Temperatures are set to go up down under. After enduring successive and ironically named “unprecedented” flooding events in recent years, Australia has enjoyed a reprieve of late. But now, for the first time in several years, the continent looks set to face an extremely warm and dry summer, thanks to El Niño.
This was to be expected
Earlier this week, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) declared that El Niño was in effect and made the prediction that this would lead to warmer and drier conditions over spring and summer.
You could almost sense this was coming. The country has been experiencing an unusually warm start to spring, with temperatures rising to as high as 35°C (95°F) this month, breaking seasonal records, with even more set to be shattered in the months ahead. Plus, if we took at the northern hemisphere as any indicator of the summer that the south is about experience, there’s a chance it could follow suit in being the hottest on record – driven by searing heatwaves.
Parts of the country are already bracing for the fallout. New South Wales, Australia’s most populous region, has just enacted its first total fire ban in three years. In years gone by it would be commonplace to see such a restriction occur in the midst of summer, however, due to the significantly higher than average temperatures, governments are not taking any chances here.
Why did it take so long for the BOM to make the call?
Several other international agencies had already declared the weather pattern months ago, including the World Meteorological Organisation and US National Oceanic Atmosphere Administration. So why didn’t the announcement come sooner, and what does the recent declaration of El Niño mean for the country?
Australia is not alone in experiencing El Niño, in fact, up to 60% of the globe can expect to be impacted by the warm weather pattern. That said, the “land down under” is particularly vulnerable, with unique risk factors and resultant effects. Both contributed to the reasons as to why the official call was held back. BOM officials were waiting for key changes in surrounding ocean temperatures to reach a certain threshold, as well as a correlation of atmospheric changes, known as the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI).
These values differ between agencies, with the BOM concerned with a stricter set of criteria. For example, the BOM’s threshold of 0.8°C for average increases in sea surface temperatures is higher than the NOAA’s 0.5°C, and likewise a 90-day SOI of -7.7, compared to WMO’s lower threshold of -5.9. Now that both systems have coupled together, statistically speaking, the BOM is prepared to make the call.
El Niño is not the only factor here
When assessing the record-breaking severe weather events (including droughts and forest fires in the EU and North America) that occurred earlier in the year, northern hemisphere agencies identified an interplay between unseasonably warmer ocean temperatures and El Niño’s capacity to redistribute the concentrated heat that’s been stored in the seas (thanks to successive La Niña patterns).
Likewise, the BOM has identified a “friend” of El Niño that is likely to play a part in similar weather events across the Australian continent. A positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) has been shown to cause much drier conditions in Australia, especially during the cooler months of the year. In short, expect lower than average rainfall, which will likely serve to amplify the effects of El Niño.
This is of particular concern for the country, which is already known as being the second driest continent on the planet. Australia experiences frequent droughts and bushfires are almost a certainty each summer season.
Is climate change to blame?
Scientists at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) recently published a study that identified human-made climate change, in the form of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, directly contributed to the strength and frequency of both El Niño and La Niña weather events.
Over a period of five years, the climate scientists mapped correlations between these two factors, and examined climate situations and GHG emissions from 1901 onwards. This was strengthened by a separate analysis that investigated climate situations for hundreds of years prior to the ramp up of GHG emissions caused by scaling human-industrial activity from mid-last century.
The observations show a finding of increased variability in weather patterns that tracked with a pattern of increased GHG emissions, leading to stronger El Niño and La Niña patterns, more severe droughts, floods, heatwaves and other weather-related events.
We are hurting the environment, and it is hurting us back.
What Australians can do to prepare for El Niño
Making an investment in the environment now will ensure lower costs associated with severe weather events in future.
The silver lining to come out of the catastrophic bushfires that Australia endured back in 2020 is that the people, governments and local communities are in a far better state of preparedness should similar events occur.
Bolstered by a post-mortem that included scientific research and a royal commission that not only judged the impact of the disaster, but how the country could be better prepared to avoid (or deal with) future scenarios, Australia should now be in a better position to minimise the threats of El Niño it likely faces in the coming months and years ahead.
But there are still many risks for anyone living on the continent during these times, and that means not only working to safeguard against the impact of severe weather patterns, but also reducing the likely hood that they occur in future.
For governments (and businesses), this means hastening the transition from fossil fuel to alternative and renewable sources of energy, building out green infrastructure and working to ensure climate targets are met. Every step forward will prevent further amplification of environmental forces that are not conducive to human survival on this planet. If we are talking about the financial impact of rebuilding destroyed buildings, funding emergency responders and stockpiling supplies, making an investment in the environment now will ensure lower costs associated with severe weather events in future.
And for individuals, a great start would be to take inventory of your own climate footprint, both in terms of energy, resources and waste, and then researching low and no-impact solutions to help address your unique requirements. In the short term, (in particularly if you are located in an ‘at risk’ area) make sure you have an emergency response plan, medical kit and stay up to date with the latest weather forecasts and warnings.
Make an informed assessment of your home to ensure there are no obvious risks, such as blocked gutters, failing garden hoses, broken windows or overgrown trees. And, if possible, check in with your local community centre to obtain information on how you can help out in the event of a bushfire, flood or other environmental disaster.
Australian’s recent declaration of El Niño is just the latest in a line of rapidly occurring warnings from climate experts around the world. It raises many existential questions, which are undoubtedly in the minds of every person concerned with an ever-warming world.
How can people overcome the effects of climate change? And what can be done to reduce our impact on the planet to begin with?
The answer is simple: by working together. From industries to individuals, communities to companies, governments and everyone in between. There is no escaping the fact that our planetary home is in need of some repair. Let’s stop waiting until it gets uncomfortable to act, and start being proactive with our actions, lifestyles and decisions.
Getting back to carefree summers will take some work, but it is more than worth it.