The Angry Summer: Report Blames Climate Change For Australia’s Extreme Weather

The Australian government’s Climate Commission — an independent panel of experts set up by the government but not subject to its direction or oversight — issued a new report on Monday labeling Australia’s latest summer season the “Angry Summer” in honor of the rash of brush fires, heat waves, torrential rains and flooding that pounded the country.

“Australia has always been… a land of extremes,” the report said, but global warming of 0.8 degrees Celsius over the last 100 years and the resulting climate change is now driving the extreme weather to new heights. “All extreme weather events are now occurring in a climate system that is warmer and moister than it was 50 years ago,” the report warned. “The basic features of the climate system have now shifted and are continuing to shift.”

At least 123 weather records were broken during the 90-day time frame examined by the report, including the hottest summer since record-keeping began in 1910, the hottest day for Australia as a whole ever recorded, and the hottest seven consecutive days ever recorded. The commission ran through the severity and influencing factors of each form of extreme weather Australia has seen:

  • Record-Breaking Heat: Australia has only seen 21 days in 102 years in which the average maximum temperature for the whole country exceeded 39 degrees Celsius, and eight of them hit this summer. On top of that, the record-breaking heat occurred in the absence of an El Niño — the 12 to 18-month periods of warm, dry conditions that cyclically roll through — which usually has accompanied Australia’s previous hottest summers. Even the small shift in Australia’s average temperature of 0.9 degrees Celsius that’s occurred since 1910 can have profound effects on the severity and frequency of hot weather, as it alters the distribution of extreme weather’s likelihood.
  • Brush fires: As many as 40 brush fires tore through Tasmania this summer, destroying around 25,000 hectares of land, 200 properties, and 21 businesses. Other rashes of fires hit New South Wales and Victoria. Climate change can leave soil and plant life drier while extending the life of the fire season. In fact, the Forest Fire Danger Index, the numerical gauge used to assess the threat of brush fires, had to be extended on the high end in 2009 due to the increase in extreme weather.
  • Heavy rain and flooding: Unusually heavy rains triggered severe flooding in areas of New South Wales and Queensland this summer, breaking many daily rainfall records throughout the area. The most impressive was the one-day rainfall averaged over the Burnett catchment, which beat out the previous record by almost 70 percent. By raising ocean and air temperatures, climate change increases evaporation and moisture content in the air, resulting in heavier individual rainfalls even as overall precipitation goes down in many areas.

Other extreme weather events Australia dealt with this past summer include tornadoes that touched in Bundaberg and other Queensland townships, as well as two tropical cyclones that hit the north and northwestern coasts of the country.

Tim Flannery, the leader of the commission, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the best way to think about Australia’s extreme weather is to realize the “base line” of the climate has shifted. He then cited an analogy we’ve brought up here at Climate Progress numerous times: “If an athlete takes steroids, for example, their base line shifts. They’ll do fewer slow times and many more record-breaking fast times.”

“The same thing is happening with our climate system,” Flannery said. “As it warms up, we’re getting fewer cold days and cold events and many more record hot events.”

Here’s an illustration of that shift from the commission’s report. Notice the right-ward shift in the “center of gravity” of the distribution of events, and resulting increase in extreme and record-breaking weather:

The good news is that Australia is moving to do what it can about climate change. The latest numbers from Bloomberg New Energy Finance show that the price of wind power is already undercutting that of fossil fuels, and it won’t be long before solar is as well.

“The decisions we make this decade will largely determine the severity of climate change and its influence on extreme events for our grandchildren,” the commission’s report concluded. “In Australia and around the world we need to urgently invest in clean energy sources and take other measures to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. This is the critical decade to get on with the job.”

27 Responses to The Angry Summer: Report Blames Climate Change For Australia’s Extreme Weather

  1. Merrelyn Emery says:

    We are doing somethings and the results so far have exceeded my expectations but they are a long way from everything we could do, ME

  2. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I am unsure what Americans mean by ‘brush’ fire but we distinguish between grass and bush fires which have very different characteristics. We always have a mixture of both with bush fires being the most deadly, ME

  3. Superman1 says:

    Merrelyn, With all due respect, your ‘expectations’ are not the issue. The issue is the temperature that we don’t want to exceed on the road to Nirvana, the reduction in emissions required to keep within the temperature constraint, and what we have accomplished in emission reductions relative to what is required to keep us from going over the cliff. Even to stay within the meaningless 2 C, we have accomplished essentially nothing, and to stay within a more meaningful (but still dangerous) target like 1 C, we have accomplished nothing squared. My ‘expectations’ were zero, and they were satisfied.

  4. Jeff Poole says:

    A good wrap of the CC report. Although we don’t have ‘brush’ fires in Australia

    I do take extreme issue with the idea that ‘Australia is moving to do what it can about climate change.’

    Sorry, simply not true. We have a Labor federal government – somewhat equivalent to your Democrat party – that talks big and then does the opposite.

    It is not the work of a government ‘moving to do what it can about climate change’ to double coal exports. And we already export more coal than any other nation on Earth.

    A government that cared about climate change would not be fracking for Coal Seam Gas wherever fossil fuel companies choose with no safeguards whatever in place.

    They would not be permitting the restarting of shale oil mining next to the Great Barrier Reef.

    They certainly wouldn’t be subsidising new coal ports, coal railways and CSG pipelines. All of which will more than triple large ship movements across the Reef.

    The only thing that has stopped the denilalists in the Labor ranks from being as bumptious about science denial as the “climate change is crap” Liberals (= GOP) – is their reliance on the Green party and independents to hold power.

  5. atcook27 says:

    I wouldn’t get too excited about this one. In about six months time, the current political party in power will be dispatched so brutally in the upcoming federal election that they will struggle to get their hands back on the control wheel within a decade. The fossil fueled patsies that will take their place will fascilitate every wish of their pay masters. That is all manner of big business including insanely wealthy fossil fuel interests. We’re basically on the verge of becoming the Canada of the Pacific!

  6. atcook27 says:

    Our “Alan Harper”‘s name is Tony Abbott. He’s an ex catholic clergyman who is on the record saying that he thinks climate change is a load of crap and that he will do anything to get into power except selling his arse! He’s the most unpopular opposition leader in the countries history but maintains the position and the impending top job that comes with it because he is a bully that can hardly control his testosterone charged ego and a willing puppet.

  7. for Earth says:

    Yep. Hard to believe – or stomach. We are about to elect a climate crisis denier as Prime Minister. (Thanks to Media, Big Coal/Gas and Labour’s own bumblingness) Also if you go to the GetUp! site from whence came the pretty darn good 123 Recprds poster, you will find the most outrageous and depressing infestation by Comment Trolls. Greed, fear and ignorance are driving society. Right off the cliff.

  8. Paul Klinkman says:

    Subsidiary climate mechanisms might also cause more brush fires.

    Trees can last for decades or for centuries and the don’t move. Insects can reproduce between once and several times a season for quick genetic adaptation to a new climate, and can get blown long distances into new areas. The result is that trees get eaten by the climatically adaptive bugs, and then more trees turn into dry firewood.

    It’s not just the heat, it’s the ability of trees to hang in through ever longer droughts, it’s the occasional late and early freezes killing leaves, it’s the lack of early and late freezes giving the bugs a head start, it’s the birds showing up at the wrong time and missing their favorite insect explosion, it’s the fungus from excessive moisture eating at the tree, and it’s the vines taking more advantage of trees felled by higher extreme winds. The native trees turn into firewood for megafires when all of these factors work more or less together.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if pretty much all of the trees in all of the forests of the world weren’t under some sort of environmental stress these days. Some forests we’re sure are suffering because they’re either dead white sticks or occasionally they’re burning out of control.

  9. Sasparilla says:

    Our thoughts are with you folks down there, to use a certain Texas governor’s saying as a base, its looking to get really ugly.

    Is there any way out of it, or is it pretty much a done deal?

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    No fat ladies have been heard singing recently, six months to go, ME

  11. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Your views are now well known to me, to the repetitious point of mind numbing. And as you don’t appreciate my cheeky comments which are cheap as chips, I’ll say nothing more cos my dad told me never to waste good food, ME

  12. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    We here in the U.S. are doing what Australia
    is doing and has been doing for to long, shipping coal out of country by the mega tonns to be burned around the world. So any steps we manage to put in place to cut emissions at home mean nothing in the big picture of getting them under control in time to make a diffrence to anyone.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Merrelyn will chastise me most sternly for this, but…I reckon that you are quite correct. Now that the Liberals are convinced that they are going to win, big, thanks to the relentless hate campaign by the Rightwing MSM against ‘Labor’ (unprecedented since the News Corpse campaign against Whitlam, forty years ago), the blatant and audacious sabotage of the hard, hard, Right regimes in NSW, Victoria and Queensland, and the incompetence and moral gutlessness of the Gillard fiasco, they are acting cocky. They’ve already made plain that the renewable energy target of 20% by 2020 is gone, they will axe the carbon tax if possible, and the party remains mostly comprised of denialists, of varying degrees of ideological viciousness and suicidal stupidity and ignorance. We will endure a few years of Federal policies mimicking those of the hard Right states, ie maximised coal and gas extraction, destruction of environmental law, a return to large-scale land clearance, sabotage of international climate negotiations, sabotage of renewable energy etc. There may even be surprises, from an excess of ideological zeal, like flogging off National Parks, perhaps to shooters’ organisations, to be used as private hunting-grounds, or stacking the Climate Commission with coal-mining executives and journalists from ‘The Australian’. Either or, it will be a short return to florid moral insanity, then the weight of economic and ecological collapse will coming crashing down, Nemesis after the delights of ideological hubris.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Don’t forget the tropospheric ozone!

  15. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I’m in ‘good’ not ‘terrible mother’ mode today Mulga but I’ve seen a lot of unlosable and unwinnable elections lost and won. I like ‘cocky’ and also atcook27’s ‘testosterone charged ego’ which are becoming more obvious by the week. There has been more than one politician brought down by their inability to contain themself. Give me a yell when you hear that fat lady sing, ME

  16. Bernd says:

    I am not sure as well. But I guess the same as “flash” floods by flooding now only converted to fast developing fires brushing over the landscapes.

    However, the only good news is from an “official” side the report recognizes the acceleration of disasters and the climate change to be man made.

    The Aussie could need something like that: from the other side of the ball.
    Anyway, everywhere it is getting bleaker, either the one way or the other and the general population of countries will be the ones which suffer!

  17. Spike says:

    At one stage Romney looked a real threat but went into self destruct mode and criticized half his electorate on video. Let’s hope Abbot’s mouth lets him down.

  18. Spike says:

    Justin Gillis, one of the rare value items at NYT, wrote well on forests in November

  19. Superman1 says:

    Similar to what the Federal government does in employment. Since the Reagan years, they have been replacing in-house staff with contractors, in what they euphemistically call ‘down-sizing’. They proudly trot out numbers showing how the work-force is decreasing, while paying exorbitant fees to the on-site replacement contractors. We ship manufacturing and fossil fuels overseas, so others will get ‘dinged’ for the emissions, and the Amen Corner here proclaims our accomplishments in emissions reductions.

  20. Superman1 says:

    One cannot repeat the truth often enough.

  21. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Nor can you gain converts by preaching to the choir.

  22. Superman1 says:

    Dennis, Unlike Secular et al, I’m not looking for converts. I’m trying to find a way out of this morass, and getting reasoned responses to some of my ideas is the approach I’m taking. All the feedback will be useful in a climate change paper that I hope to start fairly soon. So far, all I see are theoretical paths out, not practical ones.

  23. kermit says:

    Merrelyn said nothing irrational, dishonest, or incorrect, yet you still found cause to criticize. Ideological purists can be a hindrance to solutions, also. Many or most regular readers of this blog such as myself are in general agreement with your assessment of the situation.

    There is a difference between insufficient and nothing; there is a difference between optimism and denialism.

  24. kermit says:

    Generally we Yanks distinguish between forest fires and brush fires, which are burning grass and bush mixes.

  25. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thank you, ME

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Thank Gawd for that! I was sure that it was the ‘Naughty Chair’ for me! My point of departure from your bracing optimism is that I can only see Gillard as ‘the lesser evil’. Certainly (and I had a fleeting acquaintance with Abbott at Uni, and knew some of his victims quite well)I see Abbott as something very nasty in and out of the wood-shed, and my thumbs go a-pricking every time I see him. Like Howard he is toning down his behaviour to con a few percent of the bigger fools, but I know, with ghastly certainty, just how he will rule. The best bet at the moment (given the hysterical depths of the hate campaign against Gillard)is that he gets a great majority and the Senate, whereupon he will, I am sure, run amuk, and sow the seeds of a monumental crash when people see that there has only ever been and only ever could be, one Tony ‘Climate Change is Crap’ Abbott. Then if Labor has found a personality with intellect, character and courage (sorry, Kevin)we might start getting somewhere. Malcolm Fraser, perhaps?

  27. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Interesting choice – have you forgotten we dubbed him the Great Mal-adaption? If we’re in the business of co-opting people, I’ll go for Bob Brown. I have nothing against whales but there are 22m Aussies who MAY need saving. I have never met the red headed one but my sister had a long chat with her when she was Min for Education and Employment etc, and was impressed, and believe me, my sister is no push-over. The main problem we have is rep dem itself, plus TV, which turns just about everybody into caricatures. I have no particular optimism about Sept but when I gamble, I like to calculate the odds and it’s too early to really do that, ME