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More extreme weather smashes for longer as Australia feels climate change impacts

Published:22 March 2021

CQUniversity Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography Stephen Turton.

A tropical cyclone expert and CQUniversity climatologist has warned that Australia’s extreme weather events are growing in intensity and frequency, showing how increasing greenhouse gases from human activities make a significant impact on our climate.

Professor Steve Turton has shared the biggest insights from his four decades monitoring climate and its human and ecological impacts, to coincide with World Meteorology Day on Tuesday 23 March 2021.

Prof Turton lived in Far North Queensland across more than three decades and saw several severe tropical cyclones including Winifred, Joy, Larry and Yasi hit the region.

He said meteorological data since the 1980s shows that intensities of tropical cyclones, also known as hurricanes or typhoons, are increasing.

“The changing climate means there’s more heat in the oceans and atmosphere, producing more water vapour that leads to more intense cyclones, and we’re seeing that in the data we’ve been tracking since the 1960s,” Prof Turton said.

“In our part of the world, we’ve actually seen a decline in overall frequency of tropical cyclones, but an increase in severity, so alarmingly that means more category threes, fours and fives.”

“At the same time, because the poles are heating at a faster rate than the tropics, the jet streams that steer major weather systems are slowing down, and more rain and higher winds sit over one place for longer, essentially meaning that affected areas are smashed harder.”

Australia is bearing the brunt of that change: a recent study showed average forward speeds of tropical cyclones fell by 10 per cent worldwide between 1949 and 2016, but dropped by 22 per cent over land in Australia.

Now based on the Sunshine Coast, Professor Turton said current flooding across New South Wales is another example of increasingly extreme weather events  – driven by background global heating.

“The NSW floods aren’t record-breaking yet, but such events are becoming more frequent – so what is a one in 100-year event today is more likely to be a one in 50-year event in the future,” he said.

“The impacts of that are huge for human communities, food production and infrastructure, but also for ecosystems – the more knocked around they get, the less chance they have of full recovery.”

Currently writing a book explaining climate change for students in non-science disciplines, Prof Turton said public understanding of drivers of extreme weather events and how to respond to such events was vital for tackling climate change.

“There’s a lot of confusion out there, but also mischief-makers pointing to extreme cold events and saying that disproves global warming,” he said.

“In fact, the hard data shows that heat waves are increasing globally and cold waves are now occurring in places where they were once considered rare, so it’s more extreme at both ends.

“That’s just down to basic physics, that a warmer atmosphere and oceans means more extreme weather events everywhere – it’s not just a theory, it’s about long-standing fundamental laws of science as we understand them through the study of meteorology.”

Prof Turton said he was optimistic about humanity’s capacity to respond to climate change, and surveys showing the majority of Australians wanting action on climate change.

But he also urged the Federal Government to increase the intensity of their response.

“It’s encouraging that we remain committed to the Paris Climate Agreement, but our Federal Government does need to send a stronger message about the urgency of climate action,” he said.

“In my roles, I’ve worked with economists, and business, and farmers, and they’ve all absolutely grasped the impacts, and the need to adjust and innovate to deal with climate change.”

“Especially when you’re on the land and monitoring the weather every day, you see for yourself how much is shifting, and what a huge threat that is.”

The theme of this year’s World Meteorological Day is “The Ocean, Our Climate, and Weather”.

Coordinators at the World Meteorological Organization warn: “When it comes to the weather and climate, most of us think only about what is happening in the atmosphere. If we ignore the ocean, however, we miss a big piece of the picture.”