Hottest year start keeps climate change in spotlight
Wet and wild - it must be Australia. Photo: Simone De Peak
For Australia, 2013 looks like being a "year of living extremely" if January is anything to go by.
The Bureau of Meteorology said last month was the country's hottest month in just over a century of records.
Nationwide, the January average maximum temperature was 36.92 degrees. The anomaly was 2.28 degrees, "a substantial increase" on the previous record of 2.17 degrees set in 1932, the bureau said.
Thanks to the massive heatwave that dominated the first half of January, all states and territories posted above-average temperatures, the bureau said.
This week's floods added to the extremes. Queensland Premier Campbell Newman warned damage to the state's economy was $2.4 billion and rising, eclipsing the $2.388 billion bill from the huge flooding of 2011. Insurers don't think it will be that bad for them.
Add record low rainfall for much of southern Australia, a flurry of bushfires and it looks like climate change is kicking in - or does it?
Professor John McAneney, the director of Risk Frontiers, an independent research group funded mostly by the insurance industry, said that based on a database of natural hazard events in Australia, including some dating from 1803, "there has been no increase in the frequency of natural hazard events since 1950".
But what of the spiralling insurance claims in the wake of hailstorms, floods, cyclones (think Yasi at $1.4 billion) and bushfires ($4 billion for Victoria's Black Saturday)?
"When this data set, and many other data sets in different jurisdictions across the world and for many different perils, is corrected for the increases in numbers of buildings at risk and their value, no long-term trend remains," Professor McAneney said. ''It is indisputable that the rising toll of natural disasters is due to more people and assets at risk."
Professor McAneney said US hurricane modelling to identify a signal climate change is contributing to storm strength and suggested that it could be a while before the data is definitive. Averaging 18 different climate models, "it's going to take 260 years", he said. "This whole thing about climate change being responsible for an increase in extreme weather, or natural disasters, is just a fiction really," he said.
Cue howls of protest from climatologists and cries of "gotcha" from climate change doubters? Hardly.
Some climate change signals are clearer than others and there is no reason to ignore the direction most indicators are clearly pointed, said Andrew Ash, director of the Climate Adaptation flagship at the CSIRO.
"It doesn't mean all extremes are changing," Dr Ash said.
Take temperature, for instance. During 2001-11, the frequency of record high temperatures in Australia was 2.8 times (for maximum temperatures) and 5.2 times for minimums than the rate of record low temperatures.
Sea temperatures are also rising with Australian regional waters about 0.6-0.7 degrees warmer than in 1900, said Neil Plummer, assistant director of the weather bureau's climate information services.
Add a warmer atmosphere - with temperatures about 1 degree higher than pre-industrial levels and rising - and it means more moisture can be held and then dumped in the form of more severe rain deluges.
A peer-reviewed report for the American Meteorological Society's Journal of Climate by researchers including Seth Westra, a hydrologist at the University of Adelaide, bears that out. The report found statistically significant increasing trends globally of annual maximum daily precipitation using a data set of 8326 high-quality observing sites with more than 30 years of records.
The median intensity of extreme precipitation increases "in proportion with changes in global mean temperature at a rate of between 5.9 per cent and 7.7 per cent per degree, depending on the method of analysis'', the report found.
The big wet, when it comes, is getting wetter.
But what of Australia? The weather bureau said it depended on where you look.
The annual number of days with more than 30 millimetres of rain from 1950-2012 has decreased in the southern and eastern parts of the country but increased in the north. That doesn't spell fewer heavy rainfall events as much as the trend for southern regions to miss out on decent soakings during winter.
As for the frequency of disasters, such as cyclones - aren't we getting fewer of those? The answer is complex because there aren't many instances in the record to count.
"Because you're dealing with a very small number of very extreme events that cause most of the damage, the size of the signal you would need to have before it was statistically significant as detectable is quite big," said Blair Trewin, a senior climatologist at the bureau.
Take hail, for example. “As far as I know there’s no really no good indication of how it’s changed over time or what’s likely to happen in the future just because observations of it are so inconsistent and so dependent on having somebody in the right place at the right time,” he said
And waiting for such data for all extremes when we can see the underlying direction of a warming planet doesn’t make for good policy.
"The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence."
(The Senate inquiry into recent trends in and preparedness for extreme weather events contains many submissions, which can be found here. Submissions include: Bureau of Meteorology; CSIRO; Risk Frontiers; and a team involving Seth Westra.)