Australia’s Epic Drought is Global Warning
Circle of Blue Reports
The grievous consequences of drought and global warming are more visible and dangerous in Australia than in any other industrialized nation.
Wildfires last month killed 210 people in Victoria. The country’s greatest wetland, the Coorong near Adelaide, is drying up. And as it does, the sulfur in the exposed bottomlands mixes with oxygen in the air to form sulfuric acid mud that is killing aquatic life. Forests of Red Gum trees, hearty sentinels of Australia’s arid landscape, are dying. And crops across southeast Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin, one of the planet’s most productive food growing regions, are failing. Once prosperous rural cities are in decline, and suicides in farm families occur at a rate twice the national average.
The brutal Australian drought has emerged as “The Biggest Dry.” This is no mere statement of hyperbole, scientists tell us. It’s what happens when a nation purposefully designed to use an enormous amount of water collides with a hotter and dryer climate that produces much less rain.
Twelve years ago, the rain stopped falling in southeast Australia. The average temperature has climbed 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, according to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s respected science agency. So much less rain is falling that surface flows across the region’s river valleys have been cut 40 percent. Over the past decade there has been so little water left in the lower sections of the Murray-Darling river system that for every four out of ten days, the Murray River doesn’t even have enough flow to reach its mouth in the Great Southern Ocean south of Adelaide.
Outside the country’s borders, the crisis was hardly known until last year, when Australia’s one-million-ton rice crop failed. The crop disaster wrecked the economies of Deniliquin and other rice-producing towns, and caused world food prices to rise, prompting food riots in poor nations. The fires this year put the drought and its aftermath at the top of the global news.
In “The Biggest Dry,” our team looks deeper at the consequences of a new pattern of dryer and hotter weather that climatologists in Australia assert is permanent. The drought is damaging the nation’s ability to feed itself, producing lasting changes on the land, pushing people out of their homes, aggravating long-simmering tensions between the government and Australia’s indigenous people, and causing mass extinctions. It is forcing the Commonwealth and four states to agree on new ways to govern in order to secure and manage water. Over US$12 billion in public funds has been committed to modernize infrastructure and change cropping techniques in order to conserve declining water supplies.
Though it is the first industrialized nation to contend with the severe consequences of drought and climate change, Australia won’t be the last. The Biggest Dry is not only a global warning, it is a test of an industrial society’s ability to cope with new and dangerous conditions that threaten its ability to survive. Some Australians are convinced the nation is well prepared to meet the challenge. But the dry river beds, empty billabongs, fallow fields, and parched human spirits warn of a desperate struggle. It’s not at all clear that Australia’s response will be enough to overcome nature’s fury.
Circle of Blue’s senior editor and chief correspondent based in Traverse City, Michigan. He has reported on the contest for energy, food, and water in the era of climate change from six continents. Contact