La Niña will give us a wet summer. That’s great weather for mozzies



Geoff Whalan/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Cameron Webb, University of Sydney

The return of the La Niña weather pattern will see a wetter spring and summer in many parts of Australia.

We know mosquitoes need water to complete their life cycle. So does this mean Australia can expect a bumper mozzie season? How about a rise in mosquito-borne disease?

While we’ve seen more mosquitoes during past La Niña events, and we may well see more mosquitoes this year, this doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll see more related disease.

This depends on a range of other factors, including local wildlife, essential to the life cycle of disease-transmitting mosquitoes.

What is La Niña?

La Niña is a phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, a pattern of ocean and atmospheric circulations over the Pacific Ocean.

While El Niño is generally associated with hot and dry conditions, La Niña is the opposite. La Niña brings slightly cooler but wetter conditions to many parts of Australia. During this phase, northern and eastern Australia are particularly likely to have a wetter spring and summer.

Australia’s most recent significant La Niña events were in 2010-11 and 2011-12.




Read more:
Explainer: El Niño and La Niña


Why is wet weather important for mosquitoes?

Mosquitoes lay their eggs on or around stagnant or still water. This could be water in ponds, backyard plant containers, clogged gutters, floodplains or wetlands. Mosquito larvae (or “wrigglers”) hatch and spend the next week or so in the water before emerging as adults and buzzing off to look for blood.

If the water dries up, they die. But the more rain we get, the more opportunities for mosquitoes to multiply.

Mosquito biting a person's hand
Mosquito populations often increase after wet weather.
Cameron Webb/Author provided

Mosquitoes are more than just a nuisance. When they bite, they can transmit viruses or bacteria into our blood to make us sick.

While Australia is free of major outbreaks of internationally significant diseases such as dengue or malaria, every year mosquitoes still cause debilitating diseases.

These include transmission of Ross River virus, Barmah Forest virus and the potentially fatal Murray Valley encephalitis virus.




Read more:
Explainer: what is Murray Valley encephalitis virus?


What happens when we get more rain?

We’ve know for a long time floods provide plenty of water to boost the abundance of mosquitoes. With more mosquitoes about, there is a higher risk of mosquito-borne disease.

The amount of rainfall each summer is also a key predictor for seasonal outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease, especially Ross River virus.




Read more:
Explainer: what is Ross River virus and how is it treated?


Inland regions of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, especially within the Murray Darling Basin, are particularly prone to “boom and bust” cycles of mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease.

In these regions, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation is thought to play an important role in driving the risks of mosquito-borne disease.

The hot and dry conditions of El Niño aren’t typically ideal for mosquitoes.

But historically, major outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease have been associated with extensive inland flooding. This flooding is typically associated with prevailing La Niña conditions.

For instance, outbreaks of Murray Valley encephalitis in the 1950s and 1970s had significant impacts on human health and occurred at a time of moderate-to-strong La Niña events.




Read more:
Our new model shows Australia can expect 11 tropical cyclones this season


Over the past decade, when La Niña has brought above average rainfall and flooding, there have also been outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease.

These have included:

  • Victoria’s record breaking epidemic of Ross River virus in 2016-17 after extensive inland flooding

  • southeast Queensland’s outbreak of Ross River virus in 2014-15, partly attributed to an increase in mosquitoes associated with freshwater habitats after seasonal rainfall

  • eastern Australia’s major outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease associated with extensive flooding during two record breaking La Niñas between 2010 and 2012. These included Murray Valley encaphalitis and mosquito-borne illness in horses caused by the closely related West Nile virus (Kunjin strain).

We can’t say for certain there will be more disease

History and our understanding of mosquito biology means that with the prospect of more rain, we should expect more mosquitoes. But even when there are floods, predicting outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease isn’t always simple.

This is because of the role wildlife plays in the transmission cycles of Ross River virus and Murray Valley encephalitis virus.




Read more:
After the floods come the mosquitoes – but the disease risk is more difficult to predict


In these cases, mosquitoes don’t hatch out of the floodwaters carrying viruses, ready to bite humans. These mosquitoes first have to bite wildlife, which is where they pick up the virus. Then, they bite humans.

So how local animals, such as kangaroos, wallabies and water birds, respond to rainfall and flooding will play a role in determining the risk of mosquito-borne disease. In some cases, flooding of inland wetlands can see an explosion in local water bird populations.

How can we reduce the risks?

There isn’t much we can do to change the weather but we can take steps to reduce the impacts of mosquitoes.

Wearing insect repellent when outdoors will help reduce your chance of mosquito bites. But it’s also important to tip out, cover up, or throw away any water-holding containers in our backyard, at least once a week.

Local authorities in many parts of Australia also undertake surveillance of mosquitoes and mosquito-borne pathogens. This provides an early warning of the risk of mosquito-borne disease.




Read more:
The worst year for mosquitoes ever? Here’s how we find out


The Conversation


Cameron Webb, Clinical Associate Professor and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney

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

Our new model shows Australia can expect 11 tropical cyclones this season


Andrew Magee, University of Newcastle and Anthony Kiem, University of Newcastle

Tropical cyclones are considered one of the most devastating weather events in Australia. But they’re erratic — where, when and how many tropical cyclones form each year is highly variable, which makes them difficult to predict.

In our new research published today, we created a statistical model that predicts the number of tropical cyclones up to four months before the start of the tropical cyclone season from November to April.




Read more:
Storm warning: a new long-range tropical cyclone outlook is set to reduce disaster risk for Pacific Island communities


The model, the Long-Range Tropical Cyclone Outlook for Australia (TCO-AU), indicates normal to above normal tropical cyclone activity with 11 cyclones expected in total, Australia-wide. Though not all make landfall.

This is above Australia’s average of ten tropical cyclones per season, thanks to a climate phenomenon brewing in the Pacific that brings conditions favourable for tropical cyclone activity closer to Australia.

La Niña and tropical cyclones

As we’ve seen most recently with Tropical Storm Sally in the US, tropical cyclones can cause massive damage over vast areas. This includes extreme and damaging winds, intense rainfall and flooding, storm surges, large waves and coastal erosion.

Australian tropical cyclone behaviour is largely driven by the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) — a global climate phenomenon that changes ocean and atmospheric circulation.

“La Niña” is one phase of ENSO. It’s typically associated with higher than normal tropical cyclone numbers in the Australian region. And the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather and climate model indicates there’s a 95% chance a La Niña will be established by October this year.




Read more:
Explainer: El Niño and La Niña


Around ten tropical cyclones occur in the Australian region every season, and about four of those usually make landfall.

Historically, La Niña has resulted in double the number of landfalling tropical cyclones in Australia, compared to El Niño phases. An “El Niño” event is associated with warmer and drier conditions for eastern Australia.

During La Niña events, the first tropical cyclone to make landfall also tends to occur earlier in the season. In fact, in Queensland, the only tropical cyclone seasons with multiple severe tropical cyclone landfalls have been during La Niña events.

Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi, one of the most intense tropical cyclones to have hit Queensland, occurred during a La Niña in 2011. So did the infamous Severe Tropical Cyclone Tracy, which made landfall around Darwin in 1974, killing 71 people and leaving more than 80% of all buildings destroyed or damaged.

While naturally occurring climate drivers, such as La Niña, influence the characteristics of tropical cyclone activity, climate change is also expected to cause changes to future tropical cyclone risk, including frequency and intensity.

Australian tropical cyclone outlooks

Tropical cyclone outlooks provide important information about how many tropical cyclones may pass within the Australian region and subregions, before the start of the cyclone season. Decision-makers, government, industry and people living in tropical cyclone regions use them to prepare for the coming cyclone season.




Read more:
I’ve always wondered: how do cyclones get their names?


The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has led the way in producing tropical cyclone outlooks for Australia, usually a couple of weeks before the official start of the tropical cyclone season.

But with monthly guidance up to four months before the start of the season, our new model, TCO-AU, is unmatched in lead time. It considers the most recent changes in ENSO and other climate drivers to predict how many tropical cyclones may occur in Australia and its sub-regions.

As a statistical model, TCO-AU is trained on historical relationships between ocean-atmosphere processes and the number of tropical cyclones per season.

For each region, hundreds of potential model combinations are tested, and the one that performs best in predicting historical tropical cyclone counts is selected to make the prediction for the coming season.

So what can we expect this season?

September’s TCO-AU guidance suggests normal to above normal risk for Australia for the coming tropical cyclone season (November 2020 – April 2021).

With an emerging La Niña and warmer than normal sea surface temperatures in the eastern Indian Ocean, 11 tropical cyclones are expected for Australia. There’s a 47% chance of 12 or more cyclones, and a probable range of between nine and 15.

For the Australian sub-regions, TCO-AU suggests the following:

  • above normal activity is expected for the Eastern region (eastern Australia) with four cyclones expected. Probable range between three and six cyclones; with a 55% chance of four or more cyclones

  • normal activity is expected for the Western region (west/northwest Western Australia) with six cyclones expected. Probable range between five and eight cyclones; 39% chance of seven or more cyclones

  • below normal activity is expected for the Northern region (northwest Queensland and Northern Territory) with three cyclones expected. Probable range between two and five cyclones; 37% chance of four cyclones or more

  • below normal activity is also expected for the Northwestern region (northwest Western Australia) with four cyclones expected. Probable range between three and six cyclones; 45% chance of five cyclones or more.


TCO-SP – Long-range Tropical Cyclone Outlook for the Southwest Pacific/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Guidance from TCO-AU does not and should not replace advice provided by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. Instead, it should be used to provide a complementary perspective to regional outlooks and provide a “heads-up” in the months leading up to the start of and within the cyclone season.

Regardless of what’s expected for the coming cyclone season, people living in tropical cyclone regions should always prepare for the cyclone season and follow the advice provided by emergency services.




Read more:
Advanced cyclone forecasting is leading to early action – and it’s saving thousands of lives


The Conversation


Andrew Magee, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Newcastle and Anthony Kiem, Associate Professor – Hydroclimatology, University of Newcastle

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

How bushfires and rain turned our waterways into ‘cake mix’, and what we can do about it



The Murray River at Gadds Reserve in north east Victoria after Black Summer bushfires.
Paul McInerney, Author provided

Paul McInerney, CSIRO; Anu Kumar, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, CSIRO; Klaus Joehnk, CSIRO, and Tapas Kumar Biswas, CSIRO

As the world watched the Black Summer bushfires in horror, we warned that when it did finally rain, our aquatic ecosystems would be devastated.

Following bushfires, rainfall can wash huge volumes of ash and debris from burnt vegetation and exposed soil into rivers. Fires can also lead to soil “hydrophobia”, where soil refuses to absorb water, which can generate more runoff at higher intensity. Ash and contaminants from the fire, including toxic metals, carbon and fire retardants, can also threaten biodiversity in streams.




Read more:
The sweet relief of rain after bushfires threatens disaster for our rivers


As expected, when heavy rains eventually extinguished many fires, it turned high quality water in our rivers to sludge with the consistency of cake mix.

In the weeks following the first rains, we sampled from these rivers. This is what we saw.

Sampling the upper Murray River

Of particular concern was the upper Murray River on the border between Victoria and NSW, which is critical for water supply. There, the bushfires were particularly intense.

Sludge in Horse Creek near Jingellic following storm activity after the fire.
Paul McInerney/Author Provided

When long-awaited rain eventually came to the upper Murray River catchment, it was in the form of large localised storms. Tonnes of ash, sediment and debris were washed into creeks and the Murray River. Steep terrain within burnt regions of the upper Murray catchment generated a large volume of fast flowing runoff that carried with it sediment and pollutants.

We collected water samples in the upper Murray River in January and February 2020 to assess impacts to riverine plants and animals.

Our water samples were up to 30 times more turbid (cloudy) than normal, with total suspended solids as high as 765 milligrams per litre. Heavy metals such as zinc, arsenic, chromium, nickel, copper and lead were recorded in concentrations well above guideline values for healthy waterways.

Ash and sediment blanketing cobbles in the Murray River.
Paul McInerney/Author Provided

We took the water collected from the Murray River to the laboratory, where we conducted a number of toxicological experiments on duckweed (a floating water plant), water fleas (small aquatic invertebrates) and juvenile freshwater snails.

What we found

During a seven-day exposure to the bushfire affected river water, the growth rate of duckweed was reduced by 30-60%.

The water fleas ingested large amounts of suspended sediments when they were exposed to the affected water for 48 hours. Following the exposure, water flea reproduction was significantly impaired.

And freshwater snail egg sacs were smothered. The ash resulted in complete deaths of snail larvae after 14 days.




Read more:
Before and after: see how bushfire and rain turned the Macquarie perch’s home to sludge


These sad impacts to growth, reproduction and death rates were primarily a result of the combined effects of the ash and contaminants, according to our preliminary investigations.

But they can have longer-term knock-on effects to larger animals like birds and fish that rely on biota like snail eggs, water fleas and duckweed for food.

What happened to the fish?

Immediately following the first pulse of sediment, dead fish (mostly introduced European carp and native Murray Cod) were observed on the bank of River Murray at Burrowye Reserve, Victoria. But what, exactly, was their cause of death?

A dead Murray Cod found on the banks of the Murray River following storms after the bushfires.
Paul McInerney/Author Provided

Our first assumption was that they died from a lack of oxygen in the water. This is because ash and nutrients combined with high summer water temperatures can trigger increased activity of microbes, such as bacteria.

This, in turn can deplete the dissolved oxygen concentration in the water (also known as hypoxia) as the microbes consume oxygen. And wide-spread hypoxia can lead to large scale fish kills.




Read more:
Click through the tragic stories of 119 species still struggling after Black Summer in this interactive (and how to help)


But to our surprise, although dissolved oxygen in the Murray River was lower than usual, we did not record it at levels low enough for hypoxia. Instead, we saw the dead fish had large quantities of sediment trapped in their gills. The fish deaths were also quite localised.

In this case, we think fish death was simply caused by the extremely high sediment and ash load in the river that physically clogged their gills, not a lack of dissolved oxygen in the water.

These findings are not unusual, and following the 2003 bushfires in Victoria fish kills were attributed to a combination of low dissolved oxygen and high turbidity.

So how can we prepare for future bushfires?

Preventing sediment being washed into rivers following fires is difficult. Installing sediment barriers and other erosion control measures can protect specific areas. However, at the catchment scale, a more holistic approach is required.




Read more:
The NSW bushfire inquiry found property loss is ‘inevitable’. We must stop building homes in such fire-prone areas


One way is to increase efforts to re-vegetate stream banks (called riparian zones) to help buffer the runoff. A step further is to consider re-vegetating these zones with native plants that don’t burn easily, such as Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylin).

Streams known to host rare or endangered aquatic species should form the focus of any fire preparation activities. Some species exist only in highly localised areas, such as the endangered native barred galaxias (Galaxias fuscus) in central Victoria. This means an extreme fire event there can lead to the extinction of the whole species.

Ash and dead fish on the banks of the Murray River near Jingellic following Black Summer fires.
Paul McInerney/Author Provided

That’s why reintroducing endangered species to their former ranges in multiple catchments to broaden their distribution is important.

Increasing the connectivity within our streams would also allow animals like fish to evade poor water quality — dams and weirs can prevent this. The removal of such barriers, or installing “fish-ways” may be important to protecting fish populations from bushfire impacts.

However, dams can also be used to benefit animal and plant life (biota). When sediment is washed into large rivers, as we saw in the Murray River after the Black Summer fires, the release of good quality water from dams can be used to dilute poor quality water washed in from fire affected tributaries.




Read more:
California is on fire. From across the Pacific, Australians watch on and buckle up


Citizen scientists can help, too. It can be difficult for researchers to monitor aquatic ecosystems during and immediately following bushfires and unmanned monitoring stations are often damaged or destroyed.

CSIRO is working closely with state authorities and the public to improve citizen science apps such as EyeOnWater to collect water quality data. With more eyes in more areas, these data can improve our understanding of aquatic ecosystem responses to fire and to inform strategic planning for future fires.

These are some simple first steps that can be taken now.

Recent investment in bushfire research has largely centred on how the previous fires have influenced species’ distribution and health. But if we want to avoid wildlife catastrophes, we must also look forward to the mitigation of future bushfire impacts.The Conversation

Paul McInerney, Research scientist, CSIRO; Anu Kumar, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Klaus Joehnk, Principal research scientist, CSIRO, and Tapas Kumar Biswas, Senior scientist, CSIRO

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

Climate explained: Sunspots do affect our weather, a bit, but not as much as other things



NASA

Robert McLachlan, Massey University


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


Are we headed for a period with lower Solar activity, i.e. sunspots? How long will it last? What happens to our world when global warming and the end of this period converge?

When climate change comes up in conversation, the question of a possible link with the Sun is often raised.

The Sun is a highly active and complicated body. Its behaviour does change over time and this can affect our climate. But these impacts are much smaller than those caused by our burning of fossil fuels and, crucially, they do not build up over time.

The main change in the Sun is an 11-year Solar cycle of high and low activity, which initially revealed itself in a count of sunspots.

One decade of solar activity in one hour.

Sunspots have been observed continuously since 1609, although their cyclical variation was not noticed until much later. At the peak of the cycle, about 0.1% more Solar energy reaches the Earth, which can increase global average temperatures by 0.05-0.1℃.

This is small, but it can be detected in the climate record.

It’s smaller than other known sources of temperature variation, such as volcanoes (for example, the large eruption of Mt Pinatubo, in the Philippines in 1991, cooled Earth by up to 0.4℃ for several years) and the El Niño Southern Oscillation, which causes variations of up to 0.4℃.




Read more:
Climate explained: how volcanoes influence climate and how their emissions compare to what we produce


And it’s small compared to human-induced global warming, which has been accumulating at 0.2℃ per decade since 1980.

Although each 11-year Solar cycle is different, and the processes underlying them are not fully understood, overall the cycle has been stable for hundreds of millions of years.

A little ice age

A famous period of low Solar activity, known as the Maunder Minimum, ran from 1645 to 1715. It happened at a similar time as the Little Ice Age in Europe.

But the fall in Solar activity was too small to account for the temperature drop, which has since been attributed to volcanic eruptions.

Solar activity picked up during the 20th century, reaching a peak in the cycle that ran from 1954 to 1964, before falling away to a very weak cycle in 2009-19.

Bear in mind, though, that the climatic difference between a strong and a weak cycle is small.

Forecasting the Solar cycle

Because changes in Solar activity are important to spacecraft and to radio communications, there is a Solar Cycle Prediction Panel who meet to pool the available evidence.

Experts there are currently predicting the next cycle, which will run to 2030, will be similar to the last one. Beyond that, they’re not saying.

If activity picks up again, and its peak happened to coincide with a strong El Niño, we could see a boost in temperatures of 0.3℃ for a year or two. That would be similar to what happened during the El Niño of 2016, which featured record air and sea temperatures, wildfires, rainfall events and bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.

The extreme weather events of that year provided a glimpse into the future. They gave examples of what even average years will look like after another decade of steadily worsening global warming.

A journey to the Sun

Solar physics is an active area of research. Apart from its importance to us, the Sun is a playground for the high-energy physics of plasmas governed by powerful magnetic, nuclear and fluid-dynamical forces.

The Solar cycle is driven by a dynamo coupling kinetic, magnetic and electrical energy.




Read more:
Explainer: how does our sun shine?


That’s pretty hard to study in the lab, so research proceeds by a combination of observation, mathematical analysis and computer simulation.

Two spacecraft are currently directly observing the Sun: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (which will eventually approach to just 5% of the Earth-Sun distance), and ESA’s Solar Orbiter, which is en route to observe the Sun’s poles.

Hopefully one day we will have a better picture of the processes involved in sunspots and the Solar cycle.The Conversation

Exploring the 11-year Solar cycle.

Robert McLachlan, Professor in Applied Mathematics, Massey University

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

What is a derecho? An atmospheric scientist explains these rare but dangerous storm systems



A derecho moves across central Kansas on July 3, 2005.
Jim Reed/Corbis via Getty Images

Russ Schumacher, Colorado State University

Thunderstorms are common across North America, especially in warm weather months. About 10% of them become severe, meaning they produce hail 1 inch or greater in diameter, winds gusting in excess of 50 knots (57.5 miles per hour), or a tornado.

The U.S. recently has experienced three rarer events: organized lines of thunderstorms with widespread damaging winds, known as derechos.

Derechos occur fairly regularly over large parts of the U.S. each year, most commonly from April through August.
Dennis Cain/NOAA

Derechos occur mainly across the central and eastern U.S., where many locations are affected one to two times per year on average. They can produce significant damage to structures and sometimes cause “blowdowns” of millions of trees. Pennsylvania and New Jersey received the brunt of a derecho on June 3, 2020, that killed four people and left nearly a million without power across the mid-Atlantic region.

In the West, derechos are less common, but Colorado – where I serve as state climatologist and director of the Colorado Climate Center – experienced a rare and powerful derecho on June 6 that generated winds exceeding 100 miles per hour in some locations. And on August 10, a derecho rolled across Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, generating rare “particularly dangerous situation” warnings from forecasters and registering wind gusts as high as 130 miles per hour.

Derechos have also been observed and analyzed in many other parts of the world, including Europe, Asia and South America. They are an important and active research area in meteorology. Here’s what we know about these unusual storms.

A massive derecho in June 2012 developed in northern Illinois and traveled to the mid-Atlantic coast, killing 22 and causing $4 billion to $5 billion in damages.

Walls of wind

Scientists have long recognized that organized lines of thunderstorms can produce widespread damaging winds. Gustav Hinrichs, a professor at the University of Iowa, analyzed severe winds in the 1870s and 1880s and identified that many destructive storms were produced by straight-line winds rather than by tornadoes, in which winds rotate. Because the word “tornado,” of Spanish origin, was already in common usage, Hinrichs proposed “derecho” – Spanish for “straight ahead” – for damaging windstorms not associated with tornadoes.

In 1987, meteorologists defined what qualified as a derecho. They proposed that for a storm system to be classified as a derecho, it had to produce severe winds – 57.5 mph (26 meters per second) or greater – and those intense winds had to extend over a path at least 250 miles (400 kilometers) long, with no more than three hours separating individual severe wind reports.

Derechos are almost always caused by a type of weather system known as a bow echo, which has the shape of an archer’s bow on radar images. These in turn are a specific type of mesoscale convective system, a term that describes large, organized groupings of storms.

Researchers are studying whether and how climate change is affecting weather hazards from thunderstorms. Although some aspects of mesoscale convective systems, such as the amount of rainfall they produce, are very likely to change with continued warming, it’s not yet clear how future climate change may affect the likelihood or intensity of derechos.

Speeding across the landscape

The term “derecho” vaulted into public awareness in June 2012, when one of the most destructive derechos in U.S. history formed in the Midwest and traveled some 700 miles in 12 hours, eventually making a direct impact on the Washington, D.C. area. This event killed 22 people and caused millions of power outages.

Top: Radar imagery every two hours, from 1600 UTC 29 June to 0400 UTC 30 June 2012, combined to show the progression of a derecho-producing bow echo across the central and eastern US. Bottom: Severe wind reports for the 29-30 June 2012 derecho, colored by wind speed.
Schumacher and Rasmussen, 2020, adapted from Guastini and Bosart 2016, CC BY-ND

Only a few recorded derechos had occurred in the western U.S. prior to June 6, 2020. On that day, a line of strong thunderstorms developed in eastern Utah and western Colorado in the late morning. This was unusual in itself, as storms in this region tend to be less organized and occur later in the day.

The thunderstorms continued to organize and moved northeastward across the Rocky Mountains. This was even more unusual: Derecho-producing lines of storms are driven by a pool of cold air near the ground, which would typically be disrupted by a mountain range as tall as the Rockies. In this case, the line remained organized.

As the line of storms emerged to the east of the mountains, it caused widespread wind damage in the Denver metro area and northeastern Colorado. It then strengthened further as it proceeded north-northeastward across eastern Wyoming, western Nebraska and the Dakotas.

In total there were nearly 350 reports of severe winds, including 44 of 75 miles per hour (about 34 meters per second) or greater. The strongest reported gust was 110 mph at Winter Park ski area in the Colorado Rockies. Of these reports, 95 came from Colorado – by far the most severe wind reports ever from a single thunderstorm system.

Animation showing the development and evolution of the 6-7 June 2020 western derecho. Radar reflectivity is shown in the color shading, with National Weather Service warnings shown in the colored outlines (yellow polygons indicate severe thunderstorm warnings). Source: Iowa Environmental Mesonet.

Coloradans are accustomed to big weather, including strong winds in the mountains and foothills. Some of these winds are generated by flow down mountain slopes, localized thunderstorm microbursts, or even “bomb cyclones.” Western thunderstorms more commonly produce hailstorms and tornadoes, so it was very unusual to have a broad swath of the state experience damaging straight-line winds that extended from west of the Rockies all the way to the Dakotas.

Damage comparable to a hurricane

Derechos are challenging to predict. On days when derechos form, it is often uncertain whether any storms will form at all. But if they do, the chance exists for explosive development of intense winds. Forecasters did not anticipate the historic June 2012 derecho until it was already underway.

For the western derecho on June 6, 2020, outlooks showed an enhanced potential for severe storms in Nebraska and the Dakotas two to three days in advance. However, the outlooks didn’t highlight the potential for destructive winds farther south in Colorado until the morning that the derecho formed.

Once a line of storms has begun to develop, however, the National Weather Service routinely issues highly accurate severe thunderstorm warnings 30 to 60 minutes ahead of the arrival of intense winds, alerting the public to take precautions.

Communities, first responders and utilities may have only a few hours to prepare for an oncoming derecho, so it is important to know how to receive severe thunderstorm warnings, such as TV, radio and smartphone alerts, and to take these warnings seriously. Tornadoes and tornado warnings often get the most attention, but lines of severe thunderstorms can also pack a major punch.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on June 15, 2020.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]The Conversation

Russ Schumacher, Associate Professor of Atmospheric Science and Colorado State Climatologist, Colorado State University

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

Storm warning: a new long-range tropical cyclone outlook is set to reduce disaster risk for Pacific Island communities



Photobank.kiev.ua/Shutterstock

Andrew Magee, University of Newcastle; Andrew Lorrey, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, and Anthony Kiem, University of Newcastle

Tropical cyclones are among the most destructive weather systems on Earth, and the Southwest Pacific region is very exposed and vulnerable to these extreme events.

Our latest research, published today in Scientific Reports, presents a new way of predicting the number of tropical cyclones up to four months ahead of the cyclone season, with outlooks tailored for individual island nations and territories.

A new model predicts tropical cyclone counts up to four months in advance.

Tropical cyclones produce extreme winds, large waves and storm surges, intense rainfall and flooding — and account for almost three in four natural disasters across the Southwest Pacific region.

Currently, Southwest Pacific forecasting agencies release a regional tropical cyclone outlook in October, one month ahead of the official start of the cyclone season in November. Our new model offers a long-range warning, issued monthly from July, to give local authorities more time to prepare.

Most importantly, this improvement on existing extreme weather warning systems may save more lives and mitigate damage by providing information up to four months ahead of the cyclone season.

This map shows the expected number of tropical cyclones for the 2020/21 Southwest Pacific cyclone season (November to April).
http://www.tcoutlook.com/latest-outlook, Author provided

Tropical cyclones and climate variability

An average of 11 tropical cyclones form in the Southwest Pacific region each season. Since 1950, tropical cyclones have claimed the lives of nearly 1500 and have affected more than 3 million people.

In 2016, Cyclone Winston, a record-breaking severe category 5 event, was the strongest cyclone to make landfall across Fiji. It killed 44 people, injured 130 and seriously damaged around 40,000 homes. Damages totalled US$1.4 billion — making it the costliest cyclone in Southwest Pacific history.




Read more:
Winston strikes Fiji: your guide to cyclone science


Tropical cyclones are erratic in their severity and the path they travel. Every cyclone season is different. Exactly where and when a tropical cyclone forms is driven by complex interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere, including the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean, and many other climate influences.

Capturing changes in all of these climate influences simultaneously is key to producing more accurate tropical cyclone outlooks. Our new tool, the Long-Range Tropical Cyclone Outlook for the Southwest Pacific (TCO-SP), will assist forecasters and help local authorities to prepare for the coming season’s cyclone activity.

This map shows the probability of below or above-average tropical cyclones for the 2020/21 Southwest Pacific cyclone season.
http://www.tcoutlook.com/latest-outlook, Author provided

According to the latest long-range sea surface temperature outlook, there is a 79% chance that La Niña conditions could develop before the start of the 2020-21 Southwest Pacific cyclone season. La Niña conditions typically mean the risk of tropical cyclone activity is elevated for island nations in the western part of the region (New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu) and reduced for nations in the east (French Polynesia and the Cook Islands). But there are exceptions, particularly when certain climate influences like the Indian Ocean Dipole occur with La Niña events.




Read more:
India’s cyclone Fani recovery offers the world lessons in disaster preparedness


Improving existing tropical cyclone guidance

Current guidance on tropical cyclones in the Southwest Pacific region is produced by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the Fiji Meteorological Service. Each of these organisations uses a different method and considers different indices to capture ocean-atmosphere variability associated with the El Niño-Southern Oscillation.

Our research adds to the existing methods used by those agencies, but also considers other climate drivers known to influence tropical cyclone activity. In total, 12 separate outlooks are produced for individual nations and territories including Fiji, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Tonga.

Other locations are grouped into sub-regional models, and we also provide outlooks for New Zealand because of the important impacts there from ex-tropical cyclones.

Our long-range outlook is a statistical model, trained on historical relationships between ocean-atmosphere processes and the number of tropical cyclones per season. For each target location, hundreds of unique model combinations are tested. The one that performs best in capturing historical tropical cyclone counts is selected to make the prediction for the coming season.

At the start of each monthly outlook, the model retrains itself, taking the most recent changes in ocean temperature and atmospheric variability and attributes of tropical cyclones from the previous season into account.

Both deterministic (tropical cyclone numbers) and probabilistic (the chance of below, normal or above average tropical cyclone activity) outlooks are updated every month between July and January and are freely available.The Conversation

Andrew Magee, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Newcastle; Andrew Lorrey, Principal Scientist & Programme Leader of Climate Observations and Processes, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, and Anthony Kiem, Associate Professor – Hydroclimatology, University of Newcastle

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

Extreme heat and rain: thousands of weather stations show there’s now more of both, for longer



ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

Jim Salinger, University of Tasmania and Lisa Alexander, UNSW

A major global update based on data from more than 36,000 weather stations around the world confirms that, as the planet continues to warm, extreme weather events such as heatwaves and heavy rainfall are now more frequent, more intense, and longer.

The research is based on a dataset known as HadEX and analyses 29 indices of weather extremes, including the number of days above 25℃ or below 0℃, and consecutive dry days with less than 1mm of rain. This latest update compares the three decades between 1981 and 2010 to the 30 years prior, between 1951 and 1980.

Globally, the clearest index shows an increase in the number of above-average warm days.


Author provided

For Australia, the team found a country-wide increase in warm temperature extremes and heatwaves and a decrease in cold temperature extremes such as the coldest nights. Broadly speaking, rainfall extremes have increased in the west and decreased in the east, but trends vary by season.

In New Zealand, temperate regions experience significantly more summer days and northern parts of the country are now frost-free.




Read more:
The world endured 2 extra heatwave days per decade since 1950 – but the worst is yet to come


Extreme temperatures

Unusually warm days are becoming more common throughout Australia. When we compare 1981-2010 with 1951-80, the increase is substantial: more than 20 days per year in the far north of Australia, and at least 10 days per year in most areas apart from the south coast. The increase occurs in all seasons but is largest in spring.

This increase in temperature extremes can have devastating impacts for human health, particularly for older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions. Excessive heat is not only an issue for people living in cities but also for rural communities that have already been exposed to days with temperatures above 50℃.

New Zealanders are also experiencing more days with temperatures of 25℃ or more. The climate stations show the frequency of unusually warm days has increased from 8% to 12% from 1950 to 2018, with an average of 19 to 24 days a year above 25℃ across the country. Unusually warm days, defined as days in the top 10% of historic records for the time of year, are also becoming more common in both countries.

During the summers of 2017-18 and 2018-19, marine heatwaves delivered 32 and 26 (respectively) days above 25℃ nationwide in New Zealand, well above the average of 20 days. This led to accelerated glacial melting in the Southern Alps and major disruption to marine ecosystems, with die-offs of bull kelp around the South Island coast and salmon in aquaculture farms in the Marlborough Sounds.




Read more:
Farmed fish dying, grape harvest weeks early – just some of the effects of last summer’s heatwave in NZ


More heat, more rain, less frost

In many parts of New Zealand, cold extremes are changing faster than warm extremes.

Between 1950 and 2018, frost days (days below 0℃) have declined across New Zealand, particularly in northern parts of the country which has now become frost-free, enabling farmers to grow subtropical pasture grasses. At the same time, crops that require winter frosts to set fruit are no longer successful, or can only be grown with chemical treatments (currently under review) that simulate winter chilling.

Across New Zealand, the heat available for crop growth during the growing season is increasing, which means wine growers have to shift varieties further south.

In Australia, the situation is more complicated. In many parts of northern and eastern Australia, there has also been a large decrease in the number of cold nights. But in parts of southeast and southwest Australia, frost frequency has stabilised, or even increased in places, since the 1980s.

These areas have seen a large decrease in winter rainfall in recent decades. The higher number of dry, clear nights in winter, favourable for frost formation, has cancelled out the broader warming trend.




Read more:
Droughts & flooding rains: what is due to climate change?


In Australia, extreme rainfall has become more frequent in many parts of northern and western Australia, especially the northwest, which has become wetter since the 1960s. In eastern and southern Australia the picture is more mixed, with little change in the number of days with 10mm or more of rain, even in those regions where total rainfall has declined.

In New Zealand, more extremely wet days contribute towards the annual rainfall total in the east of the North Island, with a smaller increase in the west and south of the South Island. For Australia, there are significant drying trends in parts of the southwest and northeast, but little change elsewhere.

Extremes of temperature and precipitation can have dramatic effects, as seen during two marine heatwaves in New Zealand and the hottest, driest year in Australia during 2019.The Conversation

Jim Salinger, Honorary Associate, Tasmanian Institute for Agriculture, University of Tasmania and Lisa Alexander, Chief Investigator ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science and Associate Professor Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW

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

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.




Read more:
Backyard gardeners around the world are helping to save Australia’s deeply ancient Wollemi pine


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.




Read more:
Yes, native plants can flourish after bushfire. But there’s only so much hardship they can take


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.




Read more:
‘Plant blindness’ is obscuring the extinction crisis for non-animal species


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.

We dug up Australian weather records back to 1838 and found snow is falling less often



State Library of South Australia

Joelle Gergis, Australian National University and Linden Ashcroft, University of Melbourne

As we slowly emerge from lockdown, local adventures are high on people’s wish lists. You may be planning a trip to the ski fields, or even the nearby hills to revel in the white stuff that occasionally falls around our southern cities after an icy winter blast.

Our new research explores these low-elevation snowfall events. We pieced together weather records back to 1838 to create Australia’s longest analysis of daily temperature extremes and their impacts on society.

These historical records can tell us a lot about Australia’s pre-industrial climate, before the large-scale burning of fossil fuels tainted global temperature records.

They also help provide a longer context to evaluate more recent temperature extremes.

We found snow was once a regular feature of the southern Australian climate. But as Australia continues to warm under climate change, cold extremes are becoming less frequent and heatwaves more common.

Heatwaves in Adelaide are becoming more common.
David Mariuz/AAP

Extending Australia’s climate record

Data used by the Bureau of Meteorology to study long-term weather and climate dates back to the early 1900s. This is when good coverage of weather stations across the country began, and observations were taken in a standard way.

But many older weather records exist in national and state archives and libraries, as well as local historical societies around the country.




Read more:
Some say we’ve seen bushfires worse than this before. But they’re ignoring a few key facts


We analysed daily weather records from the coastal city of Adelaide and surrounding areas, including the Adelaide Hills, back to 1838. Adelaide is the Australian city worst affected by heatwaves, and the capital of our nation’s driest state, South Australia.

To crosscheck the heatwaves and cold extremes identified in our historical temperature observations, we also looked at newspaper accounts, model simulations of past weather patterns, and palaeoclimate records.

The agreement was remarkable. It demonstrates the value of historical records for improving our estimation of future climate change risk.

Weather journal of Adelaide’s historical climate held by the National Archives of Australia.
National Archives of Australia

‘Limpness to all mankind’

While most other historical climate studies have looked at annual or monthly values, the new record enabled us to look at daily extremes.

This is important, because global temperature increases are most clearly detected in changes to extreme events such as heatwaves. Although these events may only last a few days, they have very real impacts on human health, agriculture and infrastructure.

Our analysis focused on the previously undescribed period before 1910, to extend the Bureau of Meteorology’s official record as far as possible.

Using temperature observations, we identified 34 historical heatwaves and 81 cold events in Adelaide from 1838–1910. We found more than twice as many of these “snow days” by conducting an independent analysis of snowfall accounts in historical documents.

Almost all the events in the temperature observations were supported by newspaper reports. This demonstrated our method can accurately identify historical temperature extremes.

For example, an outbreak of cold air on June 22, 1908, delivered widespread snow across the hills surrounding Adelaide. The Express and Telegraph newspaper reported:

Many people made a special journey from Adelaide by train, carriage, or motor to revel in the unwonted delight of gazing on such a wide expanse of real snow, and all who did so felt that their trouble was amply rewarded by the panorama of loveliness spread out before their enraptured eyes.

Snowballing at Mount Lofty 29 August 1905.
Source: State Library of South Australia

From December 26-30, 1897, Adelaide was gripped by a heatwave that produced five days above 40℃. Newspapers reported heat-related deaths, agricultural damage, animals dying in the zoo, bushfires and even “burning hot pavements scorching the soles of people’s shoes”. As The Advertiser reported:

When the mercury reaches its “century” (100℉ or 37.6℃) there must be a really uncomfortable experience for everyone. One such day can be struggled with; but six of them in a fortnight, three in succession — that is a thing to bring limpness to all mankind.

On December 31, 1897, the South Australian Register wrote prophetically of future Australian summers:

May Heaven preserve us from being here when the “scorchers” try and add a few degrees to the total.

Newspaper account of a deadly heatwave published in the South Australian Register on Friday 31 December 1897.
National Library of Australia

A longer view

While Australia has a long history of hot and cold extremes, our extended analysis shows that their frequency and intensity is changing.

The quality of the very early part of the record is still uncertain, so the information from the 1830s and 1840s must be treated with caution. That said, there is excellent agreement with newspaper and other historical records.

Our research suggests low-elevation snow events around Adelaide have become less common over the past 180 years. This can be seen in both temperature observations and independent newspaper accounts. For example, snowfall was exceptionally high in the 1900s and 1910s — more than four times more frequent than other decades.




Read more:
Black skies and raging seas: how the First Fleet got a first taste of Australia’s unforgiving climate


We also found heatwaves are becoming more frequent in Adelaide. The decade 2010–19 has the highest count of heatwaves of any decade in the record. Although recent heatwaves are not significantly longer than those of the past, our analysis showed heatwaves of up to ten days are possible.

Previous Australian studies have identified an increase in extreme heat and a corresponding decrease in cold events. However, this is the longest analysis in Australia, and the first to systematically combine instrumental and documentary information.

Number of heatwaves identified in Adelaide from January 1838 to August 2019. No digitised temperature observations are available from 1 January 1848 – 1 November 1856, so these decades are shown in lighter shades.
Author supplied
Number of extreme cold days identified in Adelaide from January 1838 to August 2019. No digitised temperature observations are currently available from 1 January 1848 – 1 November 1856, so these decades are shaded grey.
Author supplied

Learning from the past

This study shows we can use historical weather records to get a better picture of Australia’s long-term weather and climate history. By using different sources of information, we can piece together the significant events in our climate history with greater certainty.

Historical records tell us about more than just exciting day trips of the past. They also hold the key to understanding impacts of extreme events, such as heat-related deaths or agricultural damage, in the future.

A better understanding of these pre-industrial extremes will help emergency management services better adapt to increased climate risk, as Australia continues to warm.




Read more:
Just how hot will it get this century? Latest climate models suggest it could be worse than we thought


The Conversation


Joelle Gergis, Senior Lecturer in Climate Science, Australian National University and Linden Ashcroft, Lecturer in climate science and science communication, University of Melbourne

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

After a storm, microplastics in Sydney’s Cooks River increased 40 fold



A litter trap in Cook’s River.
James HItchcock, Author provided

James Hitchcock, University of Canberra

Each year the ocean is inundated with 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic washed in from land. A big proportion of this plastic is between 0.001 to 5 millimetres, and called “microplastic”.

But what happens during a storm, when lashings of rain funnel even more water from urban land into waterways? To date, no one has studied just how important storm events may be in polluting waterways with microplastics.




Read more:
Microplastic pollution is everywhere, but scientists are still learning how it harms wildlife


So to find out, I studied my local waterway in Sydney, the Cooks River estuary. I headed out daily to measure how many microplastics were in the water, before, during, and after a major storm event in October, 2018.

The results, published on Wednesday, were startling. Microplastic particles in the river had increased more than 40 fold from the storm.

Particles of plastic found in rivers. They may be tiny, but they’re devastating to wildlife in waterways.
Author provided

To inner west Sydneysiders, the Cooks River is known to be particularly polluted. But it’s largely similar to many urban catchments around the world.

If the relationship between storm events and microplastic I found in the Cooks River holds for other urban rivers, then the concentrations of microplastics we’re exposing aquatic animals to is far higher than previously thought.

14 million plastic particles

They may be tiny, but microplastics are a major concern for aquatic life and food webs. Animals such as small fish and zooplankton directly consume the particles, and ingesting microplastics has the potential to slow growth, interfere with reproduction, and cause death.

Determining exactly how much microplastic enters rivers during storms required the rather unglamorous task of standing in the rain to collect water samples, while watching streams of unwanted debris float by (highlights included a fire extinguisher, a two-piece suit, and a litany of tennis balls).

Back in the laboratory, a multi-stage process is used to separate microplastics. This includes floating, filtering, and using strong chemical solutions to dissolve non-plastic items, before identification and counting with specialised microscopes.

Litter caught in a trap in Cooks River. These traps aren’t effective at catching microplastic.
Author provided

In the days before the October 2018 storm, there were 0.4 particles of microplastic per litre of water in the Cooks River. That jumped to 17.4 microplastics per litre after the storm.

Overall, that number averages to a total of 13.8 million microplastic particles floating around in the Cooks River estuary in the days after the storm.




Read more:
Seafloor currents sweep microplastics into deep-sea hotspots of ocean life


In other urban waterways around the world scientists have found similarly high numbers of microplastic.

For example in China’s Pearl River, microplastic averages 19.9 particles per litre. In the Mississippi River in the US, microplastic ranges from 28 to 60 particles per litre.

Where do microplastics come from?

We know runoff during storms is one of the main ways pollutants such as sediments and heavy metals end up in waterways. But not much is known about how microplastic gets there.

However think about your street. Wherever you see litter, there are also probably microplastics you cannot see that will eventually work their way into waterways when it rains.




Read more:
Sustainable shopping: how to stop your bathers flooding the oceans with plastic


Many other sources of microplastics are less obvious. Car tyres, for example, which typically contain more plastic than rubber, are a major source of microplastics in our waterways. When your tyres lose tread over time, microscopic tyre fragments are left on roads.

Did you know your car tyres can be a major source of microplastic pollution?
Shutterstock

Microplastics may even build up on roads and rooftops from atmospheric deposition. Everyday, lightweight microplastics such as microfibres from synthetic clothing are carried in the wind, settling and accumulating before they’re washed into rivers and streams.

What’s more, during storms wastewater systems may overflow, contaminating waterways. Along with sewage, this can include high concentrations of synthetic microfibers from household washing machines.

And in regional areas, microplastics may be washing in from agricultural soils. Sewage sludge is often applied to soils as it is rich in nutrients, but the same sludge is also rich in microplastics.

What can be done?

There are many ways to mitigate the negative effects of stormwater on waterways.

Screens, traps, and booms can be fitted to outlets and rivers and catch large pieces of litter such as bottles and packaging. But how useful these approaches are for microplastics is unknown.

Raingardens and retention ponds are used to catch and slow stormwater down, allowing pollutants to drop to bottom rather than being transported into rivers. Artificial wetlands work in similar ways, diverting stormwater to allow natural processes to remove toxins from the water.

Almost 14 million plastic particles were floating in Cooks River after a storm two years ago.
Shutterstock

But while mitigating the effects of stormwater carrying microplastics is important, the only way we’ll truly stop this pollution is to reduce our reliance on plastic. We must develop policies to reduce and regulate how much plastic material is produced and sold.

Plastic is ubiquitous, and its production around the world hasn’t slowed, reaching 359 million tonnes each year. Many countries now have or plan to introduce laws regulating the sale or production of some items such as plastic bags, single-use plastics and microbeads in cleaning products.




Read more:
We have no idea how much microplastic is in Australia’s soil (but it could be a lot)


In Australia, most state governments have committed to banning plastic bags, but there are still no laws banning the use of microplastics in cleaning or cosmetic products, or single-use plastics.

We’ve made a good start, but we’ll need deeper changes to what we produce and consume to stem the tide of microplastics in our waterways.The Conversation

James Hitchcock, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, University of Canberra

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