Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Thirty Year Warning

By Ian Lowe

CSIRO predicted the increasing severity of cyclones 30 years ago.

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The severe flooding in eastern Australia caused by Cyclone Debbie and its aftermath, and the more recent storm damage in New Zealand, are just the latest in a whole series of extreme weather events. Being asked by a journalist if they were related to climate change sent me back to scan the book produced after the first national conference on climate change, Greenhouse 87: Planning for Climate Change. Prof Graeme Pearman edited the book, which included peer-reviewed presentations to the conference.

At the time, the cyclones that hit northern Australia were usually graded as category 2, with an occasional category 3 event like Cyclone Tracey, which devastated Darwin. The late Prof K.P. Stark of James Cook University said in his conference paper that if the modelling then being done by the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Science was correct, increasing sea surface temperatures would inevitably result in more severe cyclones. Because the central pressure of tropical storms is directly related to the temperature of the ocean where those events develop, he argued that we could see category 4 or possibly even category 5 cyclones hit the Queensland coast by the 2030s. This would cause much more direct property damage from the stronger winds as well as more coastal flooding from the greater storm surges.

Stark’s analysis was attacked vigorously by the tourism industry,...

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