Weather events point to a future of extremes

ACCURATE PREDICTIONS: Science has progressed weather forecasting to a whole new level.
ACCURATE PREDICTIONS: Science has progressed weather forecasting to a whole new level.

From record heat to record rain, the month of January will certainly see its reflection in the Australian history books.

The incredible heat wave earlier in the month surpassed records set in 1932 and went on to set benchmarks for what is "uncomfortable", with Birdsville, for instance, recording 31 days of temperatures over 40 degrees.

The Northern Rivers was spared that sort of heat, and the bushfires that followed, but our region was not immune from the effects of the remarkable ex-cyclone Oswald, which chose a path never before seen in written history.

The most extreme rainfalls were in the region between Rockhampton and Bundaberg, and in the ranges along the New South Wales - Queensland border.

Upper Springbrook in the Gold Coast hinterland received an amazing 1496mm in eight days.

Again, the Richmond was spared the worst of the wrath, but the Clarence - which received an evenly spread couple of hundred millimetres over its north and south catchments at the same time - recorded an Australian record for the amount of water coursing down its channels, with enough brown murk running out to sea in a seven-hour period to fill Sydney Harbour!

Surely we have witnessed the dawn of global warming?

Well, you know how the scientists bracket their answers when questioned like this, but it does seem that this is the sort of weather we can expect more of in future years.

However, climate scientist with the Bureau of Meteorology, Dr Andrew Watkins, clarified this by noting these recent weather events were just that - events, and they have, and will happen in any year, La Nina or not.

Having said that, these extreme events are just the kind of thing that will happen more frequently under a global warming scenario. But Dr Watkins said the climate models suggested cyclonic activity might decrease under global warming conditions, but the strong ones may increase.

When it comes to ex-Oswald, there were many amazing observations. For starters, it began as a petty category one system in the Gulf of Carpentaria and quickly degenerated into a lowly rain depression which should have petered out somewhere north of Cooktown before heading out to sea to be absorbed into the great tropical monsoonal trough.

But no.

It continued south along the coast, in fact inland of the coast sometimes by a couple of hundred kilometres, pushed by a big high pressure bubble to the east and fed by a frigid upper atmosphere until it popped out to sea south of Sydney.


Dr Watkins noted that this amazing system was doing nature's good work, which is to redistribute heat from the equator to the poles. And under a global warming scenario, there will be more heat to distribute, and potentially more vehicles to send it south.

One of the real stars of this weather show has to be the Australian weather forecasting model, which Dr Watkins said was among the best in the world and managed to portray weather events in a strikingly accurate manner.

Considering that Oswald started life as a relatively minor entity, and that it followed a path never before recorded, the massively complex computer models did an amazing job of alerting Northern Rivers residents to the good chance of serious rain five days before it happened.

Compared with the 1970s, today's five-day forecast is as accurate as it was back then for just one day.

And the models are being improved all the time. New developments due to come online soon will give the forecasting maps a Google Earth-like touch.

Topics:  opinion

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