Extreme Flooding and Changing Climate Systems

February 23, 2024 Steve Turton Episode 9
Extreme Flooding and Changing Climate Systems
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Extreme Flooding and Changing Climate Systems
Feb 23, 2024 Episode 9
Steve Turton

Attributions speaks with Steve Turton about all things extreme flooding, climate and weather systems, and recent climate change impacts in Australia and the globe.

Steve is an Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography at Central Queensland University. Steve has had a distinguished career across academia where he's held senior research and counseling roles in several universities and research centres.
Steve's also a one of the former Presidents of the Australian Council of Environment Deans and Directors, along with the Institute of Australian Geographers and the Australian Academy of Sciences. He has been recognised with numerous medals and awards for his contributions in geography.

On climate change Steve was an expert reviewer on the IPCC's 5th and 6th Assessment Reports on impacts and adaptation. And most recently in January 2023, his book "Surviving the Climate Crisis: Australian Perspectives and Solutions" was published.

We talk about a vast number of topics from extreme flooding in Australia to climate systems like El Niño and La Niña and how they're affecting climate change in Australia and the globe, atmospheric rivers, tropical cyclones, along with what solutions Steve thinks will help the globe deal with climate change's impacts.

CQ University - Steve Turton
Recently published articles on the Conversation

Show Notes Transcript

Attributions speaks with Steve Turton about all things extreme flooding, climate and weather systems, and recent climate change impacts in Australia and the globe.

Steve is an Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography at Central Queensland University. Steve has had a distinguished career across academia where he's held senior research and counseling roles in several universities and research centres.
Steve's also a one of the former Presidents of the Australian Council of Environment Deans and Directors, along with the Institute of Australian Geographers and the Australian Academy of Sciences. He has been recognised with numerous medals and awards for his contributions in geography.

On climate change Steve was an expert reviewer on the IPCC's 5th and 6th Assessment Reports on impacts and adaptation. And most recently in January 2023, his book "Surviving the Climate Crisis: Australian Perspectives and Solutions" was published.

We talk about a vast number of topics from extreme flooding in Australia to climate systems like El Niño and La Niña and how they're affecting climate change in Australia and the globe, atmospheric rivers, tropical cyclones, along with what solutions Steve thinks will help the globe deal with climate change's impacts.

CQ University - Steve Turton
Recently published articles on the Conversation

Steve Turton - Attributions


Host (01:40): We are here with Steve Turton. Steve, thank you so much for coming on Attributions.


Steve Turton (01:46): Happy to be here. Thank you, Ashley. 


Host (01:48): So Steve, there's quite a lot that I want to get through to today with a particular focus on extreme flooding. I love talking to experts like yourself because there's a lot to learn and to listen from, but first, I'm wondering if you can give listeners a brief background on who you are, your career, and what kind of research you're up to right now.


Steve Turton (01:46): Well, sure. I've been interested in climatology for most of my career. So, it goes back nearly 40 years or so to my undergraduate days. I studied geography at university, but I majored in particularly focusing on climate, climate change, and climatology. I guess when I was a student, we weren't talking so much about anthropogenic climate change. We tended to focus more on geological-scale climate change because there wasn't really; the IPCC hadn't formed, and the world was not really taking notice of anthropogenic climate change. So, in my career, I've seen a big change in focus now to understanding climate variability, which is a variability from year to year, which has always been with us. But now, how climate change, due to rising greenhouse gases and other human activities is changing our climate, but that's happened in my career over 40 years.


(03:13) So yes, I've been interested in climatology, and I lived in the far north for many years. There, I took up a lot of interest in tropical cyclones as well and got a few papers in that area. I guess for me, the big thing is the release of my book, Surviving the Climate Crisis, Australian Perspectives and Solutions, that was published last January, so it's just over a year ago. For me, that was kind of a peak in my career - bringing all these ideas together in a single book. There are lots of things I could talk about, but that's sort of a bit of a nutshell. 


Host (03:48): Nice, Steve. You've been around the block for a while.


Steve Turton (03:53): I have been around for a while, and I've seen a lot of changes. I'm also, at times, quite frustrated by the lack of action that we're seeing from our leaders. So, that worries me quite a lot.


Host (04:05): Yeah. That’s a good kind of segue before we get talking about extreme flooding and, in particular, some notable recent Australian experiences. I'm wondering if we can first drive into the global perspective of things and give listeners a bit of context about what we're talking about. It seems to me that several predictions that were made in the past are starting to take shape now, and I remember many years ago, for example, I started seeing the term thresholds kind of pop up and get thrown around. I feel like we are starting to begin to see what pushing up against those thresholds looks like now. So, I wanted to get your reaction to that. Also, from what you've observed over the past few years in a global context, what are we seeing? 


Steve Turton (04:58): Well, unfortunately, we're seeing an escalation of climate change due to human activity. So, greenhouse gases dropped a little bit [of] emission globally during COVID. They're now back on track, and they're faster than ever. We're really going in completely the wrong direction, globally, towards achieving any kind of net zero by 2050. We're really pushing the envelope now. We’re seeing greenhouse gases rising at a rate that we haven't seen possibly for well before we evolved as a species, so going back millions of years. We're living in this uncharted territory at the moment. That's quite frustrating. That's also why we're seeing, for example, last year was the warmest year on record globally. January was the warmest January on record as well. So we've actually started this new year. Already, February is looking like it's off-scale, kind of halfway through February almost, and it's looking like it's going to be world record temperatures for February. This is measured between 60 degrees north and 60 degrees south from the huge network of monitoring station[s].


(06:11) So there's talk now in some of the literature that we possibly have already breached 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial. That's the lower end of the Paris target. Some sources say we've already gone through that, and that’s probably occurred about ten years earlier than it should have. I think what we're seeing now is the climate, particularly the warming of the planet, notably the oceans because they cover most of the planet, is now so rapid that we're actually seeing the climate system move almost into a runaway climate change effect. We might even see us tipping two degrees above pre-industrial as early as the 2050s rather than at the end of the century. At the moment, we're in a real tricky situation because we've pretty well said goodbye to 1.5, which was the agreed target for the Paris Agreement. We're now moving more towards two degrees above pre-industrial, even higher. With that, it brings a much greater risk for more extreme climate-driven events like we're seeing all around the world at the moment.


Host (07:21): Well, I think definitely in terms of climate-driven events, if we can zoom in on the Australian context, as I mentioned before about, in particular, flooding. The continent is known for its bushfires and its droughts, I would say pretty much globally, but I think extreme flooding hasn't particularly gotten that much global attention. But of course, Australians aren't any strangers to floods, as you'll probably describe. I'm wondering if you can give us an overview as well of if we zoom into an Australian context, what has Australia been saying over the past few years, given what you've just talked about in terms of the global emissions rising and also the ocean temperatures rising and also breaching that 1.5-degree limit. 


Steve Turton (08:07): I guess Australia is already starting to see some of the manifestations of a warming planet. Yes, bushfires, floods and droughts are no surprise to Australia. They've been part of the Australian climate system since people first moved here, probably 60,000 years ago, [and] they've lived with that. And they live with several cycles of ice ages and warm periods. Nonetheless, what we’re seeing now is more extremes in our climate system. For example, the 2019-20 bushfires in Southeast Australia, the continent, they were actually globally unprecedented. About 21 percent of the continent burned in 2019-20. That is a phenomenal amount of the continent, considering a large part of it is desert as well. So, 21 percent burned, that's considered globally unprecedented. Then, of course, we went into La Niña, [and] we started seeing these extreme rainfall events occurring. For example, the Lismore floods. It broke the river heights for that town or city, completely smashed the previous record and flooded out Lismore. And more recently, of course, we had the floods in Far North Queensland. That was certainly the worst in a hundred years for that region. So, we're already seeing these effects. I also mentioned the Kimberley floods that occurred back in the earlier part of last year. They were at record break in the Kimberley region; they've only just fixed up that infrastructure, critical infrastructure up in the Kimberley area.


(09:48) We are going to see more of these kinds of extreme events. The modelling suggests that the El Niño Southern Oscillation Phenomena is the main climate driver for Australia. That swings between extreme El Niño and extreme La Niña, most of the time, it kind of sits in the middle. What we're likely to see with a warming planet is more extreme La Niña and more extreme El Niño, which means we are going to see more of these extreme rainfall events, river flooding events, but also just flash flooding. We're adding more heat to the atmosphere, and for every degree of warming, the atmosphere can hold about 7 percent extra water weight. We've got the right triggers in place; like we saw in Far North Queensland back in December, you get these extreme rainfall rates occurring, breaking all kinds of records. This is not just in Australia; it's occurring all over the world. But of course, when El Niño comes, provided other drivers line up with it, we're more likely to get more extreme droughts, heat waves, and it's going to put enormous pressure on our natural systems, on our economy, but also on our people as well. Not getting biodiversity, is already suffering because of climate change. If you look at the latest state of the environment. All of those things will become more extreme, and the modelling suggests the more warming we have, the more extreme these events will be. If we can pull warming back down, then it'll still be bad, but not as bad as it might be if we say, see two degrees above pre-industrial. 


Host (11:27): Now, I think you mentioned the word triggers before, and this reminds me of something that you wrote recently online in an article that you published on The Conversation related to the flooding in north Queensland, and you mentioned the term atmospheric triggers. I'm just wondering if you can expand on that a little bit, maybe in the context of the floods that happened in north Queensland very recently. 


Steve Turton (11:51): Yes. That’s a good question, Ashley. If you look at all of the major flood events we've had recently, including the Lismore floods, the Brisbane floods, but also obviously the recent floods in the Kimberley and Far North Queensland, they're all associated with a similar setup. It's called an atmospheric river. It's an area of converging winds that sit over a place for a prolonged period of time. They're stationary event[s]. So, this keeps feeding moisture into the system. The air rises rapidly, and when the right trigger there, being convergence, rising air, and condensation down comes the rain. This is what happened recently in the area between the Daintree in Far North Queensland and roughly the Cairns region up north and led to the big floods up there. In fact, [it is] the highest level ever for the Daintree River. It broke the previous record by two meters that was set back in 2019, and that record is about 120 years of record.


(12:52) Now, what causes that is this stationary weather pattern. But what's making these events worse is there's more water vapor in the atmosphere because the atmosphere is warming; it can hold more water. That is why it's almost highly likely that we're going to see more rainfall records broken [and] more flooding records broken. Not every year, but several times a decade for various parts of Australia and the world. It's just because we are adding more water vapor to the system. We're warming the oceans that provide a source of energy to feed into those systems. These triggers are really when you've got the right conditions in the atmosphere in place to allow air to rise rapidly, to condense, and then to come down.


(13:41) Now, I spoke to people in Cairns during that event because I don't live there anymore, but they said that the rain over those two days varied between torrential, very heavy, and heavy. It did not let up for two days. It just roared down on the roof, and when it appeared to be getting lighter, it was still heavy rain. It was just phenomenal the amount of water that fell out of the atmosphere. You could calculate how much fell; we're talking millions, tens of millions of liters of water that just fell out of the sky. That’s the reality of the situation. If one of these things sits over one of our big cities, which is possible, we are going to see a lot of flash flooding occurring in our cities with the consequences, as well as riverine flooding, [which is] of course, another option. So, yes, we are going to see this becoming part of our new normal, I guess. 


Host (14:37): The descriptions you just described with this absolute torrential flood and torrential rain coming down, I can't help but think of the effect of sea level rise and the exacerbating effect that that might have on flooding. For example, if a cyclone decides to come up, are we prepared for sea level rise plus cyclones, plus an atmospheric river, in a worst-case scenario example?


Steve Turton (15:10): I suspect that we're not because a lot of [the] residential and industrial development that we put on our floodplains, but also in our coastal areas, predates local government taking sea level rise into account. [These] stuff was built decades ago. This is the problem of the Barron River Delta up the Cairns; a lot of houses were put in; they were low-set homes that were built after the 1977 flood, which was the last big flood. This one exceeded that. Councils allow these things to happen, and now that we can't always retrofit them, the old Queenslanders were a great model because they were high-set homes, and the waters could rise, and you could keep everything nice and dry. [In] these new low-set homes, there is a problem in these kinds of areas, as you saw on the news. So yes, we probably do need to be thinking more about, obviously, modern planning is doing that, but you're quite right. If we've got rising sea level[s], plus more extreme rainfall events, we are going to get the effect of tides holding the water back in areas that are exposed to floods. But also, when we do get [it], the modelling suggests we're going to get less cyclones but stronger cyclones in the future.


(16:27) Recently, somebody wrote a paper, I think in The Conversation, saying should we have a Category 6 scale for tropical cyclones. Which I have discussed with colleagues over the years, and we sort of thought, that's a bit silly. Well, probably not now; maybe we need to think about it. So obviously, if we're going to have more severe tropical cyclones in the future, a (inaudible) sea level rise, there's a greater risk of storm surge. Likewise, we're expecting east coast lows in Australia, which occur mainly south about central Queensland all the way down to eastern Victoria. These east coast lows can also be quite devastating for places like Sydney, for example. Even Brisbane is exposed to these east coast lows. So that's another thing that we need to be thinking about. They are expected to become more intense. They can also cause inundation and storm surge[s] as well as a lot of erosion in coastal properties in areas along the coast, particularly in parts of New South Wales and southern Queensland.


(17:30) So that's another issue that you have raised is we have to think about sea level rise possibly being more than what has been sort of predicted by the end of the century, which is just about a meter, just under a meter. Possibly, we could start seeing those levels going up even faster, depending on what happens with Greenland - loss of ice cover from Greenland - but also for Western Antarctica, that could actually mean that we are looking at a lot more sea level rise by the end of the century, possibly up to two or three meters, rather than a meter. That throws a whole lot of new issues into the mix, plus the high rainfall events as well. So, all of that sort of comes together as being something that the coastal communities are going to have to deal with in the future. 


Host (18:20): Yeah, when you realize how interconnected the system is, it always seems to grow bigger and bigger each time, and then the effects obviously accumulate into something that, for example, like an extreme flood can show. I wanted to ask you as well what your reaction to this is. Do you think that climate change alone could be attributed to some of these extreme events that you've mentioned? Or do you think that it is an exacerbating effect on a number of different interconnected issues that kind of come together and converge?


Steve Turton (18:59): I think it's the latter. I don't think there's any evidence that anthropogenic climate change is causing new kinds of weather systems to form. What it is doing is we know it's exacerbating the El Niño Southern Oscillation Cycle, that more extreme La Niña is more extreme El Niño, and what comes with that. We know that. That's well understood. But it's also affecting, for example, some of the other climate drivers that affect Australia, too, that we don't often hear about. Most Australians have heard of El Niño and La Niña. I mean, you know, average Choblo walking around the street. However, most Australians probably don't know about the Indian Ocean Dipole. They might have heard about it, but they don't really understand what it is. Most Australians probably haven't heard of the Southern Annular Mode. That's given us this quite wet summer in eastern or particularly southeastern Australia this year, despite it.


(20:04) These climate drivers are also important because they're also being affected by global warming, oceanic heating, and changes in the southern jet stream as well. For example, the Indian Ocean Dipole. If you've got a positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole, it exacerbates the effect of El Niño. So, we get much greater drying in Eastern Australia, where we have a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, as we had this year up until about October. The Southern Annular Mode, though, if it's in a positive form, leads to this easterly wind [that] pushes the westerlys further south. One thing we've noticed this year in southeast Queensland, where I live, we've had no westerly, hot, dry westerly winds this summer. We just haven't had any. [The] last time we had a westerly wind event was back in October, and there were some bushfires around. We've had this constant stream of easterly winds coming in, and it's been quite a miserable summer, really. It's been wet, humid, and Sydney's been the same. They've had a very wet summer, and they've had no hot, dry days at all. They've had some hot days, but they've been very humid. So, the bushfire risk[s] this year has been virtually nonexistent.


(21:22) The modelling suggests that in the future, we expect two things, I take over from this is we expect more positive phases of the Indian Ocean Dipole. That means that when we do get an El Niño, it's going to exacerbate the drying effect, mostly in Eastern Australia and parts of southern Australia. We also are going to see more positive phases of the Southern Annular Mode. What that will do is push the westerlys further south. That's an issue for the winter because it means less winter rain in southern Australia. And that's already happening if you look at the long-term trends for southwestern Australia. Their rainfall [has] dropped by 25 percent since the mid-1970s and never really recovered. So, we've got strong drying in the southwest, and we've got moderate drying in the southeast of the continent. Tasmania's a little less. It's a bit further south, so it's still getting some westerlys coming through.


(22:25) That’s not good news for Australia because what it's doing is it's causing a much greater drying over the more populated parts of Australia. It's also more drying in the areas where we have our, we grow most of our food, the Murray-Darling basin, places like that. So that's something to think about in the future is that these other climate drivers are also being affected by background anthropogenic climate change. As well as the El Niño and La Niña cycle[s].


Host (22:54): Are these weather or climate-related systems, like you mentioned in the Indian Ocean, generally predictable? Can you look at the future with a general idea of what's going to happen so you can, in a sense, prepare for a certain event?


Steve Turton (23:12): Well, at the moment, the Bureau put out a forecast that you can look at the state of the ENSO, you can look at the state of the IOD, and you can look at the state of the SAM. You can go to their website and you can look at what it is in any particular day or week or whatever. And these cycles are a little bit different. They're not all the same as on El Nino, they have shorter duration. What the BOM, the Bureau do when they put out a seasonal forecast, they're looking at how these interactions are occurring between those three main drivers, right? A lot of people [are] saying that they said we were going to have a hot, dry summer this year. Well, if you lived in Perth, you definitely had a hot, dry summer. It hasn't rained over there for ages. But in southeastern Australia, areas from about the Tropic of Capricorn right down into, certainly into eastern Victoria, they've had a very wet summer. It's been very wet since November, and this is because this positive Southern Annular Mode has been dragging in these easterly winds off the Coral Sea but also off the Tasman Sea. There's also been an area of abnormally warm sea surface temperatures sitting in the southeastern Tasman Sea, that's provided additional energy that's come in in the form of rainfall.


(24:32) So, were the Bureau right? Why did we have such a wet summer, or a pretty wet summer, when we had an El Niño? Well, the El Niño effect was overcome by this positive Southern Annular Mode because it provided this additional source of moisture and energy coming in from the prevailing easterly winds. In many respects, they were correct. It was a very dry spring. July, August, September, [and] even October was very, very dry in southeastern Australia. November is when the Southern Annular Mode turned positive. So I think we have to pay greater heed about how these other secondary drivers; I still call El Niño Southern Oscillation a primary driver because it accounts for most of our rainfall variability in Australia from year to year. There's no doubt about it. Because we're in the Pacific Ocean, we're greatly affected by it. But the Indian Ocean Dipole is an important driver, especially in the spring. Once the monsoon starts south of the equator, the IOD tends to just disappear. It evaporates, well, not evaporates; it just dissipates.


(25:46) The IOD was positive in the spring, we had an El Niño, we had a very hot, dry spring in eastern Australia, no doubt about it. And that's why they put out bushfire warnings because they thought November was going to be hot and dry. But things changed. The Southern Annular Mode suddenly fits from being negative to positive, and literally within about two or three weeks the whole setup changed. This El Niño demonstrated that not every El Niño is the same as the one we've had before. 


Host (26:17): Yeah, I remember even late last year, for example, there was so much chatter about how, since this El Niño is coming in and it's shifting from La Niña, that there's going to be drought in effect, there's going to be bushfires going, you know, crazy. And none of that really came to fruition. As you've just eloquently explained, you'd have these secondary drivers that are changing the situation overall, and giving us a very different, overall picture, I guess you would, for lack of a better word.


Steve Turton (26:53): Yeah, that's right. And I think this also demonstrates that we're getting these areas now of abnormally high sea surface temperature, these anomalous areas occurring as the east Australia current, which is our most important current on the East Coast, comes from the north, down from the tropics, and makes its way south. It’s a phenomenon that's part of the Australian oceanography. Well, there's evidence that this is strengthening under climate change, pushing further south, and it's causing all sorts of problems for fisheries. It's threatening kelp forests in the southeast and south. It's impacting northern Australia's fisheries as well, including salmon farming, because that warmer water brings with it lower oxygen. Salmon are a high-energy fish, for example, so they need a lot of oxygen. We're already seeing this effect. And of course, not only is it impacting on our biological system, ecosystems, and our things like fisheries, it's also leading to pools of warm water that are providing this additional energy for these rainfall events that we have. So east Australia is an interesting area because we are seeing; it as a global hot spot for warming, for sea surface temperature. It's one place identified globally as having some of the most rapid rates of warming water offshore. That's from about Sydney down to Gippsland, that area there, into northeastern parts of Tasmania. So that's something to watch out for because when the conditions are right, that is the source of heat. Potentially, not only the marine heat wave, which can be quite devastating but also providing a pool of warm water for extreme weather events to occur, to feed off that warm water, for example.


(28:53) Those changes, I think, are important; they're part of the reason why we've had this unusually wet El Niño if I can put it that way. El Niño has now peaked. It peaked in December, and it's been weakening ever since, and we're now moving into neutral territory, which means the Pacific is getting back to a more neutral state. Now, some of the long-term models that are coming out of NOAA in the United States, for example, are pointing to a La Niña forming around August this year. I'm more likely to go La Niña than El Niño or stay neutral. So we could be flipping back to La Niña next summer, which will be very interesting because it brings with it greater risk of flooding, for example.


Host (29:41): Just a quick follow-up question on that, Steve. Generally speaking, shouldn't the El Niño last a little longer than, you know, as you said, it's already peaked? What would be your take on that? 


Steve Turton (29:57): This has not been an especially strong El Niño, the one we just had, it was best described as moderate. Again, they're not all the same. Not necessarily. La Niñas tend to persist through the summer, and they take longer to break down. El Niños tend to peak in the spring, early summer, they then tend to break down. So it kind of did that through all of the spring. It was very strong in the spring because the Indian Ocean Dipole was at the positive phase. And at that point I think the SAM index was neutral, so the SAM was not really having much effect. But then the SAM really became strongly positive, unusually so, and that pushed the westerly winds much further south, which would have brought much warmer, drier conditions than we'd expect to see at El Niño. Instead, we had these easterly winds coming in, which is why we've had virtually no hot, dry days at all anywhere in eastern Australia this summer. We've had hot, muggy days but not hot, dry days. So, the answer to that question is [that] El Niño can be quite short-lived, and it is possible to flip straight back to, you don't go straight to La Niña, you have to go back neutral. But if you look at the modelling, the strong suggestion is that by August [or] September this year, there'll be the classic La Niña forming in the eastern Pacific, which is a pool of very cold water on the upwelling of South America. And that pushes all the, all the cloud and convection towards Australia. So, we're talking about a repeat of 2022, probably. If that occurs, a very wet summer is coming.


Host (31:36): So, would you make a general prediction that we may see some more extreme flooding going into [the] end of this year and into the next? 


Steve Turton (31:50): Yes, if we go to La Niña, and it's a strong one, it, history shows that that will happen. Of course, that can also depend on things like the IOD, what phase that is in. If we go to a negative IOD, that will actually make La Niña worse. Enhanced rainfall. It also means probably a very wet spring. So, rather than having a dry spring, we could have a wet spring. There might be good news for some parts of Australia that perhaps haven't seen much rain, but at the moment we have to wait and see how the models go, but it's, there is a strong suggestion that we will have La Niña 24-25, and we have to see how these other indicators move as well, how they change as well.


Host (32:38): If we look at all this, Steve, and kind of bring it all together, a lot of this hearkens back to the concept, the new normal related to, for example, extreme weather events and things like that. I wanted to get your reaction on what you view the new normal as and do you think that we are working towards being prepared for this new normal or do you think that things are, generally speaking, not going as fast as they should be?


Steve Turton (33:08): I guess with any of these sorts of things, the rate of change is problematic. We know it's problematic for many of our ecosystems and a lot of our biodiversity. They're unable to adapt to such a rapidly changing climate. We're now seeing change at the scale of a human lifetime. Previous rates of change might have been at the scale of a thousand years. They're now at the scale of less than a hundred years for the same rate of change. Therefore, you could say that if ecosystems are having trouble, so will the human systems and the economic systems that go with it, including our food production, [and] food security. Well, all of that sort of thing. The new normal to me is, some people actually call it the new abnormal, which is another way of thinking about it, which I think is appropriate. When you change your climate baseline, so, the main climate attribute that we are changing due to rising greenhouse gases is simply its temperature, whether it's ocean temperatures or atmospheric temperatures. And of course, these changes are much greater away from the equator. Some of the biggest changes in temperature are in the Arctic region, which is warming two to four times faster than the tropics. And the waters around Antarctica are changing very rapidly; they're warming, and not so much the ice cap itself, [it’s] quite stable, but the waters around there, we’re seeing big changes in sea ice. In fact, we're seeing record low levels of sea ice last winter in the Antarctic. Even though there's no sunlight, the water's warming, and they're having a massive impact on sea ice.


(34:54) We're seeing quite a rapid warming in [the] West Antarctic, a particular peninsula bit that sticks up a little bit further north. That's warming one and a half to two times faster than anywhere else in the southern hemisphere. What we're doing is we're changing our average temperature for a place; we're shifting its baseline. So, we think about average temperatures around that average temperature, we probably have a normal distribution. We've got cold days, warm days, we've got average days. We're shifting that distribution to the right. What that brings is a much greater risk for hot days, heat waves, much lower risk for cold days and cold wave. Doesn't mean we won't have cold days in the future, but we're more likely to have warm days. And what we're seeing too because of this greenhouse effect is we're seeing records broken in eastern Australia this year for overnight minimum temperature. Sydney broke a record. Brisbane broke a record the other night where [the] minimum was 28 [degrees celsius]. That's more like what you'd expect to see in Cairns or Darwin. You don't expect to see that in sub-tropical Brisbane, but it's because we've had this very humid, muggy weather that's trapping the heat. So, the Southern Annular Mode is probably exacerbating that. But nonetheless, we are seeing records broken. But interestingly, the minimum overnight temperatures are warming faster than the afternoon or maximum temperature. That makes sense because we're adding the trapping effect of greenhouse gases, so it’s retaining the heat that would normally be loft to space at nighttime. It's being trapped. So it kind of makes sense purely on first principles of the greenhouse effect.


(36:42) So the new normal is how we shift our systems to cope with a changing climate so that we can have some kind of stability in our social systems, our human system. But as we start shifting our baseline, a lot of our cropping systems will not be able to cope because they'll have the thermal tolerance for growing certain types of crops. And in Australia, they're already saying this is an issue for wheat; it's an issue for cotton actually, although cotton's not a crop in terms of food, but it's an important fiber crop. Of course, the water use requirements will change with warming; they need more water [and] more irrigation. Unfortunately, we might have less water in some years to have the irrigation. So, that's what I mean by the new normal is: we're not living in the same climate that, say, our great-grandparents lived in. It's already shifted a little bit over 1.2 degrees as a global average. That may not sound like very much, but in the Arctic region, it's shifted about 5 degrees, just in my two generations. So, yes, that's what I mean by the new normal. It’s uncharted territory. We haven't lived in that climate before. Certainly, as a species, and all the species that occur with us on this planet, most of those have not lived in this climate envelope before either. They're living in a new normal. 

Host (38:15): Do you think, Steve, and just being mindful of your time, do you think that this new normal, in your opinion, do you think that something like a climate emergency needs to be declared officially?


Steve Turton (38:31): Climate emergency, a lot of people think it means panic or that sort of thing, but I believe there are over 1,100 local government areas around the world, jurisdictions, I think they call them counties in the U.S. or whatever. In Australia, they're shires in local government areas. Something like over a thousand internationally have declared a climate emergency. I haven't got the numbers for Australia, but there are quite a large number in Australia, too, including the city of Sydney, for example.


(39:07) What is the value of declaring a climate emergency? Is it alarmism? Is it defeatism? No, it's not. What it's doing is it's getting communities prepared for the new normal, right? So, it shouldn't be seen as that, but when I've tried to convince local government authorities in the north, for example, having conversations with mayors and others, because these people have to pass, they have to do it as a council resolution and vote on it. They say, we're already doing stuff about climate, we're already cutting back our emissions, we're doing all these things in council, we don't need to declare a climate emergency. And I say to them, yes, but if you declare a climate emergency, you will get the community lined up and better prepared for what we get, the sort of events that we've just seen up in Far North Queensland.


(40:04) I'm kind of hopeful that maybe after the local government elections in Queensland, which are coming up in March, if there's a new local government, for example, in Cairns; I'm using Cairns as an example because that's a previous council where I was trying to get to declare a climate emergency. They might actually say, well, maybe this guy was right. We should have done it. Now [that] we've had this terrible event, we should go ahead and declare a climate emergency, but not see it as being that we failed in any way. [It’s] not about failure. It's actually about demonstrating leadership and bringing the whole community together so they're better prepared for the next disaster because there will be another disaster. They think they can wait another hundred years [from] now. Well, it might be [that] they get another event like this in 20 years. They might have a severe cyclone; I mean, who knows?


(40:57) So, I think it's a great idea to declare a climate emergency, but in Australia, it tends to be the more progressive councils that are doing it. It's not very common in Queensland. I know my Sunshine Coast Regional Council has declared a climate emergency. I was very impressed to hear that because it's a very conservative area, but they're pretty few and far between; once you get into more rural parts of the country, they tend to be in the Southeast, I guess in the more progressive councils. But to me, it should not be seen as a green issue. [The] climate emergency is not about going green. It's about recognising that the climate is changing and we can't do much about it. But we have to live with more extreme events and therefore, it'll get the community more ahead, I think.


(41:47) You're more likely to get funding for things, too, if you've demonstrated a climate emergency. There might be options for better funding, maybe from [the] federal government, some initiatives. I ask people to have a look at it; I haven't got the website with me. You might be able to share it later, but there is an international website which shows all the local government jurisdictions around the world that have cleared a climate emergency. And it's a surprisingly large number that has done that. It's a good idea, and I think it's the way we should go. However, we should not keep putting it off and wait for the next emergency to come along. 


Host (42:25): Well, Steve, thank you so much for your time. It's been an education talking to you, and it's been a pleasure to listen to you. Before we go, is there anywhere that you would like to point listeners to either be able to follow your work or find, for example, your book that you mentioned at the beginning or any social media?


Steve Turton (42:43): Sure. First of all, perhaps the best place to go is just [to] have a look at The Conversation. I've written a number of articles. I've written about the floods up north. I've written about the Townsville floods in 2019. I've written about these atmospheric rivers that I was talking about, referring again to the floods in, for example, in Northeast New South Wales, the Lismore floods, I should say, the recent Brisbane floods in 2022. So, I have a number of Conversation articles that I think people would find interesting to read; quite generalist articles. My book, yes, thank you for that. My book is called Surviving the Climate Crisis, Australian Perspectives and Solutions. It's actually a textbook aimed at master's students, but I think people who are general readers who are interested would find it quite accessible. It is available from Routledge Publishing. It's Tara and Francis. You can find it online if you'd like to buy a copy, an e-copy, a paperback, or a hardcover.


(43:48) I recommend it to anybody who wants to know more about Australia's climate, what drives our climate, and how climate change is impacting our natural systems, such as the Great Barrier Reef, for example. But also, our economic systems [and] our agriculture; I mentioned agriculture, but also tourism is dependent on our climate. I also cover energy and transportation. We're seeing big changes now in our energy sector. We've been moved towards renewables, for example. I also have a section on social systems, so I focus on population, health and well-being and those sorts of things. I've got a section on Indigenous people and the Australian Indigenous people's knowledge of climate and how they adapt. So yeah, that's available if you're interested in finding out a bit more about that. 


Host (44:37): Well, thanks so much, Steve. It was a pleasure to have you here.


Steve Turton (44:40): Thanks, Ashley. Thanks for having me.