Sydney’s disastrous flood wasn’t unprecedented: we’re about to enter a 50-year period of frequent, major floods


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.

There hasn’t been a major flood on the Hawkesbury-Nepean for more than 30 years, with the last comparable one occurring in 1990. Long-term Sydneysiders, however, will remember that 12 major floods occurred during the 40 years before 1990. Five of these were larger than last month’s flood.

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 flooded Hawkesbury-Nepean River last month. Brown floodwater is evident between Penrith (right) and the Pacific Ocean (top left). The Sackville Bathtub is located left of centre.
Digital Earth Australia Map, Geoscience Australia, Tom Hubble

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.

How the bathtub effect in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley causes floodwaters to back up and lead to deep and dangerous flooding.

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.

The timing of observed flood peaks during the August 1986 Hawkesbury-Nepean flood, in relation to the time when Warragamba Dam began to spill. The arrival of Warragamba water in the Sackville Bathtub increased the flood depth only by about a metre above the floodwaters delivered earlier during the flood from the Grose and Nepean rivers.
Tom Hubble – Redrawn from data presented in Appendix One of the Hawkesbury-Nepean Flood Study; Infrastructure NSW 2019.

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.




Read more:
What is a 1 in 100 year weather event? And why do they keep happening so often?


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.

A photo of a flood that occured in Maitland in September 1950.
Sam Hood/NSW State Library/Flickr, CC BY

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.




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


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.




Read more:
Not ‘if’, but ‘when’: city planners need to design for flooding. These examples show the way


Upgrading the escape routes that enable people to evacuate efficiently is absolutely vital. As is rethinking whether we should continue urban expansion in the Sackville Bathtub.

So remember, the next major flood is going to occur sooner than we would like. If you live in this region, you must start preparing. Or as a wise elder once said, “Live on a floodplain, own a boat!”


This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. Read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Tom Hubble, Associate Professor, University of Sydney

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

Frequent extreme bushfires are our new reality. We need to learn how to live with smoke-filled air



Shutterstock

Gabriel da Silva, University of Melbourne

As fires ravaged large sections of the Australian bush last summer, cities and towns all along the coast were blanketed in toxic smoke. Air pollutants were measured at unheard of levels across the country.

Hazardous air descended on cities hundreds of kilometres away from the fires themselves. This air was the most dangerous to breathe on the planet.




Read more:
The bushfire royal commission has made a clarion call for change. Now we need politics to follow


The bushfire royal commission was tabled on October 30, with some sobering findings about fires and air pollution. Unfortunately, it showed that as a nation we were not prepared to deal with this public health emergency.

These disasters are inevitable under climate change, and while we need to urgently act on climate change to protect future generations, we also need to make changes now to mitigate the risks that already face us.

Australia must get better at communicating how to identify and then stay safe in hazardous air. A national set of air quality categories would go a long way to achieving this.

Over 400 deaths attributed to bushfire smoke

The royal commission heard that air pollution from the summer fires likely caused more than 400 deaths. Thousands of additional hospital admissions put added strain on our hospitals. All up the added burden to our health system was estimated at almost A$2 billion.

Even in the absence of extreme natural disasters, air pollution is one of Australia’s biggest public health concerns. Pollution from all sources causes thousands of deaths per year. This includes emissions from coal-fired power stations, diesel cars and wood-fired heaters.

Better preparing ourselves to deal with bushfire smoke will have flow-on benefits in tackling these problems.

Different state, different health advice

The royal commission found “there is an urgent need for national consistency in the categorisation of air quality”. At the moment, every state has their own system to categorise air quality and communicate it to the public.




Read more:
How does bushfire smoke affect our health? 6 things you need to know


But there are major discrepancies with how different states identify the worst air quality.

Air quality is the sum impact of the concentration of various unhealthy chemicals in the air. These include ozone, nitrogen and sulfur oxides, and fine particulate matter. To communicate this to the public, most countries convert these chemical concentrations into an Air Quality Index (AQI).

In the US, there is a standardised AQI categorisation for the whole country.

In Australia, the situation is very different. Every state has its own bands, with their own colour codes. These bands trigger at different pollutant levels and carry different health advice. The Royal Commission told us this needs to be standardised, and now.

For example, in NSW the worst air quality category is “Hazardous”, which triggers at an AQI of 200. South Australia, however, only recognises “Very Poor” as the worst class of air quality, with an AQI of 150 and above.

During the summer bushfires, AQI values as high as 5,000 were measured. It’s clear the highest bands of air pollution are no longer appropriate.

We need a national air quality system

We have faced a similar problem before. After Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in 2009, we recognised that our fire danger ratings were inadequate.

The Black Saturday royal commission found we needed a higher category for the most dangerous fire conditions. The “Catastrophic” category (“CODE RED” in Victoria) was added. It carried clear advice about what to do in such dangerous conditions, instructing people to safely leave as early as possible.

Fire danger rating sign in front of a grass fire
The ‘CODE RED’ or ‘Catastrophic’ fire danger rating was added after the Black Saturday fires.
Shutterstock

Something similar now needs to happen with air quality ratings.

When facing future extreme bushfires, we need a way to identify when catastrophic conditions have led to air so unhealthy that everyone should take precautions, such as staying indoors and wearing masks. We then need to get clear health advice out to the public.




Read more:
Our buildings aren’t made to keep out bushfire smoke. Here’s what you can do


A national air quality rating system could achieve this, and would also help address other important recommendations of the Royal Commission: That we need improved means of getting reliable information out to the public, along with better community education around what to do when air quality plummets.

There’s work to do

An Australian AQI should be featured on national weather reports and forecasts, providing important health information to the public every day of the year. At the same time it would familiarise Australians with air quality measures and actions that need to be taken to protect ourselves from unhealthy air.

But there is work to do. First, we need to develop a new set of air quality categories that work for the entire country, and reflects both the everyday hazards of industrial pollution and the extreme dangers of bushfires. These categories also need to be matched with sound health advice.




Read more:
The bushfire royal commission has made a clarion call for change. Now we need politics to follow


And if we are going to report these measures more widely then we also need to get better at measuring and predicting air quality across the nation — two other important royal commission recommendations.

Achieving all of this won’t be easy. But if we can get it right then we will be much better placed to deal with smoke risk the next time severe bushfires inevitably happen.The Conversation

Gabriel da Silva, Senior Lecturer in Chemical Engineering, University of Melbourne

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

Climate explained: why coastal floods are becoming more frequent as seas rise



As sea levels rise, it becomes easier for ocean waves to spill further onto land.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

James Renwick, Victoria University of Wellington


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

I saw an article claiming that “king tides” will increase in frequency as sea level rises. I am sceptical. What is the physics behind such a claim and how is it related to climate change? My understanding is that a king tide is a purely tidal effect, related to Moon, Sun and Earth axis tilt, and is quite different from a storm surge.

This is a good question, and you are right about the tides themselves. The twice-daily tides are caused by the gravitational forces of the Moon and the Sun, and the rotation of the Earth, none of which is changing.

A “king” tide occurs around the time when the Moon is at its closest to the Earth and Earth is at its closest to the Sun, and the combined gravitational effects are strongest. They are the highest of the high tides we experience.

But the article you refer to was not really talking about king tides. It was discussing coastal inundation events.




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King tides and rising seas are predictable, and we’re not doing enough about it


When tides, storms and sea levels combine

During a king tide, houses and roads close to the coast can be flooded. The article referred to the effects of coastal flooding generally, using “king tide” as a shorthand expression. We know that king tides are not increasing in frequency, but we also know that coastal flooding and coastal erosion events are happening more frequently.

As sea levels rise, it becomes easier for ocean waves to penetrate on to the shore. The biggest problem arises when storms combine with a high tide, and ride on top of higher sea levels.

The low air pressure near the centre of a storm pulls up the sea surface below. Then, onshore winds can pile water up against the coast, allowing waves to run further inshore. Add a high or king tide and the waves can come yet further inshore. Add a bit of sea level rise and the waves penetrate even further.

The background sea level rise has been only 20cm around New Zealand’s coasts so far, but even that makes a noticeable difference. An apparently small rise in overall sea level allows waves generated by a storm to come on shore much more easily. Coastal engineers use the rule of thumb that every 10cm of sea level rise increases the frequency of a given coastal flood by a factor of three.

This means that 10cm of sea level rise will turn a one-in-100-year coastal flood into a one-in-33-year event. With another 10cm of sea level rise, it becomes a one-in-11-year event, and so on.

Retreating from the coast

The occurrence rates change so quickly because in most places, beaches are fairly flat. A 10cm rise in sea levels might translate to 30 or 40 metres of inland movement of the high tide line, depending on the slope of the beach. So when the tide is high and the waves are rolling in, the sea can come inland tens of metres further than it used to, unless something like a coastal cliff or a sea wall blocks its way.

The worry is that beaches are likely to remain fairly flat, so anything within 40 metres of the current high tide mark is likely to be eroded away as storms occur and we experience another 10cm of sea level rise. If a road or a house is on an erodible coast (such as a line of sand dunes), it is not the height above sea level that matters but the distance from the high tide mark.

Another 30cm of sea level rise is already “baked in”, guaranteed over the next 40 years, regardless of what happens with greenhouse gas emissions and action on climate change. By the end of the century, at least another 20cm on top of that is virtually certain.




Read more:
Our shameful legacy: just 15 years’ worth of emissions will raise sea level in 2300


The 30cm rise multiplies the chances of coastal flooding by a factor of around 27 (3x3x3) and 50cm by the end of the century increases coastal flooding frequency by a factor of around 250. That would make the one-in-100-year coastal flood likely every few months, and roads, properties and all kinds of built infrastructure within 200 metres of the current coastline would be vulnerable to inundation and damage.

These are round numbers, and local changes depend on coastal shape and composition, but they give the sense of how quickly things can change. Already, key roads in Auckland (such as Tamaki Drive) are inundated when storms combine with high tides. Such events are set to become much more common as sea levels continue to rise, to the point where they will become part of the background state of the coastal zone.

To ensure cities such as Auckland (and others around the world) are resilient to such challenges, we’ll need to retreat from the coast where possible (move dwellings and roads inland) and to build coastal defences where that makes sense. The coast is coming inland, and we need to move with it.The Conversation

James Renwick, Professor, Physical Geography (climate science), Victoria University of Wellington

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

Election FactCheck: are larger, more frequent storms predicted due to climate change?


Kevin Walsh, University of Melbourne

Certainly larger and more frequent storms are one of the consequences that the climate models and climate scientists predict from global warming. But you cannot attribute any particular storm to global warming, so let’s be quite clear about that. – Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, speaking to reporters in Tasmania on June 9, 2016.

In the aftermath of the deadly East Coast Low that swamped eastern Australia, dumping massive amounts of rain in early June, the prime minister toured flood-affected Launceston and announced emergency relief funding.

Turnbull told reporters that larger and more frequent storms were forecast by climate scientists but cautioned that no individual storm could be attributed to global warming.

Is he right?

Checking the source

The Conversation asked the prime minister’s office for sources to support his statement but did not hear back before publication deadline. Nevertheless, we can test his statement against recent published and peer-reviewed research on this question.

The science shows that, just like real estate, climate change is all about location. Different parts of Australia will be affected in different ways by climate change.

And global warming will have different effects on different types of weather systems.

Let’s break Turnbull’s statement into two parts: is it true that we can expect larger and more frequent storms as a consequence of global warming? And is it possible to attribute a specific storm to global warming?

Can we expect larger and more frequent storms as a result of global warming?

Yes – but not for all regions or types of storms.

There are many types of storms that affect different parts of Australia, among them East Coast Lows, mid-latitude cyclones (a category that includes cyclones that happen in the latitudes between Australia and Antarctica), tropical cyclones, and associated extreme rainfall events. Each will be affected in a different way by climate change, and the effect will vary by region and by season.

On East Coast Lows: Acacia Pepler, who is studying extreme rainfall and East Coast Lows in relation to climate change, recently wrote in The Conversation that her research showed that:

… East Coast Lows are expected to become less frequent during the cool months May-October, which is when they currently happen most often. But there is no clear picture of what will happen during the warm season. Some models even suggest East Coast Lows may become more frequent in the warmer months. And increases are most likely for lows right next to the east coast – just the ones that have the biggest impacts where people live.

For all low-pressure systems near the coast, “most of the models we looked at had no significant change projected in the intensity of the most severe East Coast Low each year,” Pepler wrote.

On mid-latitude cyclones: Another study predicted that the overall wind hazard from mid-latitude cyclones in Australia will decrease – except in winter over Tasmania.

On tropical cyclones: Northern Australia is expected to get fewer cyclones in future – but their maximum wind speeds are expected to become stronger.

On rainfall: Scientists tend to be quite confident that climate change will be accompanied by an increase in extreme rainfall for most storms in future. One of the main reasons for this is that increased temperatures will cause increased evaporation. While the total amount of water held in the atmosphere will also increase slightly in future, the total amount of rain has to go up too.

Is it true you can’t attribute any particular storm to global warming?

Turnbull is correct. We cannot say for sure that a particular flooding rainfall event was solely “caused” by climate change, any more than we can say for certain that a particular car accident was solely caused by speeding (even if excessive speed was a likely or even major contributing factor).

Evidence for the effects of global warming on extreme rainfall events that have already occurred is currently equivocal for most regions.

According to a collection of studies published in 2015:

A number of this year’s studies indicate that human-caused climate change greatly increased the likelihood and intensity for extreme heat waves in 2014 over various regions. For other types of extreme events, such as droughts, heavy rains, and winter storms, a climate change influence was found in some instances and not in others.

One recent study in that report found:

evidence for a human-induced increase in extreme winter rainfall in the United Kingdom.

Verdict

Malcolm Turnbull was essentially correct on both points.

It’s true that scientists predict more frequent and intense storms for some parts of Australia as the climate changes. The evidence appears to be strong that extreme rainfall will increase. Some increases in extreme wind speeds are possible – but not in all regions or all seasons.

Turnbull was right to say you cannot attribute any particular storm to global warming. –Kevin Walsh


Review

This is a good FactCheck that summarises the broad conclusions from a range of studies examining the nature of current and likely future storms across Australia.

As the author points out, Australian storms range from tropical cyclones in the northern tropical regions to temperate east coast lows and mid-latitude cyclones.

The consensus regarding tropical cyclones is that they will generally decrease in frequency in the Australian region. In northeast Australia, they are forecast to experience the most dramatic decrease in frequency of any ocean basin globally. Some northern hemisphere ocean basins will see an increase in their frequency.

The intensity of these types of storms is expected to increase. This will not only involve higher wind speeds but also higher storm surges and floods. That will mean greater coastal impacts and damage to coastal developments and infrastructure.

So the prime minister’s statement about more frequent storms resulting from climate change does not apply to tropical cyclones – however, he was right to say that larger and more frequent storms are one of the predicted consequences of climate change. This consequence is predicted to apply to other storm categories, but not tropical cyclones.

And yes, climate scientists are hesitant to attribute the occurrence of any single storm to global warming. – Jonathan Nott


Have you ever seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

The Conversation

Kevin Walsh, Reader, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne

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