Australia’s “Angry Summer” in Eight Images

By Tom Yulsman | March 5, 2013 4:52 pm


Yesterday, an Australian government commission just came right out and said it: “Australia’s Angry Summer” of extreme weather was “made worse” by climate change. (The ‘Angry Summer’ thing, including the upper case, was their’s, not mine.)

As the graphic from the commission report shows (above), that weather has included unprecedented heat, catastrophic brushfires, and deadly floods.

Today, I’m wondering what my colleague at Discover, Keith Kloor, will make of the report, given his post today in 2009 [don’t ask how that error happened!] on “Fetishizing Extreme Weather” — as well as the graphics in my post here, which I’m hoping will dramatize and also contextualize the findings of Australia’s Climate Commission.

But before we get to those images, here’s the gist of the report:

Extreme weather events dominated the 2012/2013 Australian summer, including record-breaking heat, severe bushfires, extreme rainfall and damaging flooding. Extreme heat waves and catastrophic bushfire conditions during the Angry Summer were made worse by climate change.

All weather, including extreme weather events, is influenced by climate change. All extreme weather events are now occurring in a climate system that is warmer and moister than it was 50 years ago. This influences the nature, impact and intensity of extreme weather events.

The extreme weather made international news in January when an unprecedented heat wave across almost all of the country shattered one record after another, and helped to trigger a spate of rampaging brush fires.

So, on to the images…  Here’s what the Fire Weather Index for Australia looked like back in early January — a measure in which the red and yellow colors indicate higher wildfire risk:

The Australian fire weather index for Jan. 8 of this year. (Source: Center for Australian Weather and Climate Research.)

The extremely high risk portrayed in that image manifested on the ground in rampaging bushfires that swept across parts of southern Australia and Tasmania. Here’s a satellite image showing smoke plumes billowing from multiple fires burning in Tasmania on Jan. 8:

Smoke plumes from multiple fires burning in Tasmania are visible in this image captured on Jan. 8 from the MODIS instrument on board NASA’s Terra satellite.

After the conflagrations came the deluge — extreme rainfall that caused deadly flooding in Queensland and New South Wales in the eastern part of the country.

The Australian Climate Commission report illustrated the extreme rainfall with this graphic:

Click on the image for a larger version. (Courtesy “The Angry Summer,” Australia Climate Commission)

Here are before and after satellite images of the flooding that followed the rains, from NASA’s Earth Observatory:

The MODIS instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image of relatively normal conditions along a network of rivers on the Queensland New South Wales border on Jan 23, 2013. It uses visible and infrared light to distinguish between water and land. Water varies in color from electric blue to navy. Vegetation is bright green and bare ground is earth-toned. (Image: NASA Earthobservatory)

 

This image was captured by the MODIS instrument on Feb.4, 2013, as flooding was occurring.

The report is cautious in blaming the flooding on climate change, using the word “influence” instead:

The extreme rainfall experienced on the Australian east coast has been influenced by the shifting climate, although determining the nature of that influence is more complex than for temperature-related extreme events.

That said, it does draw a clear connection between increasing sea surface temperatures and extreme rainfall:

The basic physics that underpin the connection between a warming climate and more rainfall are well known (Figure 13). Higher surface ocean temperatures drive more evaporation, leading to more water vapour in the atmosphere. This, in turn, leads to more precipitation (rainfall, snow or hail).

What were sea surface temperatures off Australia’s coastline like in the run up to the extreme rain? Here’s an image from NOAA showing how they departed from the long-term average on Jan. 24, 2013:

In this image, based on satellite measurements, yellow, orange and red tones indicate warmer than normal sea surface temperatures. (Image: NOAA Office of Satellite and Product Operations)

Lastly, I thought it would be interesting to see how much fire activity there is in Australia today. So here is a screenshot of a Google Earth image showing the locations of all fires detected by the MODIS instruments on NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites during the past 24 hours:

Image: NASA EOSDIS Near Real-Time Data

  • kkloor

    Tom,

    You need to catch up to my work. The post you cite is from March 5, 2009. There’s a good chance I typed that while sitting opposite you in a conference room at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

    As it happens, my post today pertains to a different type of fetish.

    • http://www.facebook.com/tom.yulsman Tom Yulsman

      For some reason, that post came up first when I went to Collide-a-Scape today. Very top of the list of posts. No idea why. Oh well.

      • kkloor

        It’s a quirk in the search engine (assuming you were searching key words). Anyway, no biggee But could you just amend the reference to me in the body of the post, to make clear that the post you are referencing is not today’s–but rather an older one? Thanks.

  • Buddy199

    “Extreme weather events dominated the 2012/2013 Australian summer, including record-breaking heat, severe bushfires, extreme rainfall and damaging flooding”.
    —————– Stating a fact about recent weather.
    “Extreme heat waves and catastrophic bushfire conditions during the Angry Summer were made worse by climate change”.
    —————- That’s the new meme, certainly. However, it is not accurate, however intuitively true it might seem. At present, there is no scientific evidence that proves a causal connection between climate change and extreme weather events. In scientific terms, the jury is still out on that one.
    “All weather, including extreme weather events, is influenced by climate change. All extreme weather events are now occurring in a climate system that is warmer and moister than it was 50 years ago. This influences the nature, impact and intensity of extreme weather events”.
    —————– Again, sweeping political statements and causal connections being claimed without solid data offered to back up those claims. Ideological truthiness masquerading as scientific fact.

    ———————–

  • xmarkwe

    Australia has had plenty of hot summers. This one was very normal: The satellite data shows that.

    The dramatic headline is based on surface measurements:

    “…The AWAP records from ground based thermometers are based on a method
    that still has not been made public. What we do know is that there were
    700-800 sites (strange how the actual number so hard to state).

    …….. less than half of those were operating in the 1930s and
    1940s when we had our last major heat waves…”

    http://joannenova.com.au/2013/

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ImaGeo

ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.

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