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Drought conditions return to Australia’s eastern states

While much of Australia has received average to above average rainfall over recent months, parts of Australia such as western Queensland are in the middle of a drought. Drought has been a feature of the…

Drought is part of life in Australia. Flickr/Schilling 2

While much of Australia has received average to above average rainfall over recent months, parts of Australia such as western Queensland are in the middle of a drought.

Drought has been a feature of the Australian climate throughout its recorded history. But compared with other parts of the world, Australia is not as dry as you might think. None of the drier parts of Australia average less than 100 millimetres of rain a year, while parts of the Sahara and South America’s Atacama desert receive less than 10 millimetres.

Australia is not as consistently dry as some of the world’s great deserts, but year-to-year variation of rainfall in Australia is high by global standards. Many parts of Australia have received more rain in a month than is normal in a year, or gone a year with less than half the normal rainfall, many times. Droughts occur at the dry end of the weather see-saw; the other extreme is often characterised by floods.

Short-term droughts

Drought can be considered on a number of timescales. The Bureau of Meteorology has typically focused on monitoring short-term rainfall deficiencies for the advice of government and related industry sectors.

Such deficiencies are especially important for dryland agriculture, as they typically last for periods extending from a few months to about a year, linking to annual cropping or pasture growth cycles.

Annual time scales also allow us to compare the relationship with El Niño events. El Niño events greatly increase the risk of drought in eastern Australia, and have typical lifespans of nine to 12 months.

Long-term droughts

In addition to short-term “agricultural” droughts, we also recognise long-term droughts, spanning periods of several years when rainfall is well below normal.

Long-term droughts are especially significant for large water storages (and the agricultural and urban users who depend on them). This is because they often take the form of a number of individual severe drought years, embedded in a longer span of below-average to near average years, which do not give the storages a chance to recover.

The so-called “Millennium Drought”, which affected much of the Murray-Darling Basin between 2001 and 2009, was of this type, with two severe drought years (2002 and 2006) and the remaining years recording near-to-below-average rainfall. While the individual years in 2002 and 2006 were very dry, it was the failure of recovery during the intervening period which set this event apart from most of the past.

The end of the Millennium Drought

2010 and 2011 were extremely wet years through large parts of Australia, and drought had disappeared from the map of eastern Australia by early 2011. Unfortunately, not all areas shared the drought breaking rainfall, with 2010 an exceptionally severe drought year in the southwest of Western Australia.

Early 2012 was also very wet in many areas, especially the inland southeast which experienced severe flooding, before widespread drier conditions through the middle of 2012 as a La Niña event broke down.

Drought returns to eastern Australia

Over the last 12 months, drought has returned to substantial areas of inland eastern Australia.

The area most substantially affected has been inland Queensland. Most parts of the state that are more than 300 kilometres from the east coast have had rainfall well below average since late 2012. Over large parts of this region, the 12 month period to November 2013 has been in the driest 10% on record. Over most of this region, rainfall for the last 12 months has been 40 to 60% below average, and in a few areas it has been as far as 70% below.

While the bulk of the drought area is in Queensland, it has also extended across borders to neighbouring parts of northern inland New South Wales, the eastern Northern Territory and northeastern South Australia.

The background for the current drought was set during the summer of 2012-13. As a tropical or subtropical region, inland Queensland gets the bulk of its rainfall between December and April; in the south about 60% of the year’s average rainfall occurs during this period, increasing to 80% in the state’s northwest.

While flooding made headlines in Queensland in early 2013, most of this rain was associated with Tropical Cyclone Oswald. Little of the rain which caused that flooding made it west of the Great Dividing Range, and summer rainfall was well below average over most inland regions.

Most parts of western Queensland had less than 50 millimetres during winter and spring, usually a dry time, and some sites in the far west – as well as in the Northern Territory and South Australia – failed to reach double figures for those six months. Moomba, in the far northeast of South Australia, has had only three millimetres since the start of June.

The current drought is meteorologically significant, but well within the range of historical experience. In a broad sense, it can probably be characterised over most of the affected areas as a drought year of an intensity that’s typically expected once in 10 to 20 years, although some individual locations have fared more badly.

The last 12 months have been the second driest in 47 years of records at Mount Isa, and rank between sixth and tenth driest in 100 years or more of records at locations including Croydon, Tambo, Longreach, Injune and Bourke. In general, the last year that saw a similar level of dryness in western Queensland was 2001-02.

Averaged over western Queensland as a whole, rainfall for the last 12 months has been 48% below average, the sixth lowest since 1900 and the lowest since 2001-02. The region’s worst drought year was in 1901-02.

We will now be watching to see if the 2013-14 summer wet season is more productive than its 2012-13 counterpart. Heavy rains have fallen in the northern tropics in the last two weeks, but have so far only had a marginal impact on the drought areas outside their northern fringe.

The Bureau’s Seasonal Climate Outlook leans towards slightly towards drier-than-normal conditions over the region in summer, although not as strongly as it did in spring.

A discussion on the impact of global warming on the hydrological cycle and the possible links between climate change and rainfall changes in Australia can be found here and here.

Join the conversation

24 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark McGuire

    climate consensus rebel

    Drought conditions return? Are you saying they went away? When did this amazing drought breaking event happen? Where was it noted by the BoM in it's 2012 annual summary? Why did a drought, which was described by the BoM as our 'new climate', break? It couldn't be because of carbon(sic), because that has risen to dangerous 'unprecedented levels.'
    Is the current high levels of carbon(sic) now causing drought again?

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    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      I think if you reread the article you will find that many of your questions are actually answered there and there was no mention of climate change nor of carbon in the article so I am not sure where you got that from

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    2. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      Hi Mark, if you want to know more about links between drought and climate, you'll find a load of info in the two articles linked to at the bottom of the article. If you'd like to see what the Bureau has said in the past about drought (and you can also keep reading this in future to keep updated with drought status), look here: http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/drought/

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    3. Sean Arundell

      Uncommon Common Sense

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      OK Mr Mark McGuire who says :: "Drought conditions return? Are you saying they went away? When did this amazing drought breaking event happen? Where was it noted by the BoM in it's 2012 annual summary?"

      1) As pointed out to Dr.Mark above regarding NOAA, the maps displayed in your video exclude data such as a drought free antipodes, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-06/nz-drought-over/4671688 , which was NOT predicted by any UN-IPCC models. BY: MMcG https://theconversation.com/australia-records-its-warmest-spring-20821#comment_267348

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    4. Mark McGuire

      climate consensus rebel

      In reply to Jane Rawson

      Greetings Ms. Jane. No email from theCon causes me to inquisitively come back to answer the abuse I regularly receive. Thanks for those links, but I have one for you, Quote:
      "IT MAY be time to stop describing south-eastern Australia as gripped by drought and instead accept the extreme dry as permanent, one of the nation's most senior weather experts warned yesterday."Perhaps we should call it our new climate," said the Bureau of Meteorology's head of climate analysis, David Jones." http://www.smh.com.au/news/environment/this-drought-may-never-break/2008/01/03/1198949986473.html

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    5. Mark McGuire

      climate consensus rebel

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      Annual Australian Climate Statement 2012: http://www.bom.gov.au/announcements/media_releases/climate/change/20130103.shtml
      Is the official drought breaking announcement in the overview: "the last decade (2003–2012) has been one of Australia's warmest on record; with an anomaly of +0.44 °C, the fifth-warmest 10-year period on record." Nope, not there.
      Significant events? Nope. Climate Highlights? No. Nowhere.
      You cannot 'return' to a permanent drought.
      Welcome to the corner you have painted yourself in.

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    6. Sean Arundell

      Uncommon Common Sense

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      RE "the last decade (2003–2012) has been one of Australia's warmest on record; with an anomaly of +0.44 °C, the fifth-warmest 10-year period on record." Nope, not there.
      Significant events? Nope. Climate Highlights? No. Nowhere. [end quote]

      Surely the comments above must rate as somewhat 'delusional' given how completely inaccurate and untrue they actually are. Oh well.

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    7. Oksanna Zoschenko

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Sean Arundell

      Droughts begin a year before they are recognized. And droughts are never over in Australia, they merely expire. Both sides, Mark McGuire and his opponents, are correct.

      How did the millenium drought end?
      Mark McGuire's point as I interpret it: the advocacy scientists said the "millenium" drought might be permanent, and they never said it was over, so how can drought be back again, if it never went away?

      I followed the links kindly provided by sub-editor Ms Jane Rawson, and found the…

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    1. Bob Bingham

      Mr.

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      That's a very serious report. Just as well Abbott thinks climate change is a load of crap or Australia would have real problems.

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  2. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Thanks for this article.

    I've had various Conversations over the past few months with people who reckon Eastern Australia's drought is long gone. What's got them fooled is that Cyclone Oswald left the dams supplying their cities full, and they remain oblivious to "While flooding made headlines in Queensland in early 2013, most of this rain was associated with Tropical Cyclone Oswald. Little of the rain which caused that flooding made it west of the Great Dividing Range, and summer rainfall was well below average over most inland regions."

    Simple, if you pay attention.

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  3. Malcolm Short

    Superannuation

    "The current drought is meteorologically significant, but well within the range of historical experience."

    Congratulations to the The Conversation and to the author for this piece - it's so refreshing to read about climate here without all the AGW and CO2 nonsense thrown-in.

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    1. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Malcolm Short

      It would be even more refreshing if we could have an article on climate without the deniers in the audience demonstrating their ideological views on climate change when they are not even raised on the article.

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  4. Joseph Bernard

    Director

    Chicken or the egg?

    Would our landscape remain a desert if man disappeared?

    Is this drought part of a self fulfilling prophecy because of man's mono culture practices that creates deserts and hence drought?

    I have visited Paul Newell's property near Cowra, NSW and witnessed a functional property with a permanent water hole while the property across the fence is a dust bowl.. Whats the difference? Could it be that our mainstream land practices need to change?

    After 30 years of research…

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  5. Paul Newell

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Further to; ADAPT OR DIE
    It is only people with a high level of ecological understanding and a deep understanding of plant and animal behaviour and living practices, that can both diagnose (systems thinking) land and water system dysfunction and restore function to whole of landscape based ecosystems, at all scales, using plants and animals, not people.
    Much as a good and experienced medical practitioner can diagnose and treat illness in people.
    It is the absence of “Photosynthesis” (a natural…

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    1. Joseph Bernard

      Director

      In reply to Paul Newell

      Hi Paul,

      thank you for your wise words.. I suspect however that most people will fail to make the connection between healthy eco system and a stabilized climate.

      It seems that our thinking is compartmentalized like our schools, government and corporates. Each group failing to recognize the interdependence and synergies that depend on us working as a symbiotic organism as opposed to becoming individual cells that are unable to move ourselves off the petri dish we have created for ourselves…

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    2. Paul Newell

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Joseph Bernard

      Joe
      The other option is to restore a large area of land for the benefit of our own families and become our own best customer. That has always been my preference as working with less people it is easier to work together as an integrated community or family. And keep acquiring MORE land with the ecological capitol that is always productive, as descendants’ increase, by Natural Increase of all species that “self replace”.
      I would not like to get into a slanging match or the “blame game” for People…

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    3. Joseph Bernard

      Director

      In reply to Paul Newell

      Paul,

      results speak for themselves and you work provides a shining path to a prosperous future.. I really wish that i could take up a rural residence and secure my families future by adopting some of your wisdom,

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  6. Geoffrey Sherrington

    Surveyor

    Blair,
    The IPCC has this to say in summary about droughts, in the AR5 Synthesis Report in preparation:

    "There is low confidence in observed large-scale trends in drought, due to lack of direct observations, dependencies of inferred trends on the index choice and geographical inconsistencies in the trends; and low confidence in attributing changes in drought over global land areas since the mid-20th century due to these observational uncertainties and difficulties in distinguishing decadal scale variability in drought from long-term trends. [WGI: Table SPM1 2.6.2.2, Fig. 2-33b; 10.6]."

    How do you reconcile your comments with these?

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Geoffrey Sherrington

      Who cares what the IPCC thinks? "Link between precipitation and global warming" (http://theconversation.com/link-between-precipitation-and-global-warming-20134).

      "Natural variability alone does not account for observed changes in global (ocean and land) precipitation; rather, those changes have been directly affected by human activities new research shows.
      "Manmade increases in greenhouse gases and stratospheric ozone depletion are expected to lead to both increasing temperatures and redistribution of global precipitation.
      "It is rare for intensification and poleward shifts of precipitation to occur naturally, so this suggests strong evidence that humans are affecting global precipitation."

      More detailed explanation for the intelligent layperson at "Global Precipitation Linked to Global Warming" http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131111185520.htm

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  7. Bob Bingham

    Mr.

    The whole World knows Australia is hot and dry and is always hovering in and out of drought. At the temperature rises it dries the soil faster. We all know this. The warmer atmosphere also holds more moisture so if you are lucky you will get some big dumps of rain. Its much the same as before but with bigger extremes.
    It does not sound good for farming which really what climate change is all about.
    Somewhere between today and a 3C increase you can say goodbye to farming as we know it.

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    1. Paul Newell

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Bob Bingham

      Reply to Bob Bingham
      I agree with you that the whole world of People “Know”, but only what people have taught them about the Land and the Oceans, which is really very little yet, as human knowledge.
      And I also agree with you that People do “know” about Agriculture and what occurs to the land where modern day industrial Agriculture is practiced. For historically the practice of Agriculture and “creating” of Cities has been based upon the same “Human Logic”, that start as human living practices…

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