A wet winter, a soggy spring: what is the negative Indian Ocean Dipole, and why is it so important?


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Nicky Wright, University of Sydney; Andréa S. Taschetto, UNSW, and Andrew King, The University of MelbourneThis month we’ve seen some crazy, devastating weather. Perth recorded its wettest July in decades, with 18 straight days of relentless rain. Overseas, parts of Europe and China have endured extensive flooding, with hundreds of lives lost and hundreds of thousands of people evacuated.

And last week, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology officially declared there is a negative Indian Ocean Dipole — the first negative event in five years — known for bringing wet weather.

But what even is the Indian Ocean Dipole, and does it matter? Is it to blame for these events?

What is the Indian Ocean Dipole?

The Indian Ocean Dipole, or IOD, is a natural climate phenomenon that influences rainfall patterns around the Indian Ocean, including Australia. It’s brought about by the interactions between the currents along the sea surface and atmospheric circulation.

It can be thought of as the Indian Ocean’s cousin of the better known El Niño and La Niña in the Pacific. Essentially, for most of Australia, El Niño brings dry weather, while La Niña brings wet weather. The IOD has the same impact through its positive and negative phases, respectively.

Positive IODs are associated with an increased chance for dry weather in southern and southeast Australia. The devastating Black Summer bushfires in 2019–20 were linked to an extreme positive IOD, as well as human-caused climate change which exacerbated these conditions.

Negative IODs tend to be less frequent and not as strong as positive IOD events, but can still bring severe climate conditions, such as heavy rainfall and flooding, to parts of Australia.

The Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) index, used to track the variability of the Indian Ocean Dipole. An event occurs after the index crosses the threshold for 8 weeks.
Bureau of Meteorology

The IOD is determined by the differences in sea surface temperature on either side of the Indian Ocean.

During a negative phase, waters in the eastern Indian Ocean (near Indonesia) are warmer than normal, and the western Indian Ocean (near Africa) are cooler than normal.




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This causes more moisture-filled air to flow towards Australia, favouring wind pattern changes in a way that promotes more rainfall to southern parts of Australia. This includes parts of Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, NSW and the ACT.

Generally, IOD events start in late autumn or winter, and can last until the end of spring — abruptly ending with the onset of the northern Australian monsoon.

The negative phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole.
Bureau of Meteorology

Why should we care?

We probably have a wet few months ahead of us.

The negative IOD means the southern regions of Australia are likely to have a wet winter and spring. Indeed, the seasonal outlook indicates above average rainfall for much of the country in the next three months.

In southern Australia, a negative IOD also means we’re more likely to get cooler daytime temperatures and warmer nights. But just because we’re more likely to have a wetter few months doesn’t mean we necessarily will — every negative IOD event is different.

Rainfall outlooks for August–October suggest that large parts of Australia will likely experience above-median rainfall.
Bureau of Meteorology, CC BY

While the prospect of even more rain might dampen some spirits, there are reasons to be happy about this.

First of all, winter rainfall is typically good for farmers growing crops such as grain, and previous negative IOD years have come with record-breaking crop production.

In fact, negative IOD events are so important for Australia that their absence for prolonged periods has been blamed for historical multi-year droughts in the past century over southeast Australia.

Negative IOD years can also bring better snow seasons for Australians. However, the warming trend from human-caused climate change means this signal isn’t as clear as it was in the past.

A negative IOD may mean a better snow season in the High Country.
Shutterstock

It’s not all good news

This is the first official negative IOD event since 2016, a year that saw one of the strongest negative IOD events on record. It resulted in Australia’s second wettest winter on record and flooding in parts of NSW, Victoria, and South Australia.

The 2016 event was also linked to devastating drought in East Africa on the other side of the Indian Ocean, and heavy rainfall in Indonesia.

Thankfully, current forecasts indicate the negative IOD will be a little milder this time, so we hopefully won’t see any devastating events.

The number of Indian Ocean Dipole events (per 30 years) based on climate models.
Modified from Abram et al. (2020)

Is the negative IOD behind the recent wet weather?

It’s too early to tell, but most likely not.

While Perth is experiencing one of its wettest Julys on record, the southwest WA region has historically been weakly influenced by negative IODs.

Negative IODs tend to be associated with moist air flow and lower atmospheric pressure further north and east than Perth, such as Geraldton to Port Hedland.

Outside of Australia, there has been extensive flooding in China and across Germany, Belgium, and The Netherlands.

It’s still early days and more research is needed, but these events look like they might be linked to the Northern Hemisphere’s atmospheric jet stream, rather than the negative IOD.

The jet stream is like a narrow river of strong winds high up in the atmosphere, formed when cool and hot air meet. Changes in this jet stream can lead to extreme weather.

What about climate change?

The IOD — as well as El Niño and La Niña — are natural climate phenomena, and have been occurring for thousands of years, before humans started burning fossil fuels. But that doesn’t mean climate change today isn’t having an effect on the IOD.




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Scientific research is showing positive IODs — linked to drier conditions in eastern Australia — have become more common. And this is linked to human-caused climate change influencing ocean temperatures.

Climate models also suggest we may experience more positive IOD events in future, including increased chances of bushfires and drought in Australia, and fewer negative IOD events. This may mean we experience more droughts and less “drought-breaking” rains, but the jury’s still out.

When it comes to the recent, devastating floods overseas, scientists are still assessing how much of a role climate change played.

But in any case, we do know one thing for sure: rising global temperatures from climate change will cause more frequent and severe extreme events, including the short-duration heavy rainfalls associated with flooding, and heatwaves.

To avoid worse disasters in our future, we need to cut emissions drastically and urgently.




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The Conversation


Nicky Wright, Research Fellow, University of Sydney; Andréa S. Taschetto, Associate Professor, UNSW, and Andrew King, ARC DECRA fellow, The University of Melbourne

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:
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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.




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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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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 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.

Why a wetland might not be wet


File 20181017 17668 1gdarar.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Wetlands can have decades-long dry periods.
Felicity Burke/The Conversation, CC BY-SA

Deborah Bower, University of New England; Ben Vincent, University of New England; Darren Ryder, University of New England; John Thomas Hunter, University of New England; Lindsey Frost, University of New England; Manu Saunders, University of New England, and Sarah Mika, University of New England

Lake Eyre is one of Australia’s most iconic wetlands, home to thousands of waterbirds that migrate from all over Australia and the world. But it is often dry for decades between floods.

Many people think wetlands are swamps or ponds that die when dry. But unlike many places worldwide, most Australian wetlands have natural wet-dry cycles, with dry spells that can last for decades. Dry phases are necessary for the life cycle of the wetland itself, as well as for many of the plants and animals that live there.




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So, if wetlands are still wetlands when they’re dry, how do you spot one? And what do we need to know about these unique places to protect their wonderful and unique biodiversity?

Fogg Dam wetlands in the Northern Territory are a riot of colour during monsoon season.
Geoff Whalan/Flickr, CC BY-NC

When the rains come

Floods are vital for a wetland. As one fills, water depth can increase rapidly, the temperature falls, and dissolved oxygen is high as turbulent raindrops or floodwaters fill the basin. Within a few hours of wetting, animals and plants that can tolerate the dry periods will hatch, sprout or resume life, and a new aquatic food web begins.

Algae begin blooming, the soil releases nutrients, and tiny aquatic animals like rotifers hatch from dried eggs. Within a week, copepods and other small crustaceans hatch and adult insects like dragonflies arrive to lay their eggs. Huge numbers of waterbirds may flock to the wetland to enjoy the abundant algae and crustaceans. Other critters emerge from hideouts in crayfish burrows, beneath leaf litter or buried in shallow sediment.

When wetlands flood they fill rapidly with life.
Felicity Burke/The Conversation, CC BY

After filling, new plants emerge in distinct zones depending on water depth and how often and long they are wet. Wetland plants produce oxygen and store carbon, two services essential for life on earth. They have evolved many ways to survive through dry times and thrive during the wet.

Some plants, like pondweed, are so adapted to aquatic life that a single stem can grow thin branching leaves underwater and thicker broader leaves above water. This helps the plant to access oxygen underwater while simultaneously maximising the sunlight it receives above water. Both are necessary for growth and survival.




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As the wetland dries, water temperatures increase, dissolved oxygen drops and aquatic animals either leave or prepare to survive the dry times.

Some, like mosquito larvae, have adapted to stagnant water. They breath through siphons on their tail to survive this final drying stage. Once the wetland is completely dry, microbes take over to start breaking down any remaining organic matter and the cycle starts again.

Macquarie Marshes in NSW moves between wet and dry.
Margaret Donald/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Many plants and animals in the wetland die and decompose, enriching the earth. These very fertile soils are the reason why wetlands are so often drained for cropping and grazing. If undisturbed, these nutrients are stored in the soil until the next flood. When completely dry, the wetland may only be evident as a depression of fine soil with a perimeter of sedges or reeds.

Wetlands may stay dry for many decades, while eggs and seeds wait and rest until the next flood. Some eggs (such as shield shrimp) are small enough to be dispersed by the wind, or hitch a ride on waterbirds leaving the area.

The plants, animals and microbes occupying wetlands improve the surrounding landscape, providing pollination, pest control, carbon and nutrient storage, and waste removal. Wetlands store 35% of carbon in only 9% of the earth’s surface, reducing floods and recharging groundwater. Understanding how plants and animals will adapt to the extended dry periods predicted with climate change is increasingly important.

Under dry earth, many plants and creatures wait for the rains to come again.
Felicity Burke/The Conversation, CC BY

A drying climate is particularly concerning for high altitude wetlands that are very restricted in the Australian landscape. They occur on the New England Tablelands and Monaro Plateau and can be rapidly degraded by grazing, cropping, diverting or storing water, or fires that can each destroy thousands of years of peat growth in a few days. Losing these wetlands brings us a step closer to losing threatened species such as the Giant dragonfly and Latham’s snipe that rely on these unique upland wetlands.




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Wetlands are largely threatened by lack of understanding that the quiet dry periods fuel the booming wet periods. It is critical that we know where wetlands are in the landscape, so we can protect them during wet and dry phases. Protecting wetlands even when they’re not wet sustains vital seed and egg banks that kickstart complex food webs linking land and water across Australia’s iconic wetland ecosystems.The Conversation

Deborah Bower, Lecturer in Ecosystem Rehabilitation, University of New England; Ben Vincent, Research officer, University of New England; Darren Ryder, Professor of Aquatic Ecology and Restoration, University of New England; John Thomas Hunter, Adjunct Associate Professor in Landscape Ecology, University of New England; Lindsey Frost, Technical Officer, University of New England; Manu Saunders, Research fellow, University of New England, and Sarah Mika, Research fellow, University of New England

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

EcoCheck: Australia’s Wet Tropics are worth billions, if we can keep out the invading ants


Steve Turton, James Cook University

Our EcoCheck series takes the pulse of some of Australia’s most important ecosystems to find out if they’re in good health or on the wane.

The largest area of tropical rainforest in Australia – the so-called Wet Tropics – is a narrow strip along the northeast coast of the continent, totalling about 2 million hectares.

It represents just 0.26% of the continent, but is crammed with hugely diverse landscapes: rainforests, sclerophyll forests, mangrove forests and shrublands, as well as areas of intensive agriculture and expanding urban rural population centres.

The Wet Tropics bioregion and World Heritage Area.
Peter Bannink/Australian Tropical Herbarium, Author provided

The Wet Tropics are home to a dizzying array of plants and animals. These include at least 663 vertebrate species, 230 butterflies, 135 different dung beetles and a remarkable 222 types of land snail. The area is teeming with more than 4,000 plant species, including 16 of the world’s 28 lineages of primitive flowering plant families.

In all, the Wet Tropics bioregion contains 185 distinct ecosystems. Of these, 18 are officially listed as endangered and 134 are of conservation concern.

Wild riches

Just under half of the region is covered by the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area, the world’s second-most-irreplaceable natural world heritage area. A recent analysis listed it as the planet’s sixth-most-irreplaceable protected area in terms of species conservation, and its eighth-most-irreplaceable when considering only threatened species.

Yet despite its global conservation significance, the Wet Tropics was recently described by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a World Heritage Area of “significant concern”.

This is due to the threat posed to the area’s biodiversity and endemic plants and animals by invasive species, diseases and predicted climate change impacts. Only two other Australian world heritage properties are listed as “of concern”: the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu National Park.

Given these concerns, one might expect research dollars to be flowing towards the Wet Tropics. In fact, the opposite is happening: the new National Environmental Science Program has pledged a paltry A$10,000.

Commonwealth funding for Wet Tropics research under successive programs: the CRC for Rainforest Research; the Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility (MTSRF); and the National Environmental Research Program (NERP). Under the National Environmental Science Program, only $10,000 has been allocated (not shown).
Rainforest CRC; MTSRF; NERP; CRC Reef Synthesis Report; Reef & Rainforest Research Centre, Author provided

While we’re talking money, it’s worth pointing out that the Wet Tropics are a goldmine. In its 2014-15 report, the Wet Tropics Management Authority calculated that this natural global asset is worth a whopping A$5.2 billion each year – roughly half of it from tourism.

A 2008 report found that the Wet Tropics create the greatest economic benefit of any of Australia’s natural world heritage properties, excluding the Great Barrier Reef. It found that every dollar spent on management costs earned an A$85 return in tourism spending. Even in purely economic terms that makes a pretty compelling case for conservation.

Climate and conservation

But there are question marks over the Wet Tropics’ future, not least because it is considered a hotspot for impacts from climate change. This is primarily due to the very large predicted declines in range size for almost all of the vertebrates that are unique to this part of the world, such as the iconic lemuroid ringtail possum. Climate change is likely to force some species to shift their geographic ranges, or face extinction.

Many of the species at greatest risk of extinction from climate change are confined to higher elevations and thus have very limited scope for dispersal. Of all the rainforest vertebrate species in the Wet Tropics, 30% live within the coolest 25% of rainforest. This gives them nowhere to go if things warm up. For unique species, that figure is even higher, with 45% living in these cooler areas.

Nor is the future too bright for many mountaintop plants, according to a study that modelled the future of suitable climate conditions for 19 species found only above 1,000 m elevation.

The study predicted that, by 2080, 84% of these species would have no suitable habitat anywhere in the Wet Tropics, and so would no longer be able to survive there.

Cat-ants-trophe

Watch out for these crazy guys.
John Tann/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The climate isn’t the only problem. Another is the accidental introduction of one of the world’s worst invasive species, yellow crazy ants, into two locations in the Wet Tropics.

Judging by the ants’ impacts elsewhere, this is an impending natural catastrophe. Based on the small amounts of research in the region so far, ecologists Lori Lach and Conrad Hoskin predict that a large invasion of yellow crazy ants could affect most of the animal species in the Wet Tropics.

These impacts could be direct – through predation and harassment – or indirect, such as by the removal of invertebrate prey or disruption of processes such as decomposition, pollination and seed dispersal. The potential for knock-on effects in a system as complex and interconnected as the Wet Tropics rainforest is very high.

We have only a small window of opportunity – perhaps five years at most – to keep the Wet Tropics safe from yellow crazy ants. The cost of failure by the Australian and Queensland governments is unimaginable. Yellow crazy ants are also a threat to agriculture and urban areas, so we should anticipate a successful and properly funded eradication campaign — mirroring the papaya fruitfly eradication efforts in the same region back in the mid-1990s.

If the siege can be repelled, we can hopefully go on enjoying the Wet Tropics – not to mention the money it generates – for many years to come.

Are you a researcher who studies an iconic Australian ecosystem and would like to give it an EcoCheck? Get in touch.

The Conversation

Steve Turton, Professor of Environmental Geography, James Cook University

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