Climate change has increased the severity of drought in Australia’s Murray Darling Basin

 

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Parts of Australia’s Murray Darling Basin have had their driest 36 months on record, to 31 October 2019.  There has been some rain at the start of November 2019, so across the whole basin it may not be the driest three consecutive calendar years on record.

The record was set in the years 1965 to 1967.

There is, however, a factor which makes the current drought far worse than the 1965 to 1967 drought.  Summer temperatures are now far hotter in the Basin.  As shown in the chart below, mean summer temperatures during the 1965 to 1967 drought were less than one degree C hotter than the 1961 to 1990 average.  The last three summers have had mean summer temperatures more that 2 degrees C hotter and the 2018-19 summer was more than three degrees hotter!

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The current drought is much more severe than the 1965 to 1967 drought due to climate change increasing evaporation.

The Murray Darling Basin is often referred to as Australia’s food bowl and accordingly food production is down which is costly to the economy and disastrous for the communities affected.  The federal government is pouring in billions of dollars in assistance, while still proclaiming at the United Nations that Australia is pulling our weight on actions to limit climate change.

Australia must do much more and must encourage other countries, especially the USA, to do likewise, because Australia is experiencing the costly effects of climate change.

In a future post I’ll write about what Australia should, and can, do to limit rising temperature and stimulate more rainfall.

Charlie Nelson

 

 

 

My analysis of Australian climate change beliefs in The Australian

The Australian newspaper has summarised my analysis of variations in belief in climate change in the Australian today (17 May 2019) on page 33. It was written up by Robert Gottliebsen, one of Australia’s most respected and experienced journalists.

There has been a wave of climate change denial by all the usual suspects in the lead-up to the federal election tomorrow. Their arguments are fallacious and misleading, but potentially influential.

I will be updating our survey after the federal election in order to evaluate the extent of any change in beliefs.

Charlie Nelson

The importance of generating renewable energy close to where it is demanded

Our electricity grid was designed for transmitting electricity from huge generators across the country.  Its design is not optimal for transmitting electricity from the distant extremes of the grid back to cities.  It will take some time to re-develop the grid to transmit electricity from remote solar and wind farms to where the greatest demand is.  The grid also needs to become more intelligent so that it can adapt to where the energy is coming from, which can be variable.

Furthermore, up to 10% of generated electricity can be lost in transmission.

For these reasons and others, I was very pleased with the Australian Labor Party’s election promise to spend $1 billion to equip thousands of public schools with solar panels.  Schools are at the centre of communities and so close to demand.

The schools should also be equipped with batteries to store energy and to deliver it at peak times – in the early evening, when schools are mostly empty and households are ramping up demand for heating or cooling, and lighting.  They could also deliver excess electricity during weekends.

Other properties which would also be important generators are suburban railway stations.  Many have large roof areas and the stations are distributed across suburbs and regional towns.

And what about solar panels between the tracks?  There are thousands of kilometres of track in Sydney and Melbourne, with the potential to generate huge amounts of electricity in the suburbs.

With all of this extra generation and storage capacity, we could progressively retire some ancient coal fired power stations.

Charlie Nelson

 

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An inconvenient hot summer in Australia

With record high temperatures across much of the continent, smashing the previous record; with record rainfall in North Queensland and 500,000 cattle lost; with extreme drought in many locations, including the death of millions of fish in the Menindie Lakes; it has been a summer well beyond past experience.  Bushfires have caused loss of property in Tasmania, Victoria, and New South Wales.

With such an extreme summer being closely followed by a federal election, denial of climate change; claiming that Australia should do nothing as we are a small emitter of greenhouse gasses on a global scale; and token policies will not resonate well with the majority of the electorate.  As Australia is being damaged by climate change, and the damage will escalate, it is time to consider what action we can take which is of greater influence on global greenhouse gas emissions than our proportion of emissions.

Australia’s 2018-19 summer was very hot compared with all previous summers, dating back to 2010-11 (Chart 1).

Chart 1
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The record mean temperature in 2018-19 was 0.86 degrees C hotter than the previous record set in 2013.  This margin is the greatest on record, exceeding the margin of 0.52 degrees C by which the summer of 1972-73 was hotter than the previous record in 1938-39 and 1925-26.

The only comparable extreme is the very low mean temperature in 1916-17.  That was during an extreme La Nina, but there was no extreme El Nino in 2018-19.

The temperatures shown in Chart 1 are relative to the average of the period 1961 to 1990 (27.5 degrees C).

The upwards trend is 1.3 degrees per century (Chart 2) and has accelerated to 2.2 degrees per century from 1970 (the last seven summers have been hotter than the 109 year trend).  These trends are highly statistically significant.

Chart 2
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The trend mean temperature anomaly for 2019-20 is predicted to be 0.64 degrees, with a 95% confidence interval of 0.45 to 0.83.

The mean temperature anomaly relative to 1961 to 1990 across Australia in the summer of 2018-19 is shown in Chart 3.  Much of the continent was more than one degree hotter than the 1961 to 1990 average, many locations had a mean temperature more than 2 degrees hotter, and some places were more than 3 degrees hotter (the average was 2.1 degrees across the continent).

Chart 3
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The record rainfall in much of north Queensland was in marked contrast to a dry summer in most of the rest of the continent (Chart 4).  This chart shows rainfall anomalies relative to the 1961 to 1990 average.

Chart 4
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The longest continuous tracking of the general public’s level of belief in imminent global warming has been carried out by foreseechange (Chart 5).  The estimated likelihood of clear signs of global warming in the year ahead is a 63% chance, back to the level of 2007 when the electorate last voted the coalition out of office.  The last update of this tracking survey was in November 2018 – since then we have experienced the highly extreme summer of 2018-19, which would have further lifted the level of belief in imminent climate change.

Chart 5
chart5

Previous variations in the level of belief in imminent climate change have been caused, in part, by preceding temperatures and rainfall.

When the general public was asked to rate issues on the basis of the level of concern in the foreseeable future, climate change ranked fifth, ahead of traffic congestion, health, and crime (Chart 6).  The scale was from 0 (will not be at all concerned) to 10 (will be extremely concerned).  This survey was conducted in November 2018 and it is likely that the extreme summer of 2018-19 will have lifted the level of future concern about climate change.

Chart 6
chart6

In the lead-up to the imminent federal election, the electorate will be looking for a credible, urgent plan to mitigate climate change.

Australia must move on from the seemingly endless debate about whether human activity is causing climate change and whether we should do anything at all because our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is less than 2% of the global total.

Australia can have an impact beyond our share and it is in our interests to do so given the economic and environmental damage we are experiencing and the economic opportunities we can capitalise on.  That will be the subject of a future article.

Charlie Nelson

 

 

Melbourne’s abrupt loss of rainfall

Melbourne’s rainfall has abruptly fallen by an average of 107mm per year from 1997 (Chart 1).

Chart 1
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There are still some quite wet years (2010 and 2011) and there have been very few dry years (1997 was the second driest on record.  The average has just suddenly dropped.

A seven year moving average reveals the existence of rainfall cycles over Melbourne (Chart 2).

Chart 2
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To some degree, less rainfall is an expected consequence of climate change – the sub-tropical high pressure ridge is expected to move further south towards Melbourne (the deserts extend southwards).  But the change has been a  downwards step change rather than a trend.

There are natural cycles in rainfall in south eastern Australia and these have played a major part in the loss of rainfall from 1996.  The relative contributions of climate change and natural cycles are not clear as yet.  I was able to advise the Victorian Minister for water, in 2011 during the most recent wet period, that there would be another severe drought from 2017 to 2022.  That prediction, so long in advance, looks as though it was accurate.

I will provide an update in early 2020.

Charlie Nelson

 

The 2019 Australian federal election and climate change


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Climate change policy, or the lack of it, has been influential in the demise of several federal political leaders since John Howard lost the 2007 election (and his seat in Parliament).  Malcolm Turnbull lost his leadership of the opposition in 2009 and his prime ministership in 2018 because he proposed policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but enough of his Liberal colleagues did not support that.

Three separate prediction methods indicate that the Liberal National Coalition will lose government in the 2019 federal election.

The level of belief in imminent global warming amongst Australian adults is now back to the level of 2007, when Labor last won government from the coalition.  Importantly, the level of belief amongst people aged 65+, the core constituency of the coalition, has recently lifted to the same level as in 2007.

This is documented in my recent article, along with an assessment of the top issues in voters minds.

Of course, it is still up to Labor to propose a credible set of policies which are attractive to voters.

Charlie Nelson

 

Accurate prediction of Australia’s drought seven years ago

Climate scientists have been criticised for inaccurate decadal forecasts, which may have led to doubts about the accuracy of their longer-term forecasts.

Australia is currently handing out $5 billion in drought relief to farmers.  It would have been better to have planned for this drought, but could it have been predicted?

It was, over seven years ago, by me.  The letter below, from Victoria’s then Minister for Water acknowledges that I predicted another severe drought for Victoria over the period 2017 to 2022.  I made that prediction in July 2011, in the midst of a very wet two year period.  The Minister for Water replied in September 2011, noting that mainstream climate scientists knew of no mechanism for such a prediction.

fromwaterminister0911

My prediction was for Victoria and also the Murray Darling Basin.

I have since developed the outlines of that mechanism.  But just the fact that the current drought was predicted so long in advance shows that a mechanism exists!

I can, of course, predict when the next wet period will be.

In early 2010, I accurately predicted that the long millennial drought (1997 to 2009) was about to break – see my March 2010 letter to the Murray Darling Basin Authority predicting that 2010 and 2011 would be wet years.

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It is well past time for climate scientists to open their minds to the two decadal cycles I have identified and to gain more credibility as a result of more accurate near term climate predictions.

The benefits for farmers, water supply authorities, emergency management agencies, and insurance companies would be immense.

Charlie Nelson

 

 

Climate change is not our highest rating future concern

Most Australian adults believe that the climate is changing and that human activity is at least partially to blame.  Most of us want action to be implemented now to address this pressing problem.

Unfortunately, climate change is not at the top of the list of future concerns that keep us awake at night.

A June 2018 survey by foreseechange has found that climate change is the ninth most highly rated future concern out of 12 rated by over 1,000 adults.

Top of the list is the cost of living, followed by security of personal information.  At least climate change rates ahead of unemployment and interest rates.

Until climate change rates much more highly as a future concern, there will not be enough pressure placed on politicians to act decisively.

In the mean time, a different approach to dealing with climate change is needed, rather than what we have been doing over the past quarter of a century.  This is the subject of a forthcoming report.

Charlie Nelson

 

 

Can we suck carbon dioxide out of the air?

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is still rising and looks set to continue rising for decades to come.  This makes a limit of a two degrees Celsius temperature increase, compared with pre-industrial times, rather difficult to achieve.  Accordingly, we need to urgently implement ways of sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  This is not the same as carbon capture and storage, which captures carbon dioxide from the chimneys of coal-fired power stations and stores it underground.

There are at least three ways to achieve carbon dioxide removal from ambient air.

One method, described in New Scientist on 21 July 2012, is ocean fertilisation.  This involves tipping iron into the ocean.  Phytoplankton, floating algae, absorb carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  When they die, they sink to the seabed taking the carbon with them.  Ocean regions which are iron deficient are not providing the nutrients which plankton need to grow.  In these regions, carbon dioxide is not being absorbed.  Silicon is also needed by the plankton.

A trial reported in the New Scientist article showed that ocean fertilisation can work.  At best, however, a global program could absorb about one gigatonne of carbon per year, about one-tenth of current emissions resulting from human activity.  According to modelling by Ken Caldera, this is “too little to be the solution, but it’s too much to ignore”.

Another method involves channelling air by fans onto a honeycombed plastic slab, where carbon dioxide, which is acidic, reacts with aqueous potassium hydroxide, which is alkaline.  Then the resulting solution of potassium carbonate is filtered before reacting with calcium hydroxide, producing potassium hydroxide along with pellets of calcium carbonate.  Heating this to 900 degrees Celsius releases pure carbon dioxide gas which is captured.  The principles were first established by Klaus S. Lackner 20 years ago but now Carbon Engineering, founded by David Keith with backers including Bill Gates, has established a pilot plant which extracts a tonne of carbon dioxide from the air per day. (The Economist, 9 June 2018).

But what would we do with the captured carbon dioxide and how much would this all cost?  The plan is to turn it back into fuel – which would mean that zero, rather than negative, emissions would be the outcome.  This may be worthwhile if the fuel is produced at a competitive price.  But with a transition to renewable energy, would the fuel produced be actually needed?  And would it be cheap enough to supplant coal, oil, and gas?  If the future of the automobile is electric, does this idea have a long-term benefit?  If not, what would we do with the carbon dioxide sucked out of the air?  The cost of building enough machines to be effective would cost trillions of dollars.

The third way is proven technology and could achieve a significant reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide, plus it would have many other benefits.

Trees!  We have deforested much of the land and now we need to reforest it.

The Economist article dismissively says that achieving the desired reduction would mean foresting an area the size of India and Canada.  So what?  We don’t have to plant them all in one place!  Trees not only soak up carbon dioxide, they provide cooling shade.  In addition, they provide habitat for animals and insects and food.

The area of Canada is 10 million square km and the area of India is 3.3 million.  The total land area of the world is 149 million.  No doubt some of that would not be suitable for tree planting.

Many countries have large land areas and trees can be planted beneficially in cities, on borders of farming areas as well as large areas of land.

China, the US, Brazil, and Australia all have areas comparable with Canada and Russia has even more (16.4 million).

My priority is to contribute t tree planting and it is easy to do.  Countries that I have contributed to include Brazil, China, Indonesia, and Australia.

It would be good if Bill Gates contributes too – he has much more money that I and could make a huge difference.

Charlie Nelson

 

Most Australians believe that climate change poses a critical threat

Most Australians believe that climate change poses a critical threat to the vital interests of Australia in the next ten years, according to the 2018 Lowy Institute Poll.

Their survey of 1200 adults asked about the perceived level of threat of 11 possible threats.

Equal number one threats were international terrorism and North Korea’s nuclear program, which were perceived t be a critical threat by 66% of respondents.

Number three was climate change, 58%.

Number four was cyberattacks from other countries, 57%.

Number five was a severe downturn in the global economy, 50%

The other possible threats were perceived as critical by less than 50% of respondents.

Number nine was large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into Australia, which was perceived to be a critical threat by 40% of respondents.

Discussion and action about the issue of climate change seems to be a lower priority for the federal government than the global economy and immigrants and refugees – at variance with the priorities of the general public.

Charlie Nelson