Climate Change: Another Record Coming That We Don't Want To Break

The Age - Editorial

When the Australian Research Council awarded its funding plans in mid-2017, one recipient of the highly competitive seven-year grants was the Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes.
While building on the work of the previous Climate System Science centre, the new hub represents more than a name change.
The death of half of the Great Barrier Reef's corals during two summers – according to preliminary estimates – probably failed to interrupt barbecue banter for most Australians. Photo: AAP
The centre – grouping leading scientists from the Australian National University, Monash, Melbourne, and Tasmania universities – is the first in the world "with an unambiguous focus on the science behind climate extremes", according to its director, Professor Andy Pitman.
The Turnbull government and particularly Simon Birmingham, as the responsible minister, deserve credit for increasing the centre's capacity by 10 per cent over its predecessor – presumably against the views of a rump within the Coalition that denies climate change is a serious threat.
The hub's aim is to understand better the physics behind extremes and to improve predictions.
Such forecasts will be useful for incoming weather but also for showing how extremes will play out in a climate that continues to warm primarily because of rising emissions of greenhouse gases caused by human activity.
In recent months, Australians have had more than a few bursts of unusual heat to remind them why extremes matter.
In November, Victoria and Tasmania were baked in a late-spring heatwave that delivered a record 12 days above 30 degrees for Melburnians that month.
Last weekend brought a relatively short spike in temperatures for most of south-eastern Australia. Yet the temperature still managed to hit 47.3 degrees in Sydney's Penrith, near the foothills of the Blue Mountains.
Indeed, Penrith's maximum was hotter than anywhere recorded in 2017 in Western Australia or the Northern Territory. It rivalled Birdsville's 47.4 degrees, which marked Queensland's hottest location for the year.
Such events tend to be masked by the averages – as important as they are for tracking how Australia and the world continue to warm at a rate at the high end of climate models.
Just as extremes shouldn't be ignored, nor should the annual reckonings.
In coming weeks, the World Meteorological Organisation (will probably declare 2017 as the second or third-warmest year on record. The records go back to the final decades of the 19th century.
For Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology this week declared 2017 trailed only 2013 and 2005 as the country's hottest year for mean temperatures. Taking maximums, only 2013 was hotter.
Globally, no year on record has been hotter than 2017 without the boost of an El Nino in the Pacific
The yearly readings serve as an important reminder of the background creep of climate change that humans may not notice but nature cannot ignore.
As Australian scientists highlighted this month, there has been a fivefold increase in the likelihood of coral bleaching since the 1980s.
Neutral conditions in the Pacific – neither an El Nino nor its opposite, La Nina – are now warmer than an El Nino three decades or so ago, they found.
But while the death of half of the Great Barrier Reef's corals during two summers – according to preliminary estimates – probably failed to interrupt the barbecue banter for most Australians, extreme heat events may grab our attention.
As demonstrated in the early-2018 heatwave, services we take for granted, such as electricity, are vulnerable even in a climate that has warmed in Australia – and globally – by 1 degree since the industrial era began.
No wonder, then, that scientists are ramping up efforts to understand what will happen to extremes with the next degree of warming that our past emissions have all but locked in. And, of course, the risks from any further heating we foolishly experiment with.


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