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Record flooding in Australia driven by La Niña and climate change

A slow-moving low-pressure system has dropped 790 millimetres of rain on Brisbane in one week, causing floods that have claimed eight lives

Environment 28 February 2022

TOPSHOT - A man paddles his kayak next to a submerged bus on a flooded street in the town of Milton in suburban Brisbane on February 28, 2022. (Photo by Patrick HAMILTON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK HAMILTON/AFP /AFP via Getty Images)

A flooded street in Milton, a suburb of Brisbane

PATRICK HAMILTON/AFP/AFP via Getty Images

Record-breaking rain on the east coast of Australia over the past week has caused severe flooding that has claimed eight lives and damaged thousands of properties. The same region was hit by devastating floods last year and wildfires the year before, suggesting that predictions of more extreme weather due to climate change are coming true.

The city of Brisbane in Queensland is one of the worst-affected areas, having been pounded by a record 790 millimetres of rain in the week up to 28 February. In comparison, London records 690 millimetres in an average year.

“This rain bomb is just really, you know, it’s unrelenting… It’s just coming down in buckets,” state premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told media on 27 February.

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About 18,000 homes in Brisbane and surrounding areas have been flooded and more than 50,000 are without power.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services said on 27 February it was receiving 100 requests for help every hour. An emergency services officer whose vehicle was swept away on the way to rescue a trapped family was among those who have lost their lives. Many others are missing.

The deluge is now edging south into northern New South Wales. The city of Lismore is experiencing its worst flooding ever after its river rose to 14.4 metres on 28 February, 2 metres higher than its previous record from 1954.

Videos from Lismore posted on social media show homes and shops underwater and people waiting to be rescued from their roofs.

The intense rainfall is due to a very slow-moving low-pressure system dragging moist air from the Coral Sea onto the east coast, says Nina Ridder at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “Because it’s so slow-moving – it’s basically stationary – it’s dumping all the water that it has on the same area,” she says.

The east coast was already experiencing more rainfall than usual due to La Niña, a weather cycle that brings wetter conditions every few years, says Ridder. “And now on top of that there’s the additional moisture from the Coral Sea,” she says.

Climate change is probably also a factor because as the atmosphere gets warmer, it can hold more moisture, says Ridder. “For each degree that the atmosphere is warmed, it can hold 7 per cent more water and that’s 7 per cent more water that can fall to the surface,” she says.

“We know that because of climate change, we’re seeing more rainfall come in the form of intense and heavy downpours,” says Simon Bradshaw at the Climate Council of Australia, an independent advocacy organisation.

The east coast also experienced severe flooding in March last year, which was described by then-New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian as a “1-in-100-year event”.

The year before that, the east coast suffered its worst wildfires on record.

These extreme events are in line with predictions made in a report commissioned by the Australian government 14 years ago. It said that climate change would result in “longer dry spells broken by heavier rainfall events” in Australia, meaning more wildfires and floods.

However, Australia has done little to address these threats and sits close to last in global rankings of climate change action.

“The last few years really have brought home the brute reality of climate change in Australia,” says Bradshaw. “The threats are no longer in the future – they’re unfolding right here, right now with very serious consequences.”

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