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Extreme Weather - 2013

This special report looks at the domino effect of environmental and atmospheric factors that drive the globe to wetter, hotter, drier and colder extremes.

Video by - Catalyst - ABC - Thursday, 4 July 2013 View original Transcript

Australia swelters after recording hottest year in 2013

Critical choices in The Critical Decade


A decade of wild weather

A decade of wild weather

In July 2013 there was much discussion on the influence of climate change on extreme weather events. It was kicked off by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and its decadal report, The Global Climate 2001-2010: A decade of climate extremes that analysed global climate data.

The report demonstrates that the disturbing Australian trends summarised in The Critical Decade: Extreme weather report are being observed at a global scale.

The WMO found that 2001-2010 was the warmest decade since records began in 1850 and that it was characterised by ‘unprecedented high-impact climate extremes’.

Between 2001 and 2010, many countries reported extreme heatwaves, the most dramatic in Europe during 2003 that caused over 66,000 deaths and in Russia during 2010 that caused over 55,000 deaths.

Conversely, the WMO also found that despite the record average warmth many continents and countries experienced extreme winter conditions, including Europe, Russia, North America, Asia (2009/10), Bolivia (2002) and southern Africa (2002 and 2007).

These findings raise the question of why a seemingly small increase in global average temperature (0.8şC over the past century) can result in the extreme weather we are witnessing around the world. This is exactly the question raised in this week’s ABC TV science program Catalyst.

Catalyst reported on the catastrophic climate events witnessed this decade and provided explanations on why warming temperatures lead to extreme weather events.

Dr Erich Fisher, Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science at the Swiss Institute of Technology, suggested that very dry conditions in the spring was a precursor to the 2003 Europe heatwave. Dr Fisher indicated that it was the resulting uncharacteristic very dry soils that turned Europe’s heatwave into a ‘deadly scorcher’.

The extreme cold events were linked to a ‘lazy meandering jet stream’ by Dr Jennifer Francis, Rutgers University. Dr Francis linked changes in the jet stream to the warming of the Arctic, where sea ice is disappearing at a dramatic rate. Arctic summers with low sea ice lead to a gentler global atmospheric temperature gradient, which can lead to cold air from the Arctic plunging further south, resulting in unusual weather events.

What is clear, as set out in the Commission’s The Critical Decade 2013: Climate change science, risks and responses, is that there is very strong consensus that the climate is changing and that human activities are the primary cause. Scientists are now moving to new challenges and improving our understanding of the observed changes to the climate system and how future changes will impact communities around the world.

The Critical Decade 2013

The Critical Decade 2013

Download full report: The Critical Decade 2013

In 2011 the Climate Commission warned that 2011-2020 is the ‘Critical Decade’ for tackling climate change. In particular, this is the Critical Decade for turning around rising emissions of greenhouse gases and putting us on the pathway to stabilising the climate system.

One quarter of the way through the Critical Decade, many consequences of climate change are already evident, and the risks of further climate change are better understood. It is clear that global society must virtually decarbonise in the next 30-35 years. This means that most of the fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground.

Downloadthe full report; The Critical Decade 2013 Climate change science, risks and responses.

Download the Key Findings.

Download the Key Facts.

Download the summary; The Critical Decade 2013: A summary of climate change science, risks and responses.

Read statements of support for The Critical Decade 2013.

Download the accessible version of The Critical Decade 2013.

Link to the animation, Critical choices in The Critical Decade.


1. Our understanding of the climate system has continued to strengthen.

  • Over the past half-century rapid changes have been observed across the world in many features of the climate system, including heating of the ocean and the air; changing rainfall patterns; reduction in the area of Arctic sea-ice; mass loss of polar ice sheets; increasing sea level; and changes in life cycles and distribution of many plants and animals.
  • There is very strong consensus that the climate is changing and that human activities, like the burning of fossil fuels, are the primary cause.
  • Scientists are now moving to new challenges, for instance, improving our understanding of shifting rainfall patterns and of potential abrupt or irreversible changes in major features of the climate system.

2. We are already seeing the social, economic and environmental consequences of a changing climate. Many of the risks scientists warned us about in the past are now happening.

  • Heatwaves: The duration and frequency of heatwaves and extremely hot days have increased across Australia and around the world. The number of heatwaves is projected to increase significantly into the future.
  • Bushfire weather: Climate change has already increased the risk of extreme fire weather in some parts of Australia, especially the populous southeast.
  • Rainfall patterns are shifting. The southwest corner of Western Australia and much of eastern Australia has become drier since 1970. The southwest and southeast corners of Australia are likely to remain drier than the long-term average or become even drier.
  • Sea-level rise: Global average sea level is now rising at a rate of 3 cm per decade and will continue to rise through the rest of this century and beyond, contributing to an increased frequency of coastal flooding around the world including Australia. For example, Fremantle has already experienced a three-fold increase in high sea level events since 1950.

3. The changing climate poses substantial risks for health, property, infrastructure, agriculture and natural ecosystems.

  • Health: Heat causes more deaths than any other type of extreme weather event in Australia. Increasing intensity and frequency of extreme heat poses health risks for Australians and can put additional pressure on health services. Changes in temperature and rainfall may allow mosquito-borne illness like dengue fever to spread south.
  • Property and infrastructure across Australia has been built for previous climatic conditions and much of it is ill prepared to cope with increasingly frequent and/or intense extreme weather.
  • Agriculture: Changing rainfall patterns and increasing risk of extreme heat and bushfire weather present challenges for Australian agriculture. Production of temperature- and water-sensitive broadacre crops, fruit, vegetables and wine grapes need to adapt to these changing growing conditions or move to locations where growing conditions are becoming more amenable for their production.
  • Natural ecosystems: Many Australian plants and animals are already responding to climate change be changing their distributions and the timing of life cycles. Climate change, in combination with other stresses, is increasing the risk of species extinctions and threatening many iconic ecosystems including the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu National Park and the alpine zone.

4. Three years into the Critical Decade it is clear: substantial progress is being made globally to reduce emissions. However, far more will need to be done to stabilise the climate. The decisions we make from now to 2020 will largely determine the severity of climate change our children and grandchildren experience.

Overspend in the carbon budget

Overspend in the carbon budget. Each CO2 symbol represents 10 billion tonnes of CO2.

  • There has been meaningful global progress in the last two years. All major economies, including China and the United States, are putting in place solutions to drive down emissions and grow renewable energy. It will take some time to see the impact of these policies.
  • Carbon dioxide concentrations are at the highest level in over one million years. Despite global efforts they continue to increase at the fastest at a rate much faster than at any other time on the recent geological record.
  • Most nations of the world, including Australia, have agreed that the risks of a changing climate beyond 2°C are unacceptably high. The temperature rise is already approaching 1degrees Celsius above pre-industrial, nearly halfway to the 2°C limit.
  • The best chance for staying below the 2°C limit requires global emissions to begin declining as soon as possible and by 2020 at the latest. Emissions need to be reduced to nearly zero by 2050.
  • Stabilising the climate within the 2°C limit remains possible provided that we redouble our efforts this decade and beyond.

5. Most of the available fossil fuels cannot be burnt if we are to stabilise the climate this century.

  • The burning of fossil fuels represents the most significant contributor to climate change.
  • From today until 2050 we can emit no more than 600 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to have a good chance of staying within the 2°C limit.
  • Based on estimates by the International Energy Agency, emissions from using all the world’s fossil fuel reserves would be around five times this budget. Burning all fossil fuels reserves would lead to unprecedented changes in climate so severe that they will challenge the existence of our society as we know it today.
  • It is clear that most fossil fuels must be left in the ground and cannot be burned.
  • Storing carbon in soils and vegetation is part of the solution but cannot substitute for reducing fossil fuel emissions.

Download The Critical Decade 2013: Climate change science, risks and responses.

MEDIA RELEASE - Tasmania - Quick Facts

Hot days and Heatwaves

  • The Summer of 2012/13 was the hottest on record and included the hottest sea-surface temperatures on record for the Australian region.
  • The nature of heatwaves has already changed in many parts of Australia. Over the period 1971-2008, the duration and frequency of heatwaves have increased, and the hottest days during a heatwave have become even hotter.
  • Research at the Natural Hazards Research Centre has shown heatwaves are the most significant natural hazard in Australia in terms of loss of life.
  • Rainfall

  • Over the 2010-2011 period every state and territory had sites that either set all-time rainfall records for a two-year period or were very much above average Across Australia, it is more likely than not, that heavy rainfall events will become more frequent as the temperature increases.
  • Drought

  • During the 2002-03 financial year, drought is estimated to have reduced Australia’s agricultural output by 26%.
  • In 2006-2007 it is estimated that drought reduced national gross domestic product by almost 1%.
  • For southeast Australia, nearly all of the climate models used in a recent analysis project a significant increase in drought by the end of the century.
  • Bushfires

  • In January 2013 a large fire broke out in Tasmania during a period of record high maximum temperatures. The moved into the town of Dunalley, destroying nearly 200 properties and forced the evacuation of hundreds of people from the Tasman Peninsula.
  • The Forest Fire Danger Index, one of the measures of bushfire threat, has increased significantly at 16 of 38 weather stations across Australia between 1973 and 2010, with none of the stations recording a significant decrease.
  • The increase has been most prominent in southeast Australia, and has been manifest as a longer duration fire season, with fire weather extending into November and March.
  • Sea-Level Rise

  • A sea-level rise of 0.5 m (compared to 1990), which lies near the lower end of the estimates for 2100, leads to surprisingly large impacts.
  • For coastal areas around Australia’s largest cities, a sea-level rise of 0.5 m would lead to very large increases in the incidence of extreme events, typically by a factor of several hundred and in some places by as much as one thousand.
  • A multiplying factor of 100 means that a so-called one-in-a-hundred year event – would occur on average every year.

    When extreme weather events occur the Climate Commission is consistently asked questions about the link to climate change. This report unpacks our current knowledge about different types of extreme weather events: extreme temperatures, rainfall, drought, bushfires, storm surges, cyclones and storms.


    Download quick facts for each state:

    New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland,

    South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania,

    Australian Captial Territiory, Northern Territiory.


    1. Climate change is already increasing the intensity and frequency of many extreme weather events, adversely affecting Australians. Extreme events occur naturally and weather records are broken from time to time. However, climate change is influencing these events and record-breaking weather is becoming more common around the world.

    Some Australian examples include:

    • Heat: Extreme heat is increasing across Australia. There will still be record cold events, but hot records are now happening three times more often than cold records.
    • Bushfire weather: Extreme fire weather has increased in many parts of Australia, including southern NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and parts of South Australia, over the last 30 years.
    • Rainfall: Heavy rainfall has increased globally. Over the last three years Australia’s east coast has experienced several very heavy rainfall events, fuelled by record-high surface water temperatures in the adjacent seas.
    • Drought: A long-term drying trend is affecting the southwest corner of Western Australia, which has experienced a 15% drop in rainfall since the mid-1970s.
    • Sea-level rise: Sea level has already risen 20 cm. This means that storm surges ride on sea levels that are higher than they were a century ago, increasing the risk of flooding along Australia’s socially, economically and environmentally important coastlines.

    2. Climate change is making many extreme events worse in terms of their impacts on people, property, communities and the environment. This highlights the need to take rapid, effective action on climate change.

    • It is crucial that communities, emergency services, health and medical services and other authorities prepare for the increases that are already occurring in the severity and frequency of many types of extreme weather.
    • The southeast of Australia, including many of our largest population centres, stands out as being at increased risk from many extreme weather events – heatwaves, bushfires, heavy rainfall and sea-level rise.
    • Key food-growing regions across the southeast and the southwest are likely to experience more drought in the future.
    • Some of Australia’s iconic ecosystems are threatened by climate change. Over the past three decades the Great Barrier Reef has suffered repeated bleaching events from underwater heatwaves. The freshwater wetlands of Kakadu National Park are at risk from saltwater intrusion due to rising sea level.

    3. The climate system has shifted, and is continuing to shift, changing the conditions for all weather, including extreme weather events.

    • Levels of greenhouse gases from the combustion of fossil fuels have increased by around 40% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, causing the Earth’s surface to warm significantly.
    • All weather events are now occurring in global climate system that is warmer and moister than it was 50 years ago. This has loaded the dice towards more frequent and more severe extreme weather events.

    4. There is a high risk that extreme weather events like heatwaves, heavy rainfall, bushfires and cyclones will become even more intense in Australia over the coming decades.

    • There is little doubt that over the next few decades changes in these extreme events will increase the risks of adverse consequences to human health, agriculture, infrastructure and the environment.
    • Stabilising the climate is like turning around a battleship – it cannot be done immediately given its momentum. When danger is ahead you must start turning the wheel now. Any delay means that it is more and more difficult to avert the future danger.
    • The climate system has strong momentum for further warming over the next few decades because of the greenhouse gases that have already been emitted, and those that will be emitted in future. This means that it is highly likely that extreme weather events will become even more severe in Australia over that period.

    5. Only strong preventive action now and in the coming years can stabilise the climate and halt the trend of increasing extreme weather for our children and grandchildren.

    • Averting danger requires strong preventative action. How quickly and deeply we reduce greenhouse gas emissions will greatly influence the severity of extreme events in the future.
    • The world is already moving to tackle climate change. Ninety countries, representing 90% of global emissions, are committed to reducing their emissions and have programs in place to achieve this. As the 15th largest emitter in the world, Australia has an important role to play.
    • Much more substantial action will be required if we are to stabilise the climate by the second half of the century. Globally emissions must be cut rapidly and deeply to nearly zero by 2050, with Australia playing its part.
    • The decisions we make this decade will largely determine the severity of climate change and its influence on extreme events that our grandchildren will experience. This is the critical decade to get on with the job.

    Overspend in the carbon budget
    Overspend in the carbon budget
    Overspend in the carbon budget
    Overspend in the carbon budget
    Overspend in the carbon budget
    Overspend in the carbon budget

    See the full article for : A decade of wild weather


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