First fires, then floods: climate extremes hit Australia

WEE WAA, Australia – Two years ago, the fields outside Christina Southwell’s family home near Australia’s cotton capital looked like a d...


WEE WAA, Australia – Two years ago, the fields outside Christina Southwell’s family home near Australia’s cotton capital looked like a dusty, brown wasteland as drought-fueled wildfires were burning north and south.

Last week, after record rains, muddy floodwaters surrounded it, along with the stench of rotten crops. She had been trapped for days with just her cat, and still didn’t know when the mud would recede.

“It seems to take a long time to go away,” she said, watching a boat transporting food into Wee Waa town. “All he leaves behind is this stench, and it’s just going to get worse.” “

Life on earth has always been difficult in Australia, but recent years have delivered one extreme after another, demanding new levels of resilience and indicating the growing costs of a warming planet. For many Australians, moderate weather – a pleasant summer, a year without a state of emergency – increasingly looks like a luxury.

the Black summer bush fires 2019 and 2020 were the worst in recorded Australian history. This year, many of the same areas that suffered from those epic fires suffered the wettest and coldest November since at least 1900. Hundreds of people in several states were forced to evacuate. Many more, like Ms Southwell, are stranded on floodplain islands with no way to leave except by boat or helicopter, perhaps until after Christmas.

And with a second year of the weather phenomenon known as the girl booming, meteorologists predict even more flooding for Australia’s east coast, adding to the stress of the pandemic, not to mention a recent plague of rural mice of biblical proportions.

“It seems constant,” said Brett Dickinson, 58, a wheat farmer who lives not far from Ms Southwell in northwest New South Wales, about a six-hour drive from Sydney. “We are constantly fighting against all the elements – and animals too. “

There is a tendency to think of extremes such as “natural disasters” or “acts of God” that come and go with reporting. But Australian nature nightmares come and go. Its droughts and floods, although climate opposites, are driven by the same forces – some of them timeless, others more recent and man-made.

Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Center of Excellence for Climate Extremes at the University of New South Wales, said the ups and downs of the weather have been severe for millennia on the Australian landmass, which is as large as the continental United States and surrounded by powerful climate-driving oceans, from the tropical South Pacific to the cooler Southern Ocean off Antarctica.

As a result, the El Niño and La Niña patterns tend to hit Australia harder than elsewhere, with severe droughts ending in major flooding. Some scientists even suggest that the way marsupials reproduce, with the ability to put active ingredients paused pregnancies, shows that the El Niño-La Niña cycle has been around long enough for flora and fauna to adapt.

In addition to this already intense variability, Professor Pitman said, there are now two additional complicating factors: “climate change and human decisions about building things.”

Both make fires and floods more damaging.

“A small change in climate coupled with a small change in landscape can have a big impact on the characteristics of floods,” said Professor Pitman.

The results are already visible in government budgets. The cost of climate disasters in Australia has more than doubled since the 1970s.

Ron Campbell, the mayor of Narrabri Shire, who includes Wee Waa, said his region is still awaiting government payments to compensate for damage from past disasters. He wondered when governments would stop paying for infrastructure repairs after every emergency.

“The costs are just huge, not just here, but in all other places under similar circumstances,” he said.

More viscerally, the impact of a “supercharged climate” is felt on the territory itself. In the vast swathes of farmland and small towns between Melbourne and Sydney, where much of the country’s food, livestock, wine and charcoal is produced, the effects of fires, droughts and floods coexist.

Even in areas that did not catch fire, the heat waves and lack of rainfall that preceded the bushfires killed as many people as 60 percent of trees in certain places. Cattle ranchers have slaughtered such a large part of their herds during the drought that beef prices have risen by more than 50 percent as they scramble to restock pens that have been fed (almost to death) by heavy rains.

Bryce Guest, a helicopter pilot in Narrabri, once watched the bowls of dust grow from above. Then came “just a monstrous amount of rain,” he said, and a new kind of work: thefts to mechanical pumps pushing water from the fields to the irrigation dams in a last ditch effort to preserve the fields. crops heading for a record harvest.

In a recent theft, he reported mountains of stored grain – worth at least six figures – that were ruined by the rains, with heavy equipment trapped and rusted alongside. Further inland, a house surrounded by dikes had become a small island accessible only by boat or helicopter.

“Australia is all about water – it’s all about it,” he said. “Where you put your house, your stock. All.”

The floodplains of what is known as the Murray-Darling Basin stretch for hundreds of miles, much like the land at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The land is so flat that cities can be cut off with roads inundated by less than an inch of additional rain.

This happened a few weeks ago in Bedgerabong, a few hundred kilometers south of Narrabri. On a recent afternoon, a few teachers were driven out of town in a huge fire engine – equipment from one disaster often serves another. Across a flooded road behind them, three other teachers had decided to camp so they could offer some consistency to children who had already been barred from going to school for months by the pandemic lockdowns.

School principal Paul Faulkner, 55 (total class: 42), said many parents crave social connections for their children. The Red Cross sent out brochures for people dealing with stress and anxiety.

“Covid has taken everyone away from their families,” he said. “It isolates them even more. “

He admitted that there were some things they had not discussed; Santa, for one. The city is expected to be shut off until after the holidays, as the waters that have risen with torrential rains for a few days take weeks to drain and subside.

In Wee Waa, where the water has started to recede, supplies and people poured in last week by helicopter and in a small boat piloted by volunteers.

Yet there were shortages everywhere – mostly of people. In a community of around 2,000 people, half of the teachers at the local public school could not make it to work.

At the only pharmacy in town, Tien On, the owner, struggled with understaffed staff to keep up with requests. He was particularly concerned about the delayed deliveries of drugs by helicopter to patients with mental disorders.

Ms Southwell, 69, was better prepared than most. She has spent 25 years volunteering with the emergency services and has been teaching first aid for decades. After a quick boat trip to Wee Waa, she returned home with groceries and patience, checking a shed for the stray cats she was feeding and finding that only one of her chickens appeared to have drowned.

She said she was not sure how much climate change could be blamed for the flooding; her father had put their house on higher stilts because they knew the waters would rise on occasion.

All she knew was that more extreme weather conditions and serious challenges for the community were about to arise.

“The worst part is the wait,” she said. “And the cleaning.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: First fires, then floods: climate extremes hit Australia
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