COMMENT by ALEX NELSON
It is a measure of our cultural bias that the terrible heatwave afflicting India at present warrants only minor coverage by the mainstream media in Australia. My heart goes out to the hundreds of millions of people who must endure sweltering conditions in circumstances less fortunate than ours, with no apparent end in sight.
It’s already late in the season for the monsoon to materialize. Daily temperatures all over India are peaking in the high 40s.
These conditions were presaged in much of northern Australia during last summer, especially in February and March. Temperature records over the northern half of our continent fell like nine-pins, including the Northern Territory’s highest-ever maximum recorded at Jervois Station in Central Australia. This was accompanied by an, at best, “patchy” monsoon which largely failed to occur over much of its usual reach; notwithstanding the brief spell of good rain in the NT during January.
Currently much of eastern Australia is drought-stricken, and the dryness is extending its grip to the south. Another unwelcome record has been set with 80 per cent of Queensland now drought-declared.
These conditions typify the influence of an El Nino in the Pacific Ocean although it hadn’t been declared as such until just last month. During 2014 there were strong indications that an El Nino was developing but the conditions failed to develop in accordance with recognised patterns.
Irrespective of what the boffins say, its classical symptoms have become manifestly evident over much of northern and eastern Australia.
Now there is the grim news that El Nino has formed in the Pacific, and it’s very strong with effects anticipated to last well into next year. It’s likely to exacerbate the dry conditions already affecting much of Australia.
The searing heatwave in India is sounding an alarm for us.
The Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka in the northern hemisphere are equivalent in latitude to the top half of Australia in the southern hemisphere (Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, isn’t far from the Tropic of Cancer; Alice Springs, formerly Stuart, is just a few kilometres from the Tropic of Capricorn).
However, India’s landmass is considerably smaller and narrower than Australia; and the subcontinent’s climate generally is modified by its overall proximity to the ocean, further enhanced by the Himalayas to the north and generally higher elevation of the land. The arid lands of India are small in extent.
None of this appears to be providing any relief from the heatwave.
Australia contrasts markedly with India, featuring a broad landscape of low profile and is generally drier and hotter.
It’s now the beginning of our winter. One of the effects of El Nino, conversely, is more rainfall in the southwest of Australia. This may already be taking effect with recent wet weather crossing into the NT’s southwest corner, generating the usual excitement when rainwater cascades down Uluru.
Central Australia may benefit from winter rainfall in the next month or so, which should prompt a colourful wildflower season. These conditions were experienced in the winters of 1998 and 2010, both following El Nino events (2009, it might be recalled, was the driest year on record in the Centre).
But it’s the prospect of what is to follow next summer that concerns me, and I think the Indian heatwave provides us with a clear warning.
We are likely to know for sure in October. If maximum temperatures in Alice Springs reach 40ºC there is a very high likelihood of a scorching dry summer to follow. This occurred on two occasions in October last year (hitting 42ºC on one day); and we came close to a 40 degree day in September, too.
Successive years of 40 degree days in October (such as occurred in the late 1950s and early 60s) are indicative of true drought conditions.
It’s from this period that Alice Springs maximum temperature record still stands but we only just fell shy of it during last summer.
Given the regularity of weather records constantly being reset, we face the prospect not simply of breaking the old high temperature record for the Alice but smashing it – an unpleasant prospect.
There’s another aspect to drought conditions that deserves consideration. History shows that droughts of themselves don’t cause national economic downturns but they do contribute significantly to the misery of recessions already in play.
Given the precarious situation of current economic conditions in Australia, we ought to be mindful of this knowledge. Forewarned is forearmed.
COMMENT by ALEX NELSON