Aussie summer snapshot: what to expect weather-wise

By AG STAFF 13 December 2018
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Bushfires, coral bleaching, heatwaves or drought? Australian Geographic spoke to the some of the country’s leading climate experts to unpack what the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather predictions will mean for us and our Aussie summer this year.

AS AUSTRALIANS, we are no strangers to extreme weather events. November alone this year saw some of the most diverse weather patterns occurring almost simultaneously across the country. Citizens in New South Wales and Queensland saw particularly wild weather, experiencing bush fires, dust storms, droughts, prolonged heatwaves, extreme storms with strong winds and flash flooding, and even snowfall in parts of the Snowy Mountains.

According to the Bureau of Meteorology’s Climate Outlook released recently, experts are predicting more of these extreme weather conditions to continue into the summer months. Key points raised in the outlook include warmer-than-average nationwide temperatures and drier-than-average conditions in the north and west of the country. Australian Geographic spoke to the some of the country’s leading climate experts to unpack what these weather predictions will mean for us and our Aussie summer this year.

The Bureau of Meteorology’s summer predictions

According to the Bureau of Meteorology, there is an eighty per cent chance that almost the entire country will experience warmer-than-average days and nights between the months of December and February. The BOM also indicates that large parts of Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory are likely to be drier than average.

El Niño conditions are expected to continue developing in the tropical Pacific Ocean areas, which, along with a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, are major influencers in the weather patterns we are set to experience this summer. The BOM acknowledges that Australia’s climate patterns are also being influenced by the “long-term increasing trend in global air and ocean temperatures” brought about by climate change.

Increased risk of heatwaves

Professor William Steffen, leading scientist at the Climate Council of Australia, said that if past summers are anything to go by, the BOM’s predictions of a warmer summer indicate the “increased risk of extreme weather events” on the whole, primarily in the case of heatwaves.

“Long-term observations show that heatwaves in Australia have been getting worse over time”, William says. “Heatwaves are lasting longer, they are occurring earlier in the season, and the hottest day in a heatwave is becoming even hotter.”

As Emergency and Risk Management Expert, Andrew Gissing says, heatwaves cause “more deaths than all other natural hazards combined in Australia” – even more than the most devastating bushfires and storms. The summer of 2009 saw nearly 400 recorded excess deaths in Melbourne during a period of record high temperatures.

“People don’t always realise that heatwaves must be taken very seriously,” says Andrew. The most at-risk individuals are commonly the elderly, those with chronic health conditions, outdoor workers and the very young. These people should take particular caution when a heatwave is forecasted, however keeping cool is vital for all members of the community due to the major health risks they can cause, such as heat exhaustion (dizziness, headaches and fainting) or heat stroke (which is more severe and requires medical treatment), and it’s important for everybody to know ways to prepare for a heatwave

And it seems that these heatwaves will continue to worsen as time goes on, as “climate scientists have put Australia on notice, warning that extreme heatwaves will become more frequent, prolonged and ‘hot’ in the future, as climate change worsens,” says Andrew.

Here are six ways you can prepare for a heatwave:

Greater possibility for coral bleaching

Experts suggest that an increase in the number and severity of heatwaves could bring about more instances of mass coral bleaching on our Great Barrier Reef. Coral Biologist Terry Hughes from James Cook University warns that due to climate change, “we no longer need El Niño conditions to trigger a coral bleaching event.”

The recent heatwave in Queensland is particularly worrisome for the reef. And, with the El Niño conditions developing in tropical Pacific Ocean areas, the chances of coral bleaching in the near future are even greater.

The drought could be here to stay

With increased temperatures and less rainfall on the cards for this summer, it’s unsurprising that Australia’s scientists are predicting the drought will stick around for a while yet. Dr Martin Rice, acting CEO of the Climate Council of Australia, says that “the time spent in drought is projected to increase across southern Australia.”

“The combination of lower-than-normal rainfall and higher-than-normal temperatures tips the odds towards severe drought conditions,” says Dr Martin.

As we’ve already seen in NSW this year, droughts have major flow on effects throughout all sectors of the country, including threatened food security, job loss, economic downturn, and loss of animal lives and habitats.

Another ‘bad’ bushfire season

Professor William Steffen from the Climate Council predicts another ‘bad’ bushfire season this year, and says that the BOM’s drier and warmer weather predictions “will severely exacerbate high fire danger weather.” However, when looking at the year we’ve already had, he believes it could be even worse than anticipated.

For instance, in mid-August this year, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service declared the earliest ever total fire ban in Australia’s history. On the same day, the entire state of NSW was declared to be in drought.

“We’ve already experienced devastating bushfires in NSW over the winter this year and Queensland is experiencing unprecedented bushfires just now, and summer has only just begun,” Dr Martin says.

While recent heavy rainfall in south-eastern parts of Australia have certainly aided the bushfire situation in those areas, the Bushfire Natural Hazards CRC  has released a notice to remind people to stay alert, as it will not take long for those areas to dry out and become hazardous bushfire zones once again.

“The only long-term solution to the rising temperatures is to tackle climate change”

The predicted weather forecasts for our Australian summer this year sit within a long-term trend of rising global temperatures, and the BOM attributes a lot of this to climate change. While we are used to the swelteringly hot days and uncomfortably sticky nights here in Australia, Dr Martin, says that climate change is drastically changing our perceptions of ‘normal’ weather patterns.

“The burning of coal, oil and gas is causing global average temperatures to rise at an unprecedented rate, influencing all extreme weather events – making them more intense, damaging and costly,” he says. “As the climate warms further, extreme weather events are also likely to worsen.”

So how do we avoid rising temperatures and more damaging weather events?

“We need to address climate change, first and foremost,” says Dr. Martin. “The extent to which extreme weather will escalate past 2050 is very dependent on the actions we take right now to drive down greenhouse gas emissions.”