This is the story of the Australian summer. It is also incomplete: the starting point came from the Australian government’s own disaster assistance website. It tells its own story; the many links are included as references.
22 November-December: Central Queensland bushfires
After the fourth-warmest November on record in Queensland, with an anomaly of 1.42 degrees above the long-term average coupled with dry conditions in the east, a record-breaking heatwave towards the end of the month results in more than 140 bushfires breaking out statewide, threatening communities from Bundaberg north to Mackay. More than 8000 people are forced to flee Gracemere, on the outskirts of Rockhampton.
Another significant fire threatens the village of Eungella, west of Mackay, penetrating the surrounding highland subtropical rainforest of Eungella National Park, to the alarm of scientists. ‘Rainforests are non-burnable. That’s one of their distinguishing features,’ says the University of Tasmania’s professor of pyrogeography David Bowman. Overall fire conditions are officially rated as ‘catastrophic’, a status never before recorded in Queensland, confirmed by premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.
In the far north, temperatures of up to five degrees above average in Cairns (which reached 43.6 degrees on 26 November, exceeding 42 degrees two days in a row for the first time) and Cooktown (which reached 43.9 degrees, also on 26 November) sees more than 20,000 Spectacled Flying-foxes die of heat stress, around a third of the remaining population. This is the first record of this tropical mammal expiring in this way.
9-17 December: Tropical Cyclone Owen
Tropical Cyclone Owen—called ‘The tropical cyclone that will not leave Australia alone’ by Sky’s Tom Saunders, after it spun from the Gulf of Carpentaria south-east towards Townsville well over the course of a week—dumps enormous rainfall over the Wet Tropics. The town of Halifax records 681 millimetres of rain in 24 hours across 15-16 December, breaking the national monthly record. Some farmers who lost cane crops in the deluge reported more than 700 mm. Counter-disaster operations are activated in the local government communities of Carpentaria, Cassowary Coast, Hinchinbrook and Townsville.
13-15 December: Victorian storms and floods
A low pressure system over Victoria, fed by moisture from Cyclone Owen up north, dumps more than a month’s worth of rain over most of Victoria over a dramatic 48-hour period. At least 25 people are rescued from flash flooding in Melbourne, with 250 buildings reported to be damaged, after 34 millimetres of rain fell in 15 minutes on the afternoon of 14 December (the monthly Melbourne average is 59 mm). The State Emergency Service warns people to stay indoors. The north-east of the state is especially hard hit by flooding, with the Hume Highway closed and more than 100 people stranded, 17 of whom have to be rescued from the roofs of their cars by helicopter. Many townships receive well over 100 millimetres of rain in a 24-hour period, with Everton recording 162 millimetres and Eldorado 110.
13-21 December: New South Wales storms and floods
While Victoria is being drenched, a series of storms begin moving through the Hunter Valley and Sydney basin, with more than 100 flights cancelled at Sydney airport on 13 December. The storms and associated disruptions continue for a week, with repeated warnings of ‘giant’ hail in parts of New South Wales. This culminates in a major event in Sydney on the 20 December, with a damages bill exceeding $125 million. Estimates of hail on this day vary from golf ball to tennis ball-size, but many pictures posted to social media show much larger stones, some looking as big as softballs or grapefruit in adult hands. The Insurance Council of Australia declares a catastrophe, not least for the share prices of its members.
22 December-February: Tasmanian bushfires
Bushfires break out across Tasmania, starting at Bruny Island, burning through 130 hectares and threatening the remaining breeding population of the critically endangered Swift Parrot. But far worse is to come, as fire in the World Heritage temperate rainforests in the island state’s south-west turns the Hobart sky red by 4 January. Maximum temperatures for this month are more than three degrees above average. By 5 February, the fires have destroyed more than 3 percent of the state, around 190,000 hectares, across fronts spanning more than 1600 kilometres. Most of the fires have been started by dry lightning storms, almost unknown in Tasmania until this century. And like Queensland subtropical rainforests, the subalpine wilderness of the Tasmanian south-west is not supposed to burn, and also like those rainforests, it doesn’t quickly regenerate, if it regenerates at all. The aforementioned pyrogeographer David Bowman says from now on Tasmanians must now think of fire as ‘part of daily life’. The novelist Richard Flanagan writes that summer, once a time of joy in the usually chilly state, is now a time of dread.
December-January: Darling River fish kills
Millions of fish are killed in the Darling River, NSW in an environmental catastrophe due to build-ups of blue-green algae, caused by heatwaves in areas of already poor water quality, followed by sudden drops in temperature, which kills the algae, but sucks oxygen from the water, causing the fish to asphyxiate. Many Murray Cod floating belly-up tip the scales at over 40 kilograms, indicating that these are fish many decades old that have survived prior droughts. This is a multi-layered disaster. Much of the blame falls on water mismanagement in the upper Murray-Darling basin—specifically, too much water being extracted or diverted from the system for irrigation purposes. However, a scathing South Australian Royal Commission report, as well as independent reports commissioned by both the federal government and opposition, highlight the role of climate change in the disaster. The report from the Australian Academy of Science aims for impact by describing the kills as ‘the mainland’s coral bleaching event’.
25 January-February: FNQ floods again
With the ground already saturated by Tropical Cyclones Owen and Penny, a very strong monsoon trough sees far north Queensland inundated again with extraordinary rainfall totals, smashing records for seven and 10-day totals. Townsville —normally a drier city which sits in a ‘rain shadow’—cops more than a metre in the seven days to 4 February, more than its entire yearly average; small communities like Paluma are sodden by more than two metres in less than two weeks. Towns in the Gulf Country to the west receive more than four times the mean February rainfall. The resulting floods are so big they are best viewed from space. Concerns are expressed that Townsville, with a flooding bill of more than $1.5 billion, may become uninsurable. Losses in the west amount to a further $500 million in stock alone, with the deaths of up to half a million head of cattle.
On 15 February, the Bureau of Meteorology issues a special climate statement about the event. While it baulks at blaming this individual event on climate change, it notes that ‘it is expected that a warmer atmosphere and ocean will generally lead to an increased likelihood and severity of heavy rainfall events globally’, with total rainfall expected to increase by around 7 percent per degree of warming, and greater than 7 percent for short-term extreme events.
Ten days earlier, the BOM had issued an earlier statement reporting that the summer to date had set new benchmarks for Australian temperatures. By the end of the month, the records were official, with the BOM revealing last Thursday that this had been the hottest summer Australia had ever recorded, with a summer mean at least 2 degrees above average in terms of both maximum and minimum temperatures. Many cities broke their all-time heat records, with Adelaide recording 46.6 degrees on 24 January and Port Augusta, to the north, recording 49.5 degrees a week later.
The total cost of the Australian summer of 2018-19—in property losses, the deployment of emergency services, disruption to services, health effects (including loss of life due to heatwaves) and so on—is yet to be counted. Other impacts, such as losses of native wildlife and habitat communities, cannot and may never be fully measured. Likewise, the cost of failing to take appropriate remedial action to counter the impacts of climate change, which itself will only mitigate against the worst of future such events, cannot yet be known.
Two summers ago—on 8 February 2017—the then-treasurer and current prime minister, Scott Morrison, brandished a lump of coal in the nation’s parliament. ‘Don’t be scared,’ he said.
Good luck to you if you’re not.
Andrew Stafford is an author and freelance writer. His latest book is Something To Believe In, out in July this year. This post was originally published on his Patreon page.