Flood to fire in year of wild Australian weather

Australia's weather swung between extremes in 2019, from flooding in Townsville to the recent fires.
Australia's weather swung between extremes in 2019, from flooding in Townsville to the recent fires.

Queensland communities were devastated by a flood that swallowed half of Townsville, sunk remote railway lines and killed off hundreds of thousands of cattle.

But the flood also marked Australia's most significant rainfall in a year when parts of the country barely saw a drop, if any.

Drought had already parched many areas, and last year was the hottest and driest since data was first collected in 1900.

The reality of these weather extremes were laid out in the Bureau of Meteorology's annual climate statement for 2019.

"It's quite a common occurrence for dry and warm conditions to be coupled to each other in Australia," the bureau's head of climate monitoring, Dr Karl Braganza, said.

"Having said that, we've been keeping rainfall records since 1900 and temperature records since 1910, we've never seen an overlapping ... of both the hottest year on record and the driest year on record."

The highest temperature for the year was 49.9C, recorded at the town of Nullarbor in South Australia, which set a new record for December.

Overall, Australian temperatures have risen by 1.4C since 1910, with much of that occurring since the mid-20th century.

What might seem like a small rise is causing dramatic shifts in weather patterns and exacerbating bushfires that have swept across parts of the country, leaving blackened earth and unimaginable grief in their wake.

More fierce, more frequent and longer bushfire seasons - stretching for months - are becoming the new normal.

"We're getting certain kinds of weather, particularly heatwaves and fire weather, they're becoming more frequent and more extreme," Dr Braganza said.

"That information really is going through to those responsible for managing climate risk."

In 2019, there were 11 days where the national average temperature was above 40C. There were only two such days in 1972, two in 2013, and seven in the 2018/19 summer.

Bushfire season typically starts early in Queensland and northern NSW before being killed off by monsoonal conditions. But this year it raged on, and severe fire conditions kicked in much sooner than usual.

Above-average temperatures are expected for the rest of summer, and a number of cyclones are also brewing.

It can be hard to determine the influence of climate change on a specific weather event, Dr Braganza said, but it's clear that there has been change.

"We know that there's a trend in both the severity of fire weather, the frequency of it, and an extension of the season," he said.

Australian Associated Press