The science of drought is complex but the message on climate change is clear



Detecting human fingerprints on complex events like droughts is not straightforward.
AAP Image/Dan Peled

Ben Henley, University of Melbourne; Andrew King, University of Melbourne; Anna Ukkola, Australian National University; Murray Peel, University of Melbourne; Q J Wang, University of Melbourne, and Rory Nathan, University of Melbourne

The issue of whether Australia’s current drought is caused by climate change has been seized on by some media commentators, with debate raging over a remark from eminent scientist Andy Pitman that “there is no link between climate change and drought”. Professor Pitman has since qualified, he meant to say “there is no direct link between climate change and drought”.

A highly politicised debate that tries to corner scientists will not do much to help rural communities struggling with the ongoing dry. But it is still worthwhile understanding the complexity of how climate change relates to drought.




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Is Australia’s current drought caused by climate change? It’s complicated


So, why the contention?

It may seem like splitting hairs to focus on single words, but the reality is drought is complex, and broad definitive statements are difficult to make. Nevertheless, aspects of drought are linked with climate change. Let us try to give you a taste of the complexity.

First, it’s important to understand that drought is a manifestation of interactions between the atmosphere, ocean, and land. In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology uses rainfall deficiencies to identify regions that are under drought conditions. Anyone on the land doesn’t need to be reminded, but the current drought is seriously bad. These maps show the patterns of rainfall deficiency over the past 36 and 18 months, highlighting the severity and extent of what we call meteorological drought.

Widespread rainfall deficiencies over the last 36 months (left) and 18 months (right)
Australian Bureau of Meteorology

But along with the main driver – low rainfall – droughts can also be exacerbated by water loss through evaporation. This depends not only on temperature but also humidity, wind speeds, and sunshine. Temperature will clearly continue to rise steadily almost everywhere. For the other factors, the future is not quite as clear.

Water loss also varies according to vegetation cover. Plants respond to higher carbon dioxide levels and drought by closing the tiny holes in their leaves (the stomata) and this can actually reduce water loss in wet environments. However, in water-stressed environments, projected long-term declines in rain may be compounded by plants using more water, further reducing streamflow. Actually, we can glean a lot from studying hydrological drought, which is measured by a period of low flow in rivers.

The point here is droughts are multidimensional, and can affect water supply on a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. A seasonal-scale drought that reduces soil moisture on a farm, and a decade-long drought that depletes reservoirs and groundwater supplies, can each be devastating, but in different ways.

Is climate change affecting Australian droughts?

Climate change may affect drought metrics and types of drought differently, so it can be hard to make general statements about the links between human-induced climate change and all types of drought, in all locations, on all timescales.

Southern Australia, and in particular the southwest, has seen a rapid decline in winter rainfall and runoff that has been linked to climate change. In the southeast there has also been a substantial decline in winter rainfall and total runoff in recent decades. Although the reductions are consistent with climate change projections, the trend so far is harder to distinguish from the year-to-year variability.

There is some evidence to suggest that widespread and prolonged droughts, like the Millennium Drought, are worse than other droughts in past centuries, and may have been exacerbated by climate change.




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But the role of climate change in extended drought periods is difficult to discern from normal variations in weather and climate. This is particularly true in Australia, which has a much more variable climate than many other parts of the world.

What does the future hold?

Climate models project increasing temperature across Australia and a continuing decline in cool-season rainfall over southern Australia over the next century. This will lead to more pressure on water supplies for agriculture, the environment, and cities such as Melbourne at the Paris Agreement’s target of 2℃, relative to the more ambitious target of 1.5℃ of global warming.




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Rainfall is projected to become more extreme, with more intense rain events and fewer light rain days. Declining overall rainfall is predicted to reduce river flows in southeastern Australia. While we can expect the largest floods to increase with climate change, smaller floods are decreasing due to drier soils, and it is these smaller floods that top up our water supply systems.

Action needed

We might not know enough about droughts to be certain about exactly how they will behave in the future, but this does not affect the message from the science community on climate change, which remains crystal clear.

Rainfall intensification, sea level rise, ocean acidification, hotter days, and longer and more intense heatwaves all point to the fact that climate change presents a major threat to Australia and the world.

In response to these threats, we need deep and sustained greenhouse gas emissions cuts and proactive adaptation to the inevitable effects of climate change. This includes a focus right now on the practical measures to help our rural communities who continue to feel the pinch of a dry landscape.




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The Conversation


Ben Henley, Research Fellow in Climate and Water Resources, University of Melbourne; Andrew King, ARC DECRA fellow, University of Melbourne; Anna Ukkola, Research Fellow, Australian National University; Murray Peel, Senior lecturer, University of Melbourne; Q J Wang, Professor, University of Melbourne, and Rory Nathan, Associate Professor Hydrology and Water Resources, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

After the climb: how new tourism opportunities can empower the traditional owners of Uluru



The Anangu community of Mutitjulu stands in stark contrast to the sleek tourism infrastructure in the neighbouring town of Yulara.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Barry Judd, Charles Darwin University; Amanda Kearney, Flinders University; Chris Hallinan; Christine Schlesinger, Charles Darwin University; Joseph M. Cheer, Wakayama University, and Keir James Reeves, Federation University Australia

Last weekend marked 34 years since the land title to Uluru was handed back to the local Yankunytjatjara-Pitjantjatjara peoples. It was also when joint management of the Uluru-Katja-Tjuta National Park began between the traditional owners (Anangu people) and Parks Australia.

The arrangement recognised Anangu title to the land and ensured the direct involvement of Anangu in the development of tourism in the area.

The agreement also coincided with the relocation of tourism facilities from the southeast base of Uluru to the purpose-built resort town of Yulara. The old hotels and other tourist sites were discarded and became the base for the Anangu community of Mutitjulu.

However, if joint management aimed to deliver improved economic and social outcomes for Anangu residents, it has proven to be a spectacular failure.




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Today, Yulara and Mutitjulu stand in stark contrast. Yulara is filled with cashed-up, bucket-list travellers from all over the world, while Mutitjulu is an outpost of lingering disadvantage where overcrowding, underemployment, poverty, high rates of suicide and preventable diseases remain pervasive problems.

Mutitjulu was also the epicentre of the controversial Northern Territory National Emergency Response in 2007, commonly referred to as the intervention, when the federal government took control over more than 70 Indigenous communities in response to allegations of child sexual abuse.

Over a decade later, the intervention has done little to close the gap in these communities.

Mutitjulu is emblematic of what academic Jon Altman refers to as the persistent need to reestablish trust between Indigenous Australians and the institutions that for so long failed to ensure their basic human rights were protected.

An end to climbing brings new opportunities

The end of climbing at Uluru provides an opportunity to reset the relationship between the traditional owners and the tourism sector, and look for new ways for Anangu to be integrated into the industry.

Central to this is how the Anangu can meaningfully develop their cultural assets within the park to ensure the long-term benefit of their people, particularly through direct employment.




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There would appear to be ample opportunities for the people in Mutitjulu to take advantage of the 1,000-plus tourism jobs in Yulara, which are currently staffed largely by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people from outside the community.

The closure of Uluru to climbing also necessitates the development of alternate visitor experiences, particularly more educational and immersive experiences that would entail learning from and interacting respectfully with traditional owners.

The decision to end climbing at Uluru has been a cause for celebration by Indigenous communities.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Obstacles to developing an Indigenous tourism economy

Yet, structural impediments prevent this from becoming a reality at Uluru, as well as other remote parts of Australia.

These obstacles include a lack of education and training options specific to Indigenous needs to help them set up and run their own businesses. Another issue is that land rights and native title claims have tended to benefit a few legally recognised landowners and haven’t been conducive to whole-of-community development.

Both the Anangu and key tourism stakeholders in central Australia, including Voyages Indigenous Tourism and Tourism NT, are keenly aware of the need to reform the local tourism industry.




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Enabling greater access to commercial bank loans is critical to Indigenous business development, as is collaborative planning between Indigenous groups and the government. Likewise, scientific and traditional Indigenous knowledge could be combined in new ways to drive tourism growth in areas like land and wildlife management.

The Anangu must also be empowered to start micro-enterprises grounded in Knowledge of Country that would strengthen their community, culture and language. One example of this is the Indigenous Ranger and Protected Area program, which involves Indigenous rangers managing their own lands based on traditional cultural practice.




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Another approach that has shown promise is embracing Indigenous knowledge systems as part of the tourist educational experience. This is gaining currency in the NT as remote community arts centres seek to become visitor destinations in their own right.

These approaches to bottom-up initiatives have the greatest potential for growth and long-term empowerment in Uluru.

A model for other Indigenous communities

A major tourism rethink also requires addressing the structural impediments that prevent Indigenous peoples from starting businesses.

For example, new incentives could be built into the Australian tax code for those who invest in businesses on Aboriginal-owned land. However, such measures will only succeed if they are supported by bespoke educational and training programs for Anangu wanting to work in tourism.

The closure of Uluru to climbing should not simply focus on the limits the Anangu have imposed on visitors, but rather on the new possibilities this presents to leverage tourism for a more sustainable and resilient future.

This could also provide a model for traditional owners elsewhere who want to reclaim decision-making authority over tourism and other cultural activities on their lands.

And it signals to the broader Australian public that a greater respect for the rights of Indigenous people might just be the catalyst that helps drive a brighter Indigenous future.The Conversation

Barry Judd, Professor, Indigenous Social Research, Charles Darwin University; Amanda Kearney, Matthew Flinders Fellow, Professor of Australian and Indigenous Studies, Flinders University; Chris Hallinan, Research Associate; Christine Schlesinger, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science and Ecology, Charles Darwin University; Joseph M. Cheer, Professor in Sustainable Tourism, Wakayama University, and Keir James Reeves, Professor of History, Federation University Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.