How drought-breaking rains transformed these critically endangered woodlands into a flower-filled vista



Wildflowers blooming in box gum grassy woodland
Jacqui Stol, Author provided

Jacqui Stol, CSIRO; Annie Kelly, and Suzanne Prober, CSIRO

In box gum grassy woodlands, widely spaced eucalypts tower over carpets of wildflowers, lush native grasses and groves of flowering wattles. It’s no wonder some early landscape paintings depicting Australian farm life are inspired by this ecosystem.

But box gum grassy woodlands are critically endangered. These woodlands grow on highly productive agricultural country, from southern Queensland, along inland slopes and tablelands, into Victoria.

Many are degraded or cleared for farming. As a result, less than 5% of the woodlands remain in good condition. What remains often grows on private land such as farms, and public lands such as cemeteries or travelling stock routes.




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Very little is protected in public conservation reserves. And the recent drought and record breaking heat caused these woodlands to stop growing and flowering.

But after Queensland’s recent drought-breaking rain earlier this year, we surveyed private farmland and found many dried-out woodlands in the northernmost areas transformed into flower-filled, park-like landscapes.

And landholders even came across rarely seen marsupials, such as the southern spotted-tail quoll.

Native yellow wildflowers called ‘scaly buttons’ bloom on a stewardship site.
Jacqui Stol, Author provided

Huge increase in plant diversity

These surveys were part of the Australian government’s Environmental Stewardship Program, a long-term cooperative conservation model with private landholders. It started in 2007 and will run for 19 years.

We found huge increases in previously declining native wildflowers and grasses on the private farmland. Many trees assumed to be dying began resprouting, such as McKie’s stringybark (Eucalyptus mckieana), which is listed as a vulnerable species.

This newfound plant diversity is the result of seeds and tubers (underground storage organs providing energy and nutrients for regrowth) lying dormant in the soil after wildflowers bloomed in earlier seasons. The dormant seeds and tubers were ready to spring into life with the right seasonal conditions.

For example, Queensland Herbarium surveys early last year, during the drought, looked at a 20 metre by 20 metre plot and found only six native grass and wildflower species on one property. After this year’s rain, we found 59 species in the same plot, including many species of perennial grass (three species jumped to 20 species post rain), native bluebells and many species of native daisies.




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On another property with only 11 recorded species, more than 60 species sprouted after the extensive rains.

In areas where grazing and farming continued as normal (the paired “control” sites), the plots had only around half the number of plant species as areas managed for conservation.

Spotting rare marsupials

Landowners also reported several unusual sightings of animals on their farms after the rains. Stewardship program surveyors later identified them as two species of rare and endangered native carnivorous marsupials: the southern spotted-tailed quoll (mainland Australia’s largest carnivorous marsupial) and the brush-tailed phascogale.

The population status of both these species in southern Queensland is unknown. The brush-tailed phascogale is elusive and rarely detected, while the southern spotted-tailed quolls are listed as endangered under federal legislation.

Until those sightings, there were no recent records of southern spotted-tailed quolls in the local area.

A spotted tailed quoll caught in a camera trap.
Sean Fitzgibbon, Author provided

These unusual wildlife sightings are valuable for monitoring and evaluation. They tell us what’s thriving, declining or surviving, compared to the first surveys for the stewardship program ten years ago.

Sightings are also a promising signal for the improving condition of the property and its surrounding landscape.

Changing farm habits

More than 200 farmers signed up to the stewardship program for the conservation and management of nationally threatened ecological communities on private lands. Most have said they’re keen to continue the partnership.

The landholders are funded to manage their farms as part of the stewardship program in ways that will help the woodlands recover, and help reverse declines in biodiversity.

For example, by changing the number of livestock grazing at any one time, and shortening their grazing time, many of the grazing-sensitive wildflowers have a better chance to germinate, grow, flower and produce seeds in the right seasonal conditions.




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They can also manage weeds, and not remove fallen timber or loose rocks (bushrock). Fallen timber and rocks protect grazing-sensitive plants and provide habitat for birds, reptiles and invertebrates foraging on the ground.

Cautious optimism

So can we be optimistic for the future of wildlife and wildflowers of the box gum grassy woodlands? Yes, cautiously so.

Landholders are learning more about how best to manage biodiversity on their farms, but ecological recovery can take time. In any case, we’ve discovered how resilient our flora and fauna can be in the face of severe drought when given the opportunity to grow and flourish.

The rare hooded robin has also been recorded on stewardship sites during surveys.
Micah Davies, Author provided

Climate change is bringing more extreme weather events. Last year was the warmest on record and the nation has been gripped by severe, protracted drought. There’s only so much pressure our iconic wildlife and wildflowers can take before they cross ecological thresholds that are difficult to bounce back from.

More government programs like this, and greater understanding and collaboration between scientists and farmers, create a tremendous opportunity to keep changing that trajectory for the better.The Conversation

Jacqui Stol, Senior Experimental Scientist, Ecologist, CSIRO Land and Water, CSIRO; Annie Kelly, Senior Ecologist, and Suzanne Prober, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO

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

Australia, it’s time to talk about our water emergency



Dean Lewins/AAP

Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Matthew Colloff, Australian National University; Paul Wyrwoll, Australian National University, and Virginia Marshall, Australian National University

The last bushfire season showed Australians they can no longer pretend climate change will not affect them. But there’s another climate change influence we must also face up to: increasingly scarce water on our continent.

Under climate change, rainfall will become more unpredictable. Extreme weather events such as cyclones will be more intense. This will challenge water managers already struggling to respond to Australia’s natural boom and bust of droughts and floods.

Thirty years since Australia’s water reform project began, it’s clear our efforts have largely failed. Drought-stricken rural towns have literally run out of water. Despite the recent rains, the Murray Darling river system is being run dry and struggles to support the communities that depend on it.

We must find another way. So let’s start the conversation.

It’s time for a new national discussion about water policy.
Joe Castro/AAP

How did we get here?

Sadly, inequitable water outcomes in Australia are not new.

The first water “reform” occurred when European settlers acquired water sources from First Peoples without consent or compensation. Overlaying this dispossession, British common law gave new settlers land access rights to freshwater. These later converted into state-owned rights, and are now allocated as privately held water entitlements.

Some 200 years later, the first steps towards long-term water reform arguably began in the 1990s. The process accelerated during the Millennium Drought and in 2004 led to the National Water Initiative, an intergovernmental water agreement. This was followed in 2007 by a federal Water Act, upending exclusive state jurisdiction over water.




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Under the National Water Initiative, state and territory water plans were to be verified through water accounting to ensure “adequate measurement, monitoring and reporting systems” across the country.

This would have boosted public and investor confidence in the amount of water being traded, extracted and recovered – both for the environment and the public good.

This vision has not been realised. Instead, a narrow view now dominates in which water is valuable only when extracted, and water reform is about subsidising water infrastructure such as dams, to enable this extraction.

The National Water Initiative has failed.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Why we should all care

In the current drought, rural towns have literally run out of fresh drinking water. These towns are not just dots on a map. They are communities whose very existence is now threatened.

In some small towns, drinking water can taste unpleasant or contain high levels of nitrate, threatening the health of babies. Drinking water in some remote Indigenous communities is not always treated, and the quality rarely checked.

In the Murray-Darling Basin, poor management and low rainfall have caused dry rivers, mass fish kills, and distress in Aboriginal communities. Key aspects of the basin plan have not been implemented. This, coupled with bushfire damage, has caused long-term ecological harm.

How do we fix the water emergency?

Rivers, lakes and wetlands must have enough water at the right time. Only then will the needs of humans and the environment be met equitably – including access to and use of water by First Peoples.

Water for the environment and water for irrigation is not a zero-sum trade-off. Without healthy rivers, irrigation farming and rural communities cannot survive.

A national conversation on water reform is needed. It should recognise and include First Peoples’ values and knowledge of land, water and fire.

Our water brief, Water Reform For All,
proposes six principles to build a national water dialogue:

  1. establish shared visions and goals
  2. develop clarity of roles and responsibilities
  3. implement adaptation as a way to respond to an escalation of stresses, including climate change and governance failures
  4. invest in advanced technology to monitor, predict and understand changes in water availability
  5. integrate bottom-up and community-based adaptation, including from Indigenous communities, into improved water governance arrangements
  6. undertake policy experiments to test new ways of managing water for all
The Darling River is in poor health.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Ask the right questions

As researchers, we don’t have all the answers on how to create a sustainable, equitable water future. No-one does. But in any national conversation, we believe these fundamental questions must be asked:

  1. who is responsible for water governance? How do decisions and actions of one group affect access and availability of water for others?

  2. what volumes of water are extracted from surface and groundwater systems? Where, when, by whom and for what?

  3. what can we predict about a future climate and other long-term drivers of change?

  4. how can we better understand and measure the multiple values that water holds for communities and society?

  5. where do our visions for the future of water align? Where do they differ?

  6. what principles, protocols and processes will help deliver the water reform needed?

  7. how do existing rules and institutions constrain, or enable, efforts to achieve a shared vision of a sustainable water future?

  8. how do we integrate new knowledge, such as water availability under climate change, into our goals?

  9. what restitution is needed in relation to water and Country for First Peoples?

  10. what economic sectors and processes would be better suited to a water-scarce future, and how might we foster them?

Water reform for all

These questions, if part of a national conversation, would reinvigorate the water debate and help put Australia on track to a sustainable water future.

Now is the time to start the discussion. Long-accepted policy approaches in support of sustainable water futures are in question. In the Murray-Darling Basin, some states even question the value of catchment-wide management. The formula for water-sharing between states is under attack.




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Even science that previously underpinned water reform is being questioned

We must return to basics, reassess what’s sensible and feasible, and debate new ways forward.

We are not naive. All of us have been involved in water reform and some of us, like many others, suffer from reform fatigue.

But without a fresh debate, Australia’s water emergency will only get worse. Reform can – and must – happen, for the benefit of all Australians.


The following contributed to this piece and co-authored the report on which it was based: Daniel Connell, Katherine Daniell, Joseph Guillaume, Lorrae van Kerkoff, Aparna Lal, Ehsan Nabavi, Jamie Pittock, Katherine Taylor, Paul Tregoning, and John WilliamsThe Conversation

Quentin Grafton, Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Matthew Colloff, Honorary Senior Lecturer, Australian National University; Paul Wyrwoll, Research fellow, Australian National University, and Virginia Marshall, Inaugural Indigenous Postdoctoral Fellow, Australian National University

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

Aren’t we in a drought? The Australian black coal industry uses enough water for over 5 million people


Ian Overton, University of Adelaide

Water is a highly contested resource in this long, oppressive drought, and the coal industry is one of Australia’s biggest water users.

Research released today, funded by the Australian Conservation Foundation, has identified how much water coal mining and coal-fired power stations actually use in New South Wales and Queensland. The answer? About 383 billion litres of fresh water every year.

That’s the same amount 5.2 million people, or more than the entire population of Greater Sydney, uses in the same period. And it’s about 120 times the water used by wind and solar to generate the same amount of electricity.




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Monitoring how much water is used by industry is vital for sustainable water management. But a lack of transparency about how much water Australia’s coal industry uses makes this very difficult.

Adani’s controversial Carmichael mine in central Queensland was granted a water licence that allows the company to take as much groundwater as it wants, despite fears it will damage aquifers and groundwater-dependent rivers.

Now more than ever, we must make sure water use by coal mines and power stations are better monitored and managed.

Data on total water use by coal mines is not publicly available.
Shutterstock

Why does coal need so much water?

Mines in NSW and Queensland account for 96% of Australia’s black coal production.

Almost all water used in coal mines is consumed and cannot be reused. Water is used for coal processing, handling and preparation, dust suppression, on-site facilities, irrigation, vehicle washing and more.

Coal mining’s water use rate equates to a total consumption of almost 225 billion litres a year in NSW and Queensland, which can be extrapolated to 234 billion litres for Australia, for black coal without considering brown coal.

About 80% of this water is freshwater from rainfall and runoff, extracted from rivers and water bodies, groundwater inflows or transferred from other mines. Mines are located in regions such as the Darling Downs, the Hunter River and the Namoi River in the Murray-Darling Basin.




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The other 20% comes from water already contained in tailings (mine residue), recycled water or seepage from the mines.

The burning of coal to generate energy is also a large water user. Water use in coal-fired power stations is even harder to quantify, with a report from 2009 providing the only available data.

Water is used for cooling with power stations using either a once-through flow or recirculating water system.

The water consumed becomes toxic wastewater stored in ash ponds or is evaporated during cooling processes. Water withdrawn is returned to rivers which can damage aquatic life due to the increased temperature.

No transparency

Data on total water use by coal mines is not publicly available. Despite the development of Australian and international water accounting frameworks, there is no reporting to these standards in coal mine reports.

This lack of consistent and available data means water use by the coal industry, and its negative effects, is not widely reported or understood. The problem is compounded by complex regulatory frameworks that allow gaps in water-use reporting.

A patchwork of government agencies in each state regulate water licences, quality and discharge, coal mine planning, annual reviews of mine operations and water and environmental impacts. This means that problems can fall through the gaps.

Digging for data

An analysis of annual reviews from 39 coal mines in NSW, provided data on water licences and details of water used in different parts of the mine.

Although they are part of mandatory reporting, the method of reporting water use is not standardised. The reviews are required to report against surface water and groundwater licences, but aren’t required to show a comprehensive water balanced account. Annual reviews for Queensland coal mines were not available.

Collated water use — both water consumption and water withdrawal – showed coal mining consumes approximately 653 litres for each tonne of coal produced.

This rate is 2.5 times more than a previous water-use rate of 250 litres per tonne, from research in 2010.

Using this rate the total water consumed by coal mining is 40% more than the total amount of water reported for all types of mining in NSW and Queensland by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the same year.

By the numbers

NSW and Queensland coal-fired power stations annually consume 158,300 megalitres of water. One megalitre is equivalent to one million litres.

A typical 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power station uses enough water in one year to meet the basic water needs of nearly 700,000 people. NSW and Queensland have 18,000 megawatts of capacity.

Coal-fired generation uses significantly more water than other types of energy.

In total, coal mining and coal-fired power stations in NSW and Queensland consume 383 billion litres of freshwater a year – about 4.3% of all freshwater available in those states.

The value of this water is between A$770 million and A$2.49 billion (using a range of low to high security water licence costs).

They withdraw 2,353 billion litres of freshwater per year.


Author provided/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The problem with large water use

Coal mining is concentrated in a few regions, such as the Hunter Valley and the Bowen Basin, which are also important for farming and agriculture.

In NSW and Queensland, the coal industry withdraws about 30% as much water as is withdrawn for agriculture, and this is concentrated in the few regions.

Coal mining and power stations use water through licenses to access surface water and groundwater, and from unlicensed capturing of rainfall and runoff.

This can reduce stream flow and groundwater levels, which can threaten ecosystem habitats if not managed in context of other water users. Cumulative effects of multiple mines in one region can increase the risk to other water users.

The need for an holistic approach

A lack of available data remains a significant challenge to understanding the true impact of coal mining and coal-fired power on Australia’s water resources.

To improve transparency and increase trust in the coal industry, accounting for water consumed, withdrawn and impacted by coal mining should be standardised to report on full water account balances.




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The coal industry should also be subject to mandatory monthly reporting and a single, open-access point of water data must be created. Comprehensive water modelling must be updated yearly and audited.

Coal water use must be managed in a holistic manner with the elevation of water accounting to a single government agency or common database.

Australia has a scarce water supply, and our environment and economy depend on the sustainable and equitable sharing of this resource.The Conversation

Ian Overton, Adjunct Associate Professor, Centre for Global Food and Resources, University of Adelaide

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

A rare natural phenomenon brings severe drought to Australia. Climate change is making it more common



Shutterstock

Nicky Wright, Australian National University; Bethany Ellis, Australian National University, and Nerilie Abram, Australian National University

Weather-wise, 2019 was a crazy way to end a decade. Fires spread through much of southeast Australia, fuelled by dry vegetation from the ongoing drought and fanned by hot, windy fire weather.

On the other side of the Indian Ocean, torrential rainfall and flooding devastated parts of eastern Africa. Communities there now face a locust plague and food shortages.

These intense events can partly be blamed on the extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole, a climate phenomenon that unfolded in the second half of 2019.




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The Indian Ocean Dipole refers to the difference in sea surface temperature on either side of the Indian Ocean, which alters rainfall patterns in Australia and other nations in the region. The dipole is a lesser-known relative of the Pacific Ocean’s El Niño.

Climate drivers, such as the Indian Ocean Dipole, are an entirely natural phenomenon, but climate change is modifying the behaviour of these climate modes.

In research published today in Nature, we reconstructed Indian Ocean Dipole variability over the last millennium. We found “extreme positive” Indian Ocean Dipole events like last year’s are historically very rare, but becoming more common due to human-caused climate change. This is big news for a planet already struggling to contain global warming.

So what does this new side-effect of climate change mean for the future?

The Indian Ocean brings drought and flooding rain

First, let’s explore what a “positive” and “negative” Indian Ocean Dipole means.

During a “positive” Indian Ocean Dipole event, waters in the eastern Indian Ocean become cooler than normal, while waters in the western Indian Ocean become warmer than normal.

Warmer water causes rising warm, moist air, bringing intense rainfall and flooding to east Africa. At the same time, atmospheric moisture is reduced over the cool waters of the eastern Indian Ocean. This turns off one of Australia’s important rainfall sources.




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In fact, over the past century, positive Indian Ocean Dipoles have led to the worst droughts and bushfires in southeast Australia.

The Indian Ocean Dipole also has a negative phase, which is important to bring drought-breaking rain to Australia. But the positive phase is much stronger and has more intense climate impacts.

We’ve experienced extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole events before. Reliable instrumental records of the phenomenon began in 1958, and since then a string of very strong positive Indian Ocean Dipoles have occurred in 1961, 1994, 1997 and now 2019.

The Dipole Mode Index is used to track variability of the Indian Ocean Dipole.
Author provided

But this instrumental record is very short, and it’s tainted by the external influence of climate change.

This means it’s impossible to tell from instrumental records alone how extreme Indian Ocean Dipoles can be, and whether human-caused climate change is influencing the phenomenon.

Diving into the past with corals

To uncover just how the Indian Ocean Dipole has changed, we looked back through the last millennium using natural records: “cores” taken from nine coral skeletons (one modern, eight fossilised).

These coral samples were collected just off of Sumatra, Indonesia, so they’re perfectly located for us to reconstruct the distinct ocean cooling that characterises positive Indian Ocean Dipole events.

Scientists drilling into corals to study past climate. Corals are like trees, and grow a band for every year they live.
Jason Turl, Author provided

Corals grow a lot like trees. For every year they live they produce a growth band, and individual corals can live for more than 100 years. Measuring the oxygen in these growth bands gives us a detailed history of the water temperature the coral grew in, and the amount of rainfall over the reef.

In other words, the signature of extreme events like past positive Indian Ocean Dipoles is written in the coral skeleton.

Altogether, our coral-based reconstruction of the Indian Ocean Dipole spans 500 years between 1240 and 2019. There are gaps in the timeline, but we have the best picture so far of how exactly the Indian Ocean Dipole has varied in the past.

How unusual was the 2019 Indian Ocean Dipole event?

Extreme events like the 2019 Indian Ocean Dipole have historically been very rare.

We found only ten extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole events in the entire record. Four occurred in the past 60 years, but only six occurred in the remaining 440 years before then. This adds more weight to evidence that positive Indian Ocean Dipole events have been occurring more often in recent decades, and becoming more intense.




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But another finding from the reconstruction surprised – and worried – us. Events like 2019 aren’t the worst of what the Indian Ocean Dipole can throw at us.

Of the extreme events we found in our reconstruction, one of them, in 1675, was much stronger than anything we’ve seen in observations from the last 60 years.

The 1675 event was around 30–40% stronger than what we saw in 1997 (around the same magnitude as 2019). Historical accounts from Asia show this event was disastrous, and the severe drought it caused led to crop failures, widespread famine and mortality, and incited war.

The wiggles that make up 500 years of reconstructed Indian Ocean Dipole variability. The red triangles show when extreme positive events occurred.
Author provided

As far as we can tell, this event shows just how extreme Indian Ocean Dipole variability can be, even without any additional prompting from external forces like human-caused climate change.

Why should we care?

Indian Ocean Dipole variability will continue to episodically bring extreme climate conditions to our region.

Drilling through fossilised coral layers to look into the past.
Nerilie Abram, Author provided

But previous studies, as well as ours, have shown human-caused climate change has shortened the gaps between these episodes, and this trend will continue. This is because climate change is causing the western side of the Indian Ocean to warm faster than in the east, making it easier for positive Indian Ocean Dipole events to establish.

In other words, drought-causing positive Indian Ocean Dipole events will become more frequent as our climate continues to warm.

In fact, climate model projections indicate extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole events will occur three times more often this century than last, if high greenhouse gas emissions continue.




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This means events like last year will almost certainly unfold again soon, and we’re upping the odds of even worse events that, through the fossil coral data, we now know are possible.

Knowing we haven’t yet seen the worst of the Indian Ocean Dipole is important in planning for future climate risks. Future extremes from the Indian Ocean will act on top of long-term warming, giving a double-whammy effect to their impacts in Australia, like the record-breaking heat and drought of 2019.

But perhaps most importantly, rapidly cutting greenhouse gas emissions will limit how often positive Indian Ocean Dipole events occur in future.The Conversation

Nicky Wright, Research Fellow, Australian National University; Bethany Ellis, PhD Candidate, Australian National University, and Nerilie Abram, Professor; ARC Future Fellow; Chief Investigator for 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.

Entire hillsides of trees turned brown this summer. Is it the start of ecosystem collapse?



Rachael Nolan, CC BY-NC

Rachael Helene Nolan, Western Sydney University; Belinda Medlyn, Western Sydney University; Brendan Choat, Western Sydney University, and Rhiannon Smith, University of New England

The drought in eastern Australia was a significant driver of this season’s unprecedented bushfires. But it also caused another, less well known environmental calamity this summer: entire hillsides of trees turned from green to brown.

We’ve observed extensive canopy dieback from southeast Queensland down to Canberra. Reports of more dead and dying trees from other regions across Australia are flowing in through the citizen science project, the Dead Tree Detective.




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A few dead trees are not an unusual sight during a drought. But in some places, it is the first time in living memory so much canopy has died off.

Ecologists are now pondering the implications. There are warnings that some Australian tree species could disappear from large parts of their ranges as the climate changes. Could we be witnessing the start of ecosystem collapse?

Extensive canopy dieback in Kains Flat, NSW, January 2020.
Matt Herbert

Why are canopies dying now?

Much of eastern Australia has been in drought since the start of 2017. While this drought is not yet as long as the Millennium Drought, it appears to be more intense. Many areas have received the lowest rainfall on record, including long periods of time with no rainfall. This has been coupled with above-average temperatures and extreme heatwaves.

The higher the temperature, the greater the moisture loss from leaves. This is usually good for a tree because it cools the canopy. But if there is not enough water in the soil, the increased water loss can push trees over a threshold, causing extensive leaf “scorching”, or browning. The extensive canopy dieback we have observed this summer suggests that the soil had finally become too dry for many trees.

Widespread rainfall deciciencies and higher temperatures across many parts of Australia.
Bureau of Meteorology

Are the trees dead?

Brown or bare trees are not necessarily dead. Many eucalypts can lose all their leaves but resprout after rain.

Many parts of eastern Australia are now flushed with green after rain. In these areas, it will be important to assess the extent of tree recovery. If trees are not showing signs of recovery after significant rainfall, they’re unlikely to survive. In some cases carbohydrate reserves – which trees need to resprout new leaves – may be too depleted for trees to recover.

Snowgums in the New England area resprouting in March 2020, following heavy rain. The trees lost most of their canopy during drought in 2019.
Trevor Stace, University of New England

The drought may also hinder post-fire recovery. Most eucalypt forests eventually recover from bushfires by resprouting new leaves. Some forests also recover when fire triggers seedlings to germinate.

But it’s likely that some forests now recovering from fire were already struggling with canopy dieback. So these two disturbances will test how resilient our forests are to back-to-back drought and bushfire.

Trees recovering from drought and/or fire may also enter the “dieback spiral”. The new flush of leaves following rain can make a particularly tasty meal for insects. Trees will then attempt to grow more foliage in response, but their ability to keep producing new leaves gradually declines as they deplete their carbohydrate reserves, and they can die.

Dieback spiral has led to extensive tree loss in the past, including in the New England area of NSW.

Should we be worried?

The capacity of eucalypts to resprout makes them naturally resilient to extended drought. There are some records of canopy dieback from severe droughts in the past, such as the Federation Drought. We assume (although we don’t know for sure) the forests recovered after these events. So they may bounce back after the current drought.

However, it’s hard not to be concerned. Climate change will bring increased drought, heatwaves and fires that could, over time, see extensive losses of trees across the landscape – as happened on the Monaro High Plain after the Millennium Drought.




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Australian research in 2016 warned that due to climate change, the habitat of 90% of eucalypt species could decline and 16 species were expected to lose their home environments within 60 years.

Such a change would have huge consequences for how ecosystems function – reducing the capacity for ecosystem services such as carbon storage, altering catchment water resources and reducing habitat for native animals.

Some trees resprouted new leaves after losing their canopy. But in some cases these leaves are now dying, like on these scribbly gums in the NSW Pilliga in August 2019.
Rachael Nolan

Where to from here?

Records of dead and dying trees on the Dead Tree Detective map.
Dead Tree Detective

Landholders can help bush on their property recover after drought, by protecting germinating seedlings from livestock and collecting local seed for later revegetation. Trees that appear dead should not be cut down as they may recover, and even if dead can provide valuable animal habitat.

Most importantly, however, we need to monitor trees carefully to see where they’ve died, and where they are recovering. A citizen science project, the Dead Tree Detective, is helping map the extent of tree die-off across Australia.

People send in photos of dead and dying trees – to date, over 267 records have been uploaded. These records can be used to target where to monitor forests during drought, including on-ground assessments of tree health and quantifying the physiological responses of trees to drought stress.

There is no ongoing forest health monitoring program in Australia, so this dataset is invaluable in helping us determine exactly how vulnerable Australia’s forests are to the double whammy of severe drought and bushfires.The Conversation

Rachael Helene Nolan, Postdoctoral research fellow, Western Sydney University; Belinda Medlyn, Professor, Western Sydney University; Brendan Choat, Associate Professor, Western Sydney University, and Rhiannon Smith, Research Fellow, University of New England

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

Why drought-busting rain depends on the tropical oceans


Andrew King, University of Melbourne; Andy Pitman, UNSW; Anna Ukkola, Australian National University; Ben Henley, University of Melbourne, and Josephine Brown, University of Melbourne

Recent helpful rains dampened fire grounds and gave many farmers a reason to cheer. But much of southeast Australia remains in severe drought.

Australia is no stranger to drought, but the current one stands out when looking at rainfall records over the past 120 years. This drought has been marked by three consecutive extremely dry winters in the Murray-Darling basin, which rank in the driest 10% of winters since 1900.

Despite recent rainfall the southeast of Australia remains in the grip of a multi-year drought.
Bureau of Meteorology

So what’s going on?

There has been much discussion on whether human-caused climate change is to blame. Our new study explores Australian droughts through a different lens.




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Rather than focusing on what’s causing the dry conditions, we investigated why it’s been such a long time since we had widespread drought-breaking rain. And it’s got a lot to do with how the temperature varies in the Pacific and Indian Ocean.

Our findings suggest that while climate change does contribute to drought, blame can predominately be pointed at the absence of the Pacific Ocean’s La Niña and the negative Indian Ocean Dipole – climate drivers responsible for bringing wetter weather.

Understanding the Indian Ocean Dipole.

What’s the Indian Ocean Dipole?

As you may already know, the Pacific Ocean influences eastern Australia’s climate through El Niño conditions (associated with drier weather) and La Niña conditions (associated with wetter weather).

The lesser known cousin of El Niño and La Niña across the Indian Ocean is called the Indian Ocean Dipole. This refers to the difference in ocean temperature between the eastern and western sides of the Indian Ocean. It modulates winter and springtime rainfall in southeastern Australia.




Read more:
Dipole: the ‘Indian Niño’ that has brought devastating drought to East Africa


When the Indian Ocean Dipole is “negative”, there are warmer ocean temperatures in the east Indian Ocean, and we see more rain over much of Australia. The opposite is true for “positive” Indian Ocean Dipole events, which bring less rain.

The Murray-Darling Basin experiences high rainfall variability, with decade-long droughts common since observations began. The graph shows seasonal rainfall anomalies from a 1961-1990 average with major droughts marked.
Author provided

What does it mean for the drought?

When the drought started to take hold in 2017 and 2018, we didn’t experience an El Niño or strongly positive Indian Ocean Dipole event. These are two dry-weather conditions we might expect to see at the start of a drought.

Rather, conditions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans were near neutral, with little to suggest a drought would develop.

So why are we in severe, prolonged drought?

The problem is we haven’t had either a La Niña or a negative Indian Ocean Dipole event since winter 2016. Our study shows the lack of these events helps explain why eastern Australia is in drought.

For the southeast of Australia in particular, La Niña or negative Indian Ocean Dipole events provide the atmosphere with suitable conditions for persistent and widespread rainfall to occur. So while neither La Niña or a negative Indian Ocean Dipole guarantee heavy rainfall, they do increase the chances.

What about climate change?

While climate drivers are predominately causing this drought, climate change also contributes, though more work is needed to understand what role it specifically plays.

Drought is more complicated and multidimensional than simply “not much rain for a long time”. It can be measured with a raft of metrics beyond rainfall patterns, including metrics that look at humidity levels and evaporation rates.

What we do know is that climate change can exacerbate some of these metrics, which, in turn, can affect drought.




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


Climate change might also influence climate drivers, though right now it’s hard to tell how. A 2015 study suggests that under climate change, La Niña events will become more extreme. Another study from earlier this month suggests climate change is driving more positive Indian Ocean Dipole events, bringing even more drought.

Unfortunately, regional-scale projections from climate models aren’t perfect and we can’t be sure how the ocean patterns that increase the chances of drought-breaking rains will change under global warming. What is clear is there’s a risk they will change, and strongly affect our rainfall.

Putting the drought in context

Long periods when a La Niña or a negative Indian Ocean Dipole event were absent characterised Australia’s past droughts. This includes two periods of more than three years that brought us the Second World War drought and the Millennium drought.

The longer the time without a La Niña or negative Indian Ocean Dipole event, the more likely the Murray-Darling Basin is in drought.

In the above graph, the longer each line continues before stopping, the longer the time since a La Niña or negative Indian Ocean Dipole event occurred. The lower the lines travel, the less rainfall was received in the Murray Darling basin during this period. This lets us compare the current drought to previous droughts.

During the current drought (black line) we see how the rainfall deficit continues for several years, almost identically to how the Millennium drought played out.

But then the deficit increases strongly in late 2019, when we had a strongly positive Indian Ocean Dipole.

So when will this drought break?

This is a hard question to answer. While recent rains have been helpful, we’ve developed a long-term rainfall deficit in the Murray-Darling Basin and elsewhere that will be hard to recover from without either a La Niña or negative Indian Ocean Dipole event.




Read more:
Weather bureau says hottest, driest year on record led to extreme bushfire season


The most recent seasonal forecasts don’t predict either a negative Indian Ocean Dipole or La Niña event forming in the next three months. However, accurate forecasts are difficult at this time of year as we approach the “autumn predictability barrier”.

This means, for the coming months, the drought probably won’t break. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. We can only hope conditions improve.The Conversation

Andrew King, ARC DECRA fellow, University of Melbourne; Andy Pitman, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, UNSW; Anna Ukkola, Research Fellow, Australian National University; Ben Henley, Research Fellow in Climate and Water Resources, University of Melbourne, and Josephine Brown, Lecturer, University of Melbourne

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

‘It is quite startling’: 4 photos from space that show Australia before and after the recent rain



National Map

Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation

Editor’s note: These before-and-after-images from several sources –NASA’s Worldview application, National Map by Geoscience Australia and Digital Earth Australia – show how the Australian landscape has responded to huge rainfall on the east coast over the last month. We asked academic experts to reflect on the story they tell:


Warragamba Dam, Sydney

Stuart Khan, water systems researcher and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

This map from Digital Earth Australia shows a significant increase in water stored in Lake Burragorang. Lake Burragorang is the name of water body maintained behind the Warragamba Dam wall and the images show mainly the southern source to the lake, which is the Wollondilly River. A short section of the Coxs River source is also visible at the top of the images.

The Warragamba catchment received around 240mm of rain during the second week of February, which produced around 1,000 gigalitres (GL) of runoff to the lake. This took the water storage in the lake from 42% of capacity to more than 80%.

Unlike a typical swimming pool, the lake does not generally have vertical walls. Instead, the river valley runs deeper in the centre and more shallow around the edges. As water storage volumes increase, so does the surface area of water, which is the key feature visible in the images.

Leading up to this intense rainfall event, many smaller events occurred, but failed to produce any significant runoff. The catchment was just too dry. Dry soils act like a sponge and soak up rainfall, rather than allowing it to run off to produce flows in waterways.

The catchment is now in a much wetter state and we can expect to see smaller rainfall events effectively produce further runoff. So water storage levels should be maintained, at least in the short term.

However in the longer term, extended periods of low rainfall and warm temperatures will make this catchment drier.

In the absence of further very intense rainfall events, Sydney will lapse back into drought and diminishing water storages.

This pattern of decreasing storage, broken only by very intense rainfall, can be observed in Sydney’s water storage history.

It is a pattern likely to be exacerbated further in future.


Wivenhoe Dam, Brisbane

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Stuart Khan, water systems researcher and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Lake Wivenhoe is the body of water maintained behind Wivenhoe Dam wall in southeast Queensland. It is the main water storage for Brisbane as well as much of surrounding southeast Queensland.

This image from National Map shows a visible change in colour from brown to green in the region around the lake. It is quite startling.

This is especially the case to the west of the lake, in mountain range areas such as Toowoomba, Warwick and Stanthorpe. Many of these areas were in very severe drought in January. Stanthorpe officially ran out of water. The February rain has begun to fill many important water storage areas and completely transformed the landscape.

Unfortunately, this part of Australia is highly prone to drought and we can expect to see this pattern recur over coming decades.

Much climate science research indicates more extreme weather events in future. That means more extreme high temperatures, more intense droughts and more severe wet weather.

There are many challenges ahead for Australian water managers as they seek to overcome the inevitable booms and busts of future water availability.




Read more:
Bushfires threaten drinking water safety. The consequences could last for decades


Australia-wide

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Grant Williamson, Research Fellow in Environmental Science, University of Tasmania

It’s clear from this map above, from NASA Worldview, the monsoon has finally arrived in northern Australia and there’s been quite a lot of rain.

On the whole, you can see how rapidly the Australian environment can respond to significant rainfall events.

It’s important to remember that most of that greening up will be the growth of grasses, which respond more rapidly after rain.

The forests that burned will not be responding that quickly. The recovery process will be ongoing and within six months to a year you’d expect to see significant regrowth in the eucalyptus forests.

Other more fire-sensitive vegetation, like rainforests, may not exhibit the same sort of recovery.




Read more:
‘This crisis has been unfolding for years’: 4 photos of Australia from space, before and after the bushfires


Grant Williamson, Research Fellow in Environmental Science, University of Tasmania

This slider from National Map shows both fire impact, and greening up after rain.

On the left – an area west of Cooma on December 24 – you can see the yellow treeless areas, indicating the extent of the drought, and the dark green forest vegetation. This image also shows quite a lot of smoke, as you’d expect.

On the right – the area on February 22 – a lot of those yellow areas are now significantly greener after the rain. However, some of those dark green forest areas are now brown or red, where they have been burnt.

It’s clear there is a long road ahead for recovery of these forests that were so badly burned in the recent fires but they will start resprouting in the coming months.

Grant Williamson is a Tasmania-based researcher with the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub.The Conversation


Sunanda Creagh, Head of Digital Storytelling, The Conversation

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

Heavy rains are great news for Sydney’s dams, but they come with a big caveat


Ian Wright, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Western Sydney University

Throughout summer, Sydney’s water storage level fell alarmingly. Level 2 water restrictions were imposed and the New South Wales government prepared to double the capacity of its desalination plant.

But then it began to rain, and rain. Sydney water storages jumped from 41% in early February to 75% now – the highest of any capital city in Australia.

This is great news for the city, but it comes with a big caveat. Floodwaters will undoubtedly wash bushfire debris into reservoirs – possibly overwhelming water treatment systems. We must prepare now for that worst-case pollution scenario.

Reservoirs filled with rain

The water level of Sydney’s massive Lake Burragorang – the reservoir behind Warragamba Dam – rose by more than 11 meters this week. Warragamba supplies more than 80% of Sydney’s water.

Other Sydney water storages, including Nepean and Tallowa dams, are now at 100%.
WaterNSW report that 865,078 megalitres of extra water has been captured this week across all Greater Sydney’s dams.

This dwarfs the volume of water produced by Sydney’s desalination plant, which produces 250 megalitres a day when operating at full capacity. Even at this rate, it would take more than 3,400 days (or nine years) to match the volume of water to added to Sydney’s supply this week.

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The Warragamba Dam before the drought and after the recent heavy rains.

But then comes the pollution

Thankfully, the rain appears to have extinguished bushfires burning in the Warragamba catchment for months.

But the water will also pick up bushfire debris and wash it into dams.

Over the summer, bushfires burnt about 30% of Warragamba Dam’s massive 905,000 hectare water catchment, reducing protective ground cover vegetation. This increases the risk of soil erosion. Rain will wash ash and sediment loads into waterways – adding more nitrogen, phosphorous and organic carbon into water storages.




Read more:
Bushfires threaten drinking water safety. The consequences could last for decades


Waterways and ecosystems require nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen, but excess nutrients aren’t a good thing. They bring contamination risks, such as the rapid growth of toxic blue-green algae.

Drinking water catchments will always have some degree of contamination and water treatment consistently provides high quality drinking water. But poor water quality after catchment floods is not without precedent.

We’ve seen this before

In August 1998, extreme wet weather and flooding rivers filled the drought-affected Warragamba Dam in just a few days.

This triggered the Cryptosporidium crisis, when the protozoan parasite and the pathogen Giardia were detected in Sydney’s water supplies. It triggered health warnings, and Sydneysiders were instructed to boil water before drinking it. This event did not involve a bushfire.




Read more:
Better boil ya billy: when Australian water goes bad


The Canberra bushfires in January 2003 triggered multiple water quality problems. Most of the region’s Cotter River catchments, which hold three dams, were burned. Intense thunderstorms in the months after the bushfire washed enormous loads of ash, soil and debris into catchment rivers and water reservoirs.

This led to turbidity (murkiness), as well as iron, manganese, nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon in reservoir waters. The inflow of organic material also depleted dissolved oxygen which triggered the release of metals from reservoir sediment. At times, water quality was so poor it couldn’t be treated and supplied to consumers.

The ACT Government was forced to impose water restrictions, and built a A$38 million water treatment plant.

Have we come far enough?

Technology in water treatment plants has developed over the past 20 years, and water supply systems operates according to Australian drinking water guidelines.

Unlike the 1998 Sydney water crisis, WaterNSW, Sydney Water and NSW Health now have advanced tests and procedures to detect and manage water quality problems.

In December last year, WaterNSW said it was aware of the risk bushfires posed to water supplies, and it had a number of measures at its disposal, including using booms and curtains to isolate affected flows.

However at the time, bushfire ash had already reportedly entered the Warragamba system.

The authors crossing the Coxs River during very low flow last September.
Author provided

Look to recycled water

Sydney’s water storages may have filled, but residents should not stop saving water. We recommend Level 2 water restrictions, which ban the use of garden hoses, be relaxed to Level 1 restrictions which ban most sprinklers and watering systems, and the hosing of hard surfaces.

While this measure is in place, longer term solutions can be explored. Expanding desalination is a popular but expensive option, however greater use of recycled wastewater is also needed.




Read more:
80% of household water goes to waste – we need to get it back


Highly treated recycled water including urban stormwater and even treated sewage should be purified and incorporated into the water supply. Singapore is a world leader and has proven the measure can gain community acceptance.

It’s too early to tell what impact the combination of bushfires and floods will have on water storages. But as extreme weather events increase in frequency and severity, all options should be on the table to shore up drinking water supplies.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Senior Lecturer in Geochemistry, Western Sydney University

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

You can leave water out for wildlife without attracting mosquitoes, if you take a few precautions



Leaving water out for wildlife is important during droughts and bushfires but if it’s not changed regularly it can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Roger Smith/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Cameron Webb, University of Sydney

Australia is in for a long, hot summer. The recent bushfires have been devastating for communities and wildlife. Drought is also impacting many regions.

Understandably, people want to leave water out for thirsty birds and animals.

Health authorities generally warn against collecting and storing water in backyards as one measure to protect against mosquito bites and mosquito-borne diseases caused by, for example, dengue and Ross River viruses.




Read more:
How Australian wildlife spread and suppress Ross River virus


But it’s possible to leave water out for wildlife – and save water for your garden – without supplying a breeding ground for mosquitoes, if you take a few precautions.

For some mozzies, any water will do

Mosquitoes often look for wetlands and ponds to lay their eggs. But sometimes, anything that holds water – a bucket, bird bath, drain or rainwater tank – will do.

When the immature stages of mosquitoes hatch out of those eggs, they wriggle about in the water for a week or so before emerging to fly off in search of blood.

While there are many mosquitoes found in wetlands and bushland areas, Aedes notoscriptus and Culex quinquefasciatus are the mosquitoes most commonly found in our backyards and have been shown to transmit pathogens that cause mosquito-borne disease.

The Australian backyard mosquito (Aedes notoscriptus) is quick to take advantage of water-filled containers around the home.
Cameron Webb (NSW Health Pathology)

In central and north Queensland, mosquitoes such as Aedes aegypti can bring more serious health threats, such as dengue, to some towns.




Read more:
After decades away, dengue returns to central Queensland


Mosquitoes can also impact our quality of life through bites as well as the nuisance of simply buzzing about our bedrooms and backyards.

So how can you stop mozzies making a home in your backyard?

Empty water containers once a week

Mosquitoes need access to standing water for about a week or so. Reduce the number of water-filled containers available or how long that water is available to mosquitoes.

Emptying a water-filled container once a week will stop the immature mosquitoes from completing their development and emerging as adults.

If you’re leaving water out for pets or wildlife, use smaller volume containers that will allow for easy emptying once a week. You can tip any remaining water into the garden, as mosquito larvae won’t survive if they’re “stranded” on soil.

For larger or heavier items, such as bird baths, flushing them out once a week with the hose will knock out most of the wrigglers and stop the mosquitoes completing their life cycle.

Make sure garden water doesn’t slosh about

Be careful with self-watering planter boxes. These often have a reservoir of water in their base and, while it may seem like a water-wise idea, these can turn into tiny mozzie hotels!

A simple trick to keep water available to plants, but not mosquitoes, is to fill your potted plant saucers with sand. The sand traps and stores some moisture but there is no water sloshing about for mosquitoes.

If you’re collecting water from showers, baths, or washing machines (commonly known as grey water), use it immediately on the garden, don’t store it outside in buckets or other containers.




Read more:
How drought is affecting water supply in Australia’s capital cities


Gutters, ponds, tanks and pools

Make sure your roof gutters and drains are free of leaves and other debris that will trap water and provide opportunities for mosquitoes.

Ensure rainwater tanks (and other large water-storage containers) are appropriately screened to prevent access by mosquitoes.

Rainwater tanks can be a useful way to conserve water in our cities but they can also be a source of mosquitoes.
Cameron Webb (NSW Health Pathology)

A well maintained swimming pool won’t be a source of mosquitoes. But if it’s turning “green”, through neglect and not intent, it may become a problem. Mosquitoes don’t like the chlorine or salt treatments typically used for swimming pools but when there is a build up of leaves and other detritus, as well as algae, the mosquitoes will move in.




Read more:
As heat strikes, here’s one way to help fight disease-carrying and nuisance mosquitoes


For backyard ponds, introducing native fish can help keep mosquito numbers down.

But if you want your pond to be a home for frogs, avoid fish as they may eat the tadpoles. Instead, try to encourage other wildlife that may help keep mosquito numbers down by creating habitats for spiders and other predatory insects, reptiles, frogs, birds, and bats.

Avoiding excessive use of insecticides around the backyard will help encourage and protect that wildlife too.

Mozzies can still come

There isn’t much that can be done about those mosquitoes flying in from over the back fences from local bushland or wetland areas.

Mosquitoes are generally most active at dusk and dawn so keep that in mind when planning time outdoors. But when mosquito populations are peaking, they’ll be active almost all day long.

Applying an insect repellent can be a safe and effective way to stop those bites.




Read more:
The best (and worst) ways to beat mosquito bites


Covering up with long pants, long-sleeved shirt and shoes will provide a physical barrier to mosquitoes. If you’re spending a lot of time outdoors, perhaps even consider treating your clothing with insecticide to add that extra little bit of protection.

Make sure insect screens are installed, and in good condition, on windows and doors. Mosquitoes outdoors can be bad; you don’t want them inside as well.The Conversation

Cameron Webb, Clinical Lecturer and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney

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

Weather bureau says hottest, driest year on record led to extreme bushfire season



It’s the first time since overlapping records began that Australia experienced both its lowest rainfall and highest temperatures in the same year.
dan HIMBRECHTS/AAP

David Jones, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Karl Braganza, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Skie Tobin, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

The Bureau of Meteorology’s annual climate statement released today confirms 2019 was the nation’s warmest and driest year on record. It’s the first time since overlapping records began that Australia experienced both its lowest rainfall and highest temperatures in the same year.

The national rainfall total was 37mm, or 11.7%, below the 314.5 mm recorded in the previous driest year in 1902. The national average temperature was nearly 0.2°C above the previous warmest year in 2013.

Globally, 2019 is likely to be the second-warmest year, with global temperatures about 0.8 °C above the 1961–1990 average. It has been the warmest year without the influence of El Niño.

Across the year, Australia experienced many extreme events including flooding in Queensland and large hail in New South Wales. However, due to prolonged heat and drought, the year began and ended with fires burning across the Australian landscape.




Read more:
‘This crisis has been unfolding for years’: 4 photos of Australia from space, before and after the bushfires


Part of Menindee Lakes on the Darling River, which is under pressure from low water flow as a result of the prolonged drought.
Dean Lewins/AAP

The effect of the long dry

Bushfire activity for the 2018–19 season began in late November 2018, when fires burned along a 600km stretch of the central Queensland coast. Widespread fires later followed across Victoria and Tasmania throughout the summer.

Persistent drought and record temperatures were a major driver of the fire activity, and the context for 2019 lies in the past three years of drought.

The dry conditions steadily worsened over 2019, resulting in Australia’s driest year on record, with area-average rainfall of just 277.6mm (the 1961–1990 average is 465.2 mm).



Almost the entire continent experienced rainfall in the lowest 10th percentile over the year.

Record low rainfall affected the central and southern inland regions of the continent and the north-eastern Murray–Darling Basin straddling the NSW and Queensland border. Many weather stations over central parts of Australia received less than 30mm of rainfall for the year.

Every capital city recorded below average annual rainfall. For the first time, national rainfall was below average in every month.



Record heat dominates the nation

2019 was Australia’s warmest year on record, with the annual mean temperature 1.52°C above the 1961–1990 average, surpassing the previous record of 1.33°C above average in 2013.

January, February, March, April, July, October, November, and December were all amongst the ten warmest on record for Australian mean temperature for their respective months, with January and December exceeding their previous records by 0.98°C and 1.08°C respectively.

Maximum temperatures recorded an even larger departure from average of +2.09°C for the year. This is the first time the nation has seen an anomaly of more than 2 °C, and about half a degree warmer than the previous record in 2013.



The year brought the nation’s six hottest days on record peaking at 41.9°C
(December 18), the hottest week 40.5 °C (week ending December 24), hottest month 38.6 °C (December 2019), and hottest season 36.9 °C (summer 2018–19).

The highest temperature for the year was 49.9 °C at Nullarbor (a new national December record) on December 19 and the coldest temperature was –12.0°C at Perisher Valley on June 20.

Keith West in southeast South Australia recorded a maximum 49.2°C on December 20, while Dover in far southern Tasmania saw 40.1°C on March 2, the furthest south such high temperatures have been observed in Australia.

Accumulating fire danger over 2019

The combination of prolonged record heat and drought led to record fire weather over large areas throughout the year, with destructive bushfires affecting all states, and multiple states at once in the final week of the year.

Many fires were difficult to contain in regions where drought has been severe, such as northern NSW and southeast Queensland, or where below average rainfall has been persistent, such as southeast Australia.

The Forest Fire Danger Index, a measure of fire weather severity, accumulated over the month of December was the highest on record for that month, and the highest for any month when averaged over the whole of Australia.



Record-high daily index values for December were recorded at the very end of December around Adelaide and the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia, East Gippsland in Victoria and the Monaro in NSW. These regions which experienced significant fire activity.

Don’t forget the floods

Amidst the dry, 2019 also included significant flooding across Queensland and the eastern Top End.

Heavy rain fell from January into early February, with damaging floods around Townsville and parts of the western Peninsula and Gulf Country.

Tropical cyclone Trevor brought further heavy rainfall in April in the eastern Northern Territory and Queensland. Floodwaters eventually reached Lake Eyre/Kati Thanda which, amidst severe local rainfall deficiencies in South Australia, experienced its most significant filling since 2010–11.

There was a notable absence of rainfall on Australia’s snow fields during winter and spring which meant less snow melt. Snow cover was generous, particularly at higher elevations.

A Townsville resident removes damaged items from a house after the Townsville floods in early 2019.
Dan Peled/AAP

What role did climate change play in 2019?

The climate each year reflects random variations in weather, slowly evolving natural climate drivers such as El Niño, and long-term trends through the influence of climate change.

A strong and long-lived positive Indian Ocean Dipole – another natural climate driver – affected Australia from May until the end of the year, and played a major role in suppressing rainfall and raising temperatures for much of the year.

Spring brought an unusual breakdown of the southern polar vortex which allowed westerly winds to affect mainland Australia. This reduced rainfall, raising temperature and contributing to the increased fire risk.

Climate change continues to cause long-term changes to Australia’s climate. Conditions in 2019 were consistent with trends of declining rainfall in parts of the south, worsening fire seasons and rising temperatures.




Read more:
Australia can expect far more fire catastrophes. A proper disaster plan is worth paying for


The Conversation


David Jones, Climate Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Karl Braganza, Climate Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Skie Tobin, Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

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