The end of 2018 and start of 2019 saw some of the most extreme temperatures ever recorded in Australia with many high-temperature records being smashed. Many areas in the eastern states were tackling drought whilst the island of Tasmania was tackling huge forest fires. Even the tennis stars at the Australian Open had to deal with temperatures of 40℃!
Final 2018 data had already confirmed that 2018 was the fourth-hottest year since modern temperature records began, continuing the trend of warming that is being seen in many places all over the world. For Australia, the extreme temperatures continued into 2019 with the first month of the year becoming the hottest January on record. Is this a sign of things to come in 2019?
What Caused the Extreme Temperatures
This most recent consistently hot weather was caused by a high pressure system stalling over central Australia, leading to a build-up of heat. This not only led to the record-breaking highs but also the consistently hot weather that has dominated a lot of the Australian summer. All of this has had devastating effects on the environment, society and agriculture across the country.
The hot weather Australia experienced was obviously a weather event, however, it continues a pattern of long-term warming that has been broken records all over the world. The Northern Hemisphere roasted during its summer months in 2018 with temperature records being smashed in North America and Europe and forest fires spreading through some of the northernmost forests in the Arctic Circle. What we’re seeing are no longer just coincidences, it’s a much clearer pattern showing climate change.
But what is perhaps the clearest sign of climate change affecting global weather systems is the fact that the recent extreme hot weather in Australia was not during an El Nino year…
The El Nino Effect
The El Nino/La Nina climate cycle has a huge impact on the climate of countries around the Pacific Ocean. The Australian climate is often dependent on the warming of ocean temperatures in the western tropical Pacific Ocean around Indonesia and the Philippines. During a La Nina climate cycle, the warmer waters remain in the western Pacific and create the cooler and often wetter conditions for much of Australia. However, there are conditions in which the warmer water moves east across the Pacific Ocean and lingers off the coast of South America. This occurs during an El Nino climate cycle and typically leads to hotter and drier conditions for Australia.
The last El Nino climate cycle ended in 2016. Since then there has been a weak La Nina climate cycle affecting Australian weather, yet it still remains as hot as it did through many of the stronger El Nino events.
There is obviously variation in these climate cycles with weather events like this incredibly hot weather still very possible. However, it is a clear indication of what we should expect in the future as global temperatures rise with increasing GHG emissions. Rising temperatures during the already-hot summers will create an increasing number of issues that need to be tackled including water security and the health impacts of prolonged, hot weather.
What can Australia do?
The trend of increasingly hot summers is very likely to continue without action on climate change. Reducing emissions and deforestation in Australia would go a huge way to reducing the emissions that Australia contributes to the global total. Deforestation in Queensland forests is a major problem, creating carbon emissions and removing the ability for areas of the forest to act as a carbon sink and reduce what they contribute.
Australia also needs to look towards renewable energy as the future of energy production. A number of coal plants are due to close in coming years and should be replaced with renewable sources of energy in a country that has ideal conditions for them. Projects like the costly Adani Carmichael coal plant on the east coast will do nothing to reduce Australia’s national GHG emissions or create energy security in the future.
But there is more that can be done, particularly in cities and urban areas, to make them at least feel cooler during these exceedingly high temperatures. The planting of more trees and increased shading reduces the amount of direct sunlight in cities and reduce the ‘heat island’ effect that makes cities feel much hotter compared to areas around them.
Facing Future Challenges
Australia is dealing with some increasingly hot temperatures every year and if they continue to rise with climate change, the dangerous impacts will only increase in frequency and intensity. If climate projections are to be believed, which they should given the evidence available, then it will get increasingly hot and dry in Australia. This will put more and more stress on the declining water resources of a country heavily reliant on agriculture in its more rural areas and one experiencing a growing population. If the country doesn’t adapt to the changing climate, Australia will continue to be at the mercy of the climate with many problems only getting worse.