No, Australia has not been pulled into America’s so-called “polar vortex” (actually a series of winter storms caused by a weakened polar vortex). Being in the Southern Hemisphere protects Australia from the strange weather triggered by a warming North Pole. Instead, Australia has been having its own strange weather.
It’s late summer in Australia, now, the end of a season so hot that in January meteorologists had to add a new color to the weather maps so they could predict previously unimaginably hot weather. Bats literally fell dead and dying from the trees in the heat. The Australian Open had to be suspended after two people fainted. At least one player hallucinated from the heat. Wildfires raged across Victoria and South Australia the product of both the heat and a second year of serious drought.
And the drought continues. Some communities are actually making plans to evacuate if rain does not come. Food prices in Australia could skyrocket in the coming months due to widespread crop failure and ranchers being forced to sell off their stock because they can’t feed and water them. Suicides among farmers and ranchers are on the rise.
Meanwhile, much of South Australia is flooding. Adelaide has had its wettest February in 40 years.
Australia’s weather is usually extreme. It’s not uncommon for half the country to be much wetter than average while the other half is in a major drought. The current drought, while bad enough, is not the most severe in recent times; that would be the Millennial Drought or the Big Dry, which lasted from 2001 to 2009. But Australia’s weather is now being worsened by climate change and complicated by politics.
Australia’s Climate Council reports that both the frequency and the length of heat waves have increased since 1971 and that and the number of hot days will continue to increase as long as the Earth as a whole keeps warming up. The issue of drought is a bit less certain, since some models predict severe drying across the country while others predict moderately wetter conditions across the country. However, the most likely scenario is that over the next fifteen years the western half of the country will get a little drier while most of the eastern half will get a little wetter.
Even that moderate-sounding prediction might not feel moderate in practice, though, since Australian weather is so variable. “Moderate drying” is an anticipated average and averages round out the extremes. Australia’s actual weather will seem normal some years and horribly dry—or horribly wet—other years.
Many Australians are well aware that climate change is worsening their weather. Actually doing anything about it is somewhat hampered by the fact that their current prime minister, Tony Abbot, is an ardent climate-change denier who has taken to pointing out that Australia’s weather has always been rough.
And he’s half-right. Australia does seem more “drought-prone” than it really is because much of its agricultural development dates back to the first half of the 20th century, an unusually wet period in the nation’s history. Even a normal year therefor does not deliver enough water to feed the nation’s thirst.
Australia’s leadership identified this problem with expectations years ago, and in 1992 it stripped “drought” from its definition of natural disaster. That meant that, as a matter of policy, farmers and ranchers hurt by drought cannot get government aid. A good farmer, so the thinking went, should be able to respond to Australia’s weather as it actually is.
Naturally, with a lot of farms and ranches unable to make ends meet in the drought, there is a lot of political pressure on the government to do something. At the same time, Australia’s current government is conservative and holds that people should take responsibility for themselves and not look to the government for aid. Whether the current drought is a natural disaster or not is code for a national debate on the proper role of government in people’s lives.
But of course, the current drought is not entirely natural. The Prime Minister of Australia is wrong.
Climate change causes different weird weather in different parts of the world. Weird weather likewise kicks up different social and political issues in different places. The common thread across the globe is that strange weather makes life increasingly difficult while those in power do less than they could to address the underlying problem.