Queensland floods –
What role does climate change play?
Gin Gin, Nr
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.
‘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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
This cannot be done by
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Let us start with a graph of the flood levels in
the 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
(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
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
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
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
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.
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.