First Fires, Then Floods: Climate Extremes Batter Australia

WEE WAA, Australia – Two years ago, the fields outside Christina Southwell’s family home near Australia’s cotton capital looked like a brown, dusty desert as drought-fueled bushfires blazed in the north and south.

Last week, after record rain, it was surrounded by muddy floodwaters, along with the stench of rotting crops. She had been trapped for several days with only her cat, and she still didn’t know when the sludge would recede.

“Looks like it takes a lot of blood to go away,” she said as she watched a boat carrying food to Wei Wa Town. “All he leaves is this stench, and it’s only going to get worse.”

Life on Earth has always been tough in Australia, but the past few years have presented one extreme after another, demanding new levels of resilience and signaling the rising costs of a warming planet. For many Australians, mild weather – a pleasant summer, a year without an emergency – increasingly feels like a luxury.

The black summer bushfires of 2019 and 2020 were the worst in Australia’s recorded history. This year, many of the same areas that experienced those epic fires have experienced their coldest and coldest November since at least 1900. Hundreds of people in several states have been forced to evict. Many others, like Mrs. Southwell, are stranded on the floodplain islands with no way to leave except by boat or helicopter, perhaps even after Christmas.

With a second year of La Niña weather in full swing, meteorologists expect more flooding for Australia’s east coast, adding to the pressure from the pandemic, not to mention the recent epidemic of rural rats of archetypal proportions.

It’s a constant feeling,” said Brett Dickinson, 58, a wheat farmer who lives not far from Ms Southwell in northwest New South Wales, about a six-hour drive from Sydney. “We are constantly fighting against all the elements — and animals, too.”

There is a tendency to think of such extreme cases as “natural disasters” or “acts of God” that come along with news reports. But Australia’s nightmares about nature ebb and flow. Droughts and floods, though unlike the weather, are driven by the same forces – some immortal, others newer due to humans.

Weather fluctuations have been harsh for thousands of years on the Australian mainland, which is the size and surrounded by the continental United States, said Andy Pittman, director of the ARC Center for Extreme Climate Center of Excellence at the University of New South Wales. Powerful ocean drivers of climate, from the tropical South Pacific to the cooler Southern Ocean off Antarctica.

As a result, El Niño and La Niña patterns tend to hit Australia harder than they do elsewhere, with severe droughts ending in major floods. Some scientists even suggest that the way marsupials reproduce, with the ability to stop an active pregnancy, shows that the El Niño-La Niña cycle has been in place long enough for plants and animals to adapt.

On top of this already stark contrast, Professor Pittman said, there are now two additional complicating factors: “climate change and human decisions to build things”.

Both make fires and floods more harmful.

“A small change in the climate coupled with a small change in the landscape can have a significant impact on the characteristics of the floods,” Professor Pittman said.

The results are already visible in government budgets. The cost of climate disasters in Australia has more than doubled since the 1970s.

Ron Campbell, the mayor of Narrabri Shire, which includes Wei Wa, said his area is still waiting for government payments to compensate for damages from past disasters. He wondered when governments would stop paying for infrastructure repairs after each emergency.

“The costs are enormous, not only here but in all other places in similar circumstances,” he said.

More deeply, the effect of the “supercharged climate” is plotted on the Earth itself. Across the vast tracts of farmland and small towns between Melbourne and Sydney where much of the country’s food, livestock, wine and coal is produced, the effects of fires, droughts and floods coexist.

Even in areas that didn’t catch fire, heat waves and poor rainfall that preceded wildfires killed up to 60 percent of trees in some places. Cattle farmers culled many of their flocks during the drought, sending beef prices up more than 50 percent as they rush to bring back cattle that had been fed (almost perished) due to torrential rains.

Bryce Guest, a helicopter pilot in Narrabri, once watched bowls of dust grow from the top. Then came “a massive amount of rain,” he said, and the work of a new kind: flights of mechanical pumps that push water from fields into irrigation dams in a last-ditch effort to keep crops that were headed toward a record harvest.

On a recent trip, he pointed out mountains of stored grain – six figures at least – ravaged by rain, with heavy equipment trapped and rusting beside them. Inland, the embankmented house has become a small island that can only be reached by boat or helicopter.

“Australia is all about water – everything revolves around it,” he said. “Where do you put your house, your inventory. Everything.”

The floodplains in what is known as the Murray-Darling Basin extend for hundreds of miles, unlike the land at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The area is so flat that cities can be cut off by roads that have soaked in less than an inch of extra rain.

It happened a few weeks ago in Bedgerabong, a few hundred miles south of Narrabri. One afternoon, two teachers were being driven out of town in a huge fire truck – often serving equipment for one more disaster. Through a flooded road behind them, three more teachers decided to get out of the camp so they could provide some consistency to children who had already been out of school for several months due to the pandemic lockdowns.

Paul Faulkner, 55, the school’s principal (total enrollment: 42), said many parents crave socializing for their children. The Red Cross has sent brochures for people suffering from stress and anxiety.

“Covid has kept everyone away from their families,” he said. “It just isolates them further.”

Admit there were some things they didn’t discuss; Santa for example. The city is expected to be out of business until after the holiday because the water that rose with torrential rain over a few days takes weeks to dry up and evaporate.

In Wei Wa, where the waters are starting to recede, supplies and people streamed in and out last week by helicopter and in a small boat led by volunteers.

However, there was a shortage everywhere – mostly people. In a community of about 2,000 people, half of the teachers at the local public school were unable to work.

At the only pharmacy in town, Tian En, the owner, with a short-handed staff struggled to keep up with orders. He was particularly concerned about the delayed delivery of medication by helicopter to patients on mental health medication.

Ms Southwell, 69, was better prepared than most. She spent 25 years volunteering with the emergency services and has been teaching first aid for decades. After a quick trip to Wee Waa on a boat, she returns home with her groceries and patience, checks out a shed for feeding stray cats and discovers that only one chicken has drowned.

She said she was not sure how much climate change could be blamed for the floods; Her father had put their house on stilts because they knew the water would rise sometimes.

All she knew was that even more extreme weather and severe challenges to society would come her way.

“The worst part of it is the wait,” she said. “And cleaning.”

Leave a Comment