“It is, sadly, probably too late to save much of Australia”. With these disconcerting words Joe Romm, from the leading US climate blog “climateprogress.com”, reacted yesterday to Sydney’s dust storms. Joe Romm is no casual blogger and I take his views very seriously, as do others. His writing has been described by NYT’s Tom Friedman as “indispensible” and the U.S. News & World Report called him “one of the most influential energy and environmental policymakers in the Obama era”.
So is Joe Romm right? Is Australia’s environment now past a point of no return in terms of climate change impacts? Are we already in an ecological crash? You certainly wouldn’t think so listening to our political debates. So let’s take a look at what the science is saying. (this is an edited version of a post I wrote for Climate Progress)
For those readers outside Australia, yesterday morning Sydney awoke to an eerie red hue. Our city was already coated in red dust and the air was thick with more of it. At its peak every hour saw over 100,000 tonnes of delicate topsoil blown off drought stricken farms and deserts and sent across the country. At full strength, this giant dust cloud was 1,600 km long and 400 km wide as it hit major cities along the east coast. (An excellent satellite image can be found at the [NASA website])
Air particle concentrations in Sydney are normally around 20 micrograms per cubic metre (mcg/m3) with health risk levels starting at 200 mcg/m3. Yesterday concentrations reached 15,400 mcg/m3! The airports were closed, harbour ferries cancelled and people at risk were warned to stay indoors. (For those outside Australia, Climate Progress has a [good video report] on the local impacts)
By day’s end, the best estimates were that several million tonnes had been stripped from deserts and farms across three states and sent to the city and then out to sea.
As we know, no single event is proof of climate change, and while this may be the worst dust storm on record here, that by itself doesn’t prove anything. But it sure makes us wonder what the future holds.
Of course, this is not the first major event that is putting Australia amongst the head of the pack in terms of climate change impacts. Earlier this year Melbourne broke its record February temperature by a full 3 degrees centigrade to hit 46.8 C (116 degrees F). This was also the day of Australia’s worst ever bushfires with 173 people killed and 2,000 homes destroyed. The fire conditions that day were unprecedented. In our Forest Fire Danger Index – which combines factors such as heat, humidity, wind and drought – a score of 100 reflects the conditions during our previously worst-ever fires in 1939. Any score above 50 is considered extreme. On that fatal February day this year, the Index ranged between 120 and 190 in many places across the country. All our warning and ratings systems are now being revised to better suit our new reality.
The impacts are consistent around the country. The Murray Darling Basin is our food bowl, with nearly 40% of Australia’s agricultural production based around the water of the giant Murray Darling river system. The area’s been in so-called “drought” since 2002 and is the worst ever recorded. I say “so called” because evidence is increasing this may be closer to “the new normal” – a long-term decline associated with climate change. With drought and over allocation of water permits to struggling farmers, flow levels are now down to 5% of their long-term average. As a result, it’s now assumed that the globally significant wetlands and lake system at the river’s mouth will face ecological collapse over the next few years.
On the other side of the country in Western Australia, the city of Perth has now acknowledged they are dealing not with drought, but a system shift. Inflows into Perth’s dams since 2001 are only 25% of what was the long-term average before a marked decline began in the 1970s. While it’s too early to be sure, scientist’s current view is that around 50% of this is directly related to human-induced climate change. This drop is mirrored across the country with stream flows, measured as a percentage of the long-term average, now well down in most major cities with Canberra at 43%, Melbourne 65%, Adelaide 62% Sydney 40% and Brisbane at 42%. State Governments are now urgently building energy intensive desalination plants across the country to ensure our major cities don’t run out of water completely.
The tourism industry, a major part of the Australian economy and a significant export earner, is becoming increasingly nervous about the shifting climate. In the far north at the Kakadu National Park, a World Heritage-listed system of sensitive coastal and freshwater wetlands, the change is coming thick and fast. In the past 50 years, tidal creeks have moved 4 km inland, saline mud flats have increased nine-fold, and 2/3 of Melaleuca forests have been killed by salinity. Kakadu seems destined for much greater loss as sea levels rise further.
In the North East, the Great Barrier Reef is now at serious risk of widespread, permanent loss over the coming decades. In 1998 and again in 2002 it experienced major coral bleaching events, with 50% and 60% of the reef affected respectively. In 2006 major bleaching again occurred in significant sections of the Reef, with up to 40% of coral killed in some areas. While it has recovered each time so far, everyone knows it won’t always do so.
So it goes on. And on and on. The debate here in Australia certainly doesn’t indicate an acceptance we are in a state of ecological crash. Is this because we’re in the middle of it? Are we boiling frogs blinded by dust storms?
Certainly other outsiders see things here the same way Joe Romm does. The UK’s independent ran a story before the February 2009 bushfires titled [“Australia faces collapse as climate change kicks in”] and the LA Times ran a story in April 2009 [“What will global warming look like? Scientists point to Australia.”]
Both these stories make disturbing reading for Australians because this is not the way the debate is running here. As we all know, single events and even a whole decade of data doesn’t prove anything. But how much data will it take before our global political leaders, including here in Australia, move on from earnest words and shift into the emergency response we now need?
Let me close with the opening paragraphs from the LA Times story referred to above.
Frank Eddy pulled off his dusty boots and slid into a chair, taking his place at the dining room table where most of the critical family issues are hashed out. Spreading hands as dry and cracked as the orchards he tends, the stout man his mates call Tank explained what damage a decade of drought has done.
“Suicide is high. Depression is huge. Families are breaking up. It’s devastation,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ve got a neighbor in terrible trouble. Found him in the paddock, sitting in his [truck], crying his eyes out. Grown men — big, strong grown men. We’re holding on by the skin of our teeth. It’s desperate times.”
A result of climate change?
“You’d have to have your head in the bloody sand to think otherwise,” Eddy said.
Indeed you would.