Interactive map: Australia’s scorching August
It’s “proof” to climate change believers, “just weather” to sceptics – but to everyone it’s the arrival of summer. In winter.
View The Punch - August weather in a larger map
Weather records are often trivial matters, a question of a few tenths of some obscure measurement here and there. Last month’s heat highs streaked away from the norms like Usain Bolt taking on a field of suburban club runners.
Unless you work for Channel 10, weather people typically aren’t an excitable bunch. But the Bureau of Meteorology is calling the August heat “highly unusual” and “exceptional”, and this week issued a Special Climate Statement, its first since the heatwave that fried the southeast in February. The interactive map above shows some – just some – of the dozens of records around the country that were burnt.
The whole country got some of the record-breaking action – from the record highs in Halls Creek in northern WA, through the red centre and down to Launceston in Tasmania where, for the first time ever, there wasn’t a single night the temperature fell below freezing in August.
It wasn’t just a case of there being an occasional hot day, either. Alice Springs, not unaccustomed to a stretch of sun, had 16 days over 30C in the month, compared to its previous record of eight.
And the high temperatures, particularly in the east, weren’t just tenths of a degree here or there. Maximum temperatures in Queensland averaged more than 4C above the long-term trend for August. Brisbane temperatures got well into the thirties, repeatedly. Inland, the town of Windorah had never breached 35C in August. This year, it got at least that hot on seven different days.
Getting down to other individual locations, and of some of the figures are staggering – click around the map and you’ll find stations, like Collarenebri in NSW, where the highest temperatures were more than 5C above their previous August record.
Bureau meteorologist Blair Trewin said in an email interview that one of the many unusual things about the August figures was “the margins by which many individual locations broke records; quite a lot of places broke August records by 4-5 degrees, which happens occasionally at the most exposed coastal sites where seabreezes are a factor, but I can’t remember seeing it before inland.”
Naturally, some will read this as evidence of climate change or, more precisely, proof of global warming. The ongoing argument on whether it exists and if so, who to blame – cows’ farts, the lack of sun spots, the coal industry, China or my Holden – has become one of the most zealous, polarised, and, I think, boring arguments in the world today.
In a telling clarifier Family First Senator Steve Fielding, explaining his opposition to the Rudd Government’s Emissions Trading Scheme on The Punch recently, had to start by saying he wasn’t a climate change sceptic. In this debate, if you so much as look at one side of the argument, the opposing camp treats you like you’ve made up your mind.
What a pity it’s so important to everyone.
So what do we make of Australia’s August? Talk of record low temperatures or high temperatures is about weather, not climate. Kids learn at school that climate determines if you can grow bananas; while weather determines if you’ll be hot or cold or wet when you pick them.
It’s foolish to look at weather data – which is what this map is based on – and jump to conclusions about climate. There are sufficient facts to counter the argument that the Queensland-NSW border is the epicentre of global warming anyway: average global temperature fell to record lows last year, and the US has just come through one of its coolest summers on record.
But back to fruit. Ray Daniels, a strawberry grower based outside Brisbane, had to scramble to pack his berries two weeks ago because they had matured a month early in the heat. “There is so much produce on the market that we may have to plough some of the crop in because it may not cover our workers’ wages,” he told the Courier Mail.
Maybe he can cut his losses this year, and next year will likely be fine. But the long-term trend is that Australia is experiencing high-temperature weather anomalies more often, so there could be less time between the ruined crops. At what point does a strawberry farmer stop taking the gamble? The causes or even the reality of climate shouldn’t be the core concern. It’s how to handle the potential problems it could cause - if this kind of August became more regular - that needs some serious thought.
Just to be clear, I don’t think the August records say anything about climate change, though the figures are astonishing. I asked Trewin how the August records fit with broader data on changes in Australia’s climate. Here’s his answer, in full:
A lot of the unusual warmth was probably because of the particular weather patterns of the month - a persistent high pressure ridge over the subtropics and persistent strong westerlies south of Australia (which gave Tasmania a very wet month). However, the long-term temperature trend (warming of about 0.8 degrees over the last 100 years, and about 0.15 degrees per decade) puts an extra element on top of that - so that the sort of pattern that would have given you a month 1.5 degrees above average 100 years ago might give you one close to 2.5 degrees above average now.
We’ve just done a comparison with October 1988, which had very similar weather patterns to August 2009 and was, at the time, Australia’s hottest month on record. August 2009 was 0.31 degrees warmer (in terms of difference from normal) than October 1988, which almost exactly matches the overall warming trend over that 21-year period.
Over to you.
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