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Flash floods in Australia

Laura von Puttkamer

Large parts of Australia are at risk from flash floods. Sydney is preparing for more water to come.

Flooded street in Brisbane © Kgbo via Wikimedia Commons

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Large parts of Australia are at risk from flash floods. Sydney is bracing itself for 24 hours of flash flooding. Read all about the floods in Australia here.

In Eastern Australia, ten people have died and tens of thousands have evacuated their homes during the last week. Torrential rains and record flash floods have submerged houses, smashed boats, and washed away infrastructure. By Tuesday, March 2nd, the floods in Australia had swept cross 185 miles of the coast along Queensland, beginning in Gympie and hitting hardest in Lismore.

Flash floods Australia: a “rain bomb” in Queensland and New South Wales

Warnings are in place for the country’s most populous city, Sydney. Storms caused by the La Niña weather pattern have worked their way up coastal cities from Gympie to Brisbane. During the past week, Brisbane has received about 80 per cent of its average annual rainfall in just three days. Between Friday and Saturday, 26.6 inches (67.5 centimetres) of water fell in Brisbane, creating a new record. Queensland’s state Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has described the Australian flood as a “rain bomb”.

Floodwater from the torrential rain falls has submerged several towns in Queensland and New South Wales already. This is the worst flooding of Australia’s southeast coast in decades. Fast-rising rivers have made bridges impassable, trapping many people during their evacuation.

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River overflowing its banks in Canberra. © Stephen Dann via Wikimedia Commons

Rescue teams working at high speed

Authorities in Sydney expected up to 150 millimetres of rain by March 2nd or 3rd. The 5-million city usually receives a mean rainfall of 138 millimetres in the entire month of May. Inhabitants are preparing as best as they can.

Meanwhile, Australia’s flood emergency teams have responded to more than 6,000 calls for help. They performed more than 1,000 rescues in New South Wales alone. The northern New South Wales city of Lismore has been particularly badly affected by the worst floods on record. Some people had to spend the night on their rooftop. Emergency teams have performed 400 rescues, but at least nine people are still missing.

In other cities, residents have found creative ways to use the floods to their advantage. For example, world champion surfer Mick Fanning was seen giving a pharmacist a lift on Jet Skis to get from one town to the other and distribute medication.

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Flooded house in Brisbane. © Kgbo via Wikimedia Commons

La Niña at its extreme

From November to March every year, the La Niña weather pattern affects Australia. This colder counterpart to El Niño occurs in the Pacific Ocean. Strong winds blow warm water across the ocean from South America to Indonesia. When the warm water moves west, cold water from the deep sea rises to the surface, resulting in strong winds that reach Australia and often results in flash floods.

This year, La Niña has resulted in a wetter and cooler summer in northern and eastern Australia as the weather pattern was particularly strong. In southwest Australia, on the other hand, it has contributed to dry conditions with Perth experiencing its driest summer in eight years.

The Australian weather company WeatherZone has explained that last week’s torrents were due to a pool of cold air at high altitude, destabilising the atmosphere and increasing moisture flow.

This resulted in an unusually long storm system lingering over the region. In addition, a zone of high pressure over New Zealand blocked the storms from progressing and continues to do so.

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Flooded street in Brisbane. © Kgbo via Wikimedia Commons

IPCC warns of more heavy precipitation events

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said that climate change continues to affect the country. Increased rainfalls during the wet season as well as more high-intensity, short-duration rainfall events are part of that development. This is the second year in a row that floods associated with La Niña hit Australia, although the 2022 floods are far worse than the ones in 2021.

Australia is not the only country affected by weather extremes. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, has predicted that heavy precipitation, which was also experienced in Germany in July 2021, will become a more frequent event. For every 1 degree Celsius of climate warming, the likeliness of heavy precipitation events will increase by 7 percent, according to the IPCC.

The Panel has just published a new report, urging world leaders to act as the world is running out of time to halt climate change.

Flash floods – Next warnings coming in already

There has been an outpouring of international support, including many donation campaigns for Australians affected by the flood. However, it looks like the challenging climate events are not over yet.

On March 2nd, the meteorology bureau warned that severe thunderstorms are to be expected in Queensland, including large hailstones, more winds and additional heavy rainfall. This could result in more flash floods in Sydney, coastal regions and even in the southernmost east coast state of Victoria.

The IPCC report shows that large areas of Australia have already lost 20 percent of their rainfall, which increases the country’s fire risk. Despite the floods in the south-eastern part of the country, this means that Australia must prepare for wildfires like those of 2019, when more than 430 people died as a result of devastating fires.

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