El Niño in the Pacific has an impact on dolphins over in Western Australia



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Leaping bottlenose dolphins.
Kate Sprogis/MUCRU, Author provided

Kate Sprogis, Murdoch University; Fredrik Christiansen, Murdoch University; Lars Bejder, Murdoch University, and Moritz Wandres, University of Western Australia

Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) are a regular sight in the waters around Australia, including the Bunbury area in Western Australia where they attract tourists.

The dolphin population here, about 180km south of Perth, has been studied quite intensively since 2007 by the Murdoch University Cetacean Unit. We know the dolphins here have seasonal patterns of abundance, with highs in summer/autumn (the breeding season) and lows in winter/spring.

But in winter 2009, the dolphin population fell by more than half.

A leaping bottlenose dolphin.
Kate Sprogis/MUCRU, Author provided

This decrease in numbers in WA could be linked to an El Niño event that originated far away in the Pacific Ocean, we suggest in a paper published today in Global Change Biology. The findings could have implications for future sudden drops in dolphin numbers here and elsewhere.


Read more: Tackling the kraken: unique dolphin strategy delivers dangerous octopus for dinner


A Pacific event

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) results from an interaction between the atmosphere and the tropical Pacific Ocean. ENSO periodically fluctuates between three phases: La Niña, Neutral and El Niño.

During our study from 2007 to 2013, there were three La Niña events. There was one El Niño event in 2009, with the initial phase in winter being the strongest across Australia.

The blue vertical line shows the decline in dolphin numbers (d) during the 2009 El Niño event.
Kate Sprogis, Author provided

Coupled with El Niño, there was a weakening of the Leeuwin Current, the dominant ocean current off WA. There was also a decrease in sea surface temperature and above average rainfall.

ENSO is known to affect the strength of the south-ward flowing Leeuwin Current.

During La Niña, easterly trade winds pile warm water on the western side of the Pacific Ocean. This westerly flow of warm water across the top of Australia through the Indonesian Throughflow results in a stronger Leeuwin Current.

During El Niño, trade winds weaken or reverse and the pool of warm water in the Pacific Ocean gathers on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean. This results in a weaker Indonesian Throughflow across the top of Australia and a weakening in strength of the Leeuwin Current.

A chart showing sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies off Western Australia. Note the extremes for the moderate El Niño in 2009 (blue rectangle), and the strong La Niña in 2011 (red rectangle)
Moritz Wandres, Author provided

The strength and variability of the Leeuwin Current coupled with ENSO affects species biology and ecology in WA waters. This includes the distribution of fish species, the transport of rock lobster larvae, the seasonal migration of whale sharks and even seabird breeding success.

The question we asked then was whether ENSO could affect dolphin abundance?

What happened during the El Niño?

These El Niño associated conditions may have affected the distribution of dolphin prey, resulting in the movement of dolphins out of the study area in search of adequate prey elsewhere.

A surfacing bottlenose dolphin.
Kate Sprogis/MUCRU, Author provided

This is similar to what happens for seabirds in WA. During an El Niño event with a weakened Leeuwin Current, the distribution of prey changes around seabird’s breeding colonies resulting in a lower abundance of important prey species, such as salmon.

This in turn negatively impacts seabirds, including a decrease in reproductive output and changes in foraging.

In southwestern Australia, the amount of rainfall is strongly connected to sea surface temperature. When the water temperature in the Indian Ocean decreases, the region receives higher rainfall during winter.

High levels of rainfall contribute to terrestrial runoff and alters freshwater inputs into rivers and estuaries. The changes in salinity influences the distribution and abundance of dolphin prey.

This is particularly the case for the river, estuary, inlet and bay around Bunbury. Rapid changes in salinity during the onset of El Niño may have affected the abundance and distribution of fish species.

In 2009, there was also a peak in strandings of dead bottlenose dolphins in WA (between 1981-2010), but the cause of this remains unknown.

Of these strandings, in southwest Australia, there was a peak in June that coincided with the onset of the 2009 El Niño.

Specifically, in the Swan River, Perth, there were several dolphin deaths, with some resident dolphins that developed fatal skin lesions that were enhanced by the low-salinity waters.

What does all this mean?

Our study is the first to describe the effects of climate variability on a coastal, resident dolphin population.

A group of bottlenose dolphins.
Kate Sprogis/MUCRU, Author provided

We suggest that the decline in dolphin abundance during the El Niño event was temporary. The dolphins may have moved out of the study area due to changes in prey availability and/or potentially unfavourable water quality conditions in certain areas (such as the river and estuary).


Read more: Explainer: El Niño and La Niña


Long-term, time-series datasets are required to detect these biological responses to anomalous climate conditions. But few long-term datasets with data collected year-round for cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are available because of logistical difficulties and financial costs.

Continued long-term monitoring of dolphin populations is important as climate models provide evidence for the doubling in frequency of extreme El Niño events (from one event every 20 years to one event every ten years) due to global warming.

The ConversationWith a projected global increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (such as floods, cyclones), coastal dolphins may not only have to contend with increasing coastal human-related activities (vessel disturbance, entanglement in fishing gear, and coastal development), but also have to adapt to large-scale climatic changes.

Kate Sprogis, Research associate, Murdoch University; Fredrik Christiansen, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Murdoch University; Lars Bejder, Professor, Cetacean Research Unit, Murdoch University, Murdoch University, and Moritz Wandres, Oceanographer PhD Student, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How TV weather presenters can improve public understanding of climate change



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David Holmes, Monash University

A recent Monash University study of TV weather presenters has found a strong interest from free-to-air presenters in including climate change information in their bulletins.

The strongest trends in the survey, which had a 46% response rate, included:

  • 97% of respondents thought climate change is happening;

  • 97% of respondents believed viewers had either “strong trust” or “moderate trust” in them as a reliable source of weather information;

  • 91% of respondents were comfortable with presenting local historical climate statistics, and just under 70% were comfortable with future local climate projections; and

  • 97% of respondents thought their audiences would be interested in learning about the impacts of climate change.

According to several analyses of where Australians get their news, in the age of ubiquitous social media TV is still the single largest news source.

And when one considers that social media and now apps are increasingly used as the interface for sharing professional content from news organisations – which includes TV news – the reach of TV content is not about to be challenged anytime soon.

The combined audience for primetime free-to-air TV in the five capital city markets alone is a weekly average of nearly 3 million viewers. This does not include those using catch-up on portable devices, and those watching the same news within the pay TV audience. And there are those who are getting many of the same news highlights and clips through their Facebook feeds and app-based push media.

Yet the ever-more oligopolistic TV industry in Australia is very small. And professional weather presenters are a rather exclusive group: there are only 75 such presenters in Australia.

It is because of this, rather than in spite of it, that weather presenters are able to command quite a large following. And they are highly promoted by the networks themselves – on freeway billboards and station advertising. This promotion makes weather presenters among the most trusted media personalities, while simultaneously presenting information that is regarded as apolitical.

At the same time, Australians have a keen interest in talking about weather. It tends to unite us.

These three factors – trust, the impartial nature of weather, and Australian’s enthusiasm for the weather – puts TV presenters in an ideal position to present climate information. Such has been the experience in the US, where the Centre for Climate Change Communication together with Climate Matters have partnered with more than 350 TV weathercasters to present simple, easy-to-process factual climate information.

In the US it is about mainstreaming climate information as factual content delivered by trusted sources. The Climate Matters program found TV audiences value climate information the more locally based it was.

Monash’s Climate Change Communication Research Hub is conducting research as a precondition to establishing such a program in Australia. The next step is to survey the audiences of the free-to-air TV markets in the capital city markets to evaluate Australians’ appetite for creating a short climate segment alongside the weather on at least a weekly basis.

As in the US, TV audiences are noticing more and more extreme weather and want to understand what is causing it, and what to expect in the future.

The Climate Change Communication Research Hub is also involved in creating “climate communications packages” that can be tested with audiences. These are largely based on calendar and anniversary dates, and show long-term trends using these dates as datapoints.

The calendar dates could be sporting dates, or how climate can be understood in relation to a collection of years based on a specific date, or the start of a season for fire or cyclones. There has been so much extreme weather in recent years that there are plenty of anniversaries.

Let’s take November 21, 2016 – the most severe thunderstorm asthma event ever to impact Melbourne. It saw 8,500 presentations to hospital emergency departments and nine tragic deaths.

There is no reason why this event can’t be covered this year in the context of climate as a community service message. As explained in the US program, just a small increase in higher average spring temperatures leads to the production of a higher count of more potent pollen. Also, as more energy is fed into the destructive power of storm systems, the prospect of breaking up pollen and distributing it efficiently throughout population centres is heightened.

The need to be better prepared for thunderstorms in spring is thus greater, even for those who have never had asthma before.

For its data, the Climate Change Communication Research Hub will be relying on the information from the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO, but will call on the assistance of a wide range of organisations such as the SES, state fire services, and health authorities in conducting its research.

In February 2018, the hub will hold a workshop with TV weather presenters as part of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society conference. At the conference the planning for the project will be introduced, with a pilot to be conducted on one media market to be rolled out to multiple markets in the second year.

The ConversationThe program is not intended to raise the level of concern about climate change, but public understanding of it. As survey after survey shows, Australians are already concerned about climate change. But more information is needed about local and regional impacts that will help people make informed choices about mitigation, adaptation and how to plan their lives – beyond tomorrow’s weather.

David Holmes, Director, Climate Change Communication Research Hub, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Predicting disaster: better hurricane forecasts buy vital time for residents


Jeffrey David Kepert, Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Andrew Dowdy, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Hurricane Irma (now downgraded to a tropical storm) caused widespread devastation as it passed along the northern edge of the Caribbean island chain and then moved northwards through Florida. The storm’s long near-coastal track exposed a large number of people to its force.

At its peak, Hurricane Irma was one of the most intense ever observed in the North Atlantic. It stayed close to that peak for an unusually long period, maintaining almost 300km per hour winds for 37 hours.

Both of these factors were predicted a few days in advance by the forecasters of the US National Hurricane Center. These forecasts relied heavily on modern technology – a combination of computer models with satellite, aircraft and radar data.


Read more: Irma and Harvey: very different storms, but both affected by climate change


Forecasting is getting better

Although Irma was a very large and intense storm, and many communities were exposed to its force, our capacity to manage and deal with these extreme weather events has saved many lives.

There are many reasons for this, including significant construction improvements. But another important factor is much more accurate forecasts, with a longer lead time. When Tropical Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin in 1974, the Bureau of Meteorology could only provide 12-hour forecasts of the storm’s track, giving residents little time to prepare.

These days, weather services provide three to five days’ advance warning of landfall, greatly improving our ability to prepare. What’s more, today’s longer-range forecasts are more accurate than the short-range forecasts of a few decades ago.

We have also become better at communicating the threat and the necessary actions, ensuring that an appropriate response is made.

The improvement in forecasting tropical cyclones (known as hurricanes in the North Atlantic region, and typhoons in the northwest Pacific) hasn’t just happened by good fortune. It represents the outcome of sustained investment over many years by many nations in weather satellites, faster computers, and the science needed to get the best out of these tools.

Tropical cyclone movement and intensity is affected by the surrounding weather systems, as well as by the ocean surface temperature. For instance, when winds vary significantly with height (called wind shear), the top of the storm attempts to move in a different direction from the bottom, and the storm can begin to tilt. This tilt makes the storm less symmetrical and usually weakens it. Irma experienced such conditions as it moved northwards from Cuba and onto Florida. But earlier, as it passed through the Caribbean, a low-shear environment and warm sea surface contributed to the high, sustained intensity.

In Irma’s case, forecasters used satellite, radar and aircraft reconnaissance data to monitor its position, intensity and size. The future track and intensity forecast relies heavily on computer model predictions from weather services around the world. But the forecasters don’t just use this computer data blindly – it is checked against, and synthesised with, the other data sources.

In Australia, government and industry investment in supercomputing and research is enabling the development of new tropical cyclone forecast systems that are more accurate. They provide earlier warning of tropical cyclone track and intensity, and even advance warning of their formation.

Still hard to predict destruction

Better forecasting helps us prepare for the different hazards presented by tropical cyclones.

The deadliest aspects of tropical cyclones are storm surges (when the sea rises and flows inland under the force of the wind and waves) and flooding from extreme rainfall, both of which pose a risk of drowning. Worldwide, all of the deadliest tropical cyclones on record featured several metres’ depth of storm surge, widespread freshwater flooding, or both.

Wind can severely damage buildings, but experience shows that even if the roof is torn off, well-constructed buildings still provide enough shelter for their occupants to have an excellent chance of surviving without major injury.

By and large, it is the water that kills. A good rule of thumb is to shelter from the wind, but flee from the water.

https://embed.windy.com/embed2.html?lat=-28.845&lon=135.439&zoom=4&level=surface&overlay=wind&menu=&message=&marker=&forecast=12&calendar=now&location=coordinates&type=map&actualGrid=&metricWind=kt&metricTemp=%C2%B0C

Windy.com combines weather data from the Global Forecast System, North American Mesoscale and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts to create a live global weather map.

This means that predicting the damage and loss caused by a tropical cyclone is hard, because it depends on both the severity of the storm and the vulnerability of the area it hits.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 provides a good illustration. Katrina was a Category 3 storm when it made landfall over New Orleans, about as intense at landfall as Australian tropical cyclones Vance, Larry and Yasi. Yet Katrina caused at least 1,200 deaths and more than $US100 billion in damage, making it the third deadliest and by far the most expensive storm in US history. One reason was Katrina’s relatively large area, which produced a very large storm surge. But the other factor was the extraordinary vulnerability of New Orleans, with much of the city below normal sea level and protected by levées that were buried or destroyed by the storm surge, leading to extensive deep flooding.

We have already seen with Hurricane Irma that higher sea levels have exacerbated the sea surge. Whatever happens in the remainder of Irma’s path, it will already be remembered as a spectacularly intense storm, and for its very significant impacts in the Caribbean and Florida. One can only imagine how much worse those impacts would have been had the populations not been forewarned.

The ConversationBut increased population and infrastructure in coastal areas and the effects of climate change means we in the weather forecast business must continue to improve. Forewarned is forearmed.

Jeffrey David Kepert, Head of High Impact Weather Research, Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Andrew Dowdy, Senior Research Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: how does the sea ‘disappear’ when a hurricane passes by?


Darrell Strauss, Griffith University

You may have seen the media images of bays and coastlines along Hurricane Irma’s track, in which the ocean has eerily “disappeared”, leaving locals amazed and wildlife stranded. What exactly was happening?

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These coastlines were experiencing a “negative storm surge” – one in which the storm pushes water away from the land, rather than towards it.


Read more: Irma and Harvey: very different storms, but both affected by climate change


Most people are familiar with the idea that the sea is not at the same level everywhere at the same time. It is an uneven surface, pulled around by gravity, such as the tidal effects of the Moon and Sun. This is why we see tides rise and fall at any given location.

At the same time, Earth’s atmosphere has regions where the air pressure is higher or lower than average, in ever-shifting patterns as weather systems move around. Areas of high atmospheric pressure actually push down on the ocean surface, lowering sea level, while low pressure allows the sea to rise slightly.

This is known as the “inverse barometer effect”. Roughly speaking, a 1 hectopascal change in atmospheric pressure (the global average pressure is 1,010hPa) causes the sea level to move by 1cm.

When a low-pressure system forms over warm tropical oceans under the right conditions, it can intensify to become a tropical depression, then a tropical storm, and ultimately a tropical cyclone – known as a hurricane in the North Atlantic or a typhoon in the northwest Pacific.

As this process unfolds, the atmospheric pressure drops ever lower and wind strength increases, because the pressure difference with surrounding areas causes more air to flow towards the storm.

In the northern hemisphere tropical cyclones rotate anticlockwise and officially become hurricanes once they reach a maximum sustained wind speed of around 120km per hour. If sustained wind speeds reach 178km per hour the storm is classed as a major hurricane.

Surging waters

A “normal” storm surge happens when a tropical cyclone reaches shallow coastal waters. In places where the wind is blowing onshore, water is pushed up against the land. At the same time the cyclone’s incredibly low air pressure allows the water to rise higher than normal. On top of all this, the high waves whipped up by the wind mean that even more water inundates the coast.

The anticlockwise rotation of Atlantic hurricanes means that the storm’s northern side produces winds blowing from the east, and its southern side brings westerly winds. In the case of Hurricane Irma, which tracked almost directly up the Florida panhandle, this meant that as it approached, the east coast of the Florida peninsula experienced easterly onshore winds and suffered a storm surge that caused severe inundation and flooding in areas such as Miami.

The negative surge

In contrast, these same easterly winds had the opposite effect on Florida’s west coast (the Gulf Coast), where water was pushed offshore, leading to a negative storm surge. This was most pronounced in areas such as Fort Myers and Tampa Bay, which normally has a relatively low tide range of less than 1m.

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The negative surge developed over a period of about 12 hours and resulted in a water level up to 1.5m below the predicted low tide level. Combined with the fact that the sea is shallow in these areas anyway, it looked as if the sea had simply disappeared.


Read more: Predicting disaster: better hurricane forecasts buy vital time for residents.


As tropical cyclones rapidly lose energy when moving over land, the unusually low water level was expected to rapidly rise, which prompted authorities to issue a flash flood warning to alert onlookers to the potential danger. The negative surge was replaced by a storm surge of a similar magnitude within about 6 hours at Fort Myers and 12 hours later at Tampa Bay.

The ConversationRising waters are the deadliest aspect of hurricanes – even more than the ferocious winds. So while it may be tempting to explore the uncovered seabed, it’s certainly not wise to be there when the sea comes rushing back.

Darrell Strauss, Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Irma and Harvey: very different storms, but both affected by climate change


Andrew King, University of Melbourne

There has been no let up since Hurricane Harvey dumped record-breaking rains on the Houston area of Texas. Hurricane Irma lashed parts of the Caribbean and Cuba and is now heading onto the US mainland, having devastated the Florida Keys and the state’s west coast.

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We also have Hurricane Jose following Irma through the Caribbean, and Hurricane Katia, now downgraded after tracking through parts of eastern Mexico.


Read more: Are catastrophic disasters striking more often?


This very active season comes after a “hurricane drought” with very few major storms making landfall on the US coast over the previous decade.

So why are we seeing so many hurricanes now? Is climate change to blame?

How to make a hurricane

There are several vital ingredients needed for hurricanes to form. These include an initial disturbance in the atmosphere for the storm to form around, very warm sea surface temperatures to sustain the storm, and a lack of vertical wind shear so the storm is not torn apart during its formation.

In the Atlantic Ocean, hurricanes often form near Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa. They then track westward towards the Caribbean and the US.

Lots of factors can affect how strong these storms ultimately become, including how much time they spend gathering strength over the ocean, and the background weather patterns through which they travel.

Sea surface temperatures are well above normal over the tropical Atlantic. The effects of Hurricane Harvey mixing up cooler waters off the Texan coast can be seen.
NOAA Office of Satellite and Product Operations

This storm season we have seen sea temperatures persistently 1-2℃ above normal over the tropical Atlantic Ocean, which has allowed stronger storms to form and develop.

Atlantic sea temperatures have warmed over the past century, thus enhancing one of the key ingredients for hurricane formation. The climate change influence is clear for the sea temperatures, but not so much for the other ingredients required in forming hurricanes.

Harvey and Irma

While we have low confidence in the effect of human-caused climate change on hurricane formation, it is clear that climate change is enhancing some of the impacts of these storms.

Hurricane Harvey hit southern Texas hard by stalling over the Houston area and dumping huge amounts of rain. Climate change might have contributed to the stalling effect, but what’s clearer is that climate change is making intense extreme rainfall events like we saw over Houston more likely. By warming the atmosphere we’re also increasing its capacity to carry moisture.

When we have the trigger for heavy rainfall, climate change makes it rain harder.

Hurricane Irma is a very different beast to Harvey. It devastated several Caribbean islands including Anguilla and the Virgin Islands when it was a Category 5 system. It then struck Cuba before re-intensifying and moving north across the Florida Keys and onto the US mainland.

Irma’s main impacts have been through the storm surge, the strong winds and the heavy rains.

Climate change has likely worsened the effects of Irma. As described above, we know that climate change is intensifying extreme rain events. We also know that climate change is worsening storm surges by raising the background sea level on which these events occur.

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Sea levels are projected to rise further over the coming century, by 50-100cm under a high greenhouse gas emissions scenario, and 20-50cm if we greatly reduce our emissions.

So while it’s likely that climate change is contributing to more extreme hurricanes, we have even more confidence that climate change is worsening the impacts of these storms, and will continue to do so over the coming decades.

Paving over the Gulf Coast

Besides the climate change influence, the widespread urban development on the US Gulf Coast is exacerbating the impacts of hurricanes.

Much like the Houston area, Florida also has a growing population. This means that not only are there more people in harm’s way when a major hurricane strikes, but there is also more concrete and other impervious surfaces that allow the water to pool in low-lying areas.

Is there any good news?

While climate change and development in hurricane-prone areas are worsening the impacts of these hurricanes, there are some glimmers of good news.

Scientists’ ability to track and forecast these major systems has improved greatly. Better forecasting of hurricanes allows for earlier planning for their impacts and should improve evacuation processes.

In theory, with the right plans in place, better hurricane forecasting should reduce death tolls from events like Irma. But it doesn’t necessarily reduce the economic costs of these storms, and for both Harvey and Irma the clean-up and recovery bills will be more than A$100 billion each.

The ConversationIt’s clear that climate has worsened the impacts of Atlantic hurricanes and will continue to do so. Improved forecasting provides a glimmer of hope that the death tolls from future events can be reduced, even as the economic impacts increase.

Andrew King, Climate Extremes Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia’s record-breaking winter warmth linked to climate change


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This winter had some extreme low and high temperatures.
Daniel Lee/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Andrew King, University of Melbourne

On the first day of spring, it’s time to take stock of the winter that was. It may have felt cold, but Australia’s winter had the highest average daytime temperatures on record. It was also the driest in 15 years.

Back at the start of winter the Bureau of Meteorology forecast a warm, dry season. That proved accurate, as winter has turned out both warmer and drier than average.


Read more: Australia’s dry June is a sign of what’s to come


While we haven’t seen anything close to the weather extremes experienced in other parts of the world, including devastating rainfalls in Niger, the southern US and the Indian subcontinent all in the past week, we have seen a few interesting weather extremes over the past few months across Australia.

Much of the country had drier conditions than average, especially in the southeast and the west.
Bureau of Meteorology

Drier weather than normal has led to warmer days and cooler nights, resulting in some extreme temperatures. These include night-time lows falling below -10℃ in the Victorian Alps and -8℃ in Canberra (the coldest nights for those locations since 1974 and 1971, respectively), alongside daytime highs of above 32℃ in Coffs Harbour and 30℃ on the Sunshine Coast.

During the early part of the winter the southern part of the country remained dry as record high pressure over the continent kept cold fronts at bay. Since then we’ve seen more wet weather for our southern capitals and some impressive snow totals for the ski fields, even if the snow was late to arrive.

This warm, dry winter is laying the groundwork for dangerous fire conditions in spring and summer. We have already had early-season fires on the east coast and there are likely to be more to come.

Climate change and record warmth

Australia’s average daytime maximum temperatures were the highest on record for this winter, beating the previous record set in 2009 by 0.3℃. This means Australia has set new seasonal highs for maximum temperatures a remarkable ten times so far this century (across summer, autumn, winter and spring). The increased frequency of heat records in Australia has already been linked to climate change.

Winter 2017 stands out as having the warmest average daytime temperatures by a large margin.
Bureau of Meteorology

The record winter warmth is part of a long-term upward trend in Australian winter temperatures. This prompts the question: how much has human-caused climate change altered the likelihood of extremely warm winters in Australia?

I used a standard event attribution methodology to estimate the role of climate change in this event.

I took the same simulations that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses in its assessments of the changing climate, and I put them into two sets: one that represents the climate of today (including the effects of greenhouse gas emissions) and one with simulations representing an alternative world that excludes our influences on the climate.

I used 14 climate models in total, giving me hundreds of years in each of my two groups to study Australian winter temperatures. I then compared the likelihood of record warm winter temperatures like 2017 in those different groups. You can find more details of my method here.

I found a stark difference in the chance of record warm winters across Australia between these two sets of model simulations. By my calculations there has been at least a 60-fold increase in the likelihood of a record warm winter that can be attributed to human-caused climate change. The human influence on the climate has increased Australia’s temperatures during the warmest winters by close to 1℃.

More winter warmth to come

Looking ahead, it’s likely we’re going to see more record warm winters, like we’ve seen this year, as the climate continues to warm.

The likelihood of winter warmth like this year is rising. Best estimate chances are shown with the vertical black lines showing the 90% confidence interval.
Author provided

Under the Paris Agreement, the world’s nations are aiming to limit global warming to below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels, with another more ambitious goal of 1.5℃ as well. These targets are designed to prevent the worst potential impacts of climate change. We are currently at around 1℃ of global warming.

Even if global warming is limited to either of these levels, we would see more winter warmth like 2017. In fact, under the 2℃ target, we would likely see these winters occurring in more than 50% of years. The record-setting heat of today would be roughly the average climate of a 2℃ warmed world.

While many people will have enjoyed the unusual winter warmth, it poses risks for the future. Many farmers are struggling with the lack of reliable rainfall, and bad bushfire conditions are forecast for the coming months. More winters like this in the future will not be welcomed by those who have to deal with the consequences.


Climate data provided by the Bureau of Meteorology. For more details about winter 2017, see the Bureau’s Climate Summaries.

The ConversationYou can find more details on the specific methods applied for this analysis here.

Andrew King, Climate Extremes Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Southeast Europe swelters through another heatwave with a human fingerprint



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Searching for respite from the heat in one of Rome’s fountains.
Max Roxxi/Reuters

Andrew King, University of Melbourne

Parts of Europe are having a devastatingly hot summer. Already we’ve seen heat records topple in western Europe in June, and now a heatwave nicknamed “Lucifer” is bringing stifling conditions to areas of southern and eastern Europe.

Several countries are grappling with the effects of this extreme heat, which include wildfires and water restrictions.

Temperatures have soared past 40℃ in parts of Italy, Greece and the Balkans, with the extreme heat spreading north into the Czech Republic and southern Poland.

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Some areas are having their hottest temperatures since 2007 when severe heat also brought dangerous conditions to the southeast of the continent.

The heat is associated with a high pressure system over southeast Europe, while the jet stream guides weather systems over Britain and northern Europe. In 2007 this type of split weather pattern across Europe persisted for weeks, bringing heavy rains and flooding to England with scorching temperatures for Greece and the Balkans.

Europe is a very well-studied region for heatwaves. There are two main reasons for this: first, it has abundant weather observations and this allows us to evaluate our climate models and quantify the effects of climate change with a high degree of confidence. Second, many leading climate science groups are located in Europe and are funded primarily to improve understanding of climate change influences over the region.

The first study to link a specific extreme weather event to climate change examined the record hot European summer of 2003. Since then, multiple studies have assessed the role of human influences in European extreme weather. Broadly speaking, we expect hotter summers and more frequent and intense heatwaves in this part of the world.

We also know that climate change increased deaths in the 2003 heatwaves and that climate change-related deaths are projected to rise in the future.

Climate change’s role in this heatwave

To understand the role of climate change in the latest European heatwave, I looked at changes in the hottest summer days over southeast Europe – a region that incorporates Italy, Greece and the Balkans.

I calculated the frequency of extremely hot summer days in a set of climate model simulations, under four different scenarios: a natural world without human influences, the world of today (with about 1℃ of global warming), a 1.5℃ global warming world, and a 2℃ warmer world. I chose the 1.5℃ and 2℃ benchmarks because they correspond to the targets described in the Paris Agreement.

As the heatwave is ongoing, we don’t yet know exactly how much hotter than average this event will turn out to be. To account for this uncertainty I used multiple thresholds based on historically very hot summer days. These thresholds correspond to an historical 1-in-10-year hottest day, a 1-in-20-year hottest day, and a new record for the region exceeding the observed 2007 value.

While we don’t know exactly where the 2017 event will end up, we do know that it will exceed the 1-in-10 year threshold and it may well breach the higher thresholds too.

A clear human fingerprint

Whatever threshold I used, I found that climate change has greatly increased the likelihood of extremely hot summer days. The chance of extreme hot summer days, like this event, has increased by at least fourfold because of human-caused climate change.

Climate change is increasing the frequency of hot summer days in southeast Europe. Likelihoods of the hottest summer days exceeding the historical 1-in-10 year threshold, one-in-20 year threshold and the current record are shown for four scenarios: a natural world, the current world, a 1.5℃ world, and a 2℃ world. Best estimate likelihoods are shown with 90% confidence intervals in parentheses.
Author provided

My analysis shows that under natural conditions the kind of extreme heat we’re seeing over southeast Europe would be rare. In contrast, in the current world and possible future worlds at the Paris Agreement thresholds for global warming, heatwaves like this would not be particularly unusual at all.

There is also a benefit to limiting global warming to 1.5℃ rather than 2℃ as this reduces the relative frequency of these extreme heat events.

As this event comes to an end we know that Europe can expect more heatwaves like this one. We can, however, prevent such extreme heat from becoming the new normal by keeping global warming at or below the levels agreed upon in Paris.


The ConversationYou can find out more about the methods used here.

Andrew King, Climate Extremes Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.