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Dust Bowl-ification hits Eastern Australia — next stop the U.S. Southwest. Anti-scientific WattsUpWithThat says it has “nothing to do with the dreaded Climate Change” and “has an unappreciated benefit”!

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"Dust Bowl-ification hits Eastern Australia — next stop the U.S. Southwest. Anti-scientific WattsUpWithThat says it has “nothing to do with the dreaded Climate Change” and “has an unappreciated benefit”!"

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I’m 72 years old and I’ve never seen anything like it before.  It’s the first time ever.

We have seen the future, and it is Australia — and it isn’t pretty (see “Absolute must read: Australia today offers horrific glimpse of U.S. Southwest, much of planet, post-2040, if we don’t slash emissions soon“).

NASA’s Earth Observatory reported yesterday:

A wall of dust stretched from northern Queensland to the southern tip of eastern Australia on the morning of September 23, 2009, when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image [see amazing photo below]. The dust is thick enough that the land beneath it is not visible. The storm, the worst in 70 years, led to canceled or delayed flights, traffic problems, and health issues, reported the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News. The concentration of particles in the air reached 15,000 micrograms per cubic meter in New South Wales during the storm, said ABC News. A normal day sees a particle concentration 10-20 micrograms per cubic meter.

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.)

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 anti-scientific website WattsUpWithThat happily assures us that we should simply ignore all of the well-known climate science predictions that this part of Australia would become hotter and drier — even though Australia’s 1000-year drought is strong evidence the predictions were right.  Watts finds a ‘reader’ who claims the epic Dust Storm has “nothing to do with the dreaded Climate Change.”  Seriously!

Watts also points out a bright side:  “dust headed to sea has an unappreciated benefit – it will fertilize the ocean with its mineral rich dust.”  Yes, the record drought wipes out land-based crops, and we’re in the process of poisoning the oceans for millennia, but hey, a massive Dust Bowl may create “some interesting blooms of sea life in the weeks to come.”

Ah, yes, the “unappreciated benefit” of a disastrous dust storm.  You can’t make this stuff up!  But what do you expect from a guy who offered the ‘inanity defense’ for his effort to censor Peter Sinclair’s video, saying he was “doing him a favor.”

Back in the real world, the ABC story Watts cites notes:

Topsoil from the drought-ravaged west of NSW was stripped from the earth and pushed by huge wind gusts to the east….

Dr John Leys from the NSW Department of Environment’s Dust Watch division says it looks like dust storms such as this will become more prevalent.

“There has been a report from CSIRO that show that this drought is the first of its type, because we’ve never had droughts which have been so hot,” he said.

Record heat with record droughts — who ever would have predicted that (see “Must-have PPT: The ‘global-change-type drought’ and the future of extreme weather“)?

More from NASA:

Strong winds blew the dust from the interior to more populated regions along the coast. In this image, the dust rises in plumes from point sources and concentrates in a wall along the front of the storm. The large image shows that some of the point sources are agricultural fields, recognizable by their rectangular shape. Australia has suffered from a multiple-year drought, and much of the dust is coming from fields that have not been planted because of the drought, said ABC News.

Here’s the amazing satellite picture of the Wall of Dust [click to enlarge]:

Dust Bowl Australia

The rest of this post is an exclusive commentary on the great dust storm by Paul Gilding, former executive director of Greenpeace International, who blogs on The Great Disruption here.  You may remember Gilding from Tom Friedman’s Ponzi scheme column (see here).

Hey America, want to see your future? Take a look at Australia.

If you thought all the climate change action was happening at the UN in New York this week then think again. The real action is happening down here in Australia and it’s worth a look as it may well give Americans a glimpse into the future.

Yesterday morning Sydney awoke to an eerie red hue. Our city was coated in red dust and the air was thick with more of it blowing in. At its peak every hour saw over 100,000 tonnes of delicate topsoil blown off drought stricken farms and sent across the country. At full strength, this giant dust cloud was 1,000 miles long and 250 miles wide as it hit major cities along the east coast.

Air particle concentrations in Sydney are normally around 20 micrograms per cubic metre (mcg/m3) with health risk levels starting at 200 mcg/m3. Yesterday they reached 15,400 mcg/m3! The airports were closed, harbour ferries cancelled and people at risk were warned to stay indoors.

By day’s end, the best estimates were that several million tonnes had been stripped from desert and farms across three states and sent to the city and then out to sea.

Of course as we all know, no single event is proof of climate change and while this may be the worst dust storm on record here, that by itself it doesn’t prove anything. But it sure makes us wonder what the future holds.

Of course this is not the first major event that is putting Australia amongst the head of the pack in terms of climate change impacts. Earlier this year Melbourne broke it’s February temperature maximum by 3 degrees centigrade to hit 46.8 C (116 degrees F). This was also the day of Australia’s worst ever bushfires with 173 people killed and 2,000 homes destroyed. The fire conditions that day were unprecedented. Our Forest Fire Danger Index which combines factors such as heat, humidity, wind and drought into a single metric has a peak measure of 100, based on the conditions during the worst ever previous fires in 1939. Any score above 50 is considered extreme. On that fatal February day this year, the Index hit between 120 and 190 in many places across the country. All our warning and ratings systems are now being revised to better suit the new reality.

The impacts are consistent around the country. The Murray Darling Basin is our food bowl with nearly 40% of Australia’s agricultural production based around the water of the giant Murray Darling river system. The area’s been in drought since 2002. Well we hope it is drought and not as some argue “the new normal”. With long-term drought and over allocation to struggling farmers, flow levels are now down to 5% of their long-term average. As a result it’s now assumed that the globally significant wetlands and lake system at the river’s mouth will face ecological collapse over the next few years.

On the other side of the country in Western Australia, the city of Perth has now acknowledged they are dealing not with drought but a system shift. Inflows into Perth’s dams since 2001 are only 25% of what was the long-term average before a marked decline began in the 1970s. This drop is mirrored across the country with stream flows, measured as a % of the long term average, now well down in most major cities with Canberra at 43%, Melbourne 65%, Adelaide 62% Sydney 40% and Brisbane at 42%. State Governments are now urgently building energy intensive desalination plants across the country to ensure our major cities don’t run out of water completely.

The tourism industry, a major part of the Australian economy and a significant export earner, is becoming increasingly nervous about the shifting climate. In the far north at the Kakadu National Park, a World Heritage-listed system of sensitive coastal and freshwater wetlands, the change is coming thick and fast. In the past 50 years, tidal creeks have moved 4 km inland, saline mud flats have increased nine-fold, and 2/3 of Melaleuca forests have been killed by salinity.  Kakadu seems destined for much greater loss as sea levels rise further.

In the North East, the Great Barrier Reef is now at serious risk of widespread, permanent loss over the coming decades. In 1998 and again in 2002 it experienced major coral bleaching events covering 50% and 60% of the reef respectively. While it has recovered each time so far, everyone knows it won’t always do so.

So it goes on. Of course like America, we have our deniers and our coal industry arguing against action. We have our lobbyists pushing for compensation and free permits. But I sense the public mood changing now, especially when climate change literally sticks in your throat like it did yesterday.

So my recommendation to my friends in America is two fold. First, if you want to see Australia’s magnificent natural wonders, then hurry up. They mightn’t be there much longer. Secondly, it would be really helpful if you passed your climate change bill so you can help lead the world’s urgently needed clean energy revolution. Please do it soon, it’s getting hot and dusty down here.

Sydney Dust Storm

More amazing photos here.

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36 Responses to Dust Bowl-ification hits Eastern Australia — next stop the U.S. Southwest. Anti-scientific WattsUpWithThat says it has “nothing to do with the dreaded Climate Change” and “has an unappreciated benefit”!

  1. Wonhyo says:

    California has been in drought for most of the last decade. Fires have increased. This summer’s fire was a record breaker for Southern California. Anybody want to take bets on when So. Cal. will experience its first dust storm? Perhaps CP can sponsor a contest, with a CP article posting as the prize (like the $100/barrel contest).

  2. paulm says:

    First, if you want to see Australia’s magnificent natural wonders, then hurry up.

    No, stay put and reduce your emissions.

  3. Gail says:

    Yes, paulm, but I think that was meant ironically, not literally – except of course, one could sail instead of flying!

  4. mike roddy says:

    There’s a denier on Dot Earth named Girma from Perth, who is on the ridiculous end of the spectrum. When I pointed out a few months ago that the Murray-Darling Basin was shriveling up, and asked if he thought this was due to too many shrimp on the barbie, he said that warming in Australia has been “proven” to be the result of natural ocean current oscillations.

    I don’t believe him, of course, but would welcome a comment from someone who knows the region better than I do.

  5. oxnardprof says:

    The amazing number to me is the peak dust concentration measured: 15,000 ug / M^3. This is equal to 15 mg/M^3, which represents the exposure limit for nuisance (non toxic) dust for persons exposed in the workplace.

    Although this dust exposure represents a single episode, and we have no informtion on the average exposure over the epidose, this level of dust is quite high.

    From the perspective of public health, I also wonder about the make up of the dust. It is apparently agricultural dust, but this may include chrystalline silica, organic matter, toxins, etc – depending on the make up of the soil.

    The satellite picture is impressive.

  6. Phil Eisner says:

    Is this what it is like to be at the beginning of an unfolding planetary disaster? I strangely feel no emotion other than a coldness as I read about Australia and watch the videos. Is this really global warming? Weather anomalies happen frequently and they will happen now on our much warmer earth with more serious consequences. I fear for the future of Australia. I fear for our planet.

  7. The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday had a very good slideshow with audio and several articles on the event; they’re all linked here.

  8. mike roddy,
    The nearly 2K comments (and still counting) at Deltoid show that Girma is a complete loon. Don’t try to read all of it or your head will explode.

  9. Steve Bloom says:

    Look at the bright side, Joe: Watts at least declined to mention the undeniable benefit of the dust cloud for those prone to skin cancer due to stratospheric ozone reduction.

    Mike, the Oz Bureau of Meteorology climate page is a good place to find such a refutation. For the latest science, see the CSIRO climate page. But don’t fail to take account of how much longer it takes you to find the refutation than it did him to make an unsupported claim.

    In this instance, BTW, I think you’ll find that the claim about oceanic influences is true enough but doesn’t contradict AGW causation. Put another way, looking at Australia’s position between the Indian, Pacific and Southern oceans, and bearing in mind that the oceans have a much greater heat capacity than land, would it make physical sense for Australia to warm up without the surrounding oceans doing so as well?

  10. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, I have a two-link comment in moderation. TIA for the catch.

  11. David B. Benson says:

    mike roddy — As you known, making such an atrribution is quitee difficult. Nonethless, various climatologists have attempted it, using an RCM I think. The conclusion is that global warming is a contributing factor in Australia’s current plight but may be less than the attempt to farm in the Murray-Darling and so on.

    All this is from memory of various readings, so if the matter is of import to you I recommend some web trawling to find the original sources.

  12. Steve Bloom says:

    Mike, the article on ENSO changes linked in today’s CP climate news post (press release here) nicely illustrates my point (in the yet-to-appear moderated comment) about the role of ocean circulation changes. Note that the described change is a new pattern rather than a change in magnitude of a pre-existing one.

  13. Mike D says:

    This seems like it has a lot more to do with global warming than the weird Georgia weather did.

  14. PeterW says:

    Hi Joe, This is off topic.
    Are you going to blog on the new article that came out in Nature today? “Extensive dynamic thinning on the margins of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets”

    [JR: It's on the (long) list!]

  15. Mike#22 says:

    “would it make physical sense for Australia to warm up without the surrounding oceans doing so as well?”

    Yes, as the CO2 increases overhead (look up) the radiative cooling process slows down.

  16. tony lovell says:

    It is NOT too late for Australia – desertification can be reversed.

    Desertification is an age-old problem. Since writing was invented, people have lamented landscape damage and urged better care of the land. Despite the march of science and billions spent to combat desertification, the world’s deserts continue to grow.

    And the recent Australian experience was a DIRECT result of inappropriate human management of our grazing lands. See http://managingwholes.com/desertification.htm for a different perspective on the real causes of desertification.

    And take a look at http://www.soilcarbon.com.au to see just what positive changes will take place once we learn how to better manage our seasonally dry grassland regions.

    The real outcome of changing management is three-fold – healthy environment, healthy financials, and healthy society.

  17. Susan says:

    The water problems Australia faces in the Murray-Darling region are not all related to ‘climate change’. Australia’s River Murray is highly regulated with numerous weirs, regulators and barrages built back in the 1930′s to support agriculture along the river regions. The river has been ‘mismanaged’, or plundered is a better word. On top of lack of water, Australia has acid sulphate bearing soils around much of it’s coastline. During times of ‘no water’, these soils can become toxic when exposed to air. At the bottom end of the River Murray this problem is at a crisis point. For information about the issues, and a collection of news media and local content, check out http://www.lakesneedwater.org.

  18. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #16: Yes, the atmosphere over land tends to be warmer for the reason you state, but the trend is a different matter. A land mass isn’t going to warm over a period of time (long enough for weather effects to cancel out) while the adjoining ocean remains unaffected.

  19. Rick Covert says:

    Australia’s severe dust storm reminded me of the thick haze caused by the extreme forest fires from Mexico down to Central America back in 1998. It was also a record heat year for Houston. The smoke drifted up to Houston, as far nort as Oklahoma City and as far east as Atlanta Georgia. Visibility was cut dramatically and you could actually smell the odor of burned wood in the air and it was so thick that you had to stay indoors if at all possible. Running and strenuous physical activity outdoors were to be avoided at all costs.

  20. paulm says:

    May be the world becomes one big dust ball and this triggers cooling for the cycle.

  21. pete best says:

    Just read the book UNQUENCHABLE about the USA and its water issues, its just sums up the looming issues of farming and the way people want to live in hot places where little water falls.

  22. David Stern says:

    Here in Canberra the storm was just a very average dust storm. I’ve seen almost as bad as the pictures from Sydney in Jerusalem more than 20 years ago. Dust storms are common near deserts…

  23. Mike#22 says:

    Australia has a very hard road ahead.

    Here is a map showing how Australia has warmed 0.9 deg C over the past 100 years:

    http://www.climatechange.gov.au/impacts/trends/temperature.html

    And here are some projections showing where they will be in a few decades:

    http://www.climatechangeinaustralia.gov.au/nattemp6.php

  24. Ian Bjorn says:

    http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/
    Desert blooms return to lake Eyre
    A great news video.

  25. Joe M says:

    So what caused the dust bowl in the southwest USA in the 1930′s?

    [JR: You mean that small, short-lived weather change. That stuff happens all the time. Now it's happening more and more -- bigger, more widespread extremes, and if we don't reverse GHGs soon, it'll be the whole SW for hundreds of years.]

  26. Joe M says:

    Short lived? It lasted years and displaced millions. Yes it will happen again as it always has and always will. Droughts are a part of the natural weather cycle and there is nothing man can do to create or prevent it.

    By the way weren’t there supposed to be more and stronger hurricanes due to global warming?

    [JR: Short-lived compared to what is coming. If you don't know that, you don't know the science. And yeah it was a catastrophe, but minor compared to what is coming. Many factors drive hurricanes year to year. But try reading this blog before posting uninformed critiques.]

  27. David B. Benson says:

    Joe M (26, 27) — The American dust bowl of the 1930s was primarily the result of bad agricultural practices.

    Hurricanes supressed this year by extra dust from the Sahara and El Nino. Note that last year, on the other hand, hurricanes devasted Haiti, hit Cuba three times and wiped on Galveston (again).

  28. Geoff Henderson says:

    The commentary so far contains seems to contain the acceptance that this dust event is attributable to climate change (CC). Further, the event provides insight into the on-going effects of CC if we don’t act now. Like some other populations, it seems that Aussies don’t yet “get” the CC message. Perhaps a good visible dust storm will enable many more people to actually see that CC is real.

    One more point. The media clips mostly refer to the Sydney dust experience. I live around 16N, north of Cairns, Queensland. That’s 1,700 miles from Sydney. We have had this dust for 4 days now – it is still here. That should suggest some idea of the scale of this event, a point not particularly stressed by the media. No offence intended, but David Sterns (#23) post is perhaps a little too dismissive of this event, even if his remark has generalised merit.

  29. Peter Wood says:

    I thought the dust storm had gone, but last night it rained and now my bike is covered in a thin layer of mud.

  30. Geoff Henderson says:

    Peter Wood: Perhaps the effect is being extended by the prevailing SE Trades holding the dust aloft – that might explain the clear definition of the eastern boundary seen in the picture above. On the other hand, we are just 3 miles west from the coast but cannot see the coastal town of Port Douglas.

  31. fuzed says:

    Should we start bio engineering Sandworms yet?

  32. Bob Wallace says:

    Joe M. – look here and you can see the frequency of hurricanes and tropic cyclones since 1850.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090922112207.htm

    Frequency has gone up.

  33. betatcp says:

    Worst dust storm in 70 years? Does it mean that there was a bigger one 70 years ago? Without CO2? Hmmmm…

    [JR: You folks really, really don't get what is happening to the climate. Extreme events are getting more and more common. Wake up!]

  34. Joe M says:

    Or maybe our tracking of extreme events has improved so now they are documented more than in the past.

    [JR: Keep telling yourself that. It should be good for another decade of denial.]