have learned already, a warmer global climate can bring on both drought and floods. In places like Australia climate change is likely to lead to less frequent rainfall. But when the rains do come, they will be heavier and more damaging. Both the floods and the long period of dry weather preceding them are consistent with many scientists’ prediction about climate change.
Because it has a dry climate to begin with, Australia may be poised to suffer more from climate change than any other industrialized country. However like the United States, Australia has still not passed a national climate law and remains highly dependent on coal—the dirtiest fossil fuel used to produce electricity. Perhaps even more important than Australia’s own coal-burning power stations is the fact that the country is one of the main suppliers of coal to China, where carbon emissions are growing faster than in any other part of the world. Australia’s willingness to export coal abroad has helped enable China to become the planet’s single biggest carbon polluter.
Ironically Australia’s coal exports are for the moment partly on hold, not because of any new climate policy but because the most important coal ports have been flooded. At the Gladstone export terminal in Queensland, coal exports have dropped 75% because of the floods. Business as usual is expected to resume once the waters recede. But for once an activity that causes climate change has itself become the victim of the kind of weather event global warming will make all the more common.
Photo credit: “Timothy” on Flickr