Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Natural Disasters or Natural Events?

By Simon Grose

Were the weather events of the past summer truly “extreme”?

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The meteorological images of Cyclone Yasi as a huge fiery maelstrom bearing down on northern Queensland evoked elemental fear responses. For those who experienced the storm and the previous tumultuous flooding in much of Queensland, and for the rest witnessing via television, fear and trepidation were the universal reactions.

Even scarier for most were the fires that seared through Perth’s suburbs this past summer and Melbourne’s hinterlands two summers ago, both erupting on days of high heat and wind after remorseless droughts.

Always in the background is the nagging knowledge of climate change, reminding us to expect more climatological chaos. No wonder we’re getting scared of weather.

“Extreme weather event” is now a part of our lexicon. This is a bit strong, given that dictionaries tell us there is nothing beyond “extreme”. There have been longer droughts and wilder floods recorded in Australia, and last year a Bureau of Meteorology study found that between 1858 and 2008 the frequency of cyclones hitting the coast between Cairns and Ballina has actually declined.

Looking back beyond white man’s history of this continent reveals evidence of even fiercer weather episodes. Palaeo-climatological research indicates that La Niña cycles, which raise the likelihood of floods and cyclones in eastern Australia, have lasted for up to 8 years in the...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.