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]:
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.
More amazing photos here.