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Extreme weather in Australia

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 19 October 2012


A comment from Roger Pielke Jnr directed me to an article by two Australians, Ryan Crompton and John McAneney, who had actually done what I had asked someone to do: estimate the losses caused by natural disasters in Australia.

The article he linked to is behind a paywall, but there is an earlier one in the Australian Journal of Emergency Management in 2008 which you can read. Crompton and McAneney normalised costs in much the same way as Roger Pielke Jnr did for the US. Storms are the great villain here, as they are in the US, but we don't have tornadoes. Hail seems to be our great agent of destruction, rivalling thunderstorms.

While I wrote of the damage caused by floods, droughts and fires, the latter two disasters don't make it into the big Australian insured losses list. I guess that one reason is that while fires are a great subject for television, they seem mostly to burn up scrub and bush. Droughts have serious impact on rural and export incomes, but don't appear as major insurance events, unlike storms.

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We don't have tornadoes, but we did have Cyclone Tracy in Darwin, and the authors make the point that since it occurred Australian building regulations have been tightened to reduce the likelihood of damage should another such storm occur. We do learn, even if it seems to take time. The earthquake in Newcastle also caused authorities there to look hard at building regulations, though the authors say that no one much takes seismic activity seriously in Australia. I can remember a tremor in Canberra in the late 1940s, and my son felt the Newcastle quake when he and I were bushwalking north of that city - I somehow missed it.

The Australian Book of Disasters offers twelve that are weather-related, like Cyclone Tracy (1974), Cyclone Mahina of 1899 that devastated Bathurst Bay in north Queensland and killed more than 400 people, and the great Melbourne storm of 1934 that killed 35 people. Broome in WA probably has the record for storms, with cyclones in 1875 (59 dead), 1887 (140), 1894 (40+), April 1908 (50+), December 1908 (50+), 1910 (0), 1912 (150+) and 1935 (unknown numbers). Who so many deaths? Broome was the home of the pearling fleet, and the town is exposed.

Pearl buttons are no longer important, and the much smaller pearling fleet now has radio and radar, but the Broome cyclones have not been as severe since the war. The big three in the past decade or so have been the Sydney hailstorm of 1999, the Victorian bushfires of 2009 (173 dead), and the Brisbane floods of 2011 (more than 40 dead). Each of these was costly in insurance terms, too, and Crompton and McAneney have updated their 2008 study to include these later disasters, so now there have now been four peak periods the mid 1960s.

It is hard to see any sign of a link between these disasters and 'climate change', and of course the record in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries doesn't really assist the supposition that there is one. As I wrote in my earlier post, the IPCC itself says that there is no significant connection.

Crompton and McAneney say, in their 2008 paper, that 'societal factors - dwelling numbers and values - are the predominant reasons for the increasing cost of insured losses due to natural disasters in Australia', and go on to give the take-home message:

'Australia can, if it chooses, control where and how people live and build.It is now relatively easy to identify homes vulnerable to threats such as tropical cyclone, hailstorm, bushfire, riverine flood, coastal flooding, etc. at least to an accuracy sufficient to underpin prudent policy decisions.' [If we did this we would get] 'immediate improvements in community resilience to both current and future climates. The choice is ours.'

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I agree entirely. I am usually careful in making sure that I have read what I ought to read, but had it not been for Roger Pielke Jnr's comment (for which I am most grateful) I would not have known about this most important paper. To the best of my knowledge, it was not mentioned in the mainstream media, or if it was, then briefly indeed.

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A version of this article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia was published by Allen & Unwin.

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