Category Archives: Cyclone

The new normal (part 22): The Great Barrier Reef is dying

Source: The Age

A little over two years ago I took my first trip to north Queensland with the express purpose of seeing the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and the magnificent rain forests of the region. I was motivated by the thought it may be one of those “last chances to see” the GBR before its inevitable decline.

While there I could no help but feel a muted, but still profound, sense of melancholy.

I could not help but recall my child hood experience of watching David Attenborough’s Life on Earth. What I saw was beautiful, complex and fascinating and yet fragile and at risk.

For some time scientists have understood the Great Barrier Reef is at risk – today a report in The Age today confirms that over the past 30 years half of the GBR’s coral has disappeared due to parasites, cyclone damage and coral bleaching:

Half the Great Barrier Reef’s coral has disappeared in the past 27 years and less than a quarter could be left within a decade unless action is taken, a landmark study has found. 

A long-term investigation of the reef by scientists at Townsville’s Australian Institute of Marine Science found coral had been wiped out by intense tropical cyclones, a native species of starfish and coral bleaching. 

Researchers warned that while the World Heritage listed reef was a dynamic system — with coral cover rising and falling over time — if the mass die-off continued less than 25 per cent would exist in 2022. 

“The big concern going forward is that if nothing else changes than within 20 years the reef could be in a perilous state,” said institute senior scientist Peter Doherty. 

At 214 reef sites surveyed, the coral cover halved from 28 to 13.8 per cent between 1985 and 2012.

Two-thirds of the loss occurred since 1998. Only three of the 214 reef sites exhibited no impact. 

“Coral cover is the simplest index of reef health, and the health of the Great Barrier Reef has gone down dramatically,” said institute senior scientist Hugh Sweatman. 

“The coral provides shelter and food for thousands of organisms so you don’t just lose the corals themselves you lose the species that depend on them.” 

The coral damage was most pronounced in the central and southern regions of the 2000-kilometre reef, with the remote northern section remaining largely unaffected.

Tropical cyclones accounted for 48 per cent of the coral die-off across the entire reef, followed by outbreaks of the crown of thorns starfish, which was responsible for 42 per cent of the loss. Bleaching contributed to 10 per cent of loss. 

“You can dive on a coral reef one week when all you can see is living coral, each colony overlapping with its neighbours, but after the passage of a cyclone it looks like a cement road,” said Dr Doherty. 

Global warming models project increases in water temperatures will lead to more intense cyclones.

While crown of thorns starfish were a natural predator of coral — the adult animals feed on tiny polyps inside the coral skeleton — their impact over the past 25 years had been substantial. 

A large outbreak that started around Lizard Island in 1994, spread the length of the reef over 15 years.

Flood waters carrying fertilisers and other agricultural nutrients into the ocean were thought to increase the survival of crown of thorns larvae because the runoff encouraged the growth of algae eaten by the offspring.

 

“The frequency of crown of thorns outbreaks on the Great Barrier Reef has likely increased from one in every 50-80 years before European agricultural runoff, to the currently observed frequency of one in about every 15 years,” said the authors. 

Warmer waters were also responsible for coral-bleaching events, where the tiny organisms living inside the coral skeleton “bleached” and died with the rising temperatures. 

“The recent frequency and intensity of mass coral bleaching are of major concern, and are directly attributable to rising atmospheric greenhouse gases,” wrote the authors, whose study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Bleaching mortality will almost certainly increase in the GBR, given the upward trend in temperatures,” they said. 

While the state of the world’s longest reef system appeared bleak, it did have the ability to recover.

“What it needs is a decade or two to do it in,” said Dr Sweatman.

This too shall pass.

Canary in the coal mine part 2: Perth fires “out of control” and threaten homes; Victoria reels from floods

Children scream at their father to evacuate (The Australian)

While the Eastern seaboard is being flooded, in Perth they are battling fires. Residents we’re given just 20 minutes to flee from fires:

PEOPLE were given just 20 minutes’ warning that a rapidly moving bushfire would hit their homes yesterday, as a blaze swept through Perth’s southeastern suburbs, destroying or damaging at least 40 houses and threatening 100 more.

Firefighters tackled two massive fronts, which ignited at opposite ends of the city, after a hot spell and strong winds pushed the bushfires out of control.

Many homes in Roleystone and Kelmscott, on the city’s southeastern fringe, were ablaze.

The Fire and Emergency Services Authority said 40 homes were last night confirmed destroyed or damaged. There were unconfirmed reports that up to 60 properties had caught fire as the flames moved rapidly, generating massive plumes of smoke.

At least 12 people have been hospitalised with smoke inhalation.

On the northeastern fringe of the city, around the suburbs of Millendon, Brigadoon, Baskerville and Red Hill, another blaze threatened homes and more than 100 people were evacuated.

Thankfully there has been no loss of life, however we could see the number of homes lost climb:

“We haven’t had loss of life. We are grateful for that but certainly there’s a lot of trauma that goes with it.”

Mr McMillan said neither of the big fires are under control, and unpredictable and strong winds are expected this morning.

“Our struggle will remain until we get some respite in these unusual weather conditions,” he said.

“It’s just the strength of the easterly winds. They were at damaging strength two days ago and they have maintained the consistency.”

Relocation centres have been set up near both fires and residents of a nursing home in Kelmscott have been evacuated to a shopping centre.

Many roads have been closed in threatened areas and residents who have left will not be allowed back until the all-clear is given.

Photographer Paul Pichugin captures the intensity of the fires around Perth:

 

 

Perth Hills on fire (Source: Paul Pichugin)

 

While Perth burns, Victoria drowns

As I noted in previous posts, the floods in Victoria are unprecedented. The transport network has been thrown in chaos:

VICTORIANS are being urged to be patient and prepare for long delays when they return to work and school today, with authorities warning flood-damaged and closed roads could make this morning’s commute difficult.

Police, SES and VicRoads have asked drivers to consider leaving earlier or much later than usual this morning to help mitigate delays caused by road closures.

The impact of road closures would be worsened with tens of thousands of students returning to school.

Despite the rain knocking out ten train lines on Friday night, Metro said the damage had been repaired over the weekend and the network was running at full capacity today.

The badly disrupted Sandringham line was re-opened yesterday at 4.30pm and repairs to 10 damaged trains were finally completed. A V/Line spokeswoman said services returned to normal yesterday and were running on schedule this morning.

But as the morning peak hour began on the city’s roads today, VicRoads warned of major disruptions.

I’ve seen fire, and I’ve seen rain.

Australia is the canary in the coal mine.

Welcome to the Anthropocene

Being a blogger frees me from the usual reticence and qualified statements scientists usually (for good reason) make.

I may appear very foolish for saying this, but its time to call it: we’ve well and truly passed a threshold.

Call it climate change, or global warming. Or perhaps you could rename the planet as Bill McKibben suggests (Eaarth). Actually the name really doesn’t matter.

This is the new normal.

Even if we stopped all CO2 emissions tomorrow, there’s more than enough warming “in the pipe” for future “climate disruption”.

The Greenland ice sheet?

Most likely gone.

The Great Barrier Reef.

Most likely gone.

Cyclone Yasi may rival devestating Cyclone Larry; food prices to rise by 70%; hold on… the “Long Summer” isn’t over

Above: Cyclone Larry, 2006

I’m calling this the “Long Summer”.

“Long” because every day we watch the warning signs for catastrophic cyclones, floods and fires.

“Long” because hundreds of thousands of Australians are now trying to rebuild their lives after floods devestated their homes, businesses and farms.

“Long” because the floods might mot be all we have to contend with.

As I indicated before we missed two bullets over the weekend.

But Yasi is on the way:

A severe cyclone expected to hit Queensland on Thursday is likely to rival, and on some measures, dwarf Cyclone Larry, which devastated parts of north Queensland.

The Bureau of Meteorology says Cyclone Yasi will be a severe category three or four cyclone when it crosses the Queensland coast, likely early on Thursday morning.

Bureau senior forecaster Ann Farrell said the latest modelling suggested Yasi would make landfall somewhere between Innisfail, in the north, and Proserpine, in the south.

Yasi could rival Cyclone “Larry”:

If it hits as a category three, wind gusts up to 200km/h can be expected, and 250kmh if it builds to a four, as Cyclone Larry was when it devastated Innisfail and surrounding communities in March 2006.

It’s currently off Vanuatu, about 1975km east, northeast of Townsville, and moving westward at about 30kmh.

“At this stage we’re expecting it to continue moving towards the Queensland coast and intensify … and it’s likely to reach the coast early on Thursday morning,” Ms Farrell said.

“By that stage we will be looking at a severe tropical cyclone so certainly at least a [category] three, and a category four we wouldn’t be ruling that out by any means.”

She said the last cyclone of that magnitude to hit Queensland was category four Cyclone Larry.

Larry left a trail of destruction including damage to 10,000 homes and a repair bill of more than a billion dollars.

I remember Larry: it resulted in bananas at $14 a kilo.

But we don’t need to wait for Yasi to hit. Thanks to the floods, food prices are already on the rise:

VICTORIAN consumers face price rises of more than 70 per cent on basic vegetable and fruit items such as broccoli, cauliflower, nectarines and grapes because of flood damage.

As fears mount that the recent spike in fresh food prices will lead to more Australians replacing fresh fruit and vegetables with cheaper foods that have poor nutritional value, new economic modelling reveals consumers should expect significant price hikes across a broad range of fresh food products.

The IBISWorld figures, released to The Age yesterday, show the price of stone fruit could jump 76 per cent in coming weeks, and both red and white table grapes could rise by 70 per cent as a result of local flooding. The modelling also predicted broccoli and cauliflower would rise by 80 per cent.

Advertisement: Story continues below Across Australia, IBISWorld industry analyst Suzannah Rowley said, prices for watermelon were expected to rise by 50 per cent, pumpkins to increase by 60 per cent and sweet potato to jump from 80 to 100 per cent. Tomatoes would also probably rise between 60 and 70 per cent.

I spoke to my local green grocer last week, and they told me it was “getting harder” to get produce. Everyday they’re up at 5am trying to source fruit and vegetables. However in many instances, “the prices are too high”.

So watch your local super market shelves: price jumps are on the way.

Of course one of the anticipated “threats” climate change relates to food security. In a world when crops are wiped out by floods, fires and cyclones food costs more.

Supply and demand.

Which is way last year as part of 350.org “10:10” event I planted some tomatoes and herbs. Having never been a gardener I’m pleased to see a my first batch tomatoes almost ready to pick. The basil and mint are thriving, and I’m planning to extend it over the coming years.

Even deniers have to eat.

Note, I’ve already written about food security here:  

Bill McKibben in his prescient book “Eaarth” warns that it is not the rising temperatures or sea levels that will impact us first, it will be the increasing scarcity of food.

While we may not notice the rising temperatures on a day-to-day basis, we will certainly see the impact of climate change on the supermarket shelf.

As this recent study shows, there has been a 10% decline in plant growth over the past 10 years as the result of increased droughts, deforestation and land degradation. Fish stocks are close to collapse, denying billions another food source.

The agricultural and food industries are dependent for fossil fuels both for fertilisers (oil is a basic component of most modern fertilisers) and transport. With both peak oil and climate change hitting these sectors, it’s inevitable that food prices are going to go up.

For those in the developed world the days of cheap and plentiful food are coming to end. No more Californian strawberries flown in during the middle of the Melbourne winter.

For those in the developing world, it means going hungry. We’ve seen a glimpse of the future in 2008 as food riots erupted around the globe in response to rising prices.

This year, Russia put a hold on grain exports due to the loss of more than 20% of its crops – partly caused by extreme drought conditions brought on by climate change

How much longer will the Lucky Country’s luck hold out? WA and Queensland both dodge bullets

The “Lucky Country’s” luck held up over the weekend.

From the Indian Ocean, Cyclone Bianca came, but luckily the south-west corner was spared. But tragically a 17 year girl lost her life:

Perth appears to have been spared the full brunt of Cyclone Bianca, with the storm system weakening considerably as it prepares to cross the south-west coast of WA later today.

But the city and several regional centres are mopping up today after being lashed by storms yesterday that hit land ahead of the now ex-tropical cyclone.

Yesterday’s thunderstorms in Geraldton claimed the live of a 17-year-old girl after she stepped on a fallen power line on her way home. Two teenagers are also in hospital as a result of the electrocution.

Even this one death is one too many.

From the East, Cyclone Larry crossed north Queensland with relatively little damage:

The north Queensland town of Bowen has ‘‘dodged a bullet’’, the Whitsunday mayor says, suffering little damage from Cyclone Anthony.

‘‘We’ve just had a big pruning – it’s nature’s way of pruning the town,’’ Mike Brunker told the ABC this morning, after Anthony hit as a category two about 10pm last night.

Both sides of the Australian continent saw cyclones pass perilously close within days of each other.

Had they both reached landfall, the devastation would have easily rivalled the floods in Queensland and Victoria.

Australia’s famous “luck” held out this time.

But we can’t bet the future on being “lucky”?

“Yasi” is lurking around Vanuatu:

A second more damaging cyclone is still heading towards Queensland and is expected to cross the coast on Wednesday night or Thursday.

Cyclone Yasi is just north of Vanuatu, about 2000km east-northeast of Bowen.

Mr Prasad said the category one cyclone was tracking towards Queensland’s north coast and was expected to intensify very quickly over the coming days.

‘‘It’s too early to know what category it will be [when it crosses] but we would expect it to be at least a category four,’’ he said.

Only fools place their future in the hands of “luck” or the “gods”.

You make your own luck.

This is why we need to accept the reality of climate change and plan accordingly.

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