Climate whiplash – a 21st century disorder

Whiplash is the most common road trauma injury, caused by the head moving suddenly one way and back the other. It’s also a fitting description for what climate change is doing to people’s minds. 

“Climate whiplash” has been coined by Australia’s independent Climate Council to describe the state of our weather in a warming world, “as communities are hurtled between flooding rains to heatwaves and fierce fire conditions, and back again.”

In this land of droughts and flooding rains we shouldn’t be surprised when Australia’s driest three-month period on record, August to October 2023, is followed immediately by big rains across Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. But like the 2019-20  shift from drought and fire to massive rains and flooding, this more recent case of climate whiplash was extraordinary.

As the Climate Council reported, more Queensland homes were lost in a deadly Darling Downs blaze late in October than the state lost through the whole of Black Summer. In the same region a couple of weeks later, weather stations registered their highest November rainfall on record, while the next month southeast Queensland was hammered by extreme downpours leading to massive flood damage. 

An early, ferocious fire season in Victoria’s Gippsland was quickly followed by extreme rain and flash flooding in what was supposed to have been a dry El Nino summer. And throughout the big wet up and down the East Coast, Western Australia has been enduring a hot, dry summer with fierce wildfires.

As if on cue, just last week we saw much the same scenario play out again, except that it all happened in the same state on the same day. Violent collisions between oceanic and continental weather systems are common in south-east Australia, but Victoria’s experience last Tuesday was one out of the box.

The day began with two warnings: a fire weather warning for the Grampians to the west and a severe thunderstorm warning for Gippsland in the east, with high winds, heavy rain and flash flooding.

Within hours winds gusting above 120 km/h – partly convective thunderstorm downdrafts – caused the dramatic collapse of old, rusting transmission towers, forcing the Loy Yang A coal-fired power station offline and cutting power to around 500,000 people across greater Melbourne.

With worsening fire conditions in the Grampian region, watch and act warnings were quickly followed by advice to leave now and opening of an emergency relief centre in Ararat. Around the same time Melbourne was being drenched and bombarded with hail from thunderstorms.

The Australian Energy Market Operator then advised that it could not complete the task of restoring power to Melbourne and outlying areas – replacing poles, mending lines, rebuilding towers – until fallen trees and powerlines were dealt with. Some homes might be weeks without power.

As Melbourne was drenched, to the west wildfire smoke turned the sky orange. In Pomonal 45 homes were lost and firefighters were injured when their vehicle was trapped. Ballarat residents faced their own emergency – a fire burning out of control 10 km out of town – while in Gippsland residents were hit with storm-force winds that wrecked homes and uprooted avenues of trees.

Across all of this summer’s extremes, Climate Council scientists identified clear symptoms of an overheating planet resulting from fossil fuel pollution, including very warm seas and intense downpours.  They also found evidence that cyclical weather patterns such as El Niño are themselves changing as a result of high levels of greenhouse gases. 

A southerly shift in the westerly wind belt this summer – unusual during an El Niño event – allowed easterly winds from the Tasman Sea to drench parts of the eastern states. That may have prevented flash drought, a new phenomenon where abnormally hot weather causes a rapid shift from normal to severe drought conditions. 

Weather patterns that have grown out of years, decades and centuries of observations are fraying, and not just at the edges. The seasons are not as they once were. It may still be hotter when the sun is high in the sky than when it’s not, but little else is predictable.

This summer’s clear lesson has been that heat is just one of many outcomes of climate change. An atmosphere that’s warmer is also more dynamic, just as water in a kettle doesn’t just get warmer but also becomes agitated and steamy.

Bypassed by the extreme weather to our north, it has been a blissful summer in my corner of this smaller island. Who knows when it will be our turn to face the music? I can only suggest we count our blessings, pray daily to the weather gods, and do all in our power to get Australia off fossil fuels.

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The lingering afterlife of fossil fuels

Australia and Canada have a lot in common. As products of British colonisation the two countries have a vaguely similar recent history. In land area and population, Canada is bigger, but not much.

And they are both well endowed with fossil fuels – enough to make them globally significant exporters of both gas and coal. Canada also has very big reserves of oil, but in a form requiring a lot of processing before it can be exported and used. 

The world has already used most readily accessible oil and gas. We are now at the point in fossil fuel exploration and use whereby most new deposits require a high level of technology to turn the carbon into a marketable product. 

Canada’s oil sand deposits in northern Alberta have have been known about for centuries, but the processes of extracting bitumen from the sandy ground, then treating it to turn it into a saleable product and transport it over vast distances to where it’s needed, were long thought to be both environmentally disastrous and uneconomical. 

There are similar issues around natural gas. Once a matter of just drilling a hole in the right place, gas retrieval increasingly calls for fracturing underground rock structures, or “fracking”, to reach otherwise inaccessible deposits. 

This rapidly-developing technology, also used to reach once-inaccessible pockets of oil, adds exponentially to the amount of deposit retrieved. Over the past decade or so it has delivered huge bonuses to numerous national economies, including Australia’s. 

But it too comes at a big environmental cost. Fracking, says the Yale School of Public Health, “creates vast amounts of wastewater, emits greenhouse gases such as methane, releases toxic air pollutants and generates noise. Studies have shown these gas and oil operations can lead to loss of animal and plant habitats, species decline, migratory disruptions and land degradation.”

The environmental cost of gas extraction doesn’t stop there. The processing hubs producing transportable LNG (liquefied natural gas) release toxic chemicals like carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide, and many facilities also degrade coastal defences against storms and sea level rise.

For both Alberta oil and LNG, the environmental cost includes greenhouse gas emissions, in quantities that none of the interests involved in their extraction has any real interest in measuring or publicising. 

The Canadian and Albertan governments have announced plans to increase tar-sands output by 40 per cent over the next 12 years – which will increase the industry’s emissions by 30 megatonnes to 100 megatonnes a year, an increase equivalent to annual transport emissions for the province of Ontario. But the proposal looks unlikely to go anywhere in the face of numerous alternative supplies of less problematic crude from elsewhere in the world.

After years of scientific concern that life-cycle methane emissions from natural gas have not been represented in official industry emissions data, in the US last week the White House paused LNG export permits to assess their climate change impact.

But the worldwide drive to capture and burn every last molecule of oil or gas will not simply go away. A deeply held mindset in government, big business and more widely – in the US and everywhere else – is that fossil fuel production and export are economic bedrock. It has been that way since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

This stubborn attitude is being fed by industry propaganda, at the massive scale and reach that we should always have expected from big, powerful corporations whose very existence depends on exploiting reserves and discovering new ones.

This is despite numerous warnings over many years from climate scientists, the United Nations, the European Union and the International Energy Agency that every new gas field opened up and every new piece of infrastructure built is simply adding to our climate peril.

The stakes could not be higher. While you won’t hear much about this from the big players, they are searching for opportunities to shore up their business against bad times ahead. Hence the proposal to merge two big Australian gas producers, Woodside and Santos, an idea that bit the dust last week leaving Santos more vulnerable than ever.

In Australia as in North America, Europe and the Middle East, greenwashing has become a marketing weapon of choice by the companies concerned, based on the myths, adopted where it suits by governments, that burning oil, gas and coal can be “clean”, that emissions can be captured and stored, and that these industries are fundamental to our wellbeing.

On the contrary: in a world desperate for effective climate measures gas is dangerous – certainly no substitute for coal – and digging up bitumen to make oil is certifiably insane.

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Forecasting weather in a changing climate

Is the current El Niño, the cyclical Pacific weather phenomenon, breaking down? That’s what the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is saying, predicting that it will happen this southern autumn. 

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology is not quite so sure. It agrees that the current El Niño is breaking down, but its modelling suggests that a return to neutral El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) levels won’t happen until June or July. 

The summer is far from over – the Bureau expects this month to be warmer and drier than average – and the worst of Tasmania’s fire season may be yet to come. But the hot, dry summer forecast for eastern Australia back in spring has for the most part failed to materialise. 

Last August meteorologists were saying we’d seen the last of La Niña’s cool, damp weather in eastern Australia (and bad fire weather in North America) for quite a while. But now NOAA is reporting increasing odds of yet another La Niña emerging late this year. That would mean that we would have had an active La Niña in each of the past five years – six if we include 2025.

The more we know about weather and climate, the more we realise we have yet to learn. The confusion over ENSO patterns and what they mean for our seasonal weather is just one of many mixed, apparently contradictory messages coming out of our meteorology agencies as we struggle to get a handle on climate change.

The problem is bad enough for those whose livelihoods depend on having a handle well ahead of time on how coming seasons are likely to pan out – people like farmers and tourism operators. But human life is at stake if the matter in question is extreme weather – especially storms.

In mid-October 2023 Otis was a tropical storm 250km off Mexico’s Pacific coast. Weather experts predicted its impact would be unexceptional, even as late as the day before it made landfall. But in just 12 hours it intensified from a category one event to category five, the highest cyclone rating, and ended up the most powerful storm ever to cross an eastern Pacific coast.

To those in its path, including a million people in the city of Acapulco, the impact of Otis was devastating. At least 52 people died (locals claimed the toll was in the hundreds) and property losses were calculated at $16 billion.

But Otis was also a shock for the meteorologists whose projections had been so badly awry. In an article in The Conversation, a coastal engineering specialist from the University of East London, Ravindra Jayaratne, described the hurricane as “a pivotal moment in the history of weather forecasting”.

“It is critical that we address the pressing concerns related to the tools we use for forecasting these catastrophic events, all while recognising the significant influence of rapid climate change on our forecasting capabilities,” wrote Jayaratne.

Otis highlighted the limits of historical data in predicting weather in changing climate. The rate at which it grew from a tropical storm to a full-strength hurricane has never previously been observed. It may be a one-in-1000-year storm – a term we’re hearing repeatedly these days in reference to major weather events – but in truth we have no idea because we have no recorded precedent.

Weather and climate are fundamentally chaotic. The atmospheric variables that modellers try to assess are nonlinear, which means that a low level of uncertainty early in a weather event can turn into a very large discrepancy in the event’s later stages. 

Never was that more evident than in the case of Otis, but it’s an issue right across the forecasting spectrum from storm and flood events with a short term local or regional impact – Australian summer floods, for example –  to large-scale systems like ENSO, whose impact lasts months or years.

The first need is data. As an eastern Pacific hurricane, Otis had many fewer data-gathering points to feed into forecasts than the far more active Gulf and Atlantic hurricane zones on the other side of North America. An obvious need across the globe is more weather buoys and satellites.

Beyond that, we need our forecasting models to take account of a far wider range of variables, requiring an exponential increase in computing capacity. Along with increasingly powerful hardware, artificial intelligence will have a pivotal role.

Those developments can’t come soon enough. As the impact of climate change on established weather patterns rises, and given the level of scepticism that has always confronted weather forecasting professionals, predicting the weather is now more challenging than ever. 

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