Is it time to listen to so-called "deniers"?

Stewart Franks.
Stewart Franks.

PROFESSOR Stewart Franks, a hydrologist at NSW's University of Newcastle, warned in a peer-reviewed scientific article published in 2006 that the risk of serious flooding in southern Queensland and NSW increases significantly when a negative phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation corresponds with a La Nina event.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology, given these same conditions, forecast average rainfall last spring!

It was in the late 1800s, a time of significant flooding in Queensland, that meteorologists first noticed a relationship between the Southern Oscillation and rainfall.

But the relationship appeared to break down in the 1930s and was not revived until the late 1980s when the link with the El Nino phenomenon of the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean was recognised.

Professor Franks has shown that the usefulness of the Southern Oscillation as a predictor of climate, in particular flooding, depends on whether or not the more complex phenomenon also measured by sea surface temperatures known as the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO) is in a positive or negative phase.

In a series of scientific papers published since 2003, Professor Franks has shown that when the IPO is negative, as it was from 1946 to 1977, there was a much greater chance of flooding rains associated with a La Nina-Southern Oscillation pattern.

Furthermore, he outlined in the 2006 paper published in the international Journal of Hydrology that the IPO significantly modulated the flood risk in NSW and southern Queensland but not other regions.

In that study he concluded that it was dangerous to calculate flood risk independently of a consideration of whether the IPO was in a negative or positive phase.

This is consistent with the work of other climate scientists who have shown that coastal rivers of NSW, for example, exhibit alternating periods of high and low flood activity, with the flood regime being characterised by significantly more, and usually larger, floods than the intervening lower rainfall regime.

This is of course also consistent with Australian folklore - that we live on a continent of drought and flooding rains.

Yet over recent years in the midst of drought, and with doom and gloom stories associated with the theories of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change so fashionable, our governments have seemed to willfully ignore the historical record and the work of hydrologists like Professor Franks.

Indeed, because of the prevailing fashion, advice from Professor Franks and others who are variously labelled as climate-change sceptics and denialists, has been ignored.

Professor Franks does not consider himself a climate change sceptic, but rather an objective scientist.

As we entered this spring, the advice from his 2006 paper was extremely relevant.

Given the IPO was negative and we had a strong La Nina, we could have expected impacts to be magnified and the risk of flooding very much increased in south Queensland and NSW.

In complete contrast, the Bureau of Meteorology advised that spring rainfall in 2010 was going to be "average" except in the south-west of Western Australia where they forecast it would be "wetter than normal".

What followed were unusually dry conditions in south-west WA while everywhere else got above average rainfall with many parts of the Murray Darling Basin receiving the highest rainfall on record.

The east coast trough persisted through summer with the virtually stationary weather pattern reforming again and again, dumping more and more rain on already saturated catchments in southern Queensland and NSW resulting in catastrophic flooding and the loss of life.

Already at least one climate scientist - who has made his career from the anthropogenic global warming theory and generally predicting continuing drought in eastern Australia - is now claiming that the increased intensity of rain was caused by global warming.

But there is no evidence to suggest that even the rain that fell on Toowoomba was unusually intense, given the historical record.

There are a lot more people in Toowoomba now than there were during the 1950s, 60s and 70s - the last sustained negative IPO phase.

Over recent decades planning has been based on assumptions of continuing drought. A different mindset is likely to have seen the development of a different drainage plan for that city.

A different mindset, less focused on the fashionable and more focused on the practical, might have even recommended the installation of a flash flood warning systems with rainfall measurement stations, water level sensors and sirens.

I hope that now, in the wake of the devastation of the past month, that rather than blaming the severity of the flooding on human-induced global warming - as the severity of the recent drought was based on human-induced global warming - that planners and politicians start to cast their net a little wider when seeking to understand and come to terms with what has happened and begin to objectively listen to the advice of so-called climate change sceptics, including Professor Franks.

So far the Federal Government has been spending at least $800 million a year on climate research which has mostly been geared to providing ammunition for a carbon tax - rather than improved seasonal weather forecasts.

It is now time this policy and approach was radically overhauled. There is an urgent need for more objectivity in public policy and recognition that natural variability is trumping any impact from increases in levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The best explanation for the recent devastating flooding is that it resulted from inadequate infrastructure and warning systems in the face of a combination of La Nina conditions during a negative IPO, a monsoon trough and already saturated catchments.

* Jennifer Marohasy is a biologist, research scientist and media commentator on environmental issues.

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Farmer John
20/01/2011 1:28:40 PM

Someone should forward this to the Ranga upstairs....!!! Maybe copy in Bob Brown as well.
Bill Williams
20/01/2011 2:10:45 PM

And what about the money these "fashionable" weather forecasters are wasting? As the $59 million dollar "Koondrook Perricoota Forest Flood Enhancement" project commenced the very forest the project sought to save was under water....from natural flooding. The well-meaning, but naive, climate change fashionistas could not grasp the possibility that dying red gums are part of the natural scheme of things.....that severe drought aids natural tree selection and creates thousands of hollows for birds to nest in as a result of trees that half die. Under the mantra of saving the forest this project (which even boasts its own website: will see two huge scars cut through the forest to allow the eco-irrigators to take water from the Murray and then return an artificial blackwater flow to it.
20/01/2011 3:13:56 PM

Objective science, instead of fashion and the latest political catchphrase?... yer dreamin
20/01/2011 6:39:47 PM

Well, at bush get togethers over the past couple of years the general consensus out here was that the monster drought was sure to be followed by monster floods. Commonsense really. Now some sensible cold burns in national parks over the next few years and we may even prevent the next monster bushfire.
amicus curiae
21/01/2011 1:58:32 AM

about time I read some common sense on climate in closer to minstream news:-) Oiers Corbyn forecast and warned of the coming intense rains and possible cyclone, and the warmwashed elites ignored him. they dont pay with their lives the people and animals in the areas affected DO! about time more people started ;looking at a wider and less biased viewpoint than that of Gore and Hansen who have a bias and an agenda, for fame and money not truth!
Frustrated Farmer
21/01/2011 5:55:42 AM

An excellent article - but preaching largely to the converted. Climate Change is a tax that governments are determined to put into place. Unfortunately we don't have enough politicians or voters that look at the true facts or research properly both sides of the argument to stop the insanity of climate change being fact. In the end it is all about dollars and redistribution of wealth.
ross mccorquodale
21/01/2011 9:53:15 AM

This as a farmer ,sounds more realistic and believable than the global warming bandwagon .I would like to read his work on this subject. The standing record flood of 1892 puts paid to Global warming being the cause of this present flood.
the lorax
21/01/2011 11:28:55 AM

meanwhile in the real world the World Meteorological Organisation has confirmed that 2010 was the equal warmest on record and that Arctic sea ice was the lowest on record. Perhaps the warmer waters north and west of Australia could have something to do with the increased rain. The SOI in 1974 was 21 in 2010 it was 27. What could cause this? Could it be increased ocean heat content? How would that heat get there? With the sun in an extended period of low sunspot activity shouldn't that mean the earth cools? Just because there is some degree of human caused global warming does not mean that natural variations and phenomena cease to exist, but could it make those phenomena more intense or frequent? But relax it is all a conspiracy by the communists to take over the world, oh no wait its the capitalist bankers, no that's right its wealth distribution, oh no its really about controlling the populations, no that's right the worlds cooling because the scientists are corrupt and fudging the data, no wait now we just sound asinine.
21/01/2011 11:57:47 AM

I have seen comment from this ultra-conservative anti-technologist on a number of issues. I doubt she has ever read/understood a scientific paper. But she has got one bit right - eastern States had flooding rains and the floods are probably within normal climate variation expectations - as was the drought of the 10 years prior. What has not been seen before was the severity of the La nina and the speed of switch from El nino to La nina - unprecidented and not likely IPO related! However, to use argument as a basis to stifle climate change science, adaptation and policy response is irresponsible as the trends are clear and linked - decadal global temperature rises continue unabated in line with and correlated with human produced atmospheric green house gases including carbon dioxide (see GISS or Hadley Centre global temperature reports for 2010 year just published). It makes no sense to drop the ball and risk maladapted agricultural systems to that climate change over the next 20-30 years that will see more weather extremes not unlike these floods of 2010-11 or the drought in years prior but as events with more severity/extreme and greater frequency.
Bill Williams
21/01/2011 12:42:49 PM

Wessa, It's one thing to consider the best available scientific data. It's another thing altogether for form the hypothesis that global warming equals drying.........and then spending billions on the basis of hypothesis. Australia's water policy has been totally based on the assumption of a drier climate. Of course all the drought predictors are now shifting ground to talk about weather extremes rather than a drier climate for Australia. You may be interested to learn that while Australia's response to global warming has been to assume a drier climate, the Korean response is to assume a much wetter climate. The Korean view is that a warmer climate means higher levels of evaporation and therefore a generally more active water cycle. Irrigating Australia's dryland forests is an expression of creating government policy that ignores the principle of "occam's razor".
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