Australia’s Burning, Flooding, Disastrous New Normal

WAMBOIN, Australia — This is what climate change looks like, Australia style: A viral video, released in early January, of two middle-aged men, one a local farmer, standing knee deep in the stagnant shallows of an outback river, cradling the corpses of two enormous fish.

The river is the Darling, just south of the Menindee Lakes in northwest New South Wales, and the fish are Murray cod, native, iconic and endangered. Given their size, these two could be more than half a century old. Behind the men, who are close to weeping, thousands more fish drift belly-up, asphyxiated in a cold snap that killed the blue-green algae blooming along the river and deprived the water of oxygen. Unprecedented summer temperatures and low water levels produced the algal bloom, which can itself be an indication of a waterway under stress.

In their impassioned accusations against the government authorities tasked with managing the river, neither man mentions climate change. What they do say is that the deliberate emptying of the Menindee Lakes twice in the past four years — in a period of extended drought and rising temperatures — has broken the resilience of the river.

Cut from outback New South Wales, still in the grip of a multiyear drought, to the rains in North Queensland. Instead of dead fish, the images are of drowned cattle, hundreds of animals trapped by the brown tides of rising floodwaters as the monsoonal rainfall that has devastated the coastal city of Townsville in recent weeks moves inland, drowning stock, ruining crops and isolating homesteads.

There is nothing unusual about floods in north Queensland. Every summer, somewhere in the tropical north, a cyclone generates enough rain to inundate the low-lying suburbs of coastal towns, decimate banana crops and wash topsoil and fertilizers onto the Great Barrier Reef. (The reef is undergoing mass coral bleaching because of warming seawater, but that’s last year’s story.) Laconic residents are interviewed every wet season standing in the debris of their cyclone-battered homes, clad in Stubbies (shapeless gabardine shorts that expose bum-cracks and, on a bad day, drooping genitals), drinking stubbies (small brown bottles of beer), making understated comments about the danger and the damage: “Yeah, it got a bit windy there for a while. Reckon me roof’s being recycled in Fiji by now …”

The difference this year is that there hasn’t been a cyclone. This is just rain — endless rain, filling dams far beyond their capacity, swelling rivers, drowning two young men who allegedly fled the scene of a looting. The extent of the livestock losses won’t be known until the floodwaters recede, but gut-wrenching photographs of cattle bogged so deep in mud they appear to be made from the stuff, blood leaking from bullet-holes in the skulls of the animals that had to be put down, are an indication of the horrors to come.

While North Queensland floods, Tasmania burns. The prehistoric forests of the southwest wilderness, usually too damp to sustain extensive fires, have been ignited by lightning strikes. High temperatures, warming seas and lack of rain have made the forests vulnerable. Burning in terrain too rugged to access by road, the fires have been impossible to control. Recent rain has alleviated the situation, and the area has even experienced its first snow of the year, but the fires continue to smolder, ready to flare again when the weather dries. Unlike the fire-dependent forests of the Australian mainland, which have evolved from millenniums of Indigenous burning practices, the old-growth Tasmanian forests do not regenerate after fire. Separated from the continental land mass around 12,000 years ago, the small pendant island that hangs off the southeast corner of the continent shares its vegetation with the Gondwanan remnants of New Zealand and South America. The burned tracts of ancient forest are gone for good.

Australia is no stranger to fire, floods and drought. For anyone who has grown up outside the southern cities, extreme weather events are a part of life. Droughts that last for five or six or even 10 years are common; cyclonic rains regularly bring floods to the northern part of the continent; every summer sees the inhabitants of the southern and coastal forests on bushfire alert. But this level of extreme weather is new, and likely to be a new norm.

We have moved into a new age of climate volatility. According to the 2018 State of the Climate Report, compiled by the Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Southern Hemisphere oceans are absorbing most of the extra heat generated by global warming. Sea surface temperatures in the Australian region have risen around one degree Celsius since 1910, with eight of the 10 warmest years on record occurring since 2005. The starkest evidence is the rate of warming in the seas around Tasmania, which is occurring at more than twice the global average. Records reveal an equivalent one-degree rise in land temperatures, accompanied by a steady shift in rainfall patterns, with rainfall increasing in northern Australia, while the south becomes more prone to drought. Prolonged periods of high temperatures are much more frequent, and bushfire seasons are longer.

Throughout Australia’s modern history, we have been proud of our capacity to respond to disaster and endure adversity. Natural catastrophes bring out the best in us. They provide a theater for acts of courage, selflessness and human fellowship that ordinary life does not. But I worry that the flip side of this capacity for resilience is inertia in the face of doomsday warnings. To make radical changes in the expectation of an unknown future requires a different skill-set and a different ethos.

Although many Australians share deep concerns about climate change, just as many have been apathetic or resistant to the need for action. There are signs that things are changing. In a factoid-saturated, opinion-polluted media environment, the emotion and outrage of hard-bitten outback farmers, a breed more commonly associated with skepticism and understatement, has an authenticity that no amount of scientific evidence or talking heads can project. Not inclined toward rhetoric and panic, Australian farmers are now on the front line of climate change. Once convinced that the time for action has arrived, there is no group better equipped to mobilize and make things happen, and there’s a groundswell of protest at the lack of leadership from government.

It remains to be seen, when the floodwaters recede and the drowned cattle are counted, when the rotting corpses of decades-old fish leak back into the muddy sludge of the river, when the charred skeletons of thousand-year-old trees punctuate the remains of an ice age forest, whether Australians will finally decide that it’s time to take this seriously.

Kim Mahood is the author of “Craft for a Dry Lake” and “Position Doubtful: Mapping Landscapes and Memory.”

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