Lizzy Lowe, Macquarie UniversityStunning photographs of vast, ghostly spider webs blanketing the flood-affected region of Gippsland in Victoria have gone viral online, prompting many to muse on the wonder of nature.
But what’s going on here? Why do spiders do this after floods and does it happen everywhere?
The answer is: these webs have nothing to do with spiders trying to catch food. Spiders often use silk to move around and in this case are using long strands of web to escape from waterlogged soil.
This may seem unusual, but these are just native animals doing their thing. It’s crucial you don’t get out the insecticide and spray them. These spiders do important work managing pests, so by killing them off you would be increasing the risk that pests such as cockroaches and mosquitoes will get out of control.
What you’re seeing online, or in person if you live locally, is an amazing natural phenomena but it’s not really very complicated.
We are constantly surrounded by spiders, but we don’t usually see them. They are hiding in the leaf litter and in the soil.
When these flood events happen, they need evacuate quickly up out of holes they live in underground. They come out en masse and use their silk to help them do that.
You’ll often see juvenile spiders let out a long strand of silk which is caught by the wind and lifted up. The web catches onto another object such as a tree and allows the spider to climb up.
That’s how baby spiders (spiderlings!) disperse when they emerge from their egg sacs — it’s called ballooning. They have to disperse as quickly as possible because they are highly cannibalistic so they need to move away from each other swiftly and find their own sites to hunt or build their webs.
That said, I doubt these webs are from baby spiders. It is more likely to be a huge number of adult spiders, of all different types, sizes and species. They’re all just trying to escape the flood waters. These are definitely spiders you don’t usually see above ground so they are out of their comfort zone, too.
This mass evacuation of spiders, and associated blankets of silk, is not a localised thing. It is seen in other parts of Australia and around the world after flooding.
It just goes to show how versatile spider silk can be. It’s not just used for catching food, it’s also used for locomotion and is even used by some spiders to lay a trail so they don’t get lost.
Don’t spray them!
The most important thing I need readers to know is that this is not anything to be worried about. The worst thing you could do is get out the insecticide and spray them.
These spiders are making a huge contribution to pest control and you would have major pest problems if you get rid of all the spiders. The spiders will disperse on their own very quickly. In general, spiders don’t like being in close proximity to each other (or humans!) and they want to get back to their homes underground.
If you live in Gippsland, you probably don’t even need to clear the webs away with a broom. There’s no danger in doing so if you wish, but I am almost certain these webs will disperse on their own within days.
Until then, enjoy this natural spectacle. I wish I could come down to see them with my own eyes!
Tom Hubble, University of SydneyLast month’s flood in the Hawkesbury-Nepean River region of western Sydney peaked at a staggering 12.9 metres, with water engulfing road signs and reaching the tops of many houses.
So what’s going on? The long-term rainfall pattern in the region and corresponding river flow is cyclic in nature. This means 40 to 50 years of dry weather with infrequent small floods are followed by 40 to 50 years of wet weather with frequent major floods.
As river and floodplain residents take stock of the recent damage to their homes and plan necessary repairs, it’s vital they recognise more floods are on the way. Large, frequent floods can be expected to occur again within 10 or 20 years if — as expected — the historical pattern of rainfall and flooding repeats itself.
Living in a bathtub
Many of the 18,000 people who were evacuated live in and around a region known as the “Sackville Bathtub”. As the name suggests, this flat, low-lying section of the floodplain region was spectacularly affected.
The Sackville Bathtub is located between Richmond and Sackville. It’s part of the Cumberland Plain area of Western Sydney and formed very slowly over 100 million years due to plate tectonic processes. The bathtub’s mudstone rock layers are folded into a broad, shallow, basin-shaped depression, which is surrounded by steep terrain.
Downstream of Sackville, the Hawkesbury-Nepean River flows through sandstone gorges and narrows in width. This creates a pinch-point that partially blocks the river channel.
Just as a bath plug sitting half-way over a plughole slows an emptying bath, the Sackville pinch-point causes the bathtub to fill during floods.
Will raising the dam wall work?
The NSW state government is planning to raise the wall of the Warragamba Dam to help mitigate catastrophic floods in the region. But this may not be an effective solution.
Typically, somewhere between 40% and 60% of the floodwater that fills up the Sackville Bathtub comes from unimpeded, non-Warragamba sources. So, when the Hawkesbury-Nepean River floods, the bathtub is already quite full and causing significant problems before Warragamba begins to spill. The Warragamba water then raises the flood level, but often by only a couple of metres.
Raising Warragamba Dam’s wall as a mitigation measure will only control about half the floodwater, and won’t prevent major floods delivered by the Nepean and Grose rivers, which also feed into the region. This represents a small potential benefit for a very large cost.
A long flooding period is on our doorstep
The idea of drought-dominated and flood-dominated periods for the Hawkesbury-Nepean River system was proposed in the mid-1970s by the University of Sydney’s Robin Warner. Since the late 1990’s, it hasn’t been the focus of much research.
He showed a century-long cycle of alternating periods of dry weather and small floods followed by wet weather and big floods is normal for Sydney. This means the March flood may not have come as a surprise to older residents of the Sackville Bathtub, who have a lived experience of the whole 40-50 year flooding cycle.
As a rough average, one major flood occurred every four years during the last wet-weather period between 1950 and 1990. The largest of this period occurred in November 1961. It filled the Sackville Bathtub to a depth of 15 metres and — like the June 1964 (14.6 metres) and March 1978 (14.5 metres) events — caused more widespread flooding than this year’s flood.
We’re currently 30 years into a dry period, which may be about to end. Conditions might stay dry for another 10 or 20 years.
These cycles are likely caused by natural, long-term “climate drivers” — long-term climatic fluctuations such as El Niño and La Niña, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Dipole, which are driven by oceanic current circulations. These global phenomena bring both benevolent weather and destructive weather to Australia.
Eastern Australia experiences decades-long periods of wetter weather when these climate drivers sync up with each other. When they’re out of sync, we get dry weather periods.
These long-term cycles are natural and have been operating for thousands of years, but climate change is amplifying and accelerating them. Dry periods are getting drier, wet periods are getting wetter.
The good news and bad news
The bad news is that 12-plus metre floods at Hawkesbury River (Windsor Bridge) are not all that unusual. There have been 24, 12-plus metre floods at Windsor Bridge since 1799.
The good news is meteorological forecasters are excellent at predicting when the storms that generate moderate, large and catastrophic floods are coming. We can expect several days’ to a week’s notice of the next big flood.
We can also prepare our individual and communal responses for more large and frequent floods on the Hawkesbury-Nepean. Residents of the area need to think about how they might live near the river as individuals. Decide what is precious and what you will fit into a car and trailer. Practice evacuating.
As a community, we must ensure the transport infrastructure and evacuation protocols minimise disruption to river and floodplain residents while maximising their safety. It’s particularly important we set up inclusive infrastructure to ensure disadvantaged people, who are disproportionately affected by disasters, also have a fighting chance to evacuate and survive.
Both planned and managed retreat are focused on the permanent relocation of people and assets, as opposed to the evacuations we are seeing now.
Managed retreat is experiencing a resurgence in scientific literature as the impacts of climate change become increasingly frequent, severe and more obvious. These impacts bring with them a recognition of the need for adaptation even as we urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Of course, relocating away from high-risk locations is not an entirely new concept. However, managed retreat in response to a changing climate is not only complex, but also has a lot of political baggage. The complexity spans legal, financial, cultural and logistical factors among others: the political baggage seemingly associated with effective climate action in Australia often hinders governments’ abilities to respond properly.
Responding to events after the fact is an unsustainable model of adaptation. There is, too, a need to acknowledge settlement needs and historical built environment legacies that have put significant state infrastructure in harm’s way.
Managing difficult trade-offs
We know trade-offs need to be made between what we protect and what we let go in suburban floodplain areas.
Legal machanisms to force people and assets to move can and must be thoughtful. The implementation of managed retreat in urbanised areas faces multiple hurdles. These include:
people’s values, attachments to their homes and desires to live near waterways
It is wrong to see managed retreat as the panacea for climate risk and development in vulnerable locations. In many cases, once development is in place, it can be more appealing to some to protect an at-risk area rather than work towards managed retreat. Even where managed retreat has been successful, as in the case of the flood-prone township of Grantham, it was not without pain.
There are also other, more basic needs, such as having land available where people can relocate.
Working out highest and best use of land
There are ways that land can be used for its highest and best use at a point in time. For example, tools like easements can enable vulnerable land to be used, subject to event-based or time-based trigger-point thresholds. Once these thresholds are reached, the land is put to some other use. The advantage of these machanisms, especially for new development, is that owners are clear about the risks from the start.
This still leaves us with hard decisions about responding to at-risk current developments. Putting off these hard decisions and leaving them for future decision-makers will result in a huge injustice, because there will be catastrophe as Earth’s tipping points are passed. Development decisions made now will determine the impacts on our children and grandchildren.
There is a risk that an over-reliance on managed retreat will over-simplify the challenge of working out what to do about development in at-risk locations. There is a clear need to separate out what to do about current and past developments, and how to approach new developments.
The latter is easy – do not rebuild residential homes in at-risk areas. Governments should repurpose these zones for uses that permit nature-based solutions to the need to adapt to climate change.
Current development is much more complex. In some cases, managed retreat – done thoughtfully and considerately – will be the only option.
Over the past two weeks, storms pummelling the New South Wales coast have left beachfront homes at Wamberal on the verge of collapse. It’s stark proof of the risks climate change and sea level rise pose to coastal areas.
Our new research published today puts a potential price on the future destruction. Coastal land affected by flooding – including high tides and extreme seas – could increase by 48% by 2100. Exposed human population and assets are also estimated to increase by about half in that time.
Under a scenario of high greenhouse gas emissions and no flood defences, the cost of asset damage could equate up to 20% of the global economy in 2100.
Without a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, or a huge investment in sea walls and other structures, it’s clear coastal erosion will devastate the global economy and much of the world’s population.
In Australia, we predict the areas to be worst-affected by flooding are concentrated in the north and northeast of the continent, including around Darwin and Townsville.
Our exposed coasts
Sea levels are rising at an increasing rate for two main reasons. As global temperatures increase, glaciers and ice sheets melt. At the same time, the oceans absorb heat from the atmosphere, causing the water to expand. Seas are rising by about 3-4 millimetres a year and the rate is expected to accelerate.
These higher sea levels, combined with potentially more extreme weather under climate change, will bring damaging flooding to coasts. Our study set out to determine the extent of flooding, how many people this would affect and the economic damage caused.
We combined data on global sea levels during extreme storms with projections of sea level rises under moderate and high-end greenhouse gas emission scenarios. We used the data to model extreme sea levels that may occur by 2100.
We combined this model with topographic data (showing the shape and features of the land surface) to identify areas at risk of coastal flooding. We then estimated the population and assets at risk from flooding, using data on global population distribution and gross domestic product in affected areas.
So what did we find? One outstanding result is that due to sea level rise, what is now considered a once-a-century extreme sea level event could occur as frequently as every ten years or less for most coastal locations.
Under a scenario of high greenhouse gas emissions and assuming no flood defences, such as sea walls, we estimate that the land area affected by coastal flooding could increase by 48% by 2100.
This could mean by 2100, the global population exposed to coastal flooding could be up to 287 million (4.1% of the world’s population).
Under the same scenario, coastal assets such as buildings, roads and other infrastructure worth up to US$14.2 trillion (A$19.82 trillion) could be threatened by flooding.
This equates to 20% of global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2100. However this worst-case scenario assumes no flood defences are in place globally. This is unlikely, as sea walls and other structures have already been built in some coastal locations.
In Australia, areas where coastal flooding might be extensive include the Northern Territory, and the northern coasts of Queensland and Western Australia.
Elsewhere, extensive coastal flooding is also projected in:
– southeast China
– Bangladesh, and India’s states of West Bengal and Gujurat
– US states of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland
– northwest Europe including the UK, northern France and northern Germany.
Keeping the sea at bay
Our large-scale global analysis has some limitations, and our results at specific locations might differ from local findings. But we believe our analysis provides a basis for more detailed investigations of climate change impacts at the most vulnerable coastal locations.
It’s clear the world must ramp up measures to adapt to coastal flooding and offset associated social and economic impacts.
This adaptation will include building and enhancing coastal protection structures such as dykes or sea walls. It will also include coastal retreat – allowing low-lying coastal areas to flood, and moving human development inland to safer ground. It will also require deploying coastal warning systems and increasing flooding preparedness of coastal communities. This will require careful long-term planning.
All this might seem challenging – and it is. But done correctly, coastal adaptation can protect hundreds of millions of people and save the global economy billions of dollars this century.
A flood-ravaged Townsville has captured public attention, highlighting the vulnerability of many of our cities to flooding. The extraordinary amount of rain is just one aspect of the disaster in Queensland’s third-biggest city. The flooding, increasing urban density, the management of the Ross River Dam, and the difficulties of dealing with byzantine insurance regulations have left the community with many questions about their future.
These questions won’t be resolved until we enhance the resilience of cities and communities against flooding. Adaptation needs to become an integral part of living with the extremes of the Australian environment. I discuss how to design and create resilient urban landscapes later in this article.
However, in extraordinary circumstances, when the flooded land is actually larger than the area marked by the flood overlay map, complications emerge. In fact, that part of the community living outside the map’s boundaries is considered flood-free. Thus, those pockets of the community may have chosen not to have flood insurance and not have emergency plans, which leaves them even worse off after floods. This is happening in Townsville.
Yet this is nothing new. Many people experienced very similar circumstances in 2011. Flood waters covered as much land as Germany and France combined. Several communities were left on their knees.
Notwithstanding the prompt and vast response of the federal government and Queensland’s state authorities, a few years later Townsville is going through something alarmingly similar.
Adaptation to create resilient cities
To find a solution, we need to rethink how to implement the Queensland Emergency Risk Management Framework. That is no easy task. However, it starts with shifting the perspective on what is considered a risk – in this case, a flooding event.
Floods, per se, are not a natural disaster. Floods are part of the natural context of Queensland as can be seen below, for instance, in the Channel Country.
The concept of adaptation as a built-in requirement of living in this environment then becomes pivotal. In designing and developing future-ready cities, we must aim to build resilient communities.
This is the ambitious project I am working on. It involves different figures and expertise with a shared vision and the support of government administrations that are willing to invest in a future beyond their elected term of office.
Ideas for Gold Coast Resilientscape
I live and work in the City of Gold Coast. Water is a fundamental part of the city’s character and beauty. In addition to the ocean, a complex system of waterways shapes a unique urban environment. However, this also exposes the city to a series of challenges, including flooding.
Last September, an updated flood overlay map was made available to the community. The map takes into account the projections of a 0.8 metre increase in the sea level and 10% increases in storm tide intensity and rainfall intensity.
These factors are reflected in the 1-in-100-year flood overlay. It shows undoubtedly that the boundaries between land and water are changeable.
Building walls between the city and water as the primary flood protection strategy is not a solution. A rigid border can actually intensify the catastrophe. New Orleans and the levee failures during the passage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 provide a stark illustration of this.
Instead, what would happen and what would our cities look like if we designed green and public infrastructures that embody flooding as part of the natural context of our cities and territory?
The current project, titled RESILIENTSCAPE: A Landscape for Gold Coast Urban Resilience, considers the role of architecture in enhancing the resilience of cities and communities against flooding. The proposal, in a nutshell, explores the possibilities that urban landscape design and implementation provide for resilience.
RESILIENTSCAPE focuses on the Nerang River catchment and the Gold Coast Regional Botanic Gardens, in the suburb of Benowa. The river and gardens were adopted as a case study for a broader strategy that aims to promote architectural solutions for a resilient City of Gold Coast. The project investigates the possibility of using existing green pockets along the Nerang River to store and retain excess water during floods.
These green spaces, however, will not just serve as “water tanks”. If mindfully planned, the green spaces can double up as public parks and facilities. This would enrich the community’s social realm and maximise their use and return on investment.
The design of a landscape responsive to flooding can, by improving local urban resilience, dramatically change the impact of these events.
Over the past decade we have seen a substantial increase in our scientific understanding of how climate change affects extreme rainfall events. Not only do our climate models suggest that heavy rainfall events will intensify as the atmosphere warms, but we have also seen these projections start to become reality, with observed increases in rainfall intensity in two-thirds of the places covered by our global database.
It would be natural to conclude that at least some of this should be attributable to climate change. However, we know that our global population is increasing rapidly and that more people now live in flood-prone areas, particularly in developing countries. Our assets are also becoming more valuable – one only needs to look at rising Australian house prices to see that the values of homes at risk of flooding would be much greater now than they used to be in decades past.
So how much of this change in flood risk is really attributable to the observed changes in extreme rainfall? This is where the story gets much more complicated, with our new research showing that this question is still a long way from being answered.
Are floods on the rise?
To understand whether flood risk is changing – even after accounting for changes in population or asset value – we looked at measurements of the highest water flows at a given location for each year of record.
This sort of data is easy to collect, and as such we have reasonably reliable records to study. There are more than 9,000 streamflow gauges around the world, some of which have been collecting data for more than a century. We can thus determine when and how often each location has experienced particularly high volumes of water flow (called “large streamflow events”), and work out whether its flood frequency has changed.
We found that many more locations have experienced a decrease in large streamflow events than have experienced an increase. These decreases are particularly evident in tropical, arid, and humid snowy climate regions, whereas locations with increasing trends were more prevalent in temperate regions.
To understand our findings, we must first look closely at the factors that could alter the frequency and magnitude of these large streamflow events. These factors are many and varied, and not all of them are related directly to climate. For example, land-use changes, regulated water releases (through dam operations), and the construction of channels or flood levées could all influence streamflow measurements.
We looked into this further by focusing on water catchments that do not have large upstream dams, and have not experienced large changes in forest cover that would alter water runoff patterns. Interestingly, this barely changed our results – we still found more locations with decreasing trends than increasing trends.
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology and similar agencies worldwide have also gone to great lengths to assemble “reference hydrological stations”, in catchments that have experienced relatively limited human change. Studies that used these sorts of stations in Australia, North America and Europe are all still consistent with our findings – namely that most stations show either limited changes or decreases in large streamflow events, depending on their location.
What can we say about future flood risk?
So what about the apparent contradiction between the observed increases in extreme rainfall and the observed decreases in large streamflow events? As noted above, our results don’t seem to be heavily influenced by changes in land use, so this is unlikely to be the primary explanation.
An alternative explanation is that, perhaps counterintuitively, extreme rainfall is not the only cause of floods. If one considers the 2010-11 floods in Queensland, these happened because of heavy rainfall in December and January, but an important part of the picture is that the catchments were already “primed” for flooding by a very wet spring.
Perhaps the way in which catchments are primed for floods is changing. This would make sense, because climate change also can cause higher potential moisture loss from soils and plants, and reductions in average annual rainfall in many parts of the world, such as has been projected for large parts of Australia.
This could mean that catchments in many parts of the world are getting drier on average, which might mean that extreme rainfall events, when they do arrive, are less likely to trigger floods. But testing this hypothesis is difficult, so the jury is still out on whether this can explain our findings.
Despite these uncertainties, we can be confident that the impacts of climate change on flooding will be much more nuanced than is commonly appreciated, with decreases in some places and increases in others.
Your own flood risk will probably be determined by your local geography. If you live in a low-lying catchment close to the ocean (and therefore affected by sea level rise), you’re probably at increased risk. If you’re in a small urban catchment that is sensitive to short sharp storms, there is emerging evidence that you may be at increased risk too. But for larger rural catchments, or places where floods are generally caused by snow melt, the outcome is far harder to predict and certain locations may see a decrease in flooding.
All of this means that a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to be suitable if we are to allocate our resources wisely in adjusting to future flood risk. We must also think about the effects of climate change in a broader context that includes changes to land-use planning, investment in flood protection infrastructure, flood insurance, early warning systems, and so on.
Only by taking a holistic view, informed by the best available science, can we truly minimise risk and maximise our resilience to future floods.
As the climate changes, we can expect more frequent and more extreme weather events, which will put pressure on our current infrastructure. It has been suggested that increasing temperatures will intensify rainfall, indicating that we are likely to endure bigger storms and more dangerous flooding in a future warmer climate.
Our study, published today in the journal Nature Geoscience, shows that this intensification in flooding may be even greater than expected. This is because of changes to the distribution of rainfall within storms – something known as the “temporal pattern”.
This study is the first to show that temperature changes are disrupting temporal rainfall patterns within storms themselves. When it comes to flash flooding, this is just as important, if not more so, than the total volume of rainfall that a given storm delivers.
If this trend continues with future climate warming, more destructive flooding across Australia’s major urban centres is likely. Because our findings were true across every Australian climate zone, ranging from tropical and arid to temperate, we can expect similar risks throughout the country, and conceivably elsewhere in the world too.
Looking to the past
Whether it is in politics, science or engineering, the past can be a good indicator of the future. Historical records of rainfall have long been examined for patterns to help us make sense of how the climate might change in the future.
By linking existing observations of rainfall intensity and temperature it has been found, in general, that we can expect more rainfall when temperatures are higher. This observation is founded in thermodynamics and underwritten by the Clausius-Clapeyron relationship, which states that for each degree Centigrade increase in temperature, 7% more moisture will accumulate in the atmosphere. It is not a large step to surmise from this that rainfall volumes will be 7% greater.
However, historical observations do not necessarily confirm this rate of increase – at least, not in a uniform way. Some places have experienced rainfall increases of more than 7%, while others have seen less than 7%.
This discrepancy is important. It suggests that changes in overall storm intensity are not the only change in rainfall a warmer climate may bring. There are other, more subtle disruptions we need to look for.
Finding the unexpected
In our study, we used historical data from 79 different locations around Australia, collected by the Bureau of Meteorology. This includes sites at each of the major capital cities, as well as regional areas in all states and territories. At each location we isolated storm events and then split each storm event into five segments, to determine the percentage of rain that fell in each. So, for example, a one-hour storm would be divided into five 12-minute segments.
By comparing the amounts of rainfall in each of these fractions to the average daily temperature at that location, we were able to check if there was any systematic relationship between the rainfall fractions within the storm and the ambient temperature.
Our results were unexpected. At every location, we saw that higher temperatures were linked to an increase in the largest fraction and a corresponding decrease in the smallest fraction. In other words, the storm pattern was less uniform and more erratic when the temperature was higher. Moreover, we found that these changes would increase flood peaks even if the storm volume remained unchanged, because more of the rainfall was concentrated into intense bursts.
Factor in the changes in overall storm volumes, which are also likely to increase with warming, and this is a recipe for more flood danger in areas including Australia’s urban centres.
Informing flood guidelines
So why is this important? Engineers Australia is in the process of rewriting the Australian Rainfall and Runoff guidelines, which dictate how we estimate potential flooding when designing infrastructure. Every structure, whether it be a roadside gutter, a bridge, or an office block, is built to withstand a flood of a given size and risk of occurrence. But if rainfall is changing, we need to plan for how we will design and build these structures to withstand the possibility of more destructive floods.
Although history doesn’t necessarily have to repeat itself, the increase in non-uniformity linked to higher temperatures suggests that if temperatures increase we may see more increases in the destructive force of floods in the future. Planners need to consider whether the existing infrastructure that we take for granted every day needs added fortification to withstand the impacts of climate change.