Cracks exist in Australia’s drought management

Wednesday, 9 November 2016


New research has brought to light the unique danger of drought in Australia, exposing the shortfalls we face if we rely solely on the patterns observed in the instrumental record to inform our future response.

Drought

The instrumental record details changes in the Earth’s climate and hydrology, however, only documents the past 100 years at best for Australia.

University of Newcastle (UON) researcher and lead author, Dr Anthony Kiem, emphasised that, although drought was a recurrent and natural part of the Australian climate, this knowledge gap exists, meaning our ability to monitor, attribute, forecast and manage drought is insufficient.

“Our understanding and management of drought relies heavily on what we see in the instrumental record, which means we’re lulled into a false sense of security that drought can’t exceed extremes we’ve seen in the past 50 – 100 years, but in fact, it has, and likely will again.

“With Australia’s European settlement, a lot of our engineering to combat drought is influenced by European practices. Australia’s climate is obviously drastically different to Europe’s, meaning, in a lot of cases, droughts are not properly understood or managed, and that we are not well-prepared for future changes to drought,” he said.

Dr Kiem’s research highlights the uniqueness of drought as a hazard, due to the different types of drought, the multiple factors causing or contributing to drought, and the limited ability to tell when a drought will begin or end.

“Drought is known as the creeping disaster. Where other hazards are immediately noticeable and typically don’t last longer than a week, drought ‘creeps up’ as it’s only noticed months or even years after it starts and may persist for many years.”

Dr Kiem and co-authors argue that to improve understanding and management of drought, three key research challenges should be targeted: improving the way drought is defined and monitored, documenting historical (instrumental and pre-instrumental) variation in drought and improving prediction and projection of drought.

Published in the journal of Climatic Change, the special issue* is made up of seven papers, each covering a major climate-influenced natural hazard: drought, floods, storms (including wind and hail), coastal extremes, heatwaves, bushfires and frost. The special issue presents strong evidence for increasing heatwaves and extreme bushfires into the future, but found much more uncertainty around how drought, flood and storms will change.

The knowledge gaps, challenges and recommendations identified in the research are relevant beyond the Australian context, and the findings will contribute to better understanding and management of major climate-influenced natural hazards.

*Led by A/Prof Seth Westra at University of Adelaide, the special issue is a collaboration between 47 scientists from the following Australian universities and research organisations: CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology, Australian National University, Curtin University, Monash University, University of Adelaide, University of Melbourne, University of New South Wales, University of Newcastle, University of Tasmania, University of Western Australia and University of Wollongong.