17 January 2009

The changing face of Australia

Weather-wise, Australia has been seeing something of a wet period recently. Normal to above-normal rains have been observed across much of the country over the past several months, with November being particularly wet. There's ongoing flooding in NW Queensland, and the normally dry Lake Eyre may partially fill this year. The NT's Red Centre has turned green. Further, the Bureau of Meteorology's annual climate summary indicates that 2008 was 'only' the 14th warmest year on record. Does this spell the end of climate change in Australia? Is K-Rudd doing the right thing by setting such a pathetic target for reduction of CO2 emissions in this country?

This is most likely courtesy of the return of quasi-La Nina conditions in the Pacific, after a brief return to neutral Pacific conditions. A strong La Nina affected the weather during late-2007 and early-2008. Historically, La Nina often mean wet periods in Oz, and overall cooler global temperatures as well. This latter point applies to Australia as well.

Globally, the cooler weather has caused most of the contrarians to downplay the reality of climate change. Hopes and wishes are all well and good, but the power of positive thinking won't change this reality; Anthropogenic climate change is not gone, either in Australia or the rest of the world. What we are experiencing is just weather and interannual climate variability -- by definition short-term. The La Nina likely won't make it much past the end of austral summer, and El Nino will be around again soon enough, when we'll likely see new record high mean temperatures, both in Australia and around the globe. This is not the end of anthropogenic climate change.

Regardless of whether one accepts the reality of the above facts or not, the Great CO2 Enhancement Experiment (~40% and rising) we are running on the planet is dangerous -- full of unintended consequences and unforeseen peril. Warming of the mean global climate is serious, but only one of many of our worries. CO2 presents other dangers as well. Below are a few early results from experiment noted of late in Australia and its territories.

  • Recent analysis of the long term patterns of coral growth on the Great Barrier Reef are telling. A 400 year record of banding like tree rings on the giant Porites coral reveals a massive decline in the growth history. Since 1990, a decline in the growth rate has been observed. Previously, the record would undulate, now the decline is consistent. Should current trends continue, the growth rate will be zero by 2050. Ocean acidification as much has rising temperatures are believed to be the culprit.

  • In Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, a 40 year study has revealed an increases in woody vegetation on the savanna and in the floodplains of the park. Intially, the increase was hypothesized to be a result of feral buffalo (an invasive species). However, this relationship has proven to be weak as after 1985, the buffalo were nearly eliminated from the park while the vegetation structure continued to change. Instead, the researcher speculate that he change may be related to an increased level of atmospheric CO2, increasing rainfall and changing fire regimes during the study period.

  • Heard Island, a sub-Antarctic island some 4000 km southwest of Western Australia is showing a rapidly changing landscape. A portion of the land has split from the mainland, effectively forming a new island. This is a result of changing sea level, possibly from rising temperatures (a 1oC increase over past 50 years, and it's not an urban heat island!) or from other factors like strong ocean swells and winds. Further, a glacier on the island has likely retreated further and anecdotally, the lagoons at the glaciers terminus have increased in size. Analysis and monitoring are underway.

None of the Earth's 'spheres' remains untouched by Our Way of Life. Climate change and other environmental degradation affects the whole population of the Earth and every nation on its face. Australia's self image as the Lucky Country will not spare it any damage, as the above examples attest. Even without a temperature change, the Experiment has detrimental results -- ocean acidification or enhanced plant growth are but two. The effects run deep and climate change is just the obvious manifestation. And there are may well be surprises we haven;t even considered yet to come.

So yes, it is short-sided for Australia to set such a pathetic emissions reduction target. It's time to stop listening to the neoliberal economists; they are clueless and morally bankrupt. Let's lead instead of being led like sheep following the shepherds of greed. Unchecked, the whole experiment – CO2 enhancement, rampant consumerism, overpopulation -- will catch up to everyone in the end. If we act soon, we have a chance to break the bonds and begin a new way of living. If and when the inevitable crash comes, the considerations which are driving this decision now will be meaningless. The businesses will be gone and the economy will be toast. The world is not ours to exploit to the point of exhaustion. We have a moral obligation --to our fellow denizens of biosphere (human or otherwise), both now and into the future -- to leave the world in the state we inherited it. They are our legacy and our immortality, the standards by which we will be judged.

Image: Bureau of Meteorology