The air above Antarctica is suddenly getting warmer – here’s what it means for Australia



Antarctic winds have a huge effect on weather in other places.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Harry Hendon, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Andrew B. Watkins, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Eun-Pa Lim, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Griffith Young, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Record warm temperatures above Antarctica over the coming weeks are likely to bring above-average spring temperatures and below-average rainfall across large parts of New South Wales and southern Queensland.

The warming began in the last week of August, when temperatures in the stratosphere high above the South Pole began rapidly heating in a phenomenon called “sudden stratospheric warming”.




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In the coming weeks the warming is forecast to intensify, and its effects will extend downward to Earth’s surface, affecting much of eastern Australia over the coming months.

The Bureau of Meteorology is predicting the strongest Antarctic warming on record, likely to exceed the previous record of September 2002.

(Left) Observation of September 2002 stratospheric warming compared to (right) 2019 forecast for September.
The forecast for 2019 was provided by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and was initialised on August 30, 2019.

What’s going on?

Every winter, westerly winds – often up to 200km per hour – develop in the stratosphere high above the South Pole and circle the polar region. The winds develop as a result of the difference in temperature over the pole (where there is no sunlight) and the Southern Ocean (where the sun still shines).

As the sun shifts southward during spring, the polar region starts to warm. This warming causes the stratospheric vortex and associated westerly winds to gradually weaken over the period of a few months.

However, in some years this breakdown can happen faster than usual. Waves of air from the lower atmosphere (from large weather systems or flow over mountains) warm the stratosphere above the South Pole, and weaken or “mix” the high-speed westerly winds.

Very rarely, if the waves are strong enough they can rapidly break down the polar vortex, actually reversing the direction of the winds so they become easterly. This is the technical definition of “sudden stratospheric warming.”

Although we have seen plenty of weak or moderate variations in the polar vortex over the past 60 years, the only other true sudden stratospheric warming event in the Southern Hemisphere was in September 2002.

In contrast, their northern counterpart occurs every other year or so during late winter of the Northern Hemisphere because of stronger and more variable tropospheric wave activity.

What can Australia expect?

Impacts from this stratospheric warming are likely to reach Earth’s surface in the next month and possibly extend through to January.

Apart from warming the Antarctic region, the most notable effect will be a shift of the Southern Ocean westerly winds towards the Equator.

For regions directly in the path of the strongest westerlies, which includes western Tasmania, New Zealand’s South Island, and Patagonia in South America, this generally results in more storminess and rainfall, and colder temperatures.

But for subtropical Australia, which largely sits north of the main belt of westerlies, the shift results in reduced rainfall, clearer skies, and warmer temperatures.

Past stratospheric warming events and associated wind changes have had their strongest effects in NSW and southern Queensland, where springtime temperatures increased, rainfall decreased and heatwaves and fire risk rose.

The influence of the stratospheric warming has been captured by the Bureau’s climate outlooks, along with the influence of other major climate drivers such as the current positive Indian Ocean Dipole, leading to a hot and dry outlook for spring.

Anomalous Australian climate conditions during the nine most significant polar vortex weakening years (1979, 1988, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2012, 2013, 2016) on both maximum and minimum temperatures, and rainfall for October-November, as compared to all other years between 1979-2016.
Bureau of Meteorology

Effects on the ozone hole and Antarctic sea ice

One positive note of sudden stratospheric warming is the reduction – or even absence altogether – of the spring Antarctic ozone hole. This is for two reasons.

First, the rapid rise of temperatures in the upper atmosphere means the super cold polar stratospheric ice clouds, which are vital for the chemical process that destroys ozone, may not even form.

Secondly, the disrupted winds carry more ozone-rich air from the tropics to the polar region, helping repair the ozone hole.

We also expect an enhanced decline in Antarctic sea ice between October and January, particularly in the eastern Ross Sea and western Amundsen Sea, as more warm water moves towards the poles due to the weaker westerly winds.




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Thanks to improvements in modelling and the Bureau’s new supercomputer, these types of events can be forecast better than ever before. Compared to 2002, when we didn’t know much about the event until after it had happened, this time we’ve had almost three weeks’ notice that a very strong warming event was coming. We also know much more about the process that has been set in train, that will affect our weather over the next one to four months.The Conversation

Harry Hendon, Senior Principal Research Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Andrew B. Watkins, Manager of Long-range Forecast Services, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Eun-Pa Lim, Senior research scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Griffith Young, Senior IT Officer, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

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

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The winter was dry, the spring will likely be dry – here’s why


Jonathan Pollock, Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Andrew B. Watkins, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Winter still has a few days to run, but it’s highly likely to be one of Australia’s warmest and driest on record. While final numbers will be crunched once August ends, this winter will probably rank among the top ten warmest for daytime temperatures and the top ten driest for rainfall.

While it was drier than average across most of the country, it was especially dry across South Australia, New South Wales and southern Queensland. Small areas of South Australia and New South Wales are on track for their driest winter on record.




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In contrast, parts of southern Victoria, western Tasmania and central Queensland were wetter than usual.

Preliminary winter 2019 rainfall deciles.
Bureau of Meteorology

Thirsty ground

Soil moisture normally increases during winter (except in the tropics, where it’s the dry season), and while we saw that in parts of Victoria, for most of Queensland and New South Wales the soil moisture actually decreased.

Dry soils leading into winter have soaked up the rain that has fallen, resulting in limited runoff and inflows into the major water storages across the country.

A glass half empty

Sydney’s water storages dropping below 50% received considerable public attention, and unfortunately a number of other regional storages in New South Wales and the Murray Darling Basin are much lower than that.

The winter ‘filling’ season in the southern Murray Darling Basin has been drier than usual for the third year in a row, and storages in the northern Murray Darling basin are extremely low or empty with no meaningful inflows.

Some rain in the west

Some regions did receive enough rainfall to grow crops this cool season. However, northern New South Wales and southern Queensland didn’t see an improvement in their severe year-to-date rainfall deficiencies over winter.

In fact, the area of the country that is experiencing year-to-date rainfall in the lowest 5% of historical records expanded.

In better news, the severe year-to-date deficiencies across southwest Western Australia shrank during winter.

Indian Ocean Dipole the culprit

Sustained differences between sea surface temperatures in the tropical western and eastern Indian Ocean are known as the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). The IOD impacts Australian seasonal rainfall and temperature patterns, much like the more well known El Niño–Southern Oscillation.

Warm sea surface temperatures in the tropical western Indian Ocean and cool sea surface temperatures in the eastern Indian Ocean, along with changes in both cloud and wind patterns, have been consistent with a positive Indian Ocean Dipole since late May.

International climate models, some of which forecast the positive IOD as early as February, agree that it is likely to continue through spring.

Typically, this means below average rainfall and above average temperatures for much of central and southern Australia, which is consistent with the current rainfall and temperature outlook from the Bureau’s dynamical computer model. The positive IOD is likely to be the dominant climate driver for Australia during the next three months.

Comparison of international climate model forecasts of the IOD index for November 2019.
Models from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Canadian Meteorological Centre, European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, Meteo France, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (USA) and the Met Office (UK)

A dry end to 2019 likely

Chances are the remainder of 2019 will be drier than normal for most of Australia. The exceptions are western Tasmania, southern Victoria and western WA, where chances of a wetter or drier than average end to the year are roughly equal.

The spring 2019 outlook showing low chances of above average rainfall for most of the country.
Bureau of Meteorology

Warmer than average days are very likely (chances above 80%) for most of the country except the far south of the mainland, and Tasmania.

Nights too are likely to be warmer than average for most of the country. However, much of Victoria and Tasmania, and southern parts of South Australia and New South Wales have close to an even chance for warmer than average minimum temperatures.

Due to the warm and dry start to the year, the east coast of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, as well as parts of southern Western Australia, face above normal fire potential this coming bushfire season.

More outlooks more often

The term weather describes conditions over shorter periods, such as from minutes to days, while the term climate describes the more slowly varying aspects of the atmosphere.

From today, the Bureau of Meteorology is closing the forecast gap between weather and climate information with the release of weekly and fortnightly climate outlooks.

For the first time, rainfall and temperature outlooks for the weeks directly after the 7-day forecast are available. One- and two-week outlooks have been added to complement the existing 1-month and 3-month outlooks.




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The new outlook information for the weeks ahead also features how much above or below average temperatures are likely to be, and the likelihood of different rainfall totals.

The Bureau’s outlook videos explain the long-range forecast for the coming months.
Bureau of Meteorology


You can find climate outlooks and summaries on the Bureau of Meteorology website here.The Conversation

Jonathan Pollock, Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Andrew B. Watkins, Manager of Long-range Forecast Services, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

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

Heatwaves and flash floods: yes, this is Britain’s ‘new normal’


Hayley J. Fowler, Newcastle University

“It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that we had a heatwave just last week?”

Those words were spoken by a BBC news presenter, in front of graphic images of fire service rescues, as heavy rain caused floods and landslides which closed many roads and railway lines. In recent days there have dramatic floods across the north of England, particularly around Manchester, the Peak District and Yorkshire.

For me, this is personal, as I am from the worst affected area. I went to high school where people spent the night in their Civic Hall. Three miles away from where I grew up, a dam holding back Toddbrook Reservoir has been at risk of collapse and the town of Whaley Bridge was evacuated. But I’m not surprised that we are seeing flash flooding and I expect it to get worse in the future.

I am a professor at Newcastle University, where I lead a large research group focused on understanding changes to intense rainfall events and flash floods. Over the past eight years we’ve been working closely with colleagues at the UK Met Office to develop new very high-resolution climate models that can simulate these very intense summer storms and therefore predict what might happen in a warming climate.

Our models tell us that by 2080 summers in the UK will be much hotter and drier. Heatwaves will be more common. In fact a report released by the Met Office on the same day as the latest flash floods tells us that heatwaves are already happening more often. When Cambridge recently hit 38.7℃, the UK became one of 12 countries to break its national temperature record this year.

The world is warming. But although UK average summer rainfall is predicted to decrease, our models tell us that when it does rain it will be more intense than has been the case. Flash flooding in the UK is generally caused by intense rainstorms, where more than 30mm falls in an hour. Climate models predict these will happen five times more often by 2080.

Part of the reason for this is the simple fact that warmer air can hold more moisture. But that’s too simple: the availability of moisture also increases in areas close to warm oceans – warmer sea surface temperatures cause more moisture to be evaporated into the atmosphere, providing additional fuel for these intense storms. And here’s the scary bit: the Atlantic Ocean provides a vast source of moisture for storms in the UK.

But that’s not the whole story. Heavy, short rain storms are intensifying more rapidly than would be expected with global warming (what we call the Clausius-Clapeyron relationship). Research also suggests that more intense storms can themselves grow bigger, and with both the intensity of the rainfall and the spatial footprint of the storm increasing, the total rainfall in an “event” could double.

What’s more, the larger storms seem to have an ability to draw in more moisture from the surrounding area and become even more intense: the additional energy (heating) fuelling the uplift of air within the storm’s core draws in even more moisture from the surface, allowing them to grow even larger, with more potential for flooding. These also provide the perfect ingredients for large hail storms.

So, it is entirely consistent that we might expect both more heatwaves and more intense summer thunderstorms in a warmer climate. We also know which areas of the country are already susceptible to these flash floods from our analysis of historical records of flooding. Newspapers have reported on the dramatic impacts of these floods for centuries and this has allowed my team to reconstruct a flash-flooding history of the UK.

Certain parts of the country are highly vulnerable as their rivers respond quickly to rainstorms. These rivers tend to be found in steep, upland catchments underlain by non-permeable rocks, mainly in the north and west of the UK. High-risk catchments also include urban areas where the ground is also non-permeable, for entirely different reasons.

Many of the towns reported to have suffered “biblical” flooding recently have suffered repeated flooding through history, but perhaps not within living memory. For example, Whaley Bridge is mentioned twice in the flood chronologies for events in June 1872 and July 1881:

On 19th [June 1872] the Goyt was 12 to 14 feet above its normal level. At Whaley Bridge houses near the river were completely flooded and people were taken into the chapel and inns … in Macclesfield a woman and child were drowned when the river Bollin overflowed. Two reservoirs burst in the vicinity.

This rich archive of knowledge, including the prevalence of flooding in certain towns, even specific roads, is something we should draw upon in planning both the emergency response to these flash floods and for reducing their future impact. We can learn a lot from the past in how to manage the greater risks of flooding the future will bring.The Conversation

Hayley J. Fowler, Professor of Climate Change Impacts, Newcastle University

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

There’s a simple way to drought-proof a town – build more water storage



Inland towns need far more water storage.
Flickr/Mertie, CC BY-SA

Michael Roderick, Australian National University

The federal parliament has voted to funnel A$200 million to drought-stricken areas. What exactly this money will be spent on is still under consideration, but the majority will go to rural, inland communities.

But once there, what can the money usefully be spent on? Especially if there’s been a permanent decline in rainfall, as seen in Perth. How can we help inland communities?




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Let’s look at the small inland town of Guyra, NSW, which is close to running dry. Unlike our coastal cities, Guyra cannot simply build a billion-dollar desalination plant to supply its water. Towns like Guyra must look elsewhere for its solutions.

Running dry isn’t just about rainfall

“Running dry” means there is no water when the tap is turned on. It seems to make sense to blame the drought for Guyra’s lack of water. But the available water supply is not only determined by rainfall. It also depends on amount of water flowing into water storage (called streamflow), and the capacity and security of that storage.

While Perth has had a distinct downturn in its rainfall since the 1970s and has built desalination plants to respond to this challenge, no such downturn is evident at Guyra. Indeed, to date, the driest consecutive two years on record for Guyra were 100 years ago (1918 and 1919).

Long-term rainfall records for Perth (left) and Guyra (right). Dashed red line shows the trend and the full yellow line shows 600 mm annual rainfall.
Bureau of Meteorology

Despite the differences, there are some similarities between Perth and Guyra. As a rule of thumb, in Australia, significant streamflow into water storages does not occur until annual rainfall reaches around 600mm. This occurs as streamflow is generally supplied from “wet patches” when water can no longer soak into the soil. Thus, if annual rainfall is around 600mm or below, we generally anticipate very little streamflow.

While Guyra has seen some rain in 2019, it is not enough to prompt this crucial flow of water into the local water storage. The same is true for Perth, with annual rainfall in the past few decades now hovering close to the 600mm threshold.

Importantly, rainfall and streamflow do not have a linear relationship. Annual rainfall in Perth has declined by around 20%, but Perth’s streamflow has fallen by more than 90%.

With little streamflow filling its dams, Perth had little choice but to find other ways of increasing its water supply. They built desalination plants to make up the difference.

Let’s return to Guyra in NSW and the current drought. The rainfall records do not indicate there is a long-term downward trend in rainfall. But even without a rainfall trend, there are still dry years when there is little streamflow. Indeed, in Guyra, the rainfall record shows that, on average, the rainfall will be 600mm or less roughly one year out of every ten years.

Build more storage

So how do the residents of Guyra ensure a reliable water supply, given that they cannot build themselves a desalination plant?

Well, in this case, you can simply get water from somewhere else if it is available. A pipeline is currently under construction to supply Guyra from the nearby Malpas Dam, and is expected to be in operation very soon.

But that’s not always an option. A made-in-Guyra water solution means one thing: expanding storage capacity.

Guyra can generally store around 8 months of their normal water demand (although of course demand varies with the seasons, droughts, water restrictions and price per litre).

To give a point of comparison, Sydney can store up to five years of its normal water demand, and has a desalination plant besides. Despite these advantages, Sydney residents are now under stage one water restrictions which happens when its storages are only 50% full. Yet, even when Sydney’s glass is only half-full, that city still has at least another two years of water left to meet the expected water demand even without using desalination.

By comparison, when water storages in Guyra are 50% full, they have less than six months normal water supply.

It is astonishingly difficult to find accurate data on small-town water supplies but in my experience Guyra is not unique among rural towns. There is a big divide between the water security of those living in Australia’s big cities compared to smaller inland towns. Many rural communities simply do not have sufficient water storage to withstand multi-year droughts, and in some cases, cannot even withstand one year of drought.




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Nature, drought and climate change cannot be blamed for all of our water problems. In rural inland towns, inadequate planning and funding for household water can sometimes be the real culprit. Whether Australians live in rural communities or big cities, they should be treated fairly in terms of both the availability and the quality of the water they use.The Conversation

Michael Roderick, Professor, Research School of Earth Sciences and Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Australian National University

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

Extreme weather caused by climate change has damaged 45% of Australia’s coastal habitat



Bleached staghorn coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Many species are dependent on corals for food and shelter.
Damian Thomson, Author provided

Russ Babcock, CSIRO; Anthony Richardson, The University of Queensland; Beth Fulton, CSIRO; Eva Plaganyi, CSIRO, and Rodrigo Bustamante, CSIRO

If you think climate change is only gradually affecting our natural systems, think again.

Our research, published yesterday in Frontiers in Marine Science, looked at the large-scale impacts of a series of extreme climate events on coastal marine habitats around Australia.

We found more than 45% of the coastline was already affected by extreme weather events caused by climate change. What’s more, these ecosystems are struggling to recover as extreme events are expected to get worse.




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There is growing scientific evidence that heatwaves, floods, droughts and cyclones are increasing in frequency and intensity, and that this is caused by climate change.

Life on the coastline

Corals, seagrass, mangroves and kelp are some of the key habitat-forming species of our coastline, as they all support a host of marine invertebrates, fish, sea turtles and marine mammals.

Our team decided to look at the cumulative impacts of recently reported extreme climate events on marine habitats around Australia. We reviewed the period between 2011 and 2017 and found these events have had devastating impacts on key marine habitats.

Healthy kelp (left) in Western Australia is an important part of the food chain but it is vulnerable to even small changes in temperature and particularly slow to recover from disturbances such as the marine heatwave of 2011. Even small patches or gaps (right) where kelp has died can take many years to recover.
Russ Babcock, Author provided

These include kelp and mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, and coral reefs, some of which have not yet recovered, and may never do so. These findings paint a bleak picture, underscoring the need for urgent action.

During this period, which spanned both El Niño and La Niña conditions, scientists around Australia reported the following events:

2011: The most extreme marine heatwave ever occurred off the west coast of Australia. Temperatures were as much as 2-4℃ above average for extended periods and there was coral bleaching along more than 1,000km of coast and loss of kelp forest along hundreds of kilometres.

Seagrasses in Shark Bay and along the entire east coast of Queensland were also severely affected by extreme flooding and cyclones. The loss of seagrasses in Queensland may have led to a spike in deaths of turtles and dugongs.

2013: Extensive coral bleaching took place along more than 300km of the Pilbara coast of northwestern Australia.

2016: The most extreme coral bleaching ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef affected more than 1,000km of the northern Great Barrier Reef. Mangrove forests across northern Australia were killed by a combination of drought, heat and abnormally low sea levels along the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria across the Northern Territory and into Western Australia.

2017: An unprecedented second consecutive summer of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef affects northern Great Barrier Reef again, as well as parts of the reef further to the south.

Heritage areas affected

Many of the impacted areas are globally significant for their size and biodiversity, and because until now they have been relatively undisturbed by climate change. Some of the areas affected are also World Heritage Areas (Great Barrier Reef, Shark Bay, Ningaloo Coast).

Seagrass meadows in Shark Bay are among the world’s most lush and extensive and help lock large amounts of carbon into sediments. The left image shows healthy seagrass but the right image shows damage from extreme climate events in 2011.
Mat Vanderklift, Author provided

The habitats affected are “foundational”: they provide food and shelter to a huge range of species. Many of the animals affected – such as large fish and turtles – support commercial industries such as tourism and fishing, as well as being culturally important to Australians.

Recovery across these impacted habitats has begun, but it’s likely some areas will never return to their previous condition.

We have used ecosystem models to evaluate the likely long-term outcomes from extreme climate events predicted to become more frequent and more intense.

This work suggests that even in places where recovery starts, the average time for full recovery may be around 15 years. Large slow-growing species such as sharks and dugongs could take even longer, up to 60 years.

But extreme climate events are predicted to occur less than 15 years apart. This will result in a step-by-step decline in the condition of these ecosystems, as it leaves too little time between events for full recovery.

This already appears to be happening with the corals of the Great Barrier Reef.

Gradual decline as things get warmer

Damage from extreme climate events occurs on top of more gradual changes driven by increases in average temperature, such as loss of kelp forests on the southeast coasts of Australia due to the spread of sea urchins and tropical grazing fish species.

Ultimately, we need to slow down and stop the heating of our planet due to the release of greenhouse gases. But even with immediate and effective emissions reduction, the planet will remain warmer, and extreme climatic events more prevalent, for decades to come.

Recovery might still be possible, but we need to know more about recovery rates and what factors promote recovery. This information will allow us to give the ecosystems a helping hand through active restoration and rehabilitation efforts.




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We will need new ways to help ecosystems function and to deliver the services that we all depend on. This will likely include decreasing (or ideally, stopping) direct human impacts, and actively assisting recovery and restoring damaged ecosystems.

Several such programs are active around Australia and internationally, attempting to boost the ability of corals, seagrass, mangroves and kelp to recover.

But they will need to be massively scaled up to be effective in the context of the large scale disturbances seen in this decade.The Conversation

Mangroves at the Flinders River near Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The healthy mangrove forest (left) is near the river while the dead mangroves (right) are at higher levels where they were much more stressed by conditions in 2016. Some small surviving mangroves are seen beginning to recover by 2017.
Robert Kenyon, Author provided

Russ Babcock, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Anthony Richardson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Beth Fulton, CSIRO Research Group Leader Ecosystem Modelling and Risk Assessment, CSIRO; Eva Plaganyi, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Rodrigo Bustamante, Research Group Leader , CSIRO

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

Drought and climate change are driving high water prices in the Murray-Darling Basin


Neal Hughes, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

Water prices in the southern Murray-Darling Basin have reached their highest levels since the worst of the Millennium drought more than a decade ago. These high water prices are causing much anxiety in the region, and have led the federal government to call on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to hold an inquiry into the water market.

Inevitably, whenever an important good becomes more expensive – be it housing, electricity or water – there is a rush to identify potential causes and culprits. In the past few years high water prices have been blamed on foreign investors, corporate speculators, state government water-sharing rules, new almond plantings and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.




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While some of these factors have had an effect on the market, they are in many ways a distraction from the simpler truth: that high water prices have mostly been caused by a lack of rain.

Supply drives the market

The waters of the northern basin run to the Darling River and the waters of the southern basin run to the Murray River.
MDBA

Market reforms in the 1980s and 1990s enabled water trading in many parts of Australia. By far the most active market exists in the southern Murray-Darling basin, which covers the Murray River and its tributaries in northern Victoria, southern New South Wales and eastern South Australia.

The market allows users – mostly irrigation farmers – to trade their water allocations (effectively shares of water in the rivers’ major dams). This trading helps ensure limited water supplies go to the farmers who value them the most, which can be crucial in times of drought.

Historical data shows the main driver of water market prices in the southern basin is change in water supply.

The following chart shows storage volumes (in orange) and water prices (in red) in the southern basin since 2006. Prices peaked at the height of the Millennium drought in 2007. During the floods of 2011, they fell near zero. Prices have increased again during the latest drought, and are now at their highest levels in a decade.


Water allocation prices and storage volumes in the southern Murray-Darling Basin.
State government trade registers, BOM, Ruralco Water, ABARES estimates.

Lower rainfall, higher temperatures

While water prices have always been higher in dry years and lower in wet, we’ve been getting a lot more dry years in recent decades.

Over the past 20 years, rainfall, run-off and stream flow in the southern basin has been far less than historical conditions.

The below chart shows modelled flow data for the Murray River, assuming historical weather conditions and no water extraction, over the past century. It shows that average water flows this century are about 40% below the average of the 20th century.


Modelled ‘without-development’ annual Murray River flow, 1900 to 2018.
Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

We know these reductions are at least partly related to climate change, driven by both reduced winter rainfall and higher temperatures.

Lower rainfall and higher temperatures also make crops thirstier, increasing demand for irrigation water. This was evident in January, when temperatures exceeded 35℃ for 14 days and irrigators’ demand for water spiked from about 4.5 gigalitres to 7 gigalitres a day.




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The basin plan in perspective

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan seeks to improve the environmental health of the river system by recovering water rights from irrigation farmers. To date, more than 1,700 gigalitres of water rights – about 20% of annual water supply – have been recovered in the southern basin.

By reducing supply, water recovery was always expected to increase water prices. However, the effects of water recovery on supply – while significant – are still small relative to the effects of climate over the same period, as shown in the below chart.


Water allocation use in the southern basin with and without water recovery.
State government agencies, Department of Agriculture, ABARES estimates.

Measuring the precise effect of water recovery on prices is difficult. Water buybacks are straightforward and have been modelled by ABARES and others. But the effects of infrastructure programs – where farmers return a portion of their water rights in exchange for funding to upgrade infrastructure – are harder to estimate.




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‘Carryover’ rule changes

Historically farmers had to use water allocations within a 12-month window. The introduction of “carryover” – most recently in Victoria in 2008 – means users can now hold their unused water in dams. This rule change was a good thing, as it encourages farmers to conserve water and build up a buffer against drought.

But it might also have contributed to anxiety about the water market’s operations.

Since water allocations can be bought and held for multiple years, information about future conditions can have a big effect on prices now. For example, we see large jumps in price following news of worse-than-expected supply forecasts. This may have helped fuel concern about “speculators”.

Over the longer-term, the ability to store water helps to “smooth” water prices, with slightly higher prices in most years offset by much lower prices in drought years. Again this is a good thing, but it may have added to the perception of higher prices in the market.

Water demand is rising

When a profitable new irrigation activity is willing to pay more for water – as is the case with almond farms in the southern basin – competition for limited supplies can potentially drive up prices.

ABARES’ research shows that between 2003 and 2016 there was little change in irrigation demand (aside from that linked to rainfall). Growth in demand from expanding activities such as almonds and cotton was offset by reductions in others including dairy, rice and wine grapes. However, there is evidence since 2016 that demand for water has started to increase, contributing to higher water prices. Longer-term projections suggest this trend may continue.

With drought and climate change reducing water supply, and demand for both environmental and irrigation water increasing, high water prices are only likely to become more common in the basin in future.The Conversation

Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

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