“Australia faces collapse as climate change kicks in”: Are the Southwest and California next?


Australia has been suffering its worst heatwave on record, the first time temperatures exceeded 110 F for 3 days running. It’s been so hot that on Thursday, the low at Melbourne airport was 87 F.

Australia is the canary in the coal mine for climate-driven desertification. The astonishing decade-long drought in southern Australia was declared ‘worst on record’ last year. My headline quote is from the UK’s Independent story, which notes:

Australia, the driest inhabited continent on earth, is regarded as highly vulnerable. A study by the country’s blue-chip Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation identified its ecosystems as “potentially the most fragile” on earth in the face of the threat.

Australia is but the first and most seriously impacted of the arid sub-tropical (and near-sub-tropical) climates that are facing horrific desertification from climate change. For instance, Lester Snow, Director of California’s Department of Water Resources said Friday

We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history.

Two years ago, Science (subs. req’d) published research that “predicted a permanent drought by 2050 throughout the Southwest” — levels of aridity comparable to the 1930s Dust Bowl would stretch from Kansas to California. The UK’s Hadley Center warned in November 2006 that their research predicted multiple permanent Dust Bowls around the planet on our current emissions path:

Extreme drought is likely to increase from under 3% of the globe today to 30% by 2100 — areas affected by severe drought could see a five-fold increase from 8% to 40%.

Extreme drought means desertification, especially if it lasts for hundreds of years, as the recent NOAA-led study found (see NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe). The regions that NOAA identifies as facing permanent Dust Bowls:

  • U.S. Southwest
  • Southeast Asia
  • Eastern South America
  • Southern Europe
  • Southern Africa
  • Northern Africa
  • Western Australia

Again, since Western Australia is the most sensitive, since Australia is already the driest of the habitable continents, it’s no surprise that Australia is the first to see such climate change driven decadal drought:

Most of the south of the country is gripped by unprecedented 12-year drought. The Australian Alps have had their driest three years ever, and the water from the vast Murray-Darling river system now fails to reach the sea 40 per cent of the time. Harvests have fallen sharply.

It will get worse as global warming increases. Even modest temperature rises, now seen as unavoidable, are expected to increase drought by 70 per cent in New South Wales, cut Melbourne’s water supplies by more than a third, and dry up the Murray-Darling system by another 25 per cent.

When you throw a brutal heat wave on top of the desertification, then all hell breaks loose:

Ministers are blaming the heat — which follows a record drought — on global warming. Experts worry that Australia, which emits more carbon dioxide per head than any nation on earth, may also be the first to implode under the impact of climate change.

At times last week it seemed as if that was happening already. Chaos ruled in Melbourne on Friday after an electricity substation exploded, shutting down the city’s entire train service, trapping people in lifts, and blocking roads as traffic lights failed. Half a million homes and businesses were blacked out, and patients were turned away from hospitals.

More than 20 people have died from the heat, mainly in Adelaide. Trees in Melbourne’s parks are dropping leaves to survive, and residents at one of the city’s nursing homes have started putting their clothes in the freezer.

“All of this is consistent with climate change, and with what scientists told us would happen,” said climate change minister Penny Wong.

As an aside, I wonder when the United States will get a Department of Climate Change. Probably not for a decade or more, until we are hit by an extended Australian-scale drought somewhere along with one or more of the other near-term climate Pearl Harbors?

AFP’s story’s calls this “once-in-a-century heatwave that has claimed dozens of lives and sparked wildfires.” But, in fact, Professor David Karoly, of the University of Melbourne, said last week: “The heat is unusual, but it will become much more like the normal experience in 10 to 20 years.”

Part 2 will look at the potentially record-breaking drought starting to grip California.

Part 3 will explain the science behind climate change driven desertification and the spread of the subtropics.

One final (very) small point. We already saw Tiger Woods win the “Hottest Major of All Time” and the parched “brown British Open.”

But this Australian open is going to go down as the hottest tennis major of all time (so far):

Earlier in the week, as the historic heat took grip, men’s champion Novak Djokovic sensationally pulled out of his Australian Open quarter final with heat-related problems, the first defending champion to withdraw in the Open era.

Three-time champion Serena Williams, who will take on Russia’s Dinara Safina in Saturday’s women’s final, described playing as an “out-of-body” experience before the roof of the Rod Laver Arena was closed and a row over the Australian Open heat policy ensued.

In the future, more and more major sporting events will have to be moved away from the summer and perhaps, like the Super Bowl, actually be held in the winter (if not indoors where possible).

Of course, if we really turn one third of the planet into permanent desert by century’s end — and raise global temperatures an average of 10°F, with sea levels 5 feet higher and rising 10 inches a decade, I wonder just how much interest will remain in such “nonessential” activities like professional sports.

19 Responses to “Australia faces collapse as climate change kicks in”: Are the Southwest and California next?

  1. Yeah, I wrote about this yesterday, and thought first about the Australian chapters in Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and about the hypothetical man who cut down the last tree on Easter Island. Global warming has been obvious in Australia for a decade or longer, and yet the country was the world’s worst per capita GHG emitter, and a strong Bush ally (along with Canada) at the international climate summits.

    And my second thought was… The Australian Alps? Who knew? I figure as a former wine writer, I must have known this at some time in my life, only to have forgotten about it when I cast wine aside.

  2. Joe Campbell says:

    More on the Australian heatwave here — combined with last year, Prof Brook estimates it’s a 1 in 1,200,000 year event!

  3. Wes Rolley says:

    Chris Austin’s Aquafornia blog has a good summaryPacific Institute, one of the few original thinkers about water in the SouthWest. The quote from Lester Snow just goes to show that even those bureaucrats locked into 19th century idea about our relationship with our planet are beginning to understand the need to change.

    Beginning today, the Green Party will be dealing with a new policy statement and a new level of activism to bring ecology to our water policies.

  4. paulm says:

    @joe campbell good article! An interesting bit here…

    …if solar forcing is causing the surface warming, we’d expect there to be relatively more hot days (when the sun is shining) compared to hot nights (when the sun is hitting the other side of the planet and the warmth is maintained by the insulating effect of GHGs and high altitude clouds). If it’s a build-up of GHG that is driving the warming, you’d conversely expect relatively more hot nights, because the ‘atmospheric blanket’ has thickened.

    …large meteorological data sets which quite clearly confirm the GHG prediction, showing that relatively more warming has occurred at night compared to the day time.

  5. Not enough water conservation and Rain harvesting but that the catch isn’t it, In New Mexico the most average water quantity we can harvest in a year would be 6,000 gallons. thus everything else is over appropriated. the we are looking at at least 50 million people in the US Southwest to be out of water within 5 – 10 years by conservative estimates.
    We are in crisis and the crisis is economic is its ability to met the challenge ahead of us. I just wrote a book on this and I am looking for a publisher.
    it is a very serious topic and with an alternative where there might be a solution and it is is about real scarcity.

  6. Gail says:

    I contend that it’s actually far worse because I think desertification is in the future of the Eastern US. I wrote to Susan Solomon and asked her why so many predictions do not mention the East and she was kind enough to reply:

    Thank you very much for your note and your interest in this issue. It is an important question you are raising and I would like to try to explain.

    Please take a look at Figure 3 in the attached document – that’s really all you need to answer your question, and it’s not hard.

    This graph is showing you how much reduction in rainfall we can expect to see per degree warming. The places that have colors are where we have good agreement among many different models. The southwest US (Texas, NM, Arizona) is one such place. Another is the area around the Meditteranean sea, another is Southern Africa, etc. These are all ‘subtropical zones’ just outside the tropics. We think we understand pretty well how the rainfall in this region is changing. As we talk about in the paper, observations are already showing drying in these places too, and comparison of models and observations strongly suggests that greenhouse gas induced warming is responsible for a significant part of the change. So this is why you hear a lot about the southwest US.

    Unfortunately, we don’t do as well in other places. The places where the map is white are where the models don’t agree among themselves as to how climate will change in a warming world with increases greenhouse gases, and the east coast of the US is one such place. The rainfall on the east coast of the US depends on things like moisture flow from the Gulf, which we don’t model as well as the things that control the rainfall in the southwest. So we are not saying that it couldn’t be changing, or couldn’t change in the future – just that we don’t have good enough information yet for that region. Many other higher latitude places are also white, showing that our confidence is not as good in those places.

    You are right about the reductions in snowfall, which is now falling more often as rain in your part of the world – that has been well documented and could very well be playing a role in the health of your local trees.

    I live in Colorado and I think there is probably a climate change link to the outbreak of pine beetle we are now having, which is killing a lot of trees. So changes in pests that can thrive in warmer climates are also an issue.

    I do appreciate your concerns and hope this is helpful. I think the data and models will improve in coming years, and you will start hearing more about other regions, hopefully including your own.

  7. Greg Y says:

    It’s OK folks!

    The Oz Prime Minister K Rudd is going to save all the coal mining jobs so we can remain knee deep in SUV driving coal miners.

    As a former employee in a bio-energy research company it is infuriating to see all of the available ( pitifully small) research funding directed at “clean coal” (NOT!) research by the same CSIRO as the group which identified the countries ecosystems as “potentially the most fragile” on earth in the face of the threat..

    The sad irony is that the union owned Labour government is embarking on the futile attempt to save mining jobs while putting in place the components to destroy the Great Barrier Reef and de-snow the Alps. Natural assets aside. The latter two natural resources are responsible for far more employment, albeit generally non-union labour.

    Last year we had 35 inches or rain in a single day in our SUV inundated little town, like the drought a once in a gazillion year event. Shame no-one notices that we seem to be getting a lot more “one in one hundred events” annually.

  8. @ Greg Y…

    It’s sad, isn’t it? I cheered when John Howard was soundly defeated and thought how cool when Rudd signed Kyoto as his first official act as PM.

    And almost every climate decision since then has sucked.

  9. arjan says:

    I thinks thats a bit harsh – The Australian federal govt has had a few other global challenges to address in the last 13 months as well; They have done a pretty impressive job of turning the climate ship around i think. lets see: delivering on an ambitious ETS green paper and white paper timeline (check), announced short term unilateral cap (check) announced prospective cap in the event the world gets it act together (check) depolyed significant R and D funding for renewable energy (check) overhauled several complementary measures and sorted the wheat from the chaff (check) on track to keep their expanded renewable energy target of 20% by 2020 (check). in fact they have delivered more on climate change in a single 12 month period than any other government anywhere in the world. I am not saying they shouldnt do more; my own particular barrow that i am pushing is bioenergy for both stationary energy and 2nd gen biofuels – and biomass is surely a poor cousin in all of these schemes, especially that derived from forest material (plantation or native)… still, at last we have a domestic political discourse where the two dominant centrist parties are trading blows over climate change policy!! hurrah – how quickly we forget the emaciated state of the national debate only 24 months ago… i cant wait to see which of the Australian Greens policies get poached next by which party! its simply fantatstic and gives us all reason to hope again. So enough cynicism please; politics is the art of the possible and climate change is a diabolical problem that will take a whole generation of effort to resolve, not a few sound bites or cheap shots. I for one am delighted with progress in Australia, and perhaps you should be too?

  10. Consider the irony of it: Australia, the biggest exporter of coal and the greatest producer of CO2 per person gets to be the first modern western country to collapse. I wonder when it will hit the TV news in the US?
    The other irony: Australia has about 2 dozen of uranium mines, both tapped and untapped. The coal miners COULD be mining climate-safe uranium instead.

    Read “The Long Summer” by Brian Fagan. A few dozen previous civilizations have collapsed and disappeared because of smaller climate changes than the one we have made already. Economy? What economy? Climate change puts an end to agriculture. If there is no food, people suddenly loose interest in money. They wander off looking for food, and they change religions, but mostly they die.

    Paulm: The sun has been dimmer than usual recently. Since NASA has special spacecraft to keep track of everything the sun does, we know the sun’s output precisely.

    Gail: Is Susan Solomon’s paper on line? If so, what is the URL?

  11. Barry says:

    Mexico City has some very low reservoirs and is resorting to completely turning off water to millions of people for 3 days per month until at least May. (MSNBC)

    California is entering third straight drought year with snowpack at only 60% of normal. “We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history” says state water manager. Water Resources Department estimates it will only be able to give 15% of the water people are requesting. Reservoirs? Lake Oroville at 43%. Lake Mead has 50% chance to be functionally dry in 12 years. (CSMonitor)

    Are people ready for nothing to come out of the tap?

    Are people ready to seriously cut fossil fuel emissions instead?

  12. @arjan…

    You are right. I was trying to be funny, but it came across as harsh. I do think that Australia has made some progress. I only wish my country — Canada — was doing as well..

    But I also think the enormous sums going to support coal and carbon capture and sequestration — even if it can be proven to work — could be better spent, especially since the promise of CCS is decades away. But the battle that Australia is facing comes with hard choices. Canada is in a similar boat, and we still have a prime minister who thinks we should get an exemption so we can exploit the tar sands and pollute with abandon.

  13. Gail says:

    Edward Greisch,

    this story says the report is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. I have to go to work – no time to find the link. But this is a great online magazine, anyway.

  14. Ken Fabos says:

    As an Australian concerned with climate change I am very disappointed with the current Australian gov’t’s policies regarding fossil fuels – concurrently with enacting an emissions trading scheme and targets for reductions of ghg emissions of 5% onshore it is financing infrastructure projects to increase coal export capacity that will add 30 times that to global emissions. Our gov’t kowtows to coal interests as a matter of course. Greenwashing is the order of the day. It makes me ashamed to be Australian.

  15. Sand Groper says:

    Uranium mining will not save Australia. The ISL technology used in U mining contaminates precious groundwater. Olympic Dam’s U mine in SA takes from the Great Artesian Basin, 35 million litres of water per day – free of charge for the next 70 years and is expanding. Already the fragile GAB mounds are showing stress. The OD project is the largest private user of electricity in South Australia.

    There are many tenements awaiting the green light in Western Australia where tailings dams will tie up land for perpetuity, unfit for human or animal habitation. Where will the water come from? The history of U mining in Australia is peppered with leaks, spills, accidents, human contamination and cover-ups.

    One must ponder the prospect of a minimum 25 nuclear reactors on Australia’s ocean fronts, returning contaminated water to the sea plus the reality of many more desalination plants returning brine to impact on our rapidly vanishing marine life.

    The reality is that waiting 50 years for 25 nuclear reactors is not an option. Urgent measures to curb CO2 must be taken now. Of course that’s a dream and is not about to happen.

    60% of Australia’s land mass is occupied by alien, cloven hooved animals which have trashed our ecosystems and our biodiversity and the meat and livestock industry want only to increase the numbers of livestock. WA’s rivers are constantly on life support – constantly receiving artifical oxygenation due to industrial pollution and agricultural runoff.

    Recently a lead company was responsible for the deaths of 9,000 native birds. Tests in January revealed the marine life in the area had a body burden of lead (and nickel) up to 6,000 times in excess of “safe” levels.

    Early Newcrest’s gas pipeline construction killed 6,500 native animals.

    Planet Earth is rebelling. She did not expect humans to dig up her hazardous waste repositories, but dig we will. Now we are in the realms of the Sixth Extinction – no more obvious than in these arid and drought ridden lands!

  16. Alex Smith says:

    Here is a link to a new radio interview with Dr. Barrry Brook from the University of Adelaide.

    In a fast 11 minutes, he nails the drastic changes to Australia’s climate, as a warning to the world.

    That is from the Radio Ecoshock Show for Feb 13th – which also has an interview with Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of “The Upside of Down” and now “Carbon Shift”.

    Homer-Dixon compares collapse in natural systems, like forests, to our current economic failure.

    Alex Smith

  17. Geoff Henderson says:

    It’s true that Australia appears to be doing a lot about climate change, but it would seem to be largely “spin” and political impressionism.
    There is still much argument about carbon trading. Maybe there is a future there, but if it finally gets over the starting line in 2010, how long before it becomes truly effective and actually reduces GHGs in absolute terms? Not in time…

    To me there seems no creative spark to kick us into a new pathway to turn it around. In the meantime Aussies seem to think that the government will save them from climate change – sadly, we just don’t seem to ‘get it’, the bastards are going to let us sink.

    If we really want positive action on climate change surely we need (in Australia at least) to:

    1. Engage the community in change. We need a bottom up as well as top down approach to change. Demand a government with the’ nads to make hard decisions.

    2. Accept as a community that to fix something you have to change something. That means pain, but the reward is our survival.

    3. Get electric cars here fast, and make them compulsory where they can be sensibly deployed – like in cities and elsewhere that average journeys are around 30km. This takes care of so many problems. It also causes a few too, but lets stop the GHGs and deal with those new problems s they develop.

    4. Start dealing with less consumption, stop buying so much stuff we can live without. A huge step would require that appliances, if you gotta have them, be made to last way longer. It follows that if you triple the life of a product, you cut production emmisions by two thirds! My dear mums Bendix washer, built circa 1950, lasted 28 years! And built without the production capabilities of today. This is part of the bottom up approach, demand longer life out of the things you pay for. Planned redundancy is sickening our planet.

    5. Accept that the price of goods should reflect the true cost of production which must include the environmental costs. This especially includes oil. This will drive prices upwards, and promote market based solutions to pollution and emmissions.

    6. Stop thinking govt. is going to save us all on it’s own, the only guarantee is that it will try to save itself.

    Oh yeah, about Rupert – Hmmm when Murdoch became an American citizen (which is fine) he sorta lost my vote, and I don’t know if he has been such a great corporate citizen over the years.
    Now when he makes a green signal he should get applause? I think I’d like to see how one of the worlds most influential men has behaved climate-wise before offering him too much kudos. Has he done a lot, either by comission or by omission? I am not qualified to judge that one.