Extraordinary Weather: Flooding

Has the world gone mad? December was the coldest ever in the UK; there was a searing, record-smashing heatwave in Russia; 2010 was the equal hottest year, globally, in the temperature record, along with 2005; and it was one of the wettest years ever seen.

Right now, there’s major flooding and human tragedy unfolding in Brazil. On a larger scale, but thankfully with less loss of life, my home state in Australia, Queensland, is pretty much underwater. Widespread flooding in central and eastern parts of the state made international headlines over the course of several weeks. The geography of Australia means that water dumped inland doesn’t really have anywhere to go, so the problem lasts for a long time. Not only that, but in the South, Victoria and South Australia are suffering another bout of major flooding, following on from a similar event in September.

In a cruel double play, torrential rain in South East Queensland led to more flash flooding this week and a huge flood pulse in Toowoomba and then the capital city, Brisbane. The force and speed of the initial stages of the flood are staggering, and are best captured in this video:

While most of my friends and family live on the Gold Coast, which was spared any disaster, some people I know have been affected, and I wish them the best cleaning up and recovering from the experience! Others haven’t been so lucky, with lives lost and many more livelihoods ruined.

Sean’s place in New Farm, looking a bit damp…
Oxley Restaurant submerged in the city; pic by Asabi.

So what’s causing all this? The finger’s been pointed squarely at an intense La Nina event. If you haven’t heard of this phenomenon, it’s a disruption of the usual pattern of wind and water movement on the surface of the central Pacific Ocean. Warm water piles up near Australia, adding moisture to the atmosphere and triggering heavy rain, while on the other side of the ocean in the Americas, cooler water accumulates and the atmosphere is drier.

 

A moderate La Nina situation, showing warm and cool water accumulations in 2007. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Disruptions in ocean temperatures and wind patterns can lead to flow on effects globally. It’s not fully understood, at a predictive level, how any given change will affect other areas, but the northern hemisphere has seen several major disruptions to the jet stream, leading to local temperature extremes as I mentioned earlier.

Such changes offer us a look into the future; a world where weather extremes are more intense and unpredictable, out-of-the-ordinary scenarios play out more often. No single event can be attributed to climate change, but the fingerprints of human-induced global warming are all over 2010.

In the aftermath of these huge flooding events, I hope that people work together to restore the damage that nature has wrought, and show solidarity and support for each other. I hope that we, as a community and a globe, extend the same support and solidarity to our future selves: we can take preventative action now which will lessen extreme flooding, shock heatwaves and global weather disruption. We need to recognise the problem and understanding that meaningful action is achievable and necessary!

Right after my friends clear the mud out of their properties. Good luck, guys.

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Categories: environmentalism, Problems, Science, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Extraordinary Weather: Flooding

  1. Thanks for writing this post, and putting the events in context.

    South Africa is also experiencing flooding in some parts of the country. The Vaal river (one of our major rivers) is flooding its banks in various areas. We have also had a lot of rain in the Southern Cape, but no flooding . . . yet.

  2. well, I guess that unpredictable is the word to describe the weather right now.
    This is the second summer that we have tropical rains. Two days ago 4 people were struck by a bolt of lighting and died, here in the city, which was unheard of !

  3. I came across a helpful video and posted about these extreme weather events:
    http://johnager.co.uk/2011/01/14/extreme-weather-events/
    Best wishes, John.

  4. M@

    I thought there was an initiative to start bringing more public awareness about the potential involvement of global warming in such crazy weather patterns as we’ve been experiencing. They were discussing this point a month ago on an ABC report – media broadcasters pledged to make an effort to focus on major weather events and keep up regular references to what the science has to say – emphasising the point that abnormal climate change is human induced and that we must do something about it (in lay terms). I guess there’s the risk of whipping up nonsensical hysteria, but it seemed like a promising sign of change.
    Over the last week with the Brisbane flooding, they’ve persistently made reference to the fact that the La Nina phenomenon is to ‘blame’. They’ve largely ignored the more important scientific claim that the ‘background’ weather conditions are augmented – which likely attributable to human-induced global warming.

    It seems to me that the media are just waiting for a story about how a weather event can be linked directly to human activity. News corps do a good job of peddling indirect evidence and compiling a compelling story. Why can’t they apply it now when it matters most?

    • It is a conundrum for both scientists and the media. On the one hand they could be (fairly?) criticised for pointing the finger at climate change and human activity at a time like this, when blame and the debate generated might take focus away from relief efforts.

      On the other hand, the weather isn’t a simple system of cause and effect, with agents acting alone to create such disasters as this. It’s easy to see that a build-up of warm water off the coast of Australia, which will already cause heavy rains, can be exacerbated when climate change is increasing baseline temperatures. Pointing out such a link isn’t scientifically invalid or scaremongering.

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