Queensland floods –

What role does climate change play?


Colin Austin 19 January 2011  Gin Gin, Nr Bundaberg, Queensland

We can mitigate the flood and drought cycle by simple changes to our agricultural system


When the floods came


For three days I have been digging a mega trench around my house to divert the water running under my house.

 As I live near Bundaberg I am used to floods,  once or twice a year we will get a major rain dropping over 200 mm in two or three days. The water forms a sheet, flooding the roads but when the rain stops, the roads clear, and the sun comes out and all is well again – it is not really a big problem.  After months of 'hot and dry' the rains are almost welcome.

 But these rains were very different.  It was not just one storm but storm after storm after storm saturating the ground so the full force of the rain ended up as run off.  We were cut off for several days with no way of communicating with the outside world.

 Damage estimates keep on going up daily, the latest estimate is $40billion with deaths and much personal hardship.

 But it is not just Queensland throughout the world Brazil, Sri Lanka, The Philippines, the Rhine, the UK, Pakistan, Russia and the Rhine are just examples of severe flood and drought damage.

Future food production

 My interest is in developing technology to secure future food production. Increasing population and degradation of our soil are part of the picture but adapting agriculture to climate change is a critical part of this work.

I had many experiments under way on different ways to grow food; it was very upsetting to see these experiments disappear under water.  A short flooding has little effect, the plants will soon recover, the extended flooding as we have just experienced, does the damage. For commercial farmers this is their livelihood vanishing into the murky waters.

 Is this just a one of freak flood or is it an indicator for the future?  This is a critical question, not just for me but for everyone.  I had to find the answer.

 When the Internet returned after the floods I resolved to do some further research to look for answers.

Floods – freak weather or climate change?

 I was in for a surprise.  At first there were few posting but then the avalanche started; - a veritable cyber war.

There are literally hundreds of climate change research centers around the world, they all agree on the basic mechanics of the green house mechanism, and that temperatures will rise by between 2 to 5 degrees in some fifty years.


 They all agree that climate change will lead to more wild weather and amplified flood and drought cycles although they are cautious about relating it to any specific weather event.

 But just as there is a general agreement from the climate experts there is an equally violent reaction from the skeptics.  Their main argument is that the flood and drought cycle is normal and there is nothing exceptional about the current floods.  They point to even higher flood levels in the 1840 and 1893.  One claim is that the devastation of the current floods is a result of bad water management and the poorly regulated housing boom.

 Of course the climate change experts have never said that the cycle is caused by climate change, but that the natural cycle will be amplified by the extra energy.

 There is enormous range of literature from virtually kids booklets to sophisticated papers explaining the mechanics of climate change. How had all us involved in climate change been doing so badly in presenting our case. We had obviously got something seriously wrong, but what?

 The third aspect of the debate is what we should do about it and this is sadly neglected area.

 Progress on climate change had virtually stalled for the last five years.  Why? Naomi Oreskes’s ‘Book Merchants of Doubt’ throws light on how effective destabilizing strategies can be.  But there is more to it than vested interested holding up change.  There is a significant proportion of the population who are opposed to action.

I can well understand this from my experiencing in pioneering computer simulation


Reasons for dissent

 If there is so much agreement among climate change researchers then why should there be so much dissent? 

 What the climate change experts say and what the public hear are very different.

 Look at the message which is actually being received by the public. What they hear is 'we  need to cut emissions or in fifty years time we will experience a temperature rise of between 2 and 5 degrees'.

 That may be true as a scientific statement but how is the public reacting.

 They say;-

 ‘Fifty years is a long time, just think of all the technologies that have developed since then, the jumbo jet, the computer, internet, mobile phone etc.  It is a reasonable bet that in the next fifty years some new technology will emerge to combat global warming. 

 Also what is the big deal about a couple of degrees temperature rise?  Most of that is going to occur near the Polar Regions so it is probably going to be good rather than bad.  And for all this you expect us, the public to give up all the benefits of modern living, my car, air conditioning etc - it is simply not worth it.  Thanks but no thanks, I will just wait and see.’

They are simply saying it is not worth it to make major changes to our way of life now for some possible negatives way down the track.

 This attitude could all if it was clear that climate change was already having an influence on the floods and drought cycle.  It is a question of timing.

The overzealous converts who preach of an impending Armageddon also prevent progress.  The fact is the world is not going to fry up in a little ball. 

Taking simple steps to change our agriculture we can immediately start extracting carbon from the atmosphere.  This is not even a cost in the long term, it is safeguarding our future food supply.  But the conflict between the skeptics and the zealots is  stopping us taking these simple and pragmatic steps.

Now is the time

 Think about all the people in Toowoomba, Brisbane, Rockhampton and now Victoria who have been flooded. Think about all the people around the world who have suffered from floods in Pakistan, Brazil, Sri Lank, the Philippines, the UK along the Rhine together with those who have suffered from Bush fires or drought in the US, Russia, Africa as well as Australia.

Their problems are now, not in the dim and distant future. They are looking for protection now.


 Interpreting_the_data  shows unequivocally  that temperatures are rising.  Yet the skeptics and much of the public have decided that temperature change is relatively unimportant and anyway a long way into the future - so why worry now, something will turn up.

 Presenting climate change as a small rise in temperature at some point in the future is just not effective.

We have to relate climate change to what is happening now;- the flood and drought cycle and the threat to our food supplies.


Climate change and the flood and drought cycle.

 Green house gases increase the energy being trapped by the earth.  It takes time for the mass of the earth to show even a small temperature rise.  This is why climate change is thought of as a long term issue.  Weather, is a local instability, it is not the same as climate.  It is caused largely by differential heating of the atmosphere, some areas are heated faster than others which create temperature and pressure gradients which cause wind which can be dry or wet depending on whether the moving air is cooling or heating.

 Increasing green houses gases gives greater energy input which in turn gives greater variation in temperature and pressure e.g. the weather is wilder.

 The effect of energy is immediate. This is why we are experiencing these floods and drought around the world even though the temperature increase is as yet small. energy_and_temperature

 We cannot procrastinate about some dim and distant global temperature rise. We are dealing with the here and now. Data indicated that flood and drought rainfall cycles are getting more severe. analysing_rainfall_data


Action on climate change

 Despite all the talk and debate about the floods (there were over a million hits on “Queensland +flood +climate change” on Google) there is virtually no discussion on what to do about it.

We need pragmatic solutions to our problems.  This is not the time for denial or Armageddon prophecies of doom, it is a process of analyzing the problems and coming up with solution that work, are affordable and acceptable to the population.

 There are many facets to the problem, damage to property, infra structure and agricultural land.  Food production is, or will be, probably the most sever problem globally.  It is also the source of a solution.

 Burning fossil fuels is blamed as the number 1 cause of climate change.  Around the world there is widespread resistance to foregoing the benefits of a modern industrialized society.  The developing countries have even greater incentive and justification to adopt modern technology to alleviate poverty.

No doubt new technologies will evolve enabling us to maintain our affluence without the carbon emissions, but this will take time and we need a solution now.

Climate science is just that - a science.  The aim of science is understanding based on facts.  No doubt climate scientists are frustrated that they cannot give an unambiguous answer to the connection between flood and drought and climate change.  Scientist do not like errors.

Errors are the tools in trade of engineers.  They are used to errors and know how to handle them.  The key tool of a engineer is the use of 'safety factors'.  I do not know who first used that name but is one of the few occasions when engineers show any skill at public relations.  Safety factors are really ignorance factors, a way of making things work when you don't have all the answers.

Flood and drought, with all the damage they cause and the threat to our food supply are too important to wait until we know all the answers between the connections between climate change and food supply.  We need the engineers pragmatic approach and skills in handling errors to helps us manage the flood and drought cycle.

There is an old adage-

a scientist looks at what is and says why

and engineer looks at what is not and says why not

There are actions we can take right now.

The short term solution lies in changing agriculture on a large scale.  It is not widely recognized that current agricultural techniques are a major emitter of carbon yet modified agricultural practices can absorb large amounts of carbon. Changing agricultural technology make food production more sustainable less prone to damage from the flood and drought cycle.


The technical solution


My interest is in how to change agriculture to both mitigate and adapt to climate change.  I have been developing technologies that take carbon from the atmosphere and embed in the soil.  This is research which I have been conducting for some thirty five years now and I know that for a period of at least twenty years we can stabilize the carbon levels in the atmosphere.  See  resolving climate change at www.waterright.com.au.

 Plants are already absorbing some thirty times all man made emissions.  This is an important but little appreciated fact. No doubt the reason is that most of this carbon goes straight back into the atmosphere and does little to reduce atmospheric carbon. However it is relatively straight forward and inexpensive to divert this return flow of carbon, using such allies as mycorrhizal fungi, to embed this carbon into the soil.  This increases agricultural output and make food production more sustainable.

 Whether we can do it for a longer than twenty years is unknown at this moment but a twenty year window give us time to either find out if we can extend the period or develop alternative technologies.

 But this will not happen by itself, it needs a plan and an acceptance of certain realities. The immediate problem is that it in the short term it costs the farmer  money to change his practices to absorb carbon into the soil.

A carbon trading scheme, particularly in which rich countries can offset their emission by buying carbon credits from developing countries would solve this problem and have major social benefits.

This cannot be done by Australia in isolation, we are only a relatively small contributor to green house gasses and have only limited capacity to absorb global carbon.  We need the cooperation of the major developing and agricultural nations such as China, India, Brazil, Russia etc.  If we were to cooperate with these and other countries we can hold the carbon battle.

 This can only be done by our Government taking the initiative, setting up scientifically monitored trials and negotiating with other countries on an effective carbon monitoring and trading scheme.

 Other countries have every reason to cooperate, it provides protection against the dangers of the flood and drought cycle.  For the developing countries it provides a way for them to upgrade their food production capacity and ward of famines. For the developed countries it provides a source of carbon credits which are unlikely to be available in their own countries.


Public awareness


Climate action requires the public support for action but the vast majority of the public are not concerned about a potential few degrees rise in temperature some fifty years ahead.  It is not on the agenda of most people.

 This is an argument promoted by the skeptics which has fallen on willing ears by a public that is most reluctant to give up the luxuries of modern life.

 There are an equally dedicated and passionate group of supporters for action on climate change who have created the impression of impending Armageddon that can only be resolved by the most draconian measures.  While well intentioned, this has been equally effective in reducing support for action on climate change.

 The first part of the action plan is to get the message out that flood and drought are amplified by climate change, that this is an issue which needs to be addressed now and that simple solutions are available right now.




Mechanics of climate change


Fourier did the first heat balance on the earth over 200 years ago and the first detailed prediction of global warming was carried out by Arrhenius over 100 years ago;- calculation done by old fashioned paper and pencil, nothing mystical here.  He came to the same basic answer that all our high tech computers have reached. 

This is not based on some hyper technology. When light of a certain wave length will passes through a gas some energy will pass straight through, some will be absorbed and some will be bounced back.  The ratios can be readily measured by apparatus developed over 150 years ago.

 In the same way when light lands on the surface of the earth some energy will be absorbed and the balance will be reflected back, but at  different wave lengths.  This is all simple physics which has been around for hundreds of years and is totally accepted.




Pioneering computer simulation

 There is nothing new about the technology of climate change.  If it is so simple and accepted then why do intelligent people reject the idea?  This is a fascinating question, more concerned with the way people think than with the simple physics itself.  To answer the question I will go back to my early experience of developing computer simulation.

It is easy to understand skepticism about computer simulation,  I was an early pioneer of computer simulation and became internationally recognized in my field and know only too well what really happens in developing a computer simulation, I will talk about that shortly.

 Now there is a need to get certain things out upfront.  My simulations were nothing to do with climate change but to solve an engineering problem, basically of a hot plastics flowing into a cold mold.  This problem required solving both fluid flow and heat transfer equations, made a bit more difficult because the viscosity of the fluid was affected by temperature, the flow rate and pressure.

 Now this may sound a bit complicated but all the individual bits of the physics are simple and could be solved by very simple laws, essentially Newton’s laws of motion and heat transfer.  Laws that are taught in the early years of any school science program.  Just like climate change.

 The difficulty comes in having to take into consideration many different things at the same time,  this is where the computer was essential but during development I checked out, by old fashioned hand calculations, every single calculation done by the computer.  Nothing flash about this and it could be done now by any competent school student.

The problem, just like climate change, was so complex that it was impossible to take into account every single factor.

 I had to take a decision on what was important and what could be safely ignored.

 For a period of at least six years I presented this technology and was grilled by academics on what factors my simulation considered and was loudly denounced if I had ignored some particular technical point.  The general attitude of the academics was that the simulation was not valid if I had not taken into account every single aspects.  Perfection was the only standard, if it was not perfect it was no good.

 In fairness it has to be said that this problems requires many different specialties and that each academic would tend to look at the problem from his specialty, and on that score I was almost certainly doomed to fail.  But I just wanted a solution that worked adequately..

 I was also talking to industry who took a very different view.

 These were generally engineers who had a problem, a big problem costing them a lot of time and money, and they were just looking for any solution, even if imperfect, that worked reasonably well.

 In my talks I would tell a little story about two guys hiking in the mountains when they found they were being chased by a big grizzly bear.  After running for a bit one stopped, took of his rucksack and changed into his running gear.  His mate said what on earth are you doing, even in all your flash running gear there is no way you can outrun a grizzly.

 He replied ‘I don’t have to; I just have to outrun you’.

 What is the moral of this story?  The engineers who had a real problem wanted to believe my simulation worked.  They were not too bothered by the academic niceties (although they wanted to see a scientific basis) and of course they had to prove it would work for them, but they were quite willing to set up the trial.

 They had a vested interested in it working.

 It is a similar story with climate change; we put enormous intellectual resources into understanding climate change, which is fine if we have the time.  We do not need perfect solution or absolute proof, we need solutions that work now.

Our current experiences with our floods and droughts show we need to be focusing resources on practical solution.





Interpreting the data


Can we do any better in interpreting the available data? 

Let us start with a graph of the flood levels in the Brisbane River floods brisbane river


This graph is widely used by skeptics to argue that flooding is a perfectly natural but freak event that has nothing to do with climate change.

 The graph, going back to the 1840 flood looks at first pretty convincing.  The floods in the 1800’s were biggest of all time, and in the age of the horse and sailing ship were nothing to do with climate change.

 It is absolutely true that in Australia (and throughout the world) freak flood have occurred on what appears to be a totally random basis.

 Some climate skeptics use graphs like this one below, which appear to show a fall in temperature, to deny that there is any warming.


 No one is denying that the weather is cyclic, as can be seen from numerous BOM graphs, temperature goes up and down and it is just so easy to pick a relatively short period of time on a selected part of the graph to give a false impression.

There is no dispute that flood and droughts are natural events, the question is ‘does climate change make these floods any more severe or frequent?’


 Look at sea surface temperature (which is much more stable) over a long period of time.

There is no issue that temperature has been steadily rising

 ocean temperature.jpg




Energy and Temperature


Green house gases do not immediately lead to an increase in temperature, they immediately give an increase in the rate of energy input to the earth which over time will lead to the earth reaching a new equilibrium temperature.  This rise in temperature is small in relation to the normal temperature cycle due to the daily and seasonal cycles.  It is simply unconvincing that a small change in simple equilibrium temperature is by itself, a catastrophic problem.  It is so small and a long way ahead so why worry?

 But energy it totally different, it happens right away and the result can be truly dramatic.  Green house gases do not cause a uniform heating of the earth.  Some bits heat up faster than others creating increased temperature, and hence pressure gradient around the globe.  This is the cause of the wild weather; it is the larger variations in energy input that is the real problem not the simple increase in absolute temperature.

 The best analogy I can think of is the simple process of heating water.  Put water in a cup into a microwave and heat and there will be little if any movement of the water.  It just gets uniformly hotter until near boiling.  (When it can get quite explosive as all of the water boils together).

 Now boil water over a gas flame which heats locally.  The water will quickly become turbulent and the faster you heat it the more turbulent it gets.  This is essentially what happens with global warming there is more variation in the rate at which we are heating the world so it becomes more turbulent.




Analysing rainfall data

 I have shown how easy it is to fiddle the presentation of data even with a clear cut variable like temperature.  Rainfall and drought are far less clear cut.  We have a problem that the mathematical techniques, like revolving averages and statistical manipulation that are designed to present the data in a more meaningful way end up by masking some of the real data.  You end up with nice smooth curves and statistical parameters but they are hiding part of the real truth.

 Now while we wait for some smart cookie to develop the new math I have to revert back to tools we have available now.  Humans are very bad at interpreting tables of numbers.  We do bit better with graphs but that is still not making best use of our interpretation skills.  We are astonishingly good at recognizing patterns or shapes such as faces.

 We can recognize a face we know, by its pattern from among thousands of faces even if the face is moving.  In fact if the person is moving we actually find it easier because we pick up movement patterns as well, which we can easily miss with a stationary picture.

 I have tried this with many of the graphs available from the BOM.  Take for example the Queensland Rainfall since 1900.  (Unfortunately the BOM do not go back to the 1893 floods).

 Below is a static graph, I have included a five year floating average but it is still not that easy to pick up the pattern.  I have made this into a short video  queenslandrain.mp4.


Hopefully this makes it easier to interpret the data.

If we include the floods in 1840 and 1893 there are six rainfall peaks.  Our eyes are naturally drawn to the peaks but it is difficult to pick out any mathematical pattern, other than most of the peaks occurred since 1950 with the first half of last century being quite flat.  If we look at the five year floating average it is difficult to see any great increase or decrease in total rainfall.

 However if we look for a pattern, (and the little video may or may not help here, there is a bit of  a knack in picking patterns) we see that in the first half of last century that there was a clear flood and drought cycle but with a short frequency of around three years.  queenslandrain.mp4

 The more recent cycles are longer, up to ten years, with a tendency for rainfall to incrementally build up to a major rain then drop back sharply and then build up over the years to a major event.








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