A strong low-pressure system has meant severe thunderstorm and hail warnings are in effect for much of the New South Wales South Coast. At the same time, very dry conditions, strong winds and high temperatures are fuelling dozens of bushfires across Queensland.
The two events are actually influencing each other. As the low-pressure system moves over the Greater Sydney area, a connected wind change is pushing warm air (and stronger winds) to Queensland, worsening the fire conditions.
These lows over NSW are the kind we might see a couple of times a year – they’re not just regular weather systems, but neither are they massively out of the ordinary.
However, when combined with the current record-breaking heat in Queensland, the extra wind is creating exceptionally dangerous fire conditions. Queensland’s emergency services minister, Craig Crawford, has warned Queenslanders:
We are expecting a firestorm. We are expecting it to be so severe that it won’t even be safe on the beach […] The only thing to do is to go now.
Conditions in Queensland
At least 80 bushfires were burning in Queensland on Wednesday, with more than a dozen fire warnings issued to communities near the Deepwater blaze. Queensland Police Deputy Commissioner Bob Gee said that “people will burn to death” unless they evacuate the area.
These fires have come during a record-breaking heatwave. On Tuesday Cooktown recorded 43.9℃, beating the previous November high set 70 years ago by more than two degrees. Cairns has broken its November heatwave record by five whole degrees.
Grasslands and forests are very dry after very little rain over the past two years. Adding to these conditions are strong winds, which make the fires hotter, faster and harder to predict. This is where the storm conditions in NSW come in: they are affecting air movements across both states.
NSW low is driving winds over Queensland
A large low-pressure system, currently over the Hunter Valley area, is causing the NSW storms. As it moves, it’s pushing a mass of warm air ahead of it, bringing both higher temperatures and stronger winds across the Queensland border.
Once the low-pressure system moves across the Hunter area to the Tasman Sea east of Sydney, it will drag what we call a “wind change” across Queensland. This will increase wind speeds through Queensland and temperatures, making the fire situation even worse.
This is why emergency services are keeping watch for “fire tornado” conditions. When very hot air from large fires rises rapidly into a turbulent atmosphere, it can create fire storms – thunderstorms containing lightning or burning embers. Strong wind changes can also mean fire tornadoes form, sucking up burning material. Both of these events spread fires quickly and unpredictably.
Unfortunately, it’s not likely the heavy rains over NSW will have a long-term effect on the drought gripping much of the state. While very heavy rains have fallen over 24 hours, the drought conditions have persisted for years.
The chances of an El Niño developing late in 2018 have increased and this week the Bureau moved to El Niño ALERT. This means that model outlooks and observations indicate there is approximately a 70% chance that El Niño will develop in the coming months. Current patterns in the Pacific are similar to the early stages of past El Niño, with warm water shifting east towards South America.
We’re also seeing indications a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) has likely started, in which warmer waters near Africa drag moisture away from Australia. El Niño and positive IOD events typically mean below-average spring rainfall in central and southern Australia, and a drier start to the wet season in Queensland and the Northern Territory.
The development of either would favour continued dry weather, and increase the likelihood that widespread drought relief will be delayed until 2019. Higher than average temperatures, heatwaves, and more severe bushfire weather are also more likely during El Niño and positive IOD events.
A dry year so far
September 2018 was a very dry month, adding to low rainfall seen across many parts of Australia so far this year. September 2018 was not only the driest September in 119 years of record for Australia, but it was also the second-driest for any month of the year (behind only April 1902).
Rainfall for the year to date has been exceptionally low over the mainland southeast, with much of the region experiencing totals in the lowest 10% of records for January–September. Many locations in eastern New South Wales, eastern Victoria, and southeast Queensland have received about 400 mm less rainfall than they usually would have by this time of the year.
Much of southern Australia has experienced a persistent rainfall decline spanning several decades, which is adding to drought stress by drying the landscape.
Southwest Western Australia has experienced significantly lower cool season (April to October) rainfall since the mid-1970s, compared to observations since 1900, while for the southeast the drop has been more recent, emerging in the mid-1990s. These rainfall declines have been linked to circulation changes in the southern hemisphere influenced by the increase in greenhouse gases.
These rainfall changes have also been accompanied by much larger reductions in streamflow, particularly in the southwest of Australia where high flows have become much less frequent.
And it’s also been unusually warm
Low rainfall has also been accompanied by very high daytime temperatures so far this year. Of course, Australian temperatures are warming in line with global trends, but in individual years variations which are likely to be largely natural (such as droughts) may add to or subtract from the broader trends.
Historically, droughts have often brought hot conditions, and this has been borne out in 2018. Maximum temperatures for January to September were the warmest on record for the Murray–Darling Basin and New South Wales, with neighbouring regions also much warmer than average.
These extremely warm days, combined with extremely low rainfall, have caused an intense drying of the Australian landscape in 2018, resulting in an early start to the bushfire season in New South Wales and Victoria, where damaging fire were observed as early as late winter.
So how might the year end?
Like all Australians, the Bureau hopes farmers and those suffering through drought get the rainfall they need, but unfortunately, the outlook indicates dry conditions are likely to continue for some time.
Large parts of southern and eastern Australia are likely to see a drier than average end to the year, though odds favouring drier than average conditions tend to moderate as we head towards summer. Most of the country is likely to see a dry October, though local heavy falls can occur against a backdrop of broadly suppressed rainfall.
While some parts of New South Wales and southeastern Queensland have received very welcome rainfall in the first days of October, rainfall has been below average over much of over eastern Australia for so long (since early 2017) that this rainfall event hasn’t been enough to break the drought.
Looking at temperature, outlooks show a very high chance of warmer than average days and nights through to the end of 2018. Considering the year so far has already been very warm, this means 2018 has the potential to rank as another significant warm year. Seven of Australia’s ten warmest years have occurred since 2005, with just one cooler than average year in the last decade (2011), highlighting how warmer than average temperatures now dominate Australia’s climate.
So far, 2018 has been very warm and exceptionally dry over large parts of mainland Australia. The Bureau of Meteorology’s climate outlook for spring, released today, shows that significant widespread relief is unlikely.
The chance of a spring El Niño, along with other climate drivers, is likely to mean below-average rainfall for large parts of the country in the coming months.
A dry winter for most of Australia
Winter rainfall has been below average over most of Australia’s eastern mainland. Large parts of New South Wales are on track to have winter rainfall in the lowest 10% of records. This has compounded drought conditions in the east after mixed rainfall last year and a dry start to 2018 for much of the country.
But it’s not just the lack of rainfall that has made the impact of drought severe. Another factor was the warmer than average daytime temperatures.
The 2017-18 summer average temperature was Australia’s second-warmest in 108 years of records, while autumn was Australia’s fourth-warmest on record. Winter 2018 is likely to be among the five warmest winters on record in terms of maximum temperatures.
Many of the above-average daytime temperatures have been focused over the country’s southeast. In fact, South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria are all on track for their warmest maximum temperatures for the January to August period.
The below-average rainfall combined with above-average maximum temperatures resulted in a rapid and intense drying of the landscape. This has led to unusually severe fire weather conditions in July and August – conditions more typically seen at the end of spring than the end of winter.
However, most international climate models have been forecasting a spring El Niño since June. Sea surface temperatures in the central Pacific have been gradually warming since autumn and are rising towards El Niño thresholds. At the beginning of June the Bureau went on El Niño watch, which indicates a roughly 50% chance of El Niño forming in 2018 – double the usual likelihood. El Niño during spring typically means below-average rainfall across eastern and northern Australia.
Three out of five international models are forecasting that a positive Indian Ocean Dipole event is also possible this spring. A positive IOD during spring typically means below-average rainfall in central and southern Australia. When El Niño and a positive IOD coincide, their drying influences can be exacerbated.
So, what’s the outlook for spring?
With a reasonable chance of both El Niño developing and a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, the outlook for spring shows below-average rainfall is likely over much of the southeast and parts of the northeast and southwest. The rest of the country has a neutral outlook, showing no strong push towards a wetter or drier than average three months.
Inland areas are typically dry at this time of year, so the neutral outlook in the arid interior typically implies that low rainfall is likely. No part of the country favours above-average rainfall in the spring outlook.
Spring days are likely to be warmer than average across Australia, with the highest chances (greater than 80%) over northern and western Australia. Most of the country is likely to have warmer than average nights this spring, except for areas around the Great Australian Bight which have roughly equal chances of warmer or cooler than average minimum temperatures.
What does this mean for the drought and bushfires?
Like the rest of the country, the Bureau is hoping that farmers in drought-affected areas get the rainfall they need soon. But this outlook isn’t the news many want to hear.
Last weekend’s rainfall over northeastern New South Wales and southeastern Queensland was welcomed by most, but unfortunately it was well short of what was required for a recovery from the longer-term rainfall deficits. Many locations on the east coast are well below their average year-to-date rainfall totals.
Rainfall deficiencies for the first seven months of 2018 in areas of western NSW, northwest Victoria and eastern South Australia widely show rainfall totals in the lowest 5% of the 118 years of record. It would take many months of above-average rainfall to return to average levels.
The above average temperatures in 2018 so far, combined with below average rainfall and dry vegetation, mean a higher likelihood of fire activity in parts of southern Australia. The warm and dry outlook for spring means the drought in parts of the country’s east is likely to continue.
Already this week two fires on the south coast have escaped containment lines and destroyed houses. The weather during these fires was 6℃ warmer than the August average, dry and extremely windy. The wind speed peaked at 104 kilometres an hour in Bega and 85km/h in Nowra, two towns close to where fires broke out.
Under these conditions, bushfires will spread quickly, produce large numbers of embers and are hard to stop.
Our fire seasons now start earlier and last longer. This means we’re increasingly likely to see repeats of historically large fires threatening residential areas.
Fire seasons are longer
Current dry conditions are reflected in the maps of live fuel moisture produced by Dr Rachael Nolan of Western Sydney University.
This method tracks the weekly moisture content of the forests in southern Australia, as observed by NASA’s MODIS satellite. The latest map shows a patchy distribution of dry areas and a drying trend over recent weeks.
It looks like NSW’s fire season has already started, and it’s likely to be bad. Last year’s fire season also extended well into autumn, with serious bushfires burning in mid-April.
Fire agencies usually enjoy a six-month break from bushfires between April and September, but this year they had only three months’ respite.
This problem is being keenly felt in western United States, where fire agencies have warned that the fire season now lasts all year round. Not only that, there is clear evidence climate change is increasing fire activity in the United States; the record for the largest fire in California history has been broken two years in a row.
The most damaging fire season for NSW in the past 30 years was in October 2013 when the Linksview fire destroyed 200 houses in the Blue Mountains.
The build-up to that season was eerily similar to this year, with a winter drought and bushfires in September, but the moisture maps show that the forests are drier now than at the same time in 2013, and we have already seen serious bushfires in August.
As we move into September and October, the weather will warm, which means any remaining moisture in the ground and plants will evaporate even faster than at present, and fires will be more intense and spread faster. The only thing that will reduce the risk is soaking rain of at least 100mm.
Whether or not that will occur in the next two months is almost impossible to predict. At the moment it seems unlikely. The Bureau of Meteorology’s latest seasonal forecast, issued on August 16, considers it likely that dry conditions will persist for the next three months.
The heightened risk of bushfire this season should be a wake-up call for residents in bushfire-prone areas. Most people in really risky areas such as the Blue Mountains are well prepared, but many people who are a little more removed from the forests are not aware of the risk.
For example, many residents of Wollongong probably don’t know this October is the 50th anniversary of the great 1968 fires that swept down the Illawarra Escarpment into the suburbs of Figtree, Bulli, Austinmer and others.
If the same footprint of fire were to occur again, some 5,000 houses would be affected. The present indicators suggest a repeat of this event is more likely than at any time for decades.
Residents need to prepare a bushfire survival plan, which includes a decision on whether to stay and defend or to leave as soon as they learn about a nearby bushfire.
Current research at University of Wollongong suggests that the biggest influence on the risk of house loss during a bushfire is the actions that the residents themselves take. This includes ensuring that natural and man-made fuels are kept to a minimum in the garden, especially close to the house, and also defending the house from spot-fires caused by embers.
The Rural Fire Service has a wealth of advice for preparing for bushfires on its website.
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We’re look at a torrid upcoming fire season, dependent on the vagaries of the Australian climate. Either way, now is the time for people to brace themselves and get prepared.
To best support the well-being of farmers and farming communities, we need to support them not just when they are in the middle of a drought, but also when the rain comes and the dust has settled. An emergency response is important, but on its own is not enough – our farming communities deserve more. It needs to be accompanied by long-term coordinated support, delivered through the whole drought cycle, that helps farmers prepare for drought, cope with drought when it is happening, and recover rapidly afterwards.
Providing farmers with emergency assistance when drought is at its worst helps to alleviate the most acute hardship. But multipleinquiries and research studies (see here, here and here) have concluded that this approach is not enough.
To truly support the well-being of farming communities facing the threat of drought, we need to invest more in actions that support their preparedness and resilience before drought hits, rather than waiting until conditions are at their worst before offering help.
The hydro-illogical cycle
Doing this requires breaking the “hydro-illogical cycle”, in which a severe drought triggers short-term concern and assistance, followed by a return to apathy and complacency once the rains return. When drought drops off the public and media radar, communities are often left with little or no support to invest in preparing for the next inevitable drought.
Farmers need proactive, long-term access to drought preparedness schemes well in advance, before the effects of drought begin to bite. Farmers who use programs such as the farm management deposits scheme, which allows them to put aside surplus income in good years and draw on it in difficult ones, have higher well-being during droughts than those who access emergency assistance provided during drought.
Our research has also identified some other ways to protect farmers’ well-being during challenging times. These include investing in forward planning for drought, supporting farmers to invest in “drought-proofing” measures suitable to their farm, and creating networks through which farmers can share their knowledge about what works to cope best with the financial, psychological and social challenges they face.
These things are not a “fix” for drought; a drought will always have significant impacts. But they can help reduce the severity of impacts, and the time taken to recover. However, to really be effective, these actions need to be invested in between droughts, in addition to investing in emergency support during drought.
We can learn a lot from the actions that farmers are already taking. Thousands of farmers have spent years investing in drought resilience, for example by changing pasture types and water management practices, and by changing how they plan for and manage periods of low rainfall.
This investment often goes unsupported and unrecognised, and has to be done among the ever-present pressures of challenging market conditions, low profit margins, rising costs, the need to repay debts incurred in the last drought or flood, and the myriad daily pressures of farming. We need to better reward farmers who make these investments, and to offer incentives for continued investment in this type of action between droughts.
One investment being made by many farmers across Australia is the adoption of regenerative farming, in which the entire farming system is re-oriented with a goal of better using natural ecosystem processes to support production, and of better matching production to land capacity through different climatic conditions.
Early research findings suggest that engaging in regenerative farming can improve drought resilience. But shifting to use of this approach to farming takes a lot of time and investment; before asking farmers to make fundamental changes to the way they farm, we need more research that critically examines when, where and how different farming systems can help safeguard against drought.
As well as helping farmers invest in actions to increase resilience to drought, we also need to consider the best ways to support those who are suffering severe psychological and financial stress. For many farmers, supporting them to cope with drought and stay in farming is the best decision. But for others, the best decision can be to leave farming altogether.
The decision to leave farming is understandably one of the most challenging times in a farmer’s life, and often happens when their well-being is low and they are experiencing psychological distress. This means that the quality of help they receive during this time can make a big difference in how well they cope. Services such as the Rural Financial Counselling Service have a vital role to play at all times (before, during and after drought) in giving advice to farmers weighing up the agonising decision to stay or leave.
If you want to help farmers, keep supporting relief funds – they provide essential help during the worst of drought. But also tell your local politician that you support investment in long-term programs that help farmers improve their resilience to the next drought, and the one after that, and that recognise and reward the investments farmers are already making in doing this.
If we truly have our farmers’ well-being at heart, we should be taking drought action in wet years as well as dry, and in good times as well as bad.
New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia are currently affected by a massive complex low pressure system, dropping temperatures and bringing rain, hail, wind and snow.
While complex low pressure systems like this come along every year or so, some Australians may be feeling whiplash after a particularly warm autumn.
Typically, as Victoria and Tasmania head into winter we see cold fronts that move from west to east, generating rain and thunderstorms. This weather system started off like that, but developed into a complex low that will stay with us for the rest of the week.
It’s the kind of weather system you see on average once every year or two. What is a little unusual is to see such a deep pool of cold Antarctic air so early in May. Canberra, for example, is forecast to have a maximum of 9℃ on Friday – which would be its coldest day in the first half of May since 1970.
In weather-speak, “complex” describes a weather system with an intricate structure. Starting as a cold front across Victoria and Tasmania, this complex low now has multiple low-pressure centres at the surface, and is interacting with a broad low-pressure system in the upper levels of the atmosphere. These upper and low-level weather systems reinforce each other.
The other factor contributing to the complexity is the warmer waters of the Tasman Sea. The East Australian Current brings warmer waters down the east coast, raising ocean surface temperatures in the Tasman Sea relative to the neighbouring Bass Strait and Southern Ocean. When these low pressure systems develop over the western Tasman Sea, that warm water provides a lot more energy through evaporation.
When all the elements align, with a cold front and its associated cold air mass moving over warm water, beneath an upper-level low in the same place providing reinforcement, a deep and complex low-pressure system can develop.
Difficult to predict
The Bureau of Meteorology usually has several days’ indication that a system like this may form, but development of multiple low-pressure centres at the surface makes it tricky to predict exactly where local impacts will strike.
These small-scale low-pressure centres influence exactly where the heaviest rain or strongest winds will be, as do features of the landscape like mountain ranges.
While we can make broad predictions of what may be on the way, it’s not until we get closer to the event that we can really start to be more specific about rainfall totals, wind speeds, and so on.
The Bureau gets minute-to-minute readings from our Automatic Weather Stations, but we have the ability increase the frequency of some of our measurements (for example, at the moment we have increased the frequency of weather balloon releases at Hobart airport), to get additional information about the atmosphere.
This system will move fairly slowly over the next couple of days, and different elements will impact different parts of Australia.
We’ve got cold air, wind and showers over Victoria and southern New South Wales at the moment, but there are parts of the east coast that are still quite warm today. Tasmania is starting to see windy conditions in Hobart and rain developing, and potentially heavy rain through the east of the state over the next couple of days.
Once the cold air moves further north into NSW we’ll expect snow at lower levels as far north as the Central Tablelands, and then as we move into the weekend the low pressure system will move out into the Tasman Sea.
We’ll then start to see swell increase, as the ocean responds to the weather system. Heavy swell and hazardous surf conditions could push well north along the NSW coast and potentially into southern Queensland by early next week.
Currently, severe weather warnings for wind have been issued across parts of South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. Heavy rain warnings and flood watches are in place in Victoria, and flood watches and warnings are current in Tasmania as well.
Other specific warnings provide important information for those on the land – the Bureau has alerted sheep graziers, for example, to the impacts of cold, wet and windy conditions on exposed livestock.
While these warnings are all fairly standard for this kind of weather system, always follow the advice of emergency services. We’re the weather experts, but they’re certainly the experts on preparing for hazardous weather!
The post-Marcus chaos in Greater Darwin is not just “a real wake-up call”, but a typical case of lessons yet to be learned. For example, large shallow-rooted trees planted after Cyclone Tracy and overhead power lines brought down in the cyclone were both hazards that could have been avoided. Darwin is now engaged in a long, difficult and costly clean-up.
So was there complacency among some residents, as emergency services warned? Did infrastructure providers underestimate the threat? In hot and humid weather, over one-third of Darwin’s population went without power for several days and safe-to-drink tap water for 48 hours. Communication networks were patchy for days.
What was the reluctance in seeking immediate support from other states despite banks and insurers considering this a catastrophe? Was it due to Commonwealth disregard for the Top End in general?
How well has Darwin coped?
There have been at least two opposing views on the impact of the cyclone. The first is a more optimistic one, largely because no one got killed or seriously injured. Community members spontaneously helped one another in the immediate aftermath.
On this view, although preparedness might have varied, people in general were prepared. Power outages for a few days were a “first world problem”. Most households were ready, for example, to use camping gas cookers.
Volunteers visited and helped vulnerable groups such as aged and sick people. Emergency responders, defence staff and infrastructure restoration teams are working tirelessly to return the city to normalcy.
On the other hand, Marcus uprooted thousands of trees across Greater Darwin, mostly African mahoganies, which were planted for revegetation after Tracy.
Water was cut off in places. For about 48 hours people were urged to boil tap water before drinking, cooking or brushing teeth. The Health Department issued a warning about melioidosis, a life-threatening disease spread by contact with soil, mud and surface water.
Fallen trees blocked many roads and caused mild to severe damage to residential, commercial and public premises. Outdoor areas were cordoned off for safety.
At several locations, tree branches are still hanging dangerously over roads, pavements, parks and roofs. Anywhere in the city or suburbs, you see major and minor roads, parks and beachfronts dotted with uprooted trees and fallen branches. The roadside piles of logs and green waste are likely to remain there for some time, as their removal is not an “emergency priority”.
What does a city do with so much waste?
Waste facilities are struggling to cope. The morning after the cyclone, vehicles queued for hours at the green waste facility. It is yet to be ascertained if arrangements can be made to manage the huge quantities of green waste.
United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) guidelines note that waste debris presents opportunities as “either a source of income or as a reconstruction material, and [can] reduce burdens on natural resources that might otherwise be harvested for reconstruction”.
An evaluation of green waste would help understand its recovery value. Research suggests that disaster waste management can account for 5–10% of the total recovery costs, often exceeding that of health care and education.
In October 2004, a typhoon devastated Toyooka in Japan, producing 45,000 tonnes of waste – 1.5 years of the city’s usual waste production. The 2011 tsunami in Japan produced the equivalent of of 9 years’ worth of municipal solid waste in Iwate prefecture and 14 years’ worth in Miyagi prefecture.
What can Darwin learn from this?
Local government is considering removing mahogany trees, which were introduced after Tracy, because of their fast growth and the expansive shade their dense canopies provide.
Globally, environmental dimensions of disasters are less recognised compared with social and economic dimensions. However, the loss of dense trees and the valuable ecosystem services these offer calls for environmental recovery to be a priority as well.
A 2013 study reveals that large sums of taxpayers’ money is typically spent following disasters, whereas increasing pre-disaster investments can achieve cost savings and resilience.
As an example, the territory government is offering relief payments between A$250 and A$650 for households that were without power for 72 hours or more. The importance of putting power lines underground was recognised more than a decade ago but the work is incomplete due to lack of political will.
This is the time to ask questions such as: what will be the scale of devastation and cost and duration of recovery if a category 4 or 5 cyclone hits Darwin? The next cyclone after Marcus, Nora, was expected to be a category 4 storm but was downgraded to category 3 when it hit the western coast of Cape York on March 25.
Why not prioritise transformation of critical infrastructure, such as shifting all power lines underground? What role can cost-benefit analysis play to achieve resilience to category 4 or 5 cyclones and other natural disasters?
More broadly, how can we learn from the past? What are the new lessons we can take forward from Cyclone Marcus? And how do we inspire a city to work towards creating “Resilient Darwin’”?
This is an edited extract from The Weather Obsession by Lawrie Zion, published by Melbourne University Press.
When Olympic swimming champion Giaan Rooney was asked to fill in presenting the weather segment on Melbourne’s Channel Seven weeknight news program just before Christmas 2012, she was taken aback. She pointed out that she knew nothing about weather and that her credibility was in sport. “Don’t worry, just do the weather,” was the reply from the network. Six weeks later, the 30-year-old Rooney was invited to continue in the role, replacing the 52-year-old presenter and trained meteorologist David Brown, who had been presenting on Seven for 20 years.
As it turned out, Brown remained with the network and eventually went on to present the weather for Seven’s Sydney weeknight bulletin. But the switch from Brown to Rooney illustrates a dilemma that has never been resolved. Just who should present the weather on television?
Commenting on Rooney’s appointment soon after the announcement, the Sunday Herald Sun’s Susie O’Brien wrote:
…the old adage that people like a mature man to tell them the serious news and a pretty face to tell them the weather still seems to apply. The real question is why we need a nice-looking woman who isn’t a meteorological expert to tell us the weather at a time when climate issues have never been more
important. The fact that we are still having these debates is a sign we have a long way to go. Sadly, I think we will continue to see women used as decorations on network TV for a while to come.
What O’Brien saw as an anachronistic decision needs to be understood in the context of the role of weather segments in television news bulletins, and the changing demographics of broadcast news audiences.
Weather presenters have long been a crucial component of any television news team, and are promoted as such. For many in the audience, they’ve also been the main conduit of weather information. Ten years ago 90% of Australians received at least some of their weather information from television. This has since fallen to 71%, according to a Bureau of Meteorology survey. But that’s still a lot of eyeballs. And with their segments usually perched at the end of bulletins, the extent to which weather presenters connect with viewers helps to determine whether their station can carry the valuable news audience over to the start of the next program.
When it comes to sheer numbers, TV news audiences may have generally held up well with older viewers, but younger viewers aren’t drawn to these programs to anything like the extent that their parents were. The result is that around half the audience is over the age of 50, and therefore more likely to go for the familiar than the experimental. So while the steady evolution of graphics means that weather reports look very different now from how they appeared in the early days of television, the format has remained more predictable than the weather itself.
We all know the ritual: What happened today? What will happen tomorrow? And beyond tomorrow? Across the country? If it’s a local bulletin the state and/or city forecast will precede the sign-off. As Channel Nine Brisbane news presenter Andrew Lofthouse has put it: “The weather reports are still one of the constant reassuring things that people can rely on.” This might partly explain why changes to who presents the weather attract so much attention within the media itself.
Despite an overall tendency to play it safe, what this actually means tends to fluctuate, with appearance, personality and specialist credentials all deemed to be relevant factors to varying degrees. As O’Brien put it in the context of Brown’s replacement by Rooney: “Presumably Channel Seven has tired of the serious approach and in the midst of falling ratings is going for the well-worn route of installing an attractive female to freshen things up.”
Hiring attractive women as weather presenters is a time-honoured global tradition. Writing about the history of TV weather in America, Robert Henson points out that it became clear in the 1950s that women could be accepted as weathercasters, as long as the focus was kept on clothing, hairstyle or anatomy. “So began the brief ascendancy of ‘weathergirls’, a term that speaks volumes about the differences in status between these women and their male counterparts in weathercasting.”
But while the weathergirl craze abated in the United States by the early 1960s, in Australia, where television had been introduced relatively recently, it was just beginning. In 1961, an item in the Bureau’s in-house publication, Weather News, noted that in Brisbane, “the majority of stations appear to favour the glamour-girl type of telecaster for weather presentations”, and that “Bureau staff have had the pleasure of indoctrinating and briefing two ‘Miss Australias’ and one ‘Miss Queensland’ in the short time that television has been operating in this State”. The background training included explaining the need for weather information to be presented seriously and faithfully, “and particularly for the more glamorous the need to submerge their glamour behind the prosaic highs and lows”.
In 1965, Melbourne’s Channel 9 hired model Rosemary Margan to present the weather. One evening in 1969, she appeared in a fur coat before stripping to a bikini during her live segment, sparking a steady stream of responses from viewers. In the 1970s, when searching for a replacement for the then pregnant Margan, the station hired the 15-year-old schoolgirl Kerry Armstrong, whose job application had led them to believe she was 22. While often appearing in short, tight garments, Armstrong, who went on to become a celebrated actor, did on one occasion break away from the standard weather script, when she informed viewers that “due to the drought, 1,000 head of cattle died. But don’t worry, beachgoers, it’s going to be another great day tomorrow with a top of 35 degrees”.
Decades later, the “weather girl” tag has proved hard to shake, as current Melbourne Channel Nine weather presenter Livinia Nixon told The Age in 2010. “TV and radio are very much boys’ clubs; they’re industries that are still very, very male-dominated,” she says, acknowledging that a male who presents the weather is a weather man, whereas she is a “weather girl”. “I wonder at what point you lose the ‘girl’?” she asks, having presented the segment on Nine’s 6pm weeknight news since 2004. “What age do you have to reach to not be called a girl any more?”
What if the woman presenting the weather has a relevant tertiary qualification? Back at Seven in Melbourne, Giaan Rooney remained in the role of weather presenter until taking maternity leave, when she was replaced by model and television personality Jo Silvagni, who was in turn replaced in late 2014 by Jane Bunn – who, as it happens, is also a qualified meteorologist. Her appointment also attracted media attention. When Nixon was asked about her new on-air rival, she told the Herald Sun that she didn’t think this would lend Seven’s bulletin any more clout. “I think it’s fantastic that Jane’s a meteorologist – hats off to her for doing the hard yards – but I’m confident working in conjunction with the Bureau (of Meteorology),” she says. “I feel very confident relaying all the information we get from them. Their accuracy rate has gone up over the years.”
Did Nixon, who had replaced the veteran weather presenter Rob Gell on Nine in 2010, have a point? A trained meteorologist of either gender might make the weather segment seem more credible to some, but would they enhance the substantive quality of information that is delivered? Historically the Bureau has insisted that provision of its information comes with a requirement that the media doesn’t mess with the message. TV stations can and do use the services of private weather companies to provide graphics, but the actual forecasts are still meant to be broadly consistent with the Bureau’s. So whichever nightly news channel you watch, won’t the next-day forecast be essentially the same?
With this and others questions in mind, I went to Melbourne’s Seven studios in Docklands to meet Bunn. After completing a Bachelor of Science at Monash University and a Graduate Diploma in Meteorology, Bunn worked for the Bureau in Sydney before turning to presenting the weather on television. “I loved the forecasting part of it but hated it when the message was being changed in the
media by people who got their terms muddled, so I decided I wanted to present it,” she tells me, citing an incident where a forecast of “fine and mostly sunny” was abbreviated to “mostly fine”. “You can have trust in what we are saying because that message might be jumbled up elsewhere. You’re better off
getting your weather from a meteorologist than a presenter because you know it’s as good as it can be.”
But Bunn doesn’t simply recite the Bureau’s forecast. Before her main segment goes to air at 6.55pm she checks the forecast models from Europe and Australia, which are updated after the Bureau releases its late afternoon forecast, to see if there are developments that might require some additional interpretation. She also analyses those same models to take the Bureau’s seven-day forecast one step
further, providing viewers with an eight-day outlook.
For all her specialist knowledge, however, Bunn’s appearance has also been a talking point both in social media and in the gossip columns. “Jane Bunn had the farm boys panting when she was the weather girl on regional television,” began one Herald Sun story, before conceding that “she doesn’t fit the weather girl stereotype”. Bunn accepts that her image is to some extent constructed by others. When I bring up the subject of how she is characterised in social media, she points out that other people have considerable input into how she appears before the camera. “I’ve purposely made it so hair and make-up and wardrobe decide what I actually look like – and that allows me to concentrate on my craft which is forecasting.”
As well as presenting all the usual weather details, Bunn has the scope to discuss seasonal forecasts and weather news in her segment, which provides her with the opportunity to embed her meteorological knowledge in her reports. Despite such individual touches, however, weather presenters in Australia, including Bunn, stick far more closely to the official forecasts than their American counterparts. In the United States, it is commonplace for local TV stations to hire meteorologists to present the weather, and many of these develop their own forecasts, which may be based on National Weather Service (NWS) data, or on those of other private providers whose predictions may also differ from those of the NWS. And television has long been a much more popular source of weather forecasts than the NWS. A 2006 survey of more than 1,400 Americans found that 72% of them caught a local TV forecast at least once per day, but less than 20% obtained daily forecasts from NWS websites, with just 4% tuning in to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio each day.
It might be just as well that Australia has not gone down this track. As American data journalist Nate Silver has noted in the American context, “the further you get from the government’s original data, and the more consumer facing the forecasts, the less reliable they become. Forecasts ‘add value’ by subtracting accuracy.” This is particularly the case with precipitation predictions. Non-National Weather Service forecasters, it turns out, tend to overestimate the probability of rain. There is a logic of sorts to this “wet bias”, says Silver. “People don’t mind when a forecaster predicts rain and it turns out to be a nice day. But if it rains when it isn’t supposed to, they curse the weatherman for ruining their picnic.”
El Niño has arrived, it’s getting stronger, and it’s not about to go away soon. And already there are rumblings that this could be a big one. El Niño in Australia means warmer temperatures, and sometimes, but not always, drier conditions.
In 2014, some climatologists thought a big El Niño might have been on the cards. Ultimately, after some vigorous early warming in the Pacific, conditions only touched on El Niño thresholds. This year, with an event already established, climatologists are suggesting the odds are rising of an El Niño rivalling the record events of 1982 and 1997.
So what’s all the fuss about, and how are conditions different from last year?
Tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures are still rising
El Niño events are identified by equatorial Pacific Ocean temperatures. At the ocean surface, an El Niño is when these are sustained at about 0.8°C warmer than average. As we speak, temperature anomalies are exceeding twice that value.
In fact, we have just experienced twelve consecutive weeks with temperatures more than 1°C above average in all five of the key El Niño monitoring areas. The record was previously held by the 1997 El Niño, when this widespread warming lasted eight consecutive weeks.
But no two El Nino’s are exactly the same. Despite this warming in the tropical Pacific Ocean, in the Indian Ocean temperatures are far warmer than they were in 1997 (or 1982), which may mean different impacts for Australia. But more about that later.
Sea levels are dropping north of Australia
When sea surface temperatures in the central equatorial Pacific get warm enough, the atmospheric circulation shifts and the usually strong trade winds reduce, sometimes even reversing.
The direct consequence of the changing wind pattern is that the sea level in the western equatorial Pacific is no longer “piled up” by the trade winds. Low sea levels north of New Guinea (shown boxed) are strongly correlated with Nino3.4, which is the index that relates best to Australian climate.
At the peak (December) of the 1997 El Niño, the sea level in the western Pacific dropped nearly 30 cm. It is only August and already the sea level is nearly 25 cm below normal to the north of Australia.
Likewise, in the eastern Pacific, sea levels have risen by similar amounts as the weakened trades allow water to shift east. This half-metre difference in the normal sea level between the east and west is a classic strong El Niño signature.
A drop in sea level often means less water flows past Indonesia and down Australia’s west coast — weakening the Leeuwin Current and reducing the likelihood of coral bleaching in Western Australia.
The current (late July) average forecast is for continued warming peaking at a Niño 3.4 value of +2.7°C by December. Such a value would put 2015 alongside the big El Niño events in 1982 (+2.8°C) and 1997 (+2.7°C).
Last year the ocean began generating an El Niño but the atmosphere wouldn’t come to the party. This year the atmosphere is clearly responding.
Two exceptionally large westerly wind events have already occurred in the western equatorial Pacific this year, giving this El Niño a significant boost. Another wind event is forecast for August to kick the system along even further and add to the strength of this El Niño.
What does this mean for Australia?
Of the 26 El Niño events since 1900, 17 have brought widespread drought to Australia. In the big El Niño of 1982, drought devastated the eastern half of Australia and drove the devastating Ash Wednesday bushfires.
In contrast, the even stronger El Niño of 1997–98 brought more localised drought, with key rains in May and September meaning winter crops did reasonably well in most areas. Other years, such as 2002 and 1996, when weaker El Niño’s occurred, the drought was more severe.
For Australia, it’s not the size of El Niño that matters, it’s how it interacts with other rainfall drivers – such as sea surface temperatures around the continent and in the Indian and Southern Oceans, as well as random ‘weather noise’ – that governs the eventual rainfall over the continent.
What can we expect?
A significant El Niño event is currently underway, and there’s a chance it could rival the big events of 1982 and 1997. While this may increase the chance of drought and higher temperatures in eastern Australia, many other factors influence potential impacts.
We are already seeing that in the August–October Bureau of Meteorology seasonal outlooks, with the warmest June ocean temperatures on record in the southern Indian Ocean keeping the strengthening El Niño at bay by putting more moisture into the mid-levels of the atmosphere and changing weather patterns.
So what’s the final 2015 El Niño prediction?
The 2015 El Niño is already significant, and a big El Niño certainly remains a possibility. Widespread strong impacts haven’t (yet) raised their head for Australia and indeed, such as in 1997, may never do.
But managing El Niño is all about managing risk. The southern spring is the time when dry weather, frosts and heatwaves can hurt farmers and many others the most. And that’s when El Niño events, which raise the odds of these impacts, like to bite hardest.
The authors will be one hand for an Author Q&A between 12:30pm and 1:30 pm on Tuesday, August 11. Post your questions in the comments section below.