Lessons from a drowning continent: no time like the present to invest in our future

Jim Salinger’s spending the summer at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. This reflection on the lessons of Australia’s recent floods first ran in the Waikato Times at the beginning of the month, but I felt it deserved a wider audience and so with Jim’s permission reproduce it here.

As I watch from my summer roaring forties perch in Hobart, Tasmania the somewhat unprecedented rains that are deluging parts of Australia raise some pertinent lessons on climate and risk management for New Zealand. Firstly let’s look at some figures and ask the question of what are the climate mechanisms behind the deluges.

For December 2010 the Bureau of Meteorology figures show that eastern Australia (the states of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania) had its wettest December on record, with an average area total of 167 mm (132% above normal). What caused Brisbane to flood were the heavy falls to the north and west between 10-12 January with totals for the three days exceeding 200 mm. In Toowoomba over 100 mm fell in less than an hour.

Further south in Victoria heavy rainfall and flash flooding occurred between 10 to 15 January, with more than 100 mm of rain across two thirds of the state. Bureau of Meteorology figures show many weather stations in Victoria have now broken their all-time January records in over 100 years of observationd: 259 mm fell on Dunolly (the previous record was 123 mm), and the 282 mm of rain that fell in 1 day at Faimouth in the north east of Tasmania – the highest 1-day total for any gauge on record for the state.

The extremely wet December had eastern Australia primed for the record floods that were to follow in January. The soil could not take any more moisture and the heavy rains turned into runoff, with record floods in some parts.


The causes of these floods have been laid at the feet of the La Niña climate pattern – the sister of El Niño. La Niña brings strengthened moisture-laden easterly winds on to the Australian continent. This year the La Niña event is strong, with it being amongst the top three in magnitude, ranking with the 1918/19 and 1973/74 events. However there is one distinct difference this season: temperatures in Australia this past decade have been 0.5 deg C warmer than in the 1970s, and 0.9 deg C warmer than in the 1910s, all as a result of global warming. And during the 2010/11 season, La Niña seas off eastern Australia have been much warmer than average, being 1 to 2 deg C above the 1985-1998 average.

It is a simple law of physics that a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. With the long term heating of the oceans more moisture has been measured in the atmosphere during the last decade. The consequence is that global warming leads to an increase in the magnitude and incidence of heavy rainfall, and the resultant floods.

Global warming has arrived, and the climate has warmed. Global warming is no longer a theory…

The first lesson from the Australian flooding events is that global warming has arrived, and the climate has warmed. Global warming is no longer a theory based on abstract calculations of what the climate is very likely to do in future decades. In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that “It is very likely that hot extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent.”

The second lesson — the canary in the coal mine — is that because of global warming the frequency of these extreme weather events is only going to increase. Thus the one in 100 year high rainfall event will become far more common, with highest-ever totals being exceeded more and more often in the future.

The third lesson is that there needs to be better preparation for these events by civil society. The responsibility in New Zealand falls on local bodies through the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Act (CDEM). It’s local government that is responsible for district plans and granting developers the permission to build. Firstly should major towns be located on river floodplains? This is where there is pressure from developers. A solution is to build higher and higher flood levees but should the cost be borne by the community? Perhaps the full costs should be placed on the developer. Another option is to ban development in flood-prone areas.

However New Zealand is the lucky country in regard to the fourth lesson. We have an Earthquake Commission that covers citizens for flood damage, which Australia does not have. But insurance should be compulsory for all dwellings, to share the cost of these disasters between all citizens.

Global warming is here, now — and not a phenomenon for future generations to deal with. Thus we must embark on a course of emissions reductions targets as soon as possible, to claw back rapidly rising greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. If we do not act now the severity of such floods, and the subsequent loss of life and property — let alone the effect on the economy — will increase dramatically. There is no time like the present to invest in our future wellbeing.

35 thoughts on “Lessons from a drowning continent: no time like the present to invest in our future”

  1. Hear! hear! Jim.

    I remember well our conversations in the late 70’s early 80’s on the Silverstream “flyer” – they were thoroughly enjoyable, and the journey went fast.

    Malcolm C

  2. …and with the arrival of these very costly harbingers of things to come, no doubt, insurance companies will act fast and deny cover for structures in places where “100 year floods” will now become frequent occurrences and large areas might become unable to carry dwellings or produce crops economically. This will force the “free market” enthusiasts to finally swallow the “red pill” and wake up to reality…..

    1. Wow a batch of honor for my post! 53 red buttons. I must have hit a nerve with saying:

      “…and with the arrival of these very costly harbingers of things to come, no doubt, insurance companies will act fast and deny cover for structures in places where “100 year floods” will now become frequent occurrences and large areas might become unable to carry dwellings or produce crops economically. This will force the “free market” enthusiasts to finally swallow the “red pill” and wake up to reality…..”

  3. Er, Jim, the floods and cyclones are the result of the strongest La Nina since 1974…. when similar floods and cyclones happened.

    For several years, your mate Tim Flannery had been claiming Global Warming meant it would hardly ever rain again in Australia and folk should build desalination plants rather than dams. He specifically said it would never rain enough again to fill the Wivenhoe Dam, which is now at 200pc of capacity.

    Now he’s gone all amnesiac and claims Global Warming means it will rain like thunder for evermore.

    1. The Wivehoe Dam is at 200% capacity? Really, that’s odd, because at 190% it starts spilling uncontrollably and all hell breaks loose. I mean, it only reached 187% capacity during the flooding… So what happens if I actually check… 16th Feb 2011, Wivenhoe Dam 100% , ‘minor releases from storage’. 20 seconds in Google.

      (Yes, dear reader; the figures are weird: the dam has a 100% water storage’ capacity and a 210-220% flood mitigation capacity.)

      Sadly, I’d wager this a pretty good indicator of how reliable the other claims made are –

      He specifically said it would never rain enough again to fill the Wivenhoe Dam

      Specifically, eh? I am unable to find this quote – could you please provide a link to it? Plenty of stuff about South-East Queensland and SA running out of water – which they nearly did, and which we nearly did, which is why we’re still building a Desal plant – but that’s not quite the same thing, is it?

      I blame talkback, myself…

      Speaking of Australia’s run of not not-at-all-unusual weather, need I point out the novelty of this in the driest state, driest continent etc. in February?

  4. Mike

    Casting around the internet I see that Tim Flannery is getting a lashing now that he has been named head of Gillard’s climate change commission. The wonderful Andrew Bolt leads the charge.

    I am not sure that picking Flannery apart because his predicted record breaking drought has been followed by record breaking rain, in the midst of a warming trend which is global, is very convincing.

  5. What Flannery did was say Global Warming would ensure it would never rain enough in Australia to fill dams, so the country needed lots of desalination plants. The drought would last forever. Many others repeated this, ad nauseum.

    When the extreme wet weather and cyclones that occur every severe La Nina happened this summer, he and all the others now screamed that Global Warming has consigned Australia to a future of extreme storms and cyclones. Without even mentioning what had happened to their predictions of never-ending drought.

    This isn’t science, it’s a religion. It’s the ultimate “unified theory of everything.”

    It’s like the British Met Office saying several years ago that no child born in the UK now would ever see snow in England, because of… Global Warming!

    After three heavily snowing winters in a row, the embarrassed Met Office now discovers it’s because of…. Global Warming,

    I have even seen people claiming the Christchurch earthquake and various volcanic eruptions are caused by… Global Warming.

    While I am familiar with and reasonably well read on the science of Global Warming, I find it utterly unscientific that all your experts are quite happy to blame every natural weather event on Global Warming while conveniently forgetting that they were claiming the opposite only months before.

    This is not science, it is religion.

  6. “temperatures in Australia this past decade have been 0.5 deg C warmer than in the 1970s, and 0.9 deg C warmer than in the 1910s, ALL as a result of global warming” (emphasis added).

    Surely not. The most controversial statement ever made by the IPCC was that MOST (ie 51%) of the warming in the SECOND HALF of the 20th century was MOST LIKELY caused by human activity.

    So how controversial is the Salinger position that the entire temperature increase during the whole century was definitely caused by AGW?

      1. “well technically all global warming is due to global warming”
        That’s nothing to do with technicality – that statement is simply tautological.
        And NO the statement that AGW is anthropogenic IS NOT controversial. To say that Global Warming is NOT anthropogenic IS controversial. Why? To say that it is not the result of human activity would be in direct contradiction to the majority of accepted science. But you already knew that.

        1. the statement that AGW is anthropogenic IS NOT controversial.

          We cannot disagree that anthropogenic global warming is anthropogenic. This is non-controversial and an example of a tautology.

          See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tautology_%28rhetoric%29

          We could also say that non-anthropogenic global warming is non-anthropogenic. This is non-controversial and also an example of a tautology.

          See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tautology_%28rhetoric%29

          1. “the statement that AGW is anthropogenic IS NOT controversial.” Sorry I should have said “Global Warming is anthropogenic IS NOT controversial.” – finger trouble.
            Yes I do know what a tautological statement is.

  7. “It is a simple law of physics that a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture”…. Tell that to the people of the Sahara!

    Whenever we suffer extreme weather events you Chicken Littles rush to blame “man-made global warming” because you have a green political agenda to advance by whatever means possible.
    Recent studies show no evidence of increasing severe or extreme weather, as the Wall Street Journal reports…

    1. It’s non-controversial that a warmer atmosphere will hold more water, and does already, at least among people who hold with the laws of physics. Did you actually imagine you were proving a point or was that just intended as an amusing diversion?

      As to your next paragraph, do you mind if I call you ‘dickhead’?

      ‘Recent studies’? Ah, that’s a recent study [singular] that is contradicted by other studies. Interesting, notably since it seems to come from a reputable source (and I’m not referring to the WSJ here!) but I rather doubt that’s the end of the debate.

      1. As to your next paragraph, do you mind if I call you ‘dickhead’?

        No I am sure he doesn’t mind.

        Do you mind if I call you a [snipped] twat?

        [Keep it clean, or you’ll be on moderation. GR]

            1. Yes and the red button pusher activity seem to have occurred once this Lank troll found his way to this thread again. Wonder why?

              Hey Gareth, check your logs where the IP addresses of all these sudden red pushers are coming from!

          1. Woohoo! My fist ever disappeared post. Quite the badge of honour (‘annoys all the right people’!)

            I still think it’s most likely to be one (or maybe two) people who have found their way around the system.

            I couldn’t be bothered doing it myself to test, but I suspect there’s a way to do it involving the repeated [ *autosnip: thinks for a moment and decides not to give anyone else ideas!*] – this might also explain why we only get periodic bursts of it that are generally centred on a few posts in a clump, because it would be extremely tedious and you’d have to be a really sad little zealot to devote so much time and energy to it…

            Can you see the ISPs for individual button presses, Gareth?

      2. bill
        As usual the WSJ tells us porkies and is not backward in twisting the facts of the matter. Of course its all grist to the mill for the “useful idiots”. The so-called “editor” is known for her misquoting, downright misrepresentation of what is actually said, and making things up.
        You have probably been doing some hunting as well. The 20th Century Reanalysis model is being developed by NOAA PSD. It’s early days on developing the model.

        1. Interesting, Macro.

          I found the same thing, including some chart presentations that seemed to show the exact opposite with regard to hurricanes, but I did see mention of a paper published by the Royal Meteorological Society.

          But as far as I can see that can only be the announcement of the scope of the projects, as outlined here. the abstract of that paper is here. They still seem to be ‘fine-tuning’ their models, as far as I can see.

          The ‘quote out of context ‘ element is interesting. See here at Pielke Sr.’s for a long excerpt of the initial results. He’s saying this could mean IPCC models are ‘not robust’ in hindcasting – and maybe it does. He certainly doesn’t appear to draw the conclusions the WSJ does! –

          “In the climate models, the extremes get more extreme as we move into a doubled CO2 world in 100 years,” atmospheric scientist Gilbert Compo, one of the researchers on the project, tells me from his office at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “So we were surprised that none of the three major indices of climate variability that we used show a trend of increased circulation going back to 1871.[WSJ]

          But read the quotes at Pielke’s to see what the ‘three major indices’ are and see if you draw the same conclusion that Miss Jolis does inher WSJ piece. I notice her quote is recycled endlessly in the echo-chamber, making it hard to find any signal in the noise, but I’d be interested to read any other interviews with Gilbert Compo where he discusses their findings.

          Whatever they might be, leaping from this to the conclusion that ‘global-warming alarmists’ – and I quote; the WSJ doesn’t even make a pretence at neutrality – are wrong to call for spending any money since ‘weather always changes’ and anyway being rich is the solution is absurd.

          (And, contrarians, if this same group reports back at some stage giving information you don’t like, will they then just be another part of the conspiracy?)

          1. I see I scored a whole bunch of red ink on that comment! – Must have hit a nerve somewhere I think 😉

            bill – yes I found much the same as you did – only you are much more erudite than I. It’s an interesting project – I see that they are now up to 2009. We are of course talking about the recent past and the future when we talk about the effects of GW and Climate change and the impacts on the frequency of extreme weather events. It will, as you say, be interesting to see what the results will be and will the contrarians like it?
            I also note, with not a little astonishment, that the denio-sphere are very happy to misquote the outcomes of this climate model! 🙂

    2. I see the septic tank is back with his usual pile of garbage. I thought there was a distinctive odour.
      His facile and deliberate misunderstanding of even the most basic science is bewildering in its stupidity. I sometimes wonder if he really believes what he says – but then again – nobody could be that stupid.

  8. Mike

    Looking at some of the statements by Flannery on drought, Viner on snow etc, I would certainly agree that, as reported, their statements have at times been over-predictive without sufficient caveats about uncertainty. Viner’s reported comment in March 2000 about snow is a good example.

    But given all that, and standing back, we have been pretty consistently warned for a couple of decades that global temperatures will rise, and the resulting climate change would mean the number of extreme weather events will increase, and that the level of these extremes will (steadily/possibly suddenly) get worse.

    I think your comments highlight one thing. In a situation like this, its very hard to know what precise threats to prepare for. Extreme drought followed by extreme rainfall. What do you do? Should Britain plough money in to dealing with winter snow storms, or assume they will lessen and do more about summer droughts? I have not yet seen economists tackling the opportunity cost of wrong choices that will inevitably be made in the face of increased uncertainty about the weather.

  9. Dear All

    You may be interested in the latest papers in this week’s Nature…here is their news article. This very much bears up what I say in the op-ed.

    Jim Salinger

    Published online 16 February 2011 | Nature 470, 316 (2011) | doi:10.1038/470316a


    Increased flood risk linked to global warming
    Likelihood of extreme rainfall may have been doubled by rising greenhouse-gas levels.

    Quirin Schiermeier

    The effects of severe weather — such as these floods in Albania — take a huge human and financial toll.

    Climate change may be hitting home. Rises in global average temperature are remote from most people’s experience, but two studies in this week’s Nature conclude that climate warming is already causing extreme weather events that affect the lives of millions. The research directly links rising greenhouse-gas levels with the growing intensity of rain and snow in the Northern Hemisphere, and the increased risk of flooding in the United Kingdom.

    Insurers will take note, as will those developing policies for adapting to climate change. “This has immense importance not just as a further justification for emissions reduction, but also for adaptation planning,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a climate-policy researcher at Princeton University in New Jersey, who was not involved in the studies.

    …the article continues….

  10. Mike

    You seem to be ignoring the fact that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent all over the world. It also should be noted that predicting how global warming will effect a particular region or locale is much harder than predicting long term global effects. This is exactly what Trenberth was complaining about, which has been taken out of context. He was lamenting that scientists hadn’t all the data they would like, to make more specific forecasts for specific regions. I’m referring to the “travesty” statement that deniers have twisted into unrecognizable rubbish.

    If you think things in Australia are normal, you should look at the three maps of rainfall changes at the following link.


    More snow is not surprising with 4% more moisture in the atmosphere due to warmer temps than pre-industrial.

    Almost no one is blaming every natural weather even on global warming. Some are pointing out the increased frequency of these events.

    The Arctic is the canary in the coal mine. Warming there is two to three times as much as elsewhere. Previously unheard of high temperatures have been reported in Greenland, Hudson Bay, Spitzbergen etc. this winter. It’s very likely that these extreme changes in the Arctic are effecting winter weather patterns in the UK, Europe and Eastern U.S., which I don’t think was expected. Climate science, like all science, is never 100% certain, but evolves over time.
    Anyone who thinks it is some kind of agenda is exceedingly foolish.

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