Climate Attribution and the Buchan Caves Reserve Boxing Day Flood

A State Emergency Services flood guide stated that on Boxing Day 2023, “a severe thunderstorm resulted in localised intense rainfall causing significant stormwater run-off across Buchan, and severe flash flooding in Spring and Fairy Creeks impacting the Buchan Caves Reserve. During this event over 110 millimetres fell at Buchan with 69.4 millimetres in the 30 minutes to 4:48pm and 87.8 millimetres in the one hour to 6:18pm. The December 2023 rainfall amounts were extreme and more than a 1 in 2000 AEP rainfall event.” Referring to last figure the Flood Guide noted that the “Annual Exceedance Probability (AEP) is a term used to the express the percentage of likelihood of a flood of a given size or larger, occurring in a given year. If a flood has an AEP of 1%, it has a one in 100 likelihood of occurring in any given year.”

Previously I have commented on these floods and noted “on Boxing Day we had our own flash flood in the Buchan reserve with floating cars, caravans and two fatalities”. The Guardian reported on them in detail (image) and noted widespread damage. Local Councillor Mendy Urie referred to the floods as “I think people’s understanding of climate change is changing, even over the past six months, 12 months…But I think we need to be even more aware.” Whilst statistically this is an exceedingly rare event and obviously strongly influenced by climate change, it remains difficult to prove this link beyond doubt.

Here the new science of climate attribution may eventually help. It “is the study of whether [or how much] …human influence…contributed to extreme climate or weather event. Scientists can now estimate whether human activities have influenced extreme weather or climate events and how likely they are to occur.” Using computer models this event is compared with a pre warming state for the same location and then estimates can be made of the probability of the event occurring with human caused global warming.

The atmosphere holds 7% more moisture for each degree of warming and a recent study has confirmed that the moisture in the atmosphere that results in flash floods may be much more than this. A “hotter atmosphere has the capacity to hold more moisture. But the condensation of water vapour to make rain droplets releases heat. This, in turn, can fuel stronger convection in thunderstorms, which can then dump substantially more rain. This means that the intensity of extreme rainfall could increase by much more than 7% per degree of warming. What we’re seeing is that thunderstorms can likely dump about double or triple that rate – around 14–21% more rain for each degree of warming”.

The Buchan flood was not an aberration but entirely predictable and another warning that more events of a similar nature, and much worse, are on the way. Attributing events such as this clearly with global warming is becoming easier, and with litigation, perhaps one or two of the many responsible may eventually be brought to account.

Global Heating, Floods and Extreme Weather

At the same time (April/May) as heatwaves are continuing across south and south east Asia there have been record breaking floods on every continent. Climate scientist Michael Mann posted on twitter that “dangerous climate change is here. It’s a question of how bad we’re willing to let it get”. Recent images of cars floating down thoroughfares in China, Europe (Germany, Netherlands) and the Middle East (Turkey, Dubai) are common on the internet and news channels. The death tolls from floods in Brazil and Kenya are in the hundreds. In Gippsland on Boxing Day we had our own flash flood in the Buchan reserve with floating cars, caravans and two fatalities.

The warnings of extreme weather events exacerbated by global warming have been with us for a long time. Twenty years ago, A. Barrie Pittock, a long time visitor to Gippsland, wrote: “small changes in average climate have a disproportionately large effect on the frequency of extreme events. This is because the nature of frequency distributions (how frequency changes with magnitude). Extremes occur at the low frequency ‘tails’ of these frequency distributions. Frequencies in these ‘tails’ change rapidly as the frequency distribution moves up or down with the average. Moreover, variability can change, and this also rapidly changes the frequency of extremes.” (Climate Change CSIRO, 2005, p.117)

Barrie Pittock continued that this “is particularly important for high rainfall events, as global warming increases the moisture holding capacity of the atmosphere, and thus preferentially increases the likelihood of high intensity rainfall.” As another way of illustrating  this the image above shows how a small move in the average of frequency distribution of the normal curves dramatically increases the ‘tail’ of extreme weather events. Similarly Barrie talks of ‘thresholds’ and ‘abrupt’ changes and it is already clear, as Michael Mann states, that some of these ‘thresholds’ have been crossed and that abrupt changes are occurring.

Another example Barrie gives of this is “the wind speed threshold for damages… [where] peak wind gust speeds show a disproportionate increase in costs when wind speeds exceed 50 knots… A 25% increase in gust wind speed above this threshold causes a 650% increase in building damages” (p.111). As with the floods, the extreme wind event across Gippsland in February probably crossed this threshold with substantial damages including some week-long power blackouts, numerous trees down and the loss of the Bairnsdale Historical Society museum roof. The towns of Metung and Mirboo North were hit particularly badly.

It hardly needs pointing out that extreme wind events are often associated with “high intensity rainfall”. Research just published states “the bigger picture is now very clear: a hotter world is likely one with higher risk of extreme floods, often driven by extreme rain from supercharged thunderstorms.” We wonder how bad it will get before governments and the populace at large, realise we are in a climate emergency and that the floods are only a small part of an enormous problem.

Our Fragile Moment and the Nuclear Winter

Michael Mann’s Our Fragile Moment: how lessons from the Earth’s past can help us survive the climate crisis (Hachette, New York, 2023) is a climate and geological history of the planet from its beginning. Each chapter examines in some detail times when the earth was in various climatic extremes such as the “hothouse” of the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum of 55 million years ago or the “snowball earth” of the Proterozoic era 2 billion years ago, and the lessons we can learn from these events.

For personal reasons the chapter that grabbed my attention was called ‘Mighty Brontosaurus’ which covered the demise of the dinosaurs following an asteroid collision 66 million years ago. Mann wrote that: “there are remarkable parallels indeed between the dinosaur–killing asteroid impact and the Nuclear Winter worries of the 1980s” (p.94). I had been an anti-nuclear activist since the early 1970s but the publicity about a nuclear winter where the dust from a widespread nuclear war blocked out the sunlight certainly increased my activism – making nuclear war and its armaments doubly absurd. The nuclear winter book by Paul Erlich and others The Cold and the Dark (Sidgwick & Jackson, London 1984) came out in December 1983 and the following year I stood as a candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in Gippsland on a platform of publicising the threat of the nuclear winter.

For the rest of the decade there followed support and work with local PND (People for Nuclear Disarmament) groups. In 1987 friend Barrie Pittock had published Beyond Darkness: Nuclear Winter in Australia and New Zealand (Sun Books, South Melbourne, 1987). Barrie’s lifetime study and work in the CSIRO department of atmospheric physics was on the antithesis of the nuclear winter – climate change – and the same year he was presenting a paper to the Monash University Greenhouse symposium and was later the author of a similar titled work.

In his Introduction Mann noted there: “is a duality that governs the human species and the climate it enjoys. Human actions, particularly the burning of fossil fuels and the generation of carbon pollution, have impacted the trajectory of our climate over the past two centuries, but the longer term trajectory of our climate has also impacted us. It’s what got us here. By looking back at that trajectory, we can see insights into what futures are possible.” (p.6)

Wading through the many scientific acronyms may slow the general reader down but this book is well worth the read. A copy is available in the East Gippsland Shire Library.

Extreme Climate Events in Gippsland 2023/4

EGCAN booth at Orbost Sustainability Festival

The effects of climate change on extreme weather have been visible for a number of years in Gippsland but more so in the last 12 months. The Climate Council noted that “Australia’s driest three months on record (August to October 2023) was followed immediately by a month of well above average rainfall in Victoria. An early and ferocious fire season in Gippsland, Victoria was followed almost immediately by extreme rainfall and flash flooding.” This the Council referred to as ‘whiplash’ climate events – of having a distinct extreme weather event closely following another. Thus we had an extremely dry winter with early spring bushfires at Briagolong and Loch Sport. Then the fires were doused by heavy rain that led to moderate floods. Note that these fires were not the earliest recently experienced with an August bushfire at Marlo about 2017.

On the subject of floods, the Climate Council added “Much of the flooding we’ve experienced this summer has been the result of short, intense downpours that catch communities off guard, and can lead to dangerous flash flooding.” Such was the event that swept through the Buchan Caves campground on Boxing Day 2023 sadly resulting in two fatalities. More than two inches of rain fell in 30 minutes, Vehicles were under water, people were rescued from a nearby bridge, and the campground was trashed. Cr Mendy Urie and the East Gippsland Shire Council CEO Anthony Basford noted the influence of climate change. Cr Urie stated “I think people’s understanding of climate change is changing, even over the past six months, 12 months…But I think we need to be even more aware.”

Whilst the Buchan floods were localised the storms that crossed Gippsland on the evening of 13 February were widespread. In particular there was a severe wind which lasted only a few minutes causing trees and branches to fall and power lines to be cut across the region. The power outages themselves were chaotic with some areas of Bairnsdale unaffected but the centre of town was without power for 24 hours. In town, there were no traffic lights, no mobile phone communications, and no electronic payments – just another warning of the climate emergency. Places like Metung and Mirboo North were extremely hard hit with some residences without power for a week or more.

Most recently, in what is likely to be the warmest year on record globally, we have just had the Labour Day weekend declared a heatwave across south-east Australia, with temperatures 10 degrees or more above average. As well there were associated fire bans and cancelled events including the Moomba Parade. Somewhat ironically, heat closed down the Sustainability Festival event at Orbost (image) at one pm on the Monday.

All of these extreme weather events have been influenced by climate change and although the exact amount caused by our warming world currently cannot accurately be estimated. The influence of global heating on our extreme weather events becomes obvious as their numbers increase in severity and become more common, as they have in the last year in Gippsland. We are in a climate emergency and urgent action is required.

Letter to our Local Member about the ‘Reckless Renewables Rally’

Dear Darren Chester MHR,

As concerned residents living in your electorate of Gippsland (“Gippslanders all”) and trusting in you to provide leadership and representation in Canberra, we wish to express our deep concern and alarm with the Leadership of the National Party. It is obvious from their recent actions that they wish to reignite and promote “the climate wars” that have stood in the way of meaningful climate action and energy policy in Australia for at least two decades. Your party leader, David Littleproud, wants to stop renewable energy projects whilst openly promoting the coal and gas industries.

Your ex-leader and former Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, has called renewable energy a “swindle” and wind turbines “filth”. He is pictured standing with supporters outside Parliament holding up signs saying renewable energy is “Unreliable, Unaffordable, Uncompetitive, Unpredictable, Unsustainable, Unsightly, Unfit”. Your energy spokesperson, Ted O’Brien, promotes nuclear energy (particularly SMRs of which only one is in operation throughout the world) as the answer to all our climate and energy problems.

Your party stands with the Liberals in refusing to support the introduction of emissions standards for new vehicles – effectively making Australia and Russia the only countries in the developed world to still not require manufacturers to take appropriate action.

These views have been called “unhinged” and “Trumpian” and in our view are calculated to cause division in our society. They are out of step with many farming communities and are politically dangerous.

So, Darren, our question to you is “do you hold the same views as your party leadership?” or are you able to act as a voice within the Nationals for a more rational approach.

Signed

Metung Science Forum

My Climate Poetry

Aside from an odd letter to a politician my first written words on global warming and the climate crisis were in the form of poetry. Writing under the pseudonym Amelia Angove in the 1980s these few brief lines foreshadowed an occupation that has dominated the last twenty years of my life. The climate crisis was briefly mentioned in four of the six slim Angove volumes published in the 1990s. Using fiction inevitably involved the baggage of spelling mistakes and occasionally the more serious factual errors or misdirection.

In the poem ‘Numblamungie 1989’ I wrote “it is easy to believe / the greenhouse effect / is a scientist’s creation” and “as phrophets (sic) of doom our lives / pass us by, preoccupied with / anticipating the greenhouse effect.” Obscure and somewhat ambiguous the second quote meant anticipating the consequences of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – that is global warming. The last verses published in 2000 (see image above) completed the process of using fiction as a vehicle included the following: “No 80. The ground is hard / and the water tanks are low; / perhaps El Nino / is merely the grandson / of global warming.”

By this time I had already published several opinion pieces (see here and here) and numerous ‘letters to the editor’ – mainly in the Bairnsdale Advertiser. Gradually the detail increased until it involved the 500 word blogs that appeared regularly on my website from 2013-23. An occasional piece like this one still appears. The objective analysis of the crisis had overwhelmed all the subjective, emotive attempts.

Since then the only verse written has been limited to lyrics for a few songs – all unpublished. One was a single verse set to the tune of ‘Plastic Jesus’: “Global warming, global warming, / it’s a fact that some of us deny / doesn’t matter whether it rains or freezes / it’s a happening now by Jesus / happening before our very eyes.” When Tony Abbott was opposition leader I penned a six verse song to the tune of ‘Nobby Hall’: “Your name sounds like a rabbit Dr No / and you’ve got a nasty habit Dr No / as the gutters deep you scour / in your endless push for power / with the devil you’d cohabit Dr No” went the chorus.

The first verse went “You deny there’s global warming Dr No / and of the greenhouse you are scorning Dr No / you did not hesitate / to say CO2 had no weight / and give science such a flooring, Dr No.” I still get angry thinking about the ten wasted years of climate denialism that the Abbott era inaugurated. Hopefully the words of songwriters and poets will express these emotions far better than I have been able, in the continuing struggle for meaningful climate action.

The poetry is available in pdfs here

East Gippsland Shire Council and Heatwaves by Nola Kelly

Excerpts from an article first published in the Great Eastern Mail Dec 1

The people of East Gippsland can be proud to have some very progressive and forward thinking councillors representing them. Recently the council voted to pass a Notice of Motion to seek more information about climate change via a report, and then possibly set up an advisory body to inform their actions… It was considered important that this process would be informed by relevant, publicly available and up-to-date scientific information, and the links to this information be available via Council’s website…

By adopting this Notice of Motion they are showing concern for the people of East Gippsland as well as a desire to assist residents to be properly informed with the latest scientific information. In this way the community will be better prepared to deal with climate change impacts, and less traumatised by them… In April 2020 a community petition was presented to Council asking them to declare a Climate Emergency.

One Councillor has admitted to not having a good knowledge of the science and issues associated with climate change but has stated that it appears to be a matter of both importance and concern for many of the constituents represented, especially young people. This approach, of separating personal opinion from the needs and wants of the community, is to be applauded and shows care and concern as well as a desire to genuinely reflect the electorate. 

One issue that has been brought to the attention of Council, and likely to become very pertinent during the next few months, is the need for an active and up-to-date Council Heatwave Plan, as required as part of Emergency Management. The current plan appears to be somewhat outdated and has no provision for community access to “Cool Zones” or “Hot Day Out Centres”…

Heat is not equitable. Renters and those who cannot afford air-conditioning, or even to run air-conditioning, are the most severely hit. Power outages are also a possibility resulting in widespread heat exposure of people living in specific areas. Small children, the elderly, and those with disabilities or complex medical conditions are very vulnerable to the effects of heat stroke and heat related illnesses… The effects of heat stroke can creep up without warning and can have severe and irreversible results.

The Bureau of Meteorology are predicting severe heat for the summer of 2023-24, and 2023 is likely to be declared the hottest year on record. Modelling shows that days when temperatures reach above 35 degrees Celsius are likely to double in the next 6 years in some places in Gippsland. As temperatures rise due to the changing climatic conditions it is important for all people living in warm climates to be informed, aware, and prepared. In some situations this will mean having a Fire Plan or even a Flood Plan, but everyone needs to have a Heatwave Plan and know where they can go to stay cool during excessive heat if staying at home is no longer an option.

The full article can be read here

Beat the Squeeze on Gas Supply by Malcolm McKelvie

Republished from the Baw Baw Sustainability Network Newsletter Dec 23 –Jan 24

Numerous reports are noting the coming squeeze on gas supply with some calling for increased gas exploration and mining and others for efficient electrification. Prices are rising sharply prompting more and more people to electrify. Even those who are unconcerned about climate impacts of fossil fuels are choosing to move away from gas.

Here’s how we made the change to an all-electric home at a unit in Melbourne.

We started with a gas storage hot water system that was ageing, a gas space heater and a gas cooktop- very similar to many Victorian homes. Gas supply charges are costing $355 per year and usage charges around $500 per year.

Step 1:

– was easy! There is also a heat pump single split system that heats and cools so the gas space heater is not needed. Just heat with the more efficient electric appliance. Cost- $0

Step 2:

– replace the ageing gas storage hot water system with a very efficient Reclaim heat pump from Earthworker. Their system is top of the range with 80% less energy used to heat water compared to an electric storage heater, plus a stainless steel tank. It should last many years.

– Cost- around $5000 installed. The plumber also disconnected and removed the space heater. There is a pre-existing solar system facing west so we set the timer on the hot water system to operate from 1pm, so ongoing energy cost for hot water is close to zero.

Step 3:

– replace the gas cooktop with induction. We went with a Miele cooktop- there are many different brands and choices of configuration, size etc. This step took a lot longer while we ummed and aahhed about a kitchen renovation but it’s finally done. Cost, about $2000.

Step 4:

– the most satisfying: ringing the gas retailer to end the contract and have the meter removed. Cost $79.

No more fossil fuels burnt onsite and ongoing power bills slashed!

Review: The Making of the Fittest by Sean B Carroll

These days I seem to be donating large numbers of books to the local opportunity shops and seldom purchasing one. The exception to the rule was my recent purchase of Sean B Carroll’s The Making of the Fittest (Quercus, London, 2008) which I read in two sittings. Subtitled “DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution” this book is only incidentally about climate change. For eight chapters it closely documents the DNA evidence supporting evolution, rigorously following the scientific process, and then in the last few chapters looks at the anti-evolution arguments and the disastrous route of DNA science in the former Soviet Union.

Perhaps prophetically, Carroll dissects the anti-vaccination arguments of segments of US Chiropractic as a similar example to those of the anti-evolutionists and it is immediately apparent that many of these arguments are the same as those put forward by global warming deniers. At the head of the list is the tactic to “doubt the science” followed by attacking the scientists involved and questioning their motives, highlighting any disagreement amongst scientists, and citing what Carroll calls “gadflies” as their main authority – those that hold some credentials “no matter how isolated and unsubstantiated their views.” He notes the denial “of evolution requires denial of the bedrock of two centuries of biology and geology.” (p.272) Likewise, the denial of global warming conflicts with a similar ‘bedrock’ period of climate science including physics and chemistry and countless measurements and experiments supporting it.

Carroll examines in some detail the story of the highly adapted Icefish and notes that:

“history shows that as circumstances have changed, globally or locally, many era’s fittest have been replaced. The fossil record is paved with creatures – tribolites, ammonites, and dinosaurs, to just name a few – of once very successful groups that evolution has left behind. The Icefish have made a remarkable evolutionary journey in adapting to the changing Southern Ocean, but theirs may well be a one way trip.” With climate change, the highly likely future extinction of the Icefish becomes apparent.

“The air temperature in the Antarctic Peninsula has risen by 4 to 5 degrees  in the last fifty years, and water temperature of the Southern Ocean is projected to rise by several degrees over the next century…it is very likely that most cold water species will not be able to adapt to such rapid changes of temperature…” p.39

The last chapter is about species suffering from what Carroll calls the ‘perfect storm’. “A perfect storm is brewing – of overfishing, pollution, and man-made climate change – that threatens to extinguish ecosystems beyond any chance of recovery”. (p.261) Carroll concludes with a quote from Churchill and uses the analogy of the disastrous lead up to World War 11. “Then, as now, most of the West’s leaders were in denial, guided by wishful thinking and blind optimism. They made symbolic gestures in worthless treaties, empty platitudes, and spineless appeasement.” (p.267) This could be an apt description of the last thirty years of climate politics in Australia.

“When the scientific process is abandoned, the lesson throughout history is failure or outright disaster in human affairs.” (p.247) We have been warned many times and I must thank Sean B Carroll for his book, as well as the chance of my purchase. Little has changed since he penned his words 15 years ago.

Asking our Local Member to Support the Get Off Gas Campaign

From the Metung Science Forum

Dear Tim,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my letter and for providing references to your research.

With help from some of my colleagues in the Metung Science Forum I have been trying to get my head around the “Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions” in order to respond to you but believe this would take a considerable amount of time to establish some degree of expertise on how these measures input into the price comparisons of gas v electricity in general. However, we have left further comment on your calculations for the moment and will return to them in the penultimate paragraph of this letter. 

In the meantime, we believe that your comparison ignores the reasons why electricity costs have escalated in Victoria. In this respect, we need to acknowledge that the use of gas to provide peak use power to the grid adds significantly to the costs of electricity as does the burning of coal.

The comparison of costs that you put forward ignores the very strong probability that anyone building a new home now will install solar panels to offset electricity from the grid, and probably heat pumps and possibly also batteries. Surely architects and builders would concentrate on installing all of these into new buildings in the current climate (no pun intended).

Your commentary regarding Hydrogen replacing gas and using the existing infrastructure is we believe well- intentioned but misplaced. It would appear that even our former chief scientist Alan Finkel (a known hydrogen enthusiast) has re-thought the use of Hydrogen in the residential environment, preferring to concentrate on the development of green hydrogen for industry and heavy transport and shipping. (refer his just released book “Powering Up”).

Before returning to your figures however, perhaps we also need to mention some of the reasons for “getting off gas” as follows;

·    The health risks of burning gas in the family home are now well documented and, as we are indeed talking about new homes, we would suggest that continuing to do so is contrary to issues that are designed to improve the safety and environmental performance of these buildings eg. Nathers 7 stars etc. We should note that the target for any new builds should be energy efficiency with at least double glazing, insulation and solar panels and that this translates to far less power being used.

·    The costs of changing new home owners over to more friendly energy systems when gas is no longer viable or desirable (possibly already the case). Even the use of the gas infrastructure for hydrogen if it were ever approved would no doubt involve costs of changes to reticulation systems and appliances. 

·    It is now well appreciated by many of your constituents that the fossil fuel industry could not exist without the enormous fuel subsidies that affect all of us one way or the other.

We could go on but perhaps we should stop there and return to your quoted figures which we are having some difficulty in reconciling as follows;

The Energy Australia information sheet quotes medium usage for gas of 159 Mj/day and high usage as 201 Mj/day.  You have not stated where the annual usage of 29830Mj that you have quoted comes from or how it was arrived at. You also state that 4000KW per year = 14400Mj/year which is half the energy usage for a household using gas according to your own figures.

But 159Mj/day = 56604Mj/year or 4 times the amount of energy and at a greater cost than using power. So, this seems to indicate that we need to consume more Mj for the same outcome and doesn’t take into account that households using gas are also using electricity.

Tim, we may be missing something here but, in summary, we believe that there is a need to further clarify your calculations regarding the short-term future of energy costs. But very importantly for your constituents there is a more urgent need to consider the wider ramifications of maintaining gas usage in the home and the ability to forecast what the actual future costs of doing so will be.

In the meantime Tim, thanks again for the opportunity

Kind Regards

Tom Moore on behalf of The Metung Science Forum