To help drought-affected farmers, we need to support them in good times as well as bad



File 20180808 191041 xb0wtk.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Farmers need help to plan for droughts, not just to respond to them when things get desperate.
Stephenallen75/Shutterstock.com

Jacki Schirmer, University of Canberra; Dominic Peel, University of Canberra; Ivan Charles Hanigan, University of Sydney, and Kimberly Brown, University of Canberra

With the New South Wales government announcing that drought is now affecting the entire state, the federal government’s crisis assistance payments have been described by some as too little, too late. The National Farmers Federation has renewed its calls for a national drought policy and drought experts have expressed concern about reliance on emergency handouts.

With droughts predicted to grow in frequency and severity in the future, we need to support farmers and their communities to adapt to these changes.

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.

Prolonged droughts harm the health and well-being of people in farming communities, although research also shows that not everyone is affected to the same extent, and some not at all. This means we need to learn from past experience in choosing what actions represent the best and most effective investments.




Read more:
Farmers experiencing drought-related stress need targeted support


Providing farmers with emergency assistance when drought is at its worst helps to alleviate the most acute hardship. But multiple inquiries 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.

The hydro-illogical cycle.
US National Drought Mitigation Center, Author provided

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.

Regenerative farming

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.




Read more:
The lessons we need to learn to deal with the ‘creeping disaster’ of 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.

The ConversationIf 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.

Jacki Schirmer, Associate Professor, University of Canberra; Dominic Peel, PhD Candidate in Public Health, University of Canberra; Ivan Charles Hanigan, Data Scientist (Epidemiology), University of Sydney, and Kimberly Brown, PhD Researcher, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Advertisements

Here’s how a complex low-pressure system sent temperatures plummeting



File 20180510 5968 1dba37n.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
The complex low weather system currently swirling over south-eastern Australia.
Bureau of Meteorology

Adam Morgan, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

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.

Complex lows

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.




Read more:
Cold weather is a bigger killer than extreme heat – here’s why


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.

Weather warnings

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.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fbureauofmeteorology%2Fvideos%2F1831136796950212%2F&show_text=0&width=560

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!




Read more:
Too wet? Too cold? Too hot? This is how weather affects the trips we make


The ConversationWe’d also advise everyone to keep up with the forecasts and warnings on the Bureau of Meteorology over the next few days.

Adam Morgan, Senior Meteorologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Lessons not learned: Darwin’s paying the price after Cyclone Marcus


File 20180326 85338 1rd90p2.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Fallen trees and power lines are two of the main hazards that could have been reduced with better planning for cyclones.
Geoff Whalan/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Akhilesh Surjan, Charles Darwin University; Deepika Mathur, Charles Darwin University; Jonatan A Lassa, Charles Darwin University, and Supriya Mathew, Charles Darwin University

Darwin was directly in the path of Cyclone Marcus and suffered severe impacts from wind gusts up to 130km/hour on Saturday, March 17. Northern Territory authorities made no declaration of emergency, but the Insurance Council of Australia declared it a “catastrophe” for the Greater Darwin region. Marcus is considered the city’s second-worst cyclone since Tracy, which devastated Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974.

The good news is that no deaths have been reported. But had it been a category 4 or 5 cyclone, instead of category 2, how would the city have fared?

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.

Fallen trees posed one of the biggest hazards during and after the cyclone.

Cyclones are to be expected

Indigenous knowledge as well as the Bureau of Meteorology’s historical records confirm that tropical cyclones are not new to Northern Australia. According to the BOM:

There are on average 7.7 days per season when a cyclone exists in the Northern Region.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

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.

Large shallow-rooted trees proved to be a poor choice for revegetating Darwin after Cyclone Tracy.
Priyanka Surjan, Author provided

Around 25,800 of about 60,000 properties across Greater Darwin were cut off from power. Even after a week many are still living in darkness. Power outages had cascading effects: traffic signals weren’t working for days at many places and food was left to rot in the heat.

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.

Educational institutions were closed for at least a day. People who didn’t own a car or were unable to drive were disadvantaged for almost three days until public transport was running again.

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.

Vehicles loaded with green waste queued for hours at the waste management facility.

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?

The ConversationMore 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’”?

Akhilesh Surjan, Associate Professor, Humanitarian, Emergency and Disaster Management Studies, Charles Darwin University; Deepika Mathur, Researcher in sustainable architecture, Charles Darwin University; Jonatan A Lassa, Senior Lecturer, Humanitarian Emergency and Disaster Management, Charles Darwin University, and Supriya Mathew, Postdoctoral researcher, Charles Darwin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘Just do the weather’: does it matter if TV weather presenters aren’t experts?



File 20170801 14795 1nt14ty
The stereotype of the conventionally attractive female weather reporter is alive and well on Australian television.
Azuzl/shutterstock.com

Lawrie Zion, La Trobe University

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?


Read more: How World War I changed the weather for good.


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.

The ConversationIt 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.”

Lawrie Zion, Professor of Journalism, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Odds keep rising for a big El Niño in 2015


Jaci Brown, CSIRO; Andrew B. Watkins, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Madeleine Cahill, CSIRO

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 surface temperature differences from normal, June 1997

Sea surface temperature differences from normal June 2015

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.

Sea level difference in height from the 1993-2000 normal for July 2015. Exceptionally low sea level to the north of Australia as expected with El Niño events.

Changes to sea level anomalies (relative to the 1993-2000 average) in the western equatorial Pacific (pink box in the previous image). This year is shaping up to be a lot like the El Niño of 1997. Also note the clear fall in western Pacific sea level in the El Niño events of 1994/95, 2002/03, 2006/07, and 2009/10.

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.

Computer models are predicting a strong event

Climate forecast centres around the world are keenly monitoring the development of this year’s El Niño. Why? Because for some time, all the top dynamical (i.e., physics based) climate models have agreed that there is more warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean to come.

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).

The atmosphere is kicking the El Niño along

Reinforcement by the atmosphere is an essential part of El Niño development – as you can see in our Understanding ENSO video.

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.

Rainfall deciles for the strong El Niño of 1982
bom.gov.au

Rainfall deciles for the strong El Niño of 1997
bom.gov.au

Rainfall deciles for the weak to moderate El Niño of 2002
bom.gov.au

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.

Typical El Niño impacts for Australia
bom.gov.au

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.

The Conversation

Jaci Brown is Senior Research Scientist at CSIRO.
Andrew B. Watkins is Manager of Climate Prediction Services at Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
Madeleine Cahill is Oceanographer at CSIRO.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.