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Just a (new normal) drought

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.

(Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-01/what-you-need-to-know-about-droughts/10051956

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)

Source: http://www.bom.gov.au/jsp/awap/rain/index.jsp?colour=colour&time=latest&step=0&map=drought&period=daily&area=nat

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.


11 comments

  1. vicki

    I’m at a lost to how We are in the biggest Drought ever, since we had floods here in the central west 3years ago and I was wondering if I could get to work and a lady I work with couldn’t who lives on a farm and three years before that my friend got stuck in orange and couldn’t get back after having a baby cause of the flood waters! so it amazes me that We are in such extreme Drought, yes it has been DRY this year more than last , but the year before WE were flooding!

  2. Shaun Newman

    This is not a normal drought. Have you ever wondered why rainforests are known as rainforests? It is because the trees in the rainforest act in a way to encourage rain, fairly simple concept. Now farmers have for the past 5-10 years cleared millions of hectares of the bush trees, thus exacerbating the effects of Climate Change which in turn has prolonged the drought.

    Now, due to their bad behaviour and the capitalist world’s advertising for the farmer’s businesses ordinary apathetic working class Australians are donating millions of dollars that they can ill afford to donate to these parasite farmers who are receiving the product of their own bad behaviour, they have bought this prolonged drought on themselves by their environmental vandalism.

    I refuse to assist them and as far as I’m concerned we can import our food temporarily as we do the refrigerators that we keep the food in permanently. It’s time these environmental vandals paid the price for their behaviour and for goodness sake let’s cease and desist rewarding them and believing this tory advertising!

  3. king1394

    Year after year many farmers appear to tear as much as they can from the land. These people plant no trees, they do not fence off their watercourses from stock damage or repair erosion gullies, they don’t even install watering systems for stock so that water can be drunk from troughs or build up a store of hay. I am so sick of hearing that these farmers know what is best for their business or that they are supreme environmentalists. However there are also farmers who have been driven to over-exploit their land through the pressures of debt and contracts to supply that they must meet. The capitalist model is no good for farmers or maintaining a healthy environment.

    There are many other farmers who have implemented good land management systems from cell grazing to natural sequence farming and keep good ground cover to protect their soil, destock before the feed runs out and so on, but they aren’t celebrated for their good practices.

  4. Diannaart

    The capitalist model is no good for farmers or maintaining a healthy environment.

    Well said, king1394

  5. Vikingduk

    And if we travel to Siberia, we will find land once frozen year round (permafrost) is now thawing which, of course accelerate climate change. One of many instances of our world degrading. A tremendously sad and horrible situation compounded by fuckwit politicians and a rule of ignorance affecting the bulk of us.

    Several months ago, NASA climate science division had an article informing us that even were we to stop our polluting ways right now, completely, the affects of poisoning this planet would continue, growing, accelerating for a couple of centuries.

    Just about time to kiss your arse goodbye, perhaps even apologise to the young for stealing their future.

  6. diannaart

    Politicians and science – accept anything with regard to weapons technology, yet MIA when confronted with environmental science.

  7. corvus boreus

    Vikingduk,
    Did you know that, as oceanic plastics break down into ever-smaller poly-carbonate chains, they not only increase the acidity of the surrounding water (leaching of carbonic acid) but they also actually generate and release their own methane (+ ethylene)?
    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/08/180801182009.htm
    Just a little fun fact that I thought might help brighten up your day.

  8. Vikingduk

    Yep, thanks, Corvus, also the most prolific bit of rubbish picked out of the sand (micro plastics). Never ceases to amaze me that quite often it is blue plastic and uniform in size, about 1mm square. Fun times ahead, Corvus, methane from the plastic, methane from the melting permafrost and halfwits ruling us.

    Though I have consistently maintained a person can never have too much concrete, which is what that permafrost needs, as well as that pesky ice that keeps melting.

  9. JRD

    Maximum Reforestation, simple as that.

  10. Peter F

    During the ‘millennium drought’ my partner had cattle on adjistment on his farm. He managed the cattle for the owner, and used the good practices of cell grazing etc. referred to by king 1394. As the drought progressed, we used to say , every time the owner of the stock came to inspect them ” He will want to take them back now.’ But we were wrong. Every visit he used to say “Gee, it looks good over here.” Occasionally we had to movers the stock some 5 km on local roads, and on one occasion a neighbour stopped for a chat ( as you do), and he said ‘There should be a law against having cattle in such top condition in a drought.

    Now, 15 years later, part of the farm has been sold, and the new owner is opening up a silage pit put down decades ago to supplement his stock. We had never needed it.

    Yes, there are farmers who look after their land. Oh, and many trees have been planted over the years.

  11. MöbiusEcko

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-10-04/government-delayed-release-of-climate-data-again:-foi-shows/10333056

    This one article says it all really, especially on Morrison’s response to the report. Remember when per capita emissions were going up and the highest in the world under a Coalition government and Labor highlighted that fact, the Liberals stated per capita didn’t matter, it was the nation’s total emissions as compared to countries such as China and the US.

    Who is cherry picking facts, Morrison? Projection much.

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