Recently there has been a lot of commentary about the Big Dry. From news.com.au to the 7:30 report to your nearest Facebook page and a dozen appeals for corporations and individuals to contribute to “drought relief” efforts, the winter of 2018 is full of stories of struggling farmers and dying animals. Farmers in NSW and Queensland are calling it “the worst drought in living memory“.
So how bad is it really? Much of what we hear is anecdotal, and that’s bad enough. We hear that some regions have had no rain for more than a year. In other areas, farmers describe having had “almost no rain since 2010”. It’s bad enough that Scott Morrison calls it the highest priority for his new government, and State governments are falling over themselves to throw money at the problem (the NSW government has increased its drought relief package by another half a billion dollars).
The current drought has been going for up to a decade now; Tony Abbott’s government called it a “once-in-a-century” drought when they announced a federal support package in 2014. And there’s no end in sight.
There’s no question about it: Australian farmers, particularly in the food bowl to the continent’s south and east, are doing it tough. We are in the middle of a drought possibly more severe and more protracted than the Millenium Drought.
But calling it a drought obscures our understanding of the true situation. Throwing more and more money – Federal and State relief packages, public “Save a Farmer” appeals, statewide Bunnings BBQs – however well-intentioned, might just be making things worse.
This drought was already well-established when we were talking about it back in 2014. When Tony Abbott was doing the tour of drought-affected regions and declaiming ““If you look at the records of Australian agriculture going back 150 years, there have always been good times and bad times. There have always been tough times and lush times and farmers ought to be able to deal with the sorts of things that are expected every few years,” the drought had been ongoing for four years. Four years later and there is no indication of the weather changing soon.
And when it does change? When the rains come, will farmers be able to pick up their shovels and go back to business as usual? Will we wipe our brows with relief and thank providence that the bad times are over?
Perhaps. But not for long.
The current dry in Queensland and NSW is not a short-term anomaly. It’s not a once-in-a-century drought event. Certainly, it’s not the kind of conditions you would have expected to see a century ago, but the world now is not as it was then.
Our climate has changed. That’s a past-tense statement, and while it is also true that our climate continues to change, it would be foolish of us to think that things can ever go back to business as usual. For decades scientists warned us what would happen if our carbon-driven course was not changed. We largely missed our opportunity to avoid the consequences we are now seeing.
These consequences were predicted and should surprise nobody.
This chart is from the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO’s State of the Climate report in 2016 and represents measured rainfall figures. (The full report is available at http://www.bom.gov.au/state-of-the-climate/State-of-the-Climate-2016.pdf)
This is the Bureau of Meteorology’s drought map for the past three months (May-June-July 2018).
Looking at recent data is just one part of the equation. The real test is identifying trends, extrapolating those trends into the future, and seeing how they match up with the predictions of climate science.
Fortunately we have access to trend data.
The chart on the left shows the trend in annual mean temperature (°C/decade) from
1950–2015, showing warming over most of the continent. The chart on the right is of trends in annual-average rainfall (mm/decade) from 1950–2015,
showing an increase in rainfall in much of the north and a decrease in
many southern areas.
These charts are from the report Australia’s Changing Climate (available at https://www.climatechangeinaustralia.gov.au/media/ccia/2.1.6/cms_page_media/176/AUSTRALIAS_CHANGING_CLIMATE_1.pdf).
There is strong congruence between what we are seeing in current climate trends and what has been consistently predicted. And what has been predicted, is that droughts will be more common and more severe in the years ahead.
This drought will break. At some point in the future, whether it be one year from now or five or ten, the rains will come and Australia will once again bloom to life. In some places, we will still have farmers, doing it tough, waiting for the Dry to end. For a while, there will be celebrations.
But this drought will have permanent, irreversible consequences. When trees that are 100 years old die, they don’t grow back. The land is permanently changed. It is less able to absorb and hold the water when the rains do come, leading to erosion and land degradation and a further reduction in the water table.
And how long will it be until the next drought arrives? Everything we know and everything we learn tells us that droughts will become more frequent and more severe. This current drought is not the worst we will have.
Australia is a land where the cycles of drought and flood are etched into the landscape. But trees that are 100 years old survived the last drought, and the one before that. In some respects, this drought is no different to the ones that came before. Yet the straw that broke the camel’s back is for all intents and purposes identical to all the others.
This is just a drought. But it is also an inevitable outcome of the new normal climate that we have created, that we are still creating. This is the natural outcome of a changed climate and the sooner we get used to the idea, the better. Only then can we start to think about longer-term solutions – which probably do not include farmers and graziers staying on the land as they have done in past decades.