Understanding why Australia’s extreme events are becoming more frequent and intense

The year 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. These two factors combined to create the worst bushfire and drought conditions since the Bureau of Meteorology’s daily weather observations began in 1910.

After the climate record-shattering year that the country has just experienced, our team attended the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS) annual meeting and international conference in Fremantle, Western Australia (WA), in February this year.

This meeting of AMOS was especially timely and important. From presentation after presentation we heard what we all knew – that in so many ways the weather we experienced last year was one for the history books. 

Even the location of the event was noteworthy. Research has shown that the south-western region of WA is one of the most sensitive to climate change. For example, there are recent significant declines in the freshwater supply of Perth, coupled with climate projections which predict this drying out to continue. Ongoing research into Perth’s climate variability and extremes is helping to explain these changes in a longer-term context, and increase the understanding of the long-term vulnerability of the region to such projected drying trends.

Our recent work on Australia’s climate history

An important contribution to understanding climate extremes was presented at the AMOS conference by the Climate History Australia team.

Dr Linden Ashcroft was the lead convener for a session titled Historical climatology in the Southern Hemisphere, where she presented the preliminary analysis of some recently digitised old weather journals from Perth. This record covers the period 1830 to 1875, and includes observations taken multiple times a day, with very few gaps – making it a very high-quality set of data. This historical record will help place south-western Australia’s drying trend in a longer-term context, allowing scientists to learn more about how our natural climate cycles are changing.

Dr Joëlle Gergis from our team also presented an analysis of temperature extremes from Adelaide, encompassing 80 years from 1838 to the present day. However, the record contains a nine-year gap in the weather observations from 1 January 1848 until 1 November 1856. Once filled, this record will become one of the longest continuous daily climate records from the Southern Hemisphere, providing a valuable resource for better understanding Southern Australia’s long-term climate.

Gergis noted that one of the most useful and successful techniques for historical climate data rescue is through citizen science. Later this year, Climate History Australia will launch a citizen science project that aims to fill the gaps in the South Australian weather record. Our team was recently lucky enough to uncover over a decade of old weather journals that will complete the Adelaide data gap – but we’ll need help from citizen scientists to digitise them.

Get involved in our upcoming citizen science project to help complete the puzzle of Australia’s longest daily weather record. Click here to learn more.

Gergis wins science outreach award

In other exciting news, Joëlle Gergis was awarded the AMOS Science Outreach Award. The accolade recognises AMOS outreach ambassadors who inspire other AMOS members to undertake science engagement activities. It also recognises those who engage with the public, politicians, schools, businesses and communities, to educate and inform those groups on topics associated with AMOS themes.

Joelle Gergis was awarded the AMOS Science Outreach Award.

Gergis is committed to engaging the public on the role that climate and climate extremes play in the history and future of Australia. She is a frequent contributor to public lectures, has been invited to talk at national literary festivals, and written numerous media articles aimed at a general audience (such as The Conversation). Most notably, her highly acclaimed book, Sunburnt Country: The History and Future of Climate Change in Australia is a bestseller, having a significant influence on the public domain – not just among climate-related audiences. This enormous range of outreach activities is not normally available to an AMOS scientist. Well done, Joëlle!

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The annual Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS) meeting brings together Australia’s top climate scientists, meteorologists, and other experts in weather, oceans, climate, community engagement, Antarctic environments, and atmosphere and land processes. More information about AMOS can be found at: www.amos.org.au