Australia, the driest inhabited continent on earth, is regarded as highly vulnerable. A study by the country’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation identified its ecosystems as “potentially the most fragile” on Earth in the face of the threat. Its climate is already hot, dry and variable. Its vulnerable agriculture plays an unusually important part in the economy. Most of its population and industry are concentrated on the coast, making it vulnerable to the rising seas and ferocious storms that come with a warmer world. In the south, an unprecedented 12-year drought continues.
The Australian Alps have had their driest three years ever, and the water from the vast Murray-Darling river system now fails to reach the sea 40 per cent of the time causing food harvests to decline sharply. In the summer, temperatures have been reaching 105, 110F, which is extraordinary even for this country. Leaves are falling off trees in the height of summer while railway tracks are buckling from the heat. Experts worry that Australia, which emits more carbon dioxide per head than any nation on earth, may also be the first to implode under the impact of climate change. The Murray-Darling river inflows between January and March were the lowest in 117 years and the outlook for the next three months is also looking bleak. That’s the grim news in the latest Drought Update issued by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.
For those living in the Murray-Darling Basin (contains 23 river valleys over 1 million square kilometres), the past 10 years of drought has virtually destroyed orchards and wildfires erupted all over causing extensive damage, in other areas, monsoons are worse than ever and mosquitoes spread fevers, which is much more common than before in the northern areas. Many scientists down under agree that Australia is at the early stages of how changes in the climate tear at the fabric of life. A computer or cell phone is useless if you are starving.
In Melbourne, the heat wave was so intense that it buckled the steel skeleton of a new 400 ft Ferris wheel and distorted railroad lines. During the heat wave of 110F for four days, winds proved to be a hot furnace with 100 mph winds. Worse still, Australia suffered its worse firestorms in February, many caused by rogue lightening strikes, which increased the ambient temperatures to 120F!
Back at the Murray-Darling Basin, where three of the country’s largest rivers converge, the water is becoming ever more shallow. The three rivers are simply vital for Australia’s fruit and grain growing regions and its wetlands. There are now mile after mile of desiccated fields with barren dead trees that once produced delicious peaches and pears. The human toll is also rising. In Victoria, there is one suicide per week. Farmers, unable to make a living, are leaving their orchards. Water is becoming a precious commodity, with many farmers earning more money by selling water rights than from their farm products.
Much of Australia remains in the worst drought in over 100 years. All cities there operate under severe water restrictions and using gray water, from showers, is usual for many purposes. In Brisbane, residents use recycled water. Some residents even purchase rain water. In the north, the tropical areas, the opposite is the case. It is extremely wet and the season is longer. The Darwin region is fighting twin epidemics of malaria and a dangerous form of hemorrhagic fever, both from mosquitoes that is now worse then ever.
With over 80% of Australia’s electricity being generated by coal turbines, the country’s government has done little to limit the use of coal or its contribution to climate change.
This refusal to change seems to be the biggest problem – but some radical changes are going to be necessary.