Drought, fires, killer heat waves, wildlife extinction and mosquito-borne illness — the things that climate change models are predicting have already arrived there, [scientists] say.
That’s the subhead on a stunning L.A. Times piece, “What will global warming look like? Scientists point to Australia,” which opens starkly:
Reporting from The Murray-Darling Basin, Australia — 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.
You have to have your head stuck in the bloody sand, or just be a consumer of big media — see CNN, ABC, WashPost, AP, blow Australian wildfire, drought, heatwave “Hell (and High Water) on Earth” story “” never mention climate change.
This LAT story is one of the most powerful pieces of climate change journalism to appear in a major U.S. newspaper. It is the climate story of the decade, literally — and if we don’t reverse course soon, it will be the story of the century, if not the millenium — for America and the world.
Australia is the the driest inhabited continent on earth, with a fragile ecosystem, which makes it the canary in the coal mine for how global warming will create Dust Bowls in the SW and around the globe (see “Australia faces collapse as climate change kicks in”: Are the Southwest and California next?).
It is, sadly, probably too late to save much of Australia. But it is not too late to save the U.S. Southwest and other key regions in or near the subtropics. We can still prevent the worst.
Two years ago, Science (subs. req’d) published research that “predicted a permanent drought by 2050 throughout the Southwest” on our current emissions path “” levels of aridity comparable to the 1930s Dust Bowl would stretch from Kansas to California. The Bush Administration itself reaffirmed this conclusion in December (see US Geological Survey stunner: SW faces “permanent drying” by 2050.)
Moreover, this aridity, like Australia’s, would be compounded by brutally high temperatures (see Must-have PPT: The “global-change-type drought” and the future of extreme weather.)
And a major new study led by NOAA found that if we don’t act to reverse emissions soon, these global Dust Bowls will be irreversible for a long, long time (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 Australia is the most sensitive and driest of the habitable continents, it’s no surprise that it is the first to see such climate change driven decadal drought,
So the media and political leaders need to focus the attention of the public and policymakers on this preventable catastrophe in the making. Energy Secretary Steven Chu did just that in an L.A. Times interview — see Steven Chu on climate change: “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.”
And that’s why the new LAT piece is worth excerpting and reading at length — it is a stark warning of what is to come:
Climate scientists say Australia — beset by prolonged drought and deadly bush fires in the south, monsoon flooding and mosquito-borne fevers in the north, widespread wildlife decline, economic collapse in agriculture and killer heat waves — epitomizes the “accelerated climate crisis” that global warming models have forecast.
With few skeptics among them, Australians appear to be coming to an awakening: Adapt to a rapidly shifting climate, and soon. Scientists here warn that the experience of this island continent is an early cautionary tale for the rest of the world.
“Australia is the harbinger of change,” said paleontologist Tim Flannery, Australia’s most vocal climate change prophet. “The problems for us are going to be greater. The cost to Australia from climate change is going to be greater than for any developed country. We are already starting to see it. It’s tearing apart the life-support system that gives us this world.”
Many here believe Australia already has a death toll directly connected to climate change: the 173 people who died in February during the nation’s worst-ever wildfires, and 200 more who died from heat the week before. A three-person royal commission has convened to decide, among other things, whether global warming contributed to massive bush fires that destroyed entire towns and killed a quarter of Victoria state’s koalas, kangaroos, birds and other wildlife.
The commission’s proceedings mark the first time anywhere that climate change could be put on trial. And it will take place in a nation that still gets 80% of its energy from burning coal, the globe’s largest single source of greenhouse gases.
The commission’s findings aren’t due until August, but veteran firefighters, scientists and residents believe the case has already been made. Even before the flames, 200 Melbourne residents died in a heat wave that buckled the steel skeleton on a newly constructed 400-foot Ferris wheel and warped train tracks like spaghetti. Cities experienced four days of temperatures at 110 degrees or higher with little humidity, and 100-mph winds. In areas where fires hit, temperatures reached 120.
On the hottest day, more than 4,000 gray-headed flying foxes dropped dead out of trees in one Melbourne park.
“Something is happening in Australia,” firefighter Dan Condon of the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade wrote in an open letter. “Global warming is no longer some future event that we don’t have to worry about for decades. What we have seen in the past two weeks moves Australia’s exposure to global warming to emergency status.”
The possibility that a high-profile royal commission may find a nexus between climate change and the loss of human life is significant for many scientists here.
“That will be an important moment in its own right,” said Chris Cocklin, a climate change researcher at James Cook University in Townsville, in Queensland state, and lead author on the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“It may mean that climate change will be brought to the fore in a way that has never happened before.”
Dust Bowl scenes
Australia’s climate change predicament is on depressing display in the Murray-Darling Basin, where the country’s three largest rivers converge, and where Eddy runs a shrinking 100-acre orchard.
The rivers — the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee — flow from the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range and nourish the valleys of Australia’s fruit and grain basket, as well as a diverse system of wetlands, grasslands and eucalyptus forests.
Like scenes from a modern Dust Bowl, mile after mile of desiccated fields lie fallow, rows of shriveled trees that once bore peaches and pears are now abandoned orchards, and small businesses are shuttered, fronted by for-sale signs. The dingy brown of the landscape rearranges in a cloud of dust with every hot wind that blows.
Farmers who once grew 60% of the nation’s produce are walking off their land or selling their water rights to the state and federal government. With rainfall in the region at lower than 50% of average for more than a decade, Australia is witnessing the collapse of its agricultural sector and the nation’s ability to feed itself.
In rural Victoria, one rancher or farmer a week takes his own life. Public health officials say hanging is the preferred method.
“Fourteen dairy farmers in the valley have committed suicide in the last five years,” Eddy said matter-of-factly, staring at his hands at his long, wooden dining room table. “Hangings, they are common but they are not made public. It’s really depressing, it’s really tough going.
“Fruit growers are abandoning their orchards. It’s their life’s work, and it’s gone to dust. They are at their wits’ end. The small growers haven’t got the money to replant. Haven’t got the time to wait five years for a return. The machinery they have is not salable. They have thrown their arms up and walked away. They are broken people.”
…Santo Varapodio, 73, is the patriarch of a family that runs one of the largest fruit operations around the nearby agricultural center of Shepparton. The area’s annual rainfall used to be 19 to 21 inches a year.
“Now we’re lucky if we get 6 to 7 inches,” Varapodio said, displaying the stunted pears picked from under-watered trees. He said this summer’s heat wave “cooked” his fruit. “When we bring the pears in, about 15% will have burn on them,” Varapodio said. “The apples will have anything up to 50% sunburn on them.”
Rainfall patterns have been frustratingly uncooperative. Gentle winter showers that replenished groundwater have been replaced by torrential summer onslaughts that turn the fertile topsoil into a slough.
Most of the country is in the grip of the worst drought in more than a century. Every capital in Australia’s eight states and territories is operating under considerable water restrictions. In urban areas, “bucketing” has become a common practice — placing pails in showers and using the gray water on lawns or gardens. In some cities, such as Brisbane, residents drink recycled water, a process nicknamed “toilet to tap.”
In rural areas, the lucky tap their own wells, provided they still function. Others survive on rainwater or what they can scrounge or buy.
Meanwhile, the tropical north’s rainy season, known as the Big Wet, is longer and wetter than ever. Warming tropical waters in the Coral Sea and the Gulf of Carpentaria spawn ever more powerful cyclones, while rainfall and heat records are broken every year.
The coastal city of Darwin, in the Northern Territory, swelters through 20 to 30 days of temperatures above 95 degrees, with high tropical humidity. Government scientists project that by 2070, Darwin will experience such conditions as many as 300 days a year.
Communities on the Cape York Peninsula accustomed to being flooded for days are commonly cut off for weeks. Throughout February, the Queensland government airdropped supplies to citizens, who had to wait to reemerge when the water recedes in the Southern Hemisphere’s autumn, in late March or early April. In the meantime, in-ground burials are on hold.
Climate change researcher Cocklin lives in the far north, where the new regime of intensified monsoons scarcely gives Queenslanders a break.
“You might get punched and get up again,” he said. “The second time it’s harder to get up. The third time, you can’t be bothered. How many times can you get punched?”
Australians in the south would see water as heaven-sent; in the north, it’s a curse. In March, a young girl playing by a rain-swollen river was carried off by a crocodile, the second child lost to crocs in a month.
The region is beset with twin epidemics of malaria and a dangerous form of hemorrhagic dengue fever, from mosquitoes that breed in the standing water. Such diseases are expected to become more common in the tropics with climate change.
Reef is withering
Not far from where Cocklin lives, the north’s two largest tourism draws, the Great Barrier Reef and the Tropical Rainforest Reserve, are withering under climate extremes. Higher ocean temperatures are bleaching expanses of coral and affecting fish and plant species. A report issued last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that the Great Barrier Reef will be “functionally extinct” by 2050.
Cocklin was just back from giving a presentation at a climate change conference in Europe, showing the degradation of the reef as well as photographs of the bush fires and floods. “The audience was a little bit in awe of what’s going on in Australia,” he said….
We are already very flat and very dry as a continent,” Flannery said. “There is just this little margin that is inhabitable. We don’t have a lot of options.”
Most Australians live on the coast, where they are vulnerable to flooding because of rising sea levels, projected to increase by 6 1/2 feet this century.
[Probably should read “by up to 6 1/2 feet this century” or “by 3 to 6 1/2 feet this century” (see recent sea level rise studies in An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water).]
“Some places are pretty close to being bloody unlivable anymore,” Cocklin said.
“When you start talking about places where 45 degrees [113 Fahrenheit] is commonplace, that raises the question of ‘Can you really live in that?’ “
Sadly, we’re probably gonna find out. On our current emissions path, Houston and Washington, DC would experience temperatures exceeding 98°F for some 60 days a year. Oklahoma would see temperatures above 110°F some 60 to 80 days a year. Much of Arizona would be subjected to temperatures of 105°F or more for 98 days out of the year-14 full weeks (see “When can we expect extremely high surface temperatures?“).
One final point, this LAT story, while never once mentioning the deniers and their enablers, exposes them for what they are — willing accomplices to humanity’s self-destruction. This story makes a mockery of the recent reporting in papers like the NY Times and Newsweek (see here, here, and here) who continue to miss the burning forest for the trees, by giving any coverage whatsoever to those agents of disinformation and destruction.
- Global Boiling: Australia’s Hellish Black Saturday Of Extreme Fire
- How hot is Australia? Only the koala know for sure.
- I just learned two shocking things
- Drought land “will be abandoned”
- Drought in southern Australia declared ‘worst on record’
- Dry me a River: Climate change and drought
- Australia today = U.S. southwest by 2050
- Australia faces the “permanent dry” “” as do we