The Floods in Queensland: Jan 2011

Friday, 01 April 2011 07:33

In the first 38 years of my life when I lived in Australia there were floods and droughts but they came in a roughly regular pattern of about five years of floods, or at least a lot of rain, and five years of drought. Occasionally there was a serious flood like the Maitland floods of 1955, but there was nothing like the floods at present in Queensland that cover an enormous part of the state. Back then the words ‘El Niño’ and ‘La Niña’ were unknown to us. Now these words and ‘Southern Oscillation’ feature in our news almost every way. ‘Much of the variability in Australia’s climate is connected with the atmospheric phenomenon called the Southern Oscillation, a major see-saw of air pressure and rainfall patterns between the Australian/Indonesian region and the eastern Pacific.’

Something else we didn’t know was that the world’s climate is under the influence of the Jet Stream, a current of high altitude air. In 1945 American B-29 bombers were flying at such an altitude over Japan so that they could drop their napalm bombs on Japanese cities that were full of wooden buildings which burned very fiercely.  At that altitude the bomber pilots could avoid the Japanese fighter planes, but they found their plane being buffeted by the powerful stream of air that we now know as the Jet Stream.

When it was first discovered the Jet Stream was consistently in the northern latitudes. One of the results of climate seems to be that the Jet Stream shifts its position and sometimes loops back on itself. In the winter of 2009 – 2010 the Jet Stream shifted southwards and let the Arctic air flow into northern Europe. It did the same in the winter of 2010 - 2011, only earlier, and Europe froze. In its new position the Jet Stream altered the pattern of the monsoon rains in Australia. As well as cyclones bringing rain to the west and east coast, the rains came from the north in outback Queensland and NSW. Dams that hadn’t contained water for years filled up, and then overflowed. Torrents of water flowed down what had been bone-dry river beds.

Most Australians now are very familiar with all these new words. Only the die-hard deniers refuse to see the evidence of climate change that is all around them. Even before climate change, Australia was a harsh country, utterly indifferent to the human beings who tried to impose their will on it. Outside of the cities the inhabitants have learnt that to survive they have to look after one another. Daily news bulletins about the floods use phrases like ‘sticking together’, ‘watching out for one another’. Each state has its own State Emergency Services (SES) made up of volunteers. In NSW the SESis ‘the response agency for floods, storms and tsunamis. More than 10,000 volunteers give up their time in 228 locations throughout NSW to assist their communities during floods, storms and other emergencies.’ It was not for nothing that that the popular Australian soap was called ‘Neighbours’.

Queensland’s Premier is Anna Bligh, a very sensible woman with none of the airs and graces that politicians usually adopt. She’s been touring the flooded areas, meeting people, finding out at firsthand what is happening. Julia Gillard, PM, has been working out how much government money will be available for re-building, and when and how it will be available. Even her arch-critic, Tony Abbott, Leader of the Opposition, has not criticised her, though no doubt, once the immediate danger has passed, he and others will. Criticism of others is one thing Australians are good at. Their slang is replete with suitable phrases for dingbats and drongos.

Meanwhile we watch the news and see each night a message from the government warning us of the high fire dangerin other parts of the continent. While one part of the country floods, another part burns.