Cyclone Seroja just demolished parts of WA – and our warming world will bring more of the same


Bureau of Meteorology

Jonathan Nott, James Cook UniversityTropical Cyclone Seroja battered parts of Western Australia’s coast on Sunday night, badly damaging buildings and leaving thousands of people without power. While the full extent of the damage caused by the Category 3 system is not yet known, the event was unusual.

I specialise in reconstructing long-term natural records of extreme events, and my historic and prehistoric data show cyclones of this intensity rarely travel as far south as this one did. In fact, it has happened only 26 times in the past 5,000 years.

Severe wind gusts hit the towns of Geraldton and Kalbarri – towns not built to withstand such conditions.

Unfortunately, climate change is likely to mean disasters such as Cyclone Seroja will become more intense, and will be seen further south in Australia more often. In this regard, Seroja may be a timely wake-up call.

Seroja: bucking the cyclone trend

Cyclone Seroja initially piqued interest because as it developed off WA, it interacted with another tropical low, Cyclone Odette. This rare phenomenon is known as the Fujiwhara Effect.

Cyclone Seroja hit the WA coast between the towns of Kalbarri and Gregory at about 8pm local time on Sunday. According to the Bureau of Meteorology it produced wind gusts up to 170 km/hour.

Seroja then moved inland north of Geraldton, weakening to a category 2 system with wind gusts up to 120 km/hour. It then tracked further east and has since been downgraded to a tropical low.

The cyclone’s southward track was historically unusual. For Geraldton, it was the first Category 2 cyclone impact since 1956. Cyclones that make landfall so far south on the WA coast are usually less intense, for several reasons.

First, intense cyclones draw their energy from warm sea surface temperatures. These temperatures typically become cooler the further south of the tropics you go, depleting a cyclone of its power.

Second, cyclones need relatively low speed winds in the middle to upper troposphere – the part of the atmosphere closest to Earth, where the weather occurs. Higher-speed winds there cause the cyclone to tilt and weaken. In the Australian region, these higher wind speeds are more likely the further south a cyclone travels.

Third, most cyclones make landfall in the northern half of WA where the coast protrudes far into the Indian Ocean. Cyclones here typically form in the Timor Sea and move southward or south-west away from WA before curving southeast, towards the landmass.

For a cyclone to cross the coast south of about Carnarvon, it must travel a considerable distance towards the south-west into the Indian Ocean. This was the case with Seroja – winds steered it away from the WA coast before they weakened, allowing the cyclone to curve back towards land.

Reading the ridges

My colleagues and I have devised a method to estimate how often and where cyclones make landfall in Australia.

As cyclones approach the coast, they generate storm surge – abnormal sea level rise – and large waves. The surge and waves pick up sand and shells from the beaches and transport them inland, sometimes for several hundred metres.

These materials are deposited into ridges which stand many metres above sea level. By examining these ridges and geologically dating the materials within them, we can determine how often and intense the cyclones have been over thousands of years.




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At Shark Bay, just north of where Seroja hit the coast, a series of 26 ridges form a “ridge plain” made entirely of one species of a marine cockle shell (Fragum eragatum). The sand at beaches near the plain are also made entirely of this shell.

The ridge record shows over the past 5,000 years, cyclones of Seroja’s intensity, or higher, have crossed the coast in this region about every 190 years – so about 26 times. Some 14 of these cyclones were more intense than Seroja.

The record shows no Category 5 cyclones have made landfall here over this time. The ridge record prevents us from knowing the frequency of less intense storms. But Bureau of Meteorology cyclone records since the early 1970s shows only a few crossed the coast in this region, and all appear weaker than Seroja.

Emergency services crews in the WA town of Geraldton, preparing ahead of the arrival of Tropical Cyclone Seroja
Emergency services crews in the WA town of Geraldton, preparing ahead of the arrival of Tropical Cyclone Seroja – an event rarely seen this far south.
Department of Fire and Emergency Services WA

Cyclones under climate change

So why does all this matter? Cyclones can kill and injure people, damage homes and infrastructure, cause power and communication outages, contaminate water supplies and more. Often, the most disadvantaged populations are worst affected. It’s important to understand past and future cyclone behaviour, so communities can prepare.

Climate change is expected to alter cyclone patterns. The overall number of tropical cyclones in the Australian region is expected to decrease. But their intensity will likely increase, bringing stronger wind and heavier rain. And they may form further south as the Earth warms and the tropical zone expands poleward.

This may mean cyclones of Seroja’s intensity are likely to become frequent, and communities further south on the WA coast may become more prone to cyclone damage. This has big implications for coastal planning, engineering and disaster management planning.

In particular, it may mean homes further south must be built to cope with stronger winds. Storm surge may also worsen, inundating low-lying coastal land.

Global climate models are developing all the time. As they improve, we will gain a more certain picture of how tropical cyclones will change as the planet warms. But for now, Seroja may be a sign of things to come.




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

Jonathan Nott, Professor of Physical Geography, James Cook University

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

Even after the rains, Australia’s environment scores a 3 out of 10. These regions are struggling the most


Shutterstock

Albert Van Dijk, Australian National University; Marta Yebra, Australian National University, and Shoshana Rapley, Australian National UniversityImproved weather conditions have pulled Australia’s environment out of its worst state on record, but recovery remains partial and precarious, new research reveals.

Each year, we collate a vast number of measurements on the state of our environment. The data are collected in many different ways – including satellites, field stations and surveys – then combined to produce an overall national score.

A year ago, after prolonged drought and devastating bushfires, Australia’s environment scored a shocking 0.8 out of ten. Our new research shows nature started its long road to recovery in 2020, especially in New South Wales and Victoria. Some of the regions with the poorest scores have high levels of social disadvantage, which risks being further entrenched by environmental disasters such as drought, bushfire and heatwaves.

Nationally, Australia’s environmental condition score increased by 2.6 points last year, to reach a (still very low) score of 3.2. But overall conditions across large swathes of the country remain poor.

Environmental Condition Score for 2020 by state and territory.
ANU Fenner School

Scores rising but still in the red

From a long list of environmental indicators we report on, seven are selected to calculate an overall score for each region, as well as nationally.

These indicators – high temperatures, river flows, wetlands, soil health, vegetation condition, growth conditions and tree cover – are chosen because they allow a comparison against previous years. See the graphic below to find the score for your region.

The largest improvements occurred in NSW and Victoria thanks to good rains. The poorest conditions occurred in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, where there was little solace from dry conditions.

Comparing local government areas, the best conditions occurred in Nillubik Shire on the northern edge of Melbourne. In contrast, the worst conditions occurred in Katherine in the Northern Territory and in the Shire of Ngaanyatjarraku in remote WA.



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From drought to rain

2020 started as badly as 2019 ended – with extreme temperatures, drought and fires, especially in Australia’s southeast. The Sydney suburb of Penrith was the hottest place on Earth on January 4 and, following the bushfires, Canberra had the most dangerous air quality in the world for several days. Clearly, climate change is already affecting our cities and nature.

By the end of summer, the high temperatures also caused another mass coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef – the third such event in five years.

Only in February-March did the weather turn, providing good and in some areas very plentiful rains – for example along the NSW coast. Later in the year officials declared an La Niña event – an ocean circulation pattern that normally encourages rainfall in Australia.

While rainfall was not extraordinarily high, it lifted most regions in eastern Australia out of extreme drought. Some parts of northern and western Australia missed out, however, and in some areas the drought deepened.

Taken as an average over the year and over the country, rainfall was 10% above the average for the previous two decades. The number of hot days – those reaching 35℃ – was 11% or nine days more than the 20-year average.

Values for 15 environmental indicators in 2020, expressed as the change from average 2000-2019 conditions. Similar to national economic indicators, they provide a summary but also hide regional variations, complex interactions and long-term context.
ANU Fenner School

The improved rainfall helped replenish dried soils, and national average soil moisture was close to average. Growth conditions for the NSW wheatbelt were the best in many years and tree cover increased in northern and eastern Australia.

The rain refilled many dams and reservoirs, especially in Canberra and Sydney. It also made some eastern rivers flow again, including the Darling River in NSW. But with such dry starting conditions, wetlands in inland eastern Australia filled only modestly and waterbird numbers remained low.

Drought persisted across large swathes of inland northern and western Australia, where in some parts, vegetation growth conditions were the worst in decades. And the surplus rain was often not enough to reach wetlands, which continued to shrink.




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New shoots in forest after fire
Signs of life: some parts of Australia have benefited from recent rain.
Shutterstock

Bushfires: few but locally severe

Fire activity in vast areas of inland Australia was very low, because a run of dry years did not leave much dry grass to burn.

Nationally, the total area burnt was 17 million hectares – 90% below the 20-year average. This led to 80 million tonnes of carbon emissions (43% below average).

Fire activity was not low everywhere. In southeast Australia, fires in southern NSW, East Gippsland and the ACT severely damaged forests and other ecosystems as well as people and property.

The full ecological damage of the Black Summer fires was not entirely apparent in 2020. That’s partly because COVID-19 restrictions made the situation difficult to assess.

The fires burned more than 80% of the habitat of 30 threatened species, and may have been the death blow for several. Food shortages and feral cats further reduced populations of surviving animals in the burnt ecosystems.

But some wildlife proved unexpectedly resilient. For example, a great effort by citizen scientists showed frogs rebounded well after the rains.

Another 15 species were added to the Threatened Species List in 2020. In good news, three species were removed from the list, including two species of tree frogs that recovered from the global chytrid fungus.




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Stopping the slow train wreck

The accelerating impacts of climate change will not stop here. New records will inevitably be broken. Heat, drought and fire will again damage our environment and lives. Some ecosystems will be lost forever. But even worse outcomes can be avoided – if the world can rein in greenhouse gas pollution.

There’s cause for cautious optimism. International pressure may force the Morrison government’s hand on climate action. Several states and territories have already taken decisive climate action. Low-emission energy and transport are advancing quickly. As individuals we can fly and drive less, get solar panels and divest from fossil fuel companies.

In the meantime, we must adapt to inevitable climate change and reduce other pressures on our ecosystems. Citizen scientists have proven essential in monitoring how individual species are faring – so download that app and enjoy nature even more. And plant a few trees to help nature along.

Finally, pressure your local, state and national politicians. Ask them: how are you addressing vegetation loss, invasive pests and over-extraction from rivers? If you don’t like the answer, tell them, or try to vote them out.

With greater urgency and some luck, there is still much to be salvaged.

The full report and a video summary are available here.




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

Albert Van Dijk, Professor, Water and Landscape Dynamics, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University; Marta Yebra, Associate Professor in Environment and Engineering, Australian National University, and Shoshana Rapley, Research assistant, Australian National University

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

After the floods, stand by for spiders, slugs and millipedes – but think twice before reaching for the bug spray


Lukas Koch / AAP

Caitlyn Forster, University of Sydney; Dieter Hochuli, University of Sydney, and Eliza Middleton, University of SydneyRecord-breaking rain has destroyed properties across New South Wales, forcing thousands of people to evacuate and leaving hundreds homeless.

Humans aren’t the only ones in trouble. Many of the animals that live with and around us are also heading for higher ground as the floodwaters rise.

Often small creatures — especially invertebrates like spiders, cockroaches and millipedes — will seek refuge in the relatively dry and safe environments of people’s houses. While this can be a problem for the human inhabitants of the house, it’s important to make sure we don’t add to the ecological impact of the flood with an overzealous response to these uninvited guests.

Warragamba Dam in southwestern Sydney has been spilling a Sydney Harbour’s worth of water each day during the rains.
Eliza Middleton, Author provided

What floods do to ecosystems

Floods can have a huge impact on ecosystems, triggering landslides, increasing erosion, and introducing pollutants and soil into waterways. One immediate effect is to force burrowing animals out of their homes, as they retreat to safer and drier locations. Insects and other invertebrates living in grass or leaf litter around our homes are also displaced.

Burrowing invertebrates come to the surface during floods, providing food for opportunistic birds.
Dieter Hochuli, Author provided

Snakes have reportedly been “invading” homes in the wake of the current floods. Spiders too have fled the rising waters. Heavy rain can flood the burrows of the Australian funnelweb, one of the world’s most venomous spiders.

Some invertebrates will boom; others may plummet

Rain increases greenery, which can support breeding booms of animals such as mosquitoes, locusts, and snails.

Even species that don’t thrive after floods are likely to become more visible as they flock to our houses for refuge. But an apparent short-term increase in numbers may conceal a longer story of decline.




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After periods of flooding, the abundance of invertebrates can fall by more than 90% and the number of different species in an area significantly drops. This has important implications for the recovery of an ecosystem, as many of the ground dwelling invertebrates displaced by floods are needed for soil cycling and decomposition.

So before you reach for the bug spray, consider the important role these animals play in our ecosystem.

What to do with the extra house guests?

If your house has been flooded, uninvited creatures taking shelter in your house are probably one of the smaller issues you are facing.

Once the rain subsides, cleaning in and around your property will help reduce unwanted visitors. Inside your house, you may see an increase in cockroaches, which flourish in humid environments. Ventilating the house to dry out any wet surfaces can help get rid of cockroach infestations, and filling crevices can also deter unwanted visitors.




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In the garden, you may see an increase in flies in the coming weeks and months as they lay eggs in rotting plants. Consider removing any fruit and vegetables in the garden that may rot.

Mosquitoes are also one to watch as they lay eggs in standing water. Some species pose a risk of diseases such as Ross River virus. To prevent unwanted mozzies, make sure to empty things that have filled with rainwater, such as buckets and birdbaths.

If you do encounter one of our more dangerous animals in your home, such as venomous snakes and spiders, do not handle them yourself. If you find an injured or distressed snake, or are concerned about snakes in your house, call your local wildlife group who will be able to relocate them for you.

Just like the floods, which will subside as the water moves on, the uninvited gathering of animals is a temporary event. Most visitors will quickly disperse back to more appropriate habitat when the weather dries, and their usual homes are available again.

You may see an increase in slugs in your local area after rainy conditions.
Eliza Middleton @smiley_lize

Don’t sweat the small stuff

While many of the impacts of floods are our own making, through poor planning and development in flood-prone areas, effective design of cities and backyards can mitigate the risks of floods. Vegetation acts as a “sponge” for stormwater, and appropriate drainage allows water to flow through more effectively. Increasing backyard vegetation also provides extra habitat for important invertebrate species, including pollinators and decomposers.




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With severe weather events on the rise, it is important to understand how ecosystems respond to, and recover from natural disasters. If invertebrates are unable to perform vital ecosystem functions, such as soil cycling, decomposition, and pollination, ecosystems may struggle to return to their pre-flood state. If the ecosystems don’t recover, we may see prolonged booms of nuisance pests such as mosquitoes.

A few temporary visitors are are a minor inconvenience in comparison to the impacts floods have on the environment, infrastructure and the health and well-being of people impacted. So while it may seem like a bit of a creepy inconvenience, maybe we should let our house guests stay until the flood waters go down.The Conversation

Caitlyn Forster, PhD Candidate, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney; Dieter Hochuli, Professor, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney, and Eliza Middleton, Laboratory Manager, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney

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

Climate explained: how particles ejected from the Sun affect Earth’s climate


Earth’s magnetic field protects us from the solar wind, guiding the solar particles to the polar regions.
SOHO (ESA & NASA)

Annika Seppälä


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


When the Sun ejects solar particles into space, how does this affect the Earth and climate? Are clouds affected by these particles?

When we consider the Sun’s influence on Earth and our climate, we tend to think about solar radiation. We are acutely aware of the skin-burning dangers of ultraviolet, or UV, radiation.

But the Sun is an active star. It also continuously releases what is known as “solar wind”, made up of charged particles, largely protons and electrons, that travel at speeds of hundreds of kilometres per hour.

Some of these particles that reach Earth are guided into the polar atmosphere by our magnetic field. As a result, we can see the southern lights, aurora australis, in the southern hemisphere, and the northern equivalent, aurora borealis.

Aurora Australis
Aurora australis observed above southern New Zealand.
Shutterstock/Fotos593

This visible manifestation of solar particles entering Earth’s atmosphere is a constant reminder there is more to the Sun than sunlight. But the particles have other effects as well.




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Solar particles and ozone

When solar particles enter the atmosphere, their high energies ionise neutral atmospheric nitrogen and oxygen molecules, which make up 99% of the atmosphere. This “energetic particle precipitation”, named because it’s like a rain of particles from space, is a major source of ionisation in the polar atmosphere above 30km altitude — and it sets off a chain of reactions that produces chemicals that facilitate the destruction of ozone.

The impact of solar particles on atmospheric ozone was first observed in 1969. Since the early 2000s, thanks to new kinds of satellite observations, we have seen growing evidence that solar particles play an important part in influencing polar ozone. During particularly active times, when the Sun releases large amounts of particles into space, up to 60% of ozone at altitudes above 50km can be depleted. The effect can last for weeks.

Lower down in the atmosphere, below 50km, solar particles are important contributors to the year-to-year variability in polar ozone levels, often through indirect pathways. Here, solar particles again contribute to ozone loss, but a recent discovery showed they also help curb some of the depletion in the Antarctic ozone hole.

How ozone affects the climate

Most of the ozone in the atmosphere resides in a thin layer at altitudes of 20-25km — the “ozone layer”.

But ozone is everywhere in the atmosphere, from the Earth’s surface to altitudes above 100km. It is a greenhouse gas and plays a key role in heating and cooling the atmosphere, which makes it critical for climate.

In the southern hemisphere, changes in polar ozone are known to influence regional climate conditions.

Satellite image of Earth's atmosphere
Solar particles ionise nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the atmosphere, which leads to other chemical reactions that contribute to ozone destruction.
Shutterstock/PunyaFamily

Its depletion above Antarctica had a cooling effect, which in turn pulled the westerly wind jet that circles the continent closer. As the Antarctic hole recovers, this wind belt can meander further north and affect rainfall patterns, sea-surface temperatures and ocean currents. The Southern Annular Mode describes this north-south movement of the wind belt that circles the southern polar region.

Ozone is important for future climate predictions, not only in the thin ozone layer, but throughout the atmosphere. It is crucial we understand the factors that influence ozone variability, be it man-made or natural like the Sun.

The Sun’s direct influence

The link between solar particles and ozone is reasonably well established, but what about any direct effects solar particles may have on the climate?

We have observational evidence that solar activity influences regional climate variability at both poles. Climate models also suggest such polar effects link to larger climate patterns (such as the Northern and Southern Annular Modes) and influence conditions in mid-latitudes.

The details are not yet well understood, but for the first time the influence of solar particles on the climate system will be included in climate simulations used for the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment.




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Through solar radiation and particles, the Sun provides a key energy input to our climate system. While these do vary with the Sun’s 11-year cycle of magnetic activity, they can not explain the recent rapid increase in global temperatures due to climate change.

We know rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are pushing up Earth’s surface temperature (the physics have been known since the 1800s). We also know human activities have greatly increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Together these two factors explain the observed rise in global temperatures.

What about clouds?

Clouds are much lower in the atmosphere than where most solar particles penetrate. Particles know as galactic cosmic rays (coming from the centre of our galaxy rather than the Sun) may be linked to cloud formation.

It has been suggested cosmic rays could influence the formation of condensation nuclei, which act as “seeds” for clouds. But recent research at the CERN nuclear research facility suggests the effects are insignificant.

This doesn’t rule out some other mechanisms for cosmic rays to affect cloud formation, but thus far there is little supporting evidence.The Conversation

Annika Seppälä, Senior Lecturer in Geophysics

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

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


Andy Pitman, UNSW; Anna Ukkola, UNSW, and Seth WestraPeople living on the east coast of Australia have been experiencing a rare meteorological event. Record-breaking rainfall in some regions, and very heavy and sustained rainfall in others, has led to significant flooding.

In different places, this has been described as a one in 30, one in 50 or one in 100 year event. So, what does this mean?

What is a 1 in 100 year event?

First, let’s clear up a common misunderstanding about what a one in 100 year event means. It does not mean the event will occur exactly once every 100 years, or that it will not happen again for another 100 years.

For meteorologists, the one in 100 year event is an event of a size that will be equalled or exceeded on average once every 100 years. This means that over a period of 1,000 years you would expect the one in 100 year event would be equalled or exceeded ten times. But several of those ten times might happen within a few years of each other, and then none for a long time afterwards.




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Ideally, we would avoid using the phrase “one in 100 year event” because of this common misunderstanding, but the term is so widespread now it is hard to change. Another way to think about what a one in 100 year event means is that there is a 1% chance of an event of at least that size in any given year. (This is known as an “annual exceedance probability”.)

How common are 1 in 100 year events?

Many people are surprised by the feeling that one in 100 year events seem to happen much more often than they might expect. Although a 1% probability might sound pretty rare and unlikely, it is actually more common than you might think. There are two reasons for this.

First, for a given location (such as where you live), a one in 100 year event would be expected to occur on average once in 100 years. However, across all of Australia you would expect the one in 100 year event to be exceeded somewhere far more often than once in a century!

In much the same way, you might have a one in a million chance of winning the lottery, but the chance someone wins the lottery is obviously much higher.

Second, while a one in 100 year flood event might have a 1% chance of occurring in a given year (hence it’s referred to as a “1% flood”), the chance is much higher when looking at longer time periods. For example, if you have a house designed to withstand a 1% flood, this means over the course of 70 years there’s a roughly 50% chance the house would be flooded at some point during this time! Not the best odds.

How well do we know how often flood events occur?

Incidents like these 1% annual exceedance probability events are often referred to as “flood planning levels” or “design events”, because they are commonly used for a range of urban planning and engineering design applications. Yet this presupposes we can work out exactly what the 1% event is, which sounds simpler than it is in practice.

First of all, we use historical data to estimate the one in 100 year event, but Australia has only about 100 years of reliable meteorological observations, and even shorter records of river flow in most locations. We know for sure this 100-year record does not contain the largest possible events that could occur in terms of rainfall, drought, flood and so on. We have data from indirect paleoclimate evidence pointing to much larger events in the past.




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So a 1% event is by no means a “worst case” scenario, and some of the evidence from paleoclimate data suggests the climate has been very different in the deep past.

Second, estimating the one in 100 year event using historical data assumes the underlying conditions are not changing. But in many parts of the world, we know rainfall and streamflow are changing, leading to a changing risk of flooding.

Moreover, even if there was no change in rainfall, changes to flood risk can occur due to a host of other factors. Increased flood risk can result from land clearing or other changes in the vegetation in a catchment, or changes in catchment management.

Increased occurrence of flooding can also be associated with poor planning decisions that locate settlements on floodplains. This means a one in 100 year event estimated from past observations could under- or indeed overestimate current flood risk.

A third culprit for influencing how often a flood occurs is climate change. Global warming is unquestionably heating the oceans and the atmosphere and intensifying the hydrological cycle. The atmosphere can hold more water in a warmer world, so we would expect to see rainfall intensities increasing.

Extreme rainfall events are becoming more extreme across parts of Australia. This is consistent with theory, which suggests we will see roughly a 7% increase in rainfall per degree of global warming.

Australia has warmed on average by almost 1.5℃, implying about 10% more intense rainfall. While 10% might not sound too dramatic, if a city or dam is designed to cope with 100mm of rain and it is hit with 110mm, it can be the difference between just lots of rain and a flooded house.

So what does this mean in practice?

Whether climate change “caused” the current extreme rainfall over coastal New South Wales is difficult to say. But it is clear that with temperatures and heavy rainfall events becoming more extreme with global warming, we are likely to experience one in 100 year events more often.

We should not assume the events currently unfolding will not happen again for another 100 years. It’s best to prepare for the possibility it will happen again very soon.




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The Conversation


Andy Pitman, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, UNSW; Anna Ukkola, ARC DECRA Fellow, UNSW, and Seth Westra, Associate Professor, School of Civil, Environmental and Mining Engineering

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

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.




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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.




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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.




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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.




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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.




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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.




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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.




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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.




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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:
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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.




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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.