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Will Cyclone Yasi Push Australia into Action on Climate?
The 'monster, killer storm' is the biggest for at least a century, with 400,000 people in its path. Will this latest extreme weather affect attitudes to global warming?
With Cyclone Yasi bearing down on Queensland, the wind rising, the windows starting to rattle and the rain beginning to pelt, one can only imagine how those people holed up in their homes are feeling.
It's not looking good. "It's a monster, killer storm," said Queensland premier Anna Bligh. The storm front is expected to be 500km across and winds up to 300km/h will roar over the homes of 400,000 people in the the cities of Cairns and Townsville and elsewhere. (There's a good animation here by the University of Reading.)
"The thing about Cyclone Yasi is its large diameter," said Professor Jonathan Nott, at James Cook University in Cairns. "It's a serious event. It's the biggest one that anyone living today has seen in Queensland."
The wind can pop the roofs of buildings and create flying hazards but the biggest danger will come from storm surges, where gale force winds push water up ahead of the storm. "There is concern that the storm surge with Yasi could arrive at the same time as the high tide," said Professor Nick Harvey at Adelaide University.
going to cause storm tides to go through people's houses," said Nott.
"We've been lulled into a false sense of security in Queensland because
we've been through a fairly quiet time of cyclones since the 1970s. We
haven't planned properly."
But an above-average cyclone season was forecast months ago by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. "We have known for over 30 years that the [La Niña climate phenomenon] affects the number of tropical cyclones in the Australian region, and that this allows us to predict whether a tropical cyclone season is likely to be active," said Professor Neville Nicholls at Monash University. "However, the relationship does not help us in predicting the occurrence of an individual cyclone, nor of its likely intensity."
"Landfalling tropical cyclones in Queensland are approximately five times more likely during La Niña conditions," added the University of Reading's Nicholas Klingaman, who is currently working with the Queensland government.
The strongest La Niña in a century was also blamed for the recent terrible floods in Queensland. (La Niña is a periodic climate phenomenon that brings more rain to the western Pacific and less to South America along the eastern Pacific.) But scientists do not yet know how global warming is affecting La Niña and its counterpart, El Niño.
Nonetheless, as a general point, Professor Vicky Pope told me recently, a warmer world is a wetter world as more water evaporates from the oceans, although the extra rain is unlikely to fall evenly across the globe. "Also in general, as more energy and moisture is put into the atmosphere [by warming], the likelihood of storms, hurricanes and tornadoes increases," said Pope, head of climate change advice at the UK Met Office.
Immediate attention should be upon those in danger from Yasi. But a big question in the aftermath will be whether the battering Australia has taken from extreme weather, on top of its recent long drought, will shift the country's stubborn streak of sceptical opinion on climate change. Climate sceptics, as elsewhere, are firmly in the minority, but their viewpoint appears to have become more popular in recent years.
"The insurance industry knows the damage bill from these events is already on the rise," said Matthew England of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. "So we can't just continue to mop-up without thinking about how fossil fuel emissions are changing our climate."
Will the Lucky country, with one of world's biggest per capita carbon footprints and the world's biggest exporter of coal, reverse its increasingly sceptical attitude to global warming and take action to cut greenhouse gas emissions?