“It is, sadly, probably too late to save much of Australia” (Google / Paul GLIDING)

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“It is, sadly, probably too late to save much of Australia”

By Paul Gilding | September 25th, 2009 | Category: Cockatoo Chronicles | 14 comments

“It is, sadly, probably too late to save much of Australia”.  With these disconcerting words Joe Romm, from the leading US climate blog climateprogress.com”, reacted yesterday to Sydney’s dust storms. Joe Romm is no casual blogger and I take his views very seriously, as do others. His writing has been described by NYT’s Tom Friedman as “indispensible” and the U.S. News & World Report called him “one of the most influential energy and environmental policymakers in the Obama era”.

So is Joe Romm right? Is Australia’s environment now past a point of no return in terms of climate change impacts? Are we already in an ecological crash? You certainly wouldn’t think so listening to our political debates. So let’s take a look at what the science is saying. (this is an edited version of a post I wrote for Climate Progress)

For those readers outside Australia, yesterday morning Sydney awoke to an eerie red hue. Our city was already coated in red dust and the air was thick with more of it. At its peak every hour saw over 100,000 tonnes of delicate topsoil blown off drought stricken farms and deserts and sent across the country. At full strength, this giant dust cloud was 1,600 km long and 400 km wide as it hit major cities along the east coast. (An excellent satellite image can be found at the [NASA website])

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 concentrations reached 15,400 mcg/m3! The airports were closed, harbour ferries cancelled and people at risk were warned to stay indoors. (For those outside Australia, Climate Progress has a [good video report] on the local impacts)

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

As we know, no single event is proof of climate change, and while this may be the worst dust storm on record here, that by itself 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 its record February temperature by a full 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. In our Forest Fire Danger Index – which combines factors such as heat, humidity, wind and drought – a score of 100 reflects the conditions during our previously worst-ever fires in 1939. Any score above 50 is considered extreme. On that fatal February day this year, the Index ranged between 120 and 190 in many places across the country. All our warning and ratings systems are now being revised to better suit our 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 so-called “drought” since 2002 and is the worst ever recorded. I say “so called” because evidence is increasing this may be closer to “the new normal” – a long-term decline associated with climate change. With drought and over allocation of water permits 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.


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.