Australia goes from record drought to record floods

It has been raining in northeastern Australia for two solid weeks, pushing rivers thirty feet out of their banks and forcing more than 200,000 people in an area the size of Texas to pick up stakes, or at least move everything they own to the second floor.

Locals have described the pounding, non-stop rains, intermingled with thunder, flash flooding and hail, as being “of biblical proportion.” One Queenslander said his house now felt like it was “in the middle of the ocean.” Images of kangaroos scrambling for refuge from the rising waters atop gravel piles and cars assure that this is Oz rather than other recently-flood ravaged regions, like Pakistan or southern California (where in December records were set by rainfalls four times more wet than average).

The cruel irony in Australia, of course, is that it has been wracked by a forty year drought, going back to the 1960s. The “worst on record” droughts really took hold in 2003, forcing towns across the continent to ration water and witnessing big cities like Victoria and Melbourne on the verge of going dry. In those days no one was thinking about loading sandbags to keep potential floodwaters at bay; everyone was focused on the construction of desalinators to make drinking water from the ocean.

Using Australia’s run of dry luck as example, the World Economic Forum predicted a coming global “water bankruptcy,” warning that by as soon as 2025, 1.8 billion people around the world could be living in water-scarce regions, while two-thirds of the world’s population could be flooded out.
Australia’s drought/flood ying/yang comes on the heels of a year just past during which many statistics suggest the planet endured the most extreme weather yet recorded.
From floods in Pakistan and China to earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and New Zealand, we watched forest fires in Russia and typhoons, blizzards, volcanic eruptions, landslides and droughts wipe out nearly 300,000 people. The last time the planet saw a human loss like that was largely thanks to famine-struck Ethiopia in 1983.

The “official” number of natural disasters in 2010 was put at 950; according to FEMA statistics, the number killed around the world last year by nature was more than all those who have been killed by terrorist attacks during the past 40 years.

The impacts of climate change cannot be discounted as a player in many of these natural disasters, whether heat wave or flooding, hurricane or drought. In 2010 at least 18 countries set records for “hottest day on record.”

The stats are loaded with irony, but Australia seems to be taking the brunt of the planet’s disconnect. As floodwaters rise there and its Army gears up to fly food and supplies in and stranded residents out, it was reported over the weekend by the Australia Antarctic Division that the reason for all of its recent droughts is record snowfalls in … Antarctica.

While it sounds like a stretch, the link is pretty straightforward: The more it snows in Antarctica (and we’re talking the most snowfall there in 38,000 years) the drier it’s going to get in Oz.

Which is yet another example for climate change deniers; the reason it is snowing more in parts of Antarctica is because there is less ice surrounding the giant continent. The more open, unfrozen ocean there is, means there’s more evaporation … thus more precipitation.

While it’s hard for some to swallow, one reason Australians are drowning today is thanks to man’s tinkering with the atmosphere, purposely or not.

[flickr image via good_keiran]