Climate set to go from bad to worse

Rachel Kleinman

December 23, 2006

IT WAS a week in which the city's air quality dropped to its lowest level in 20 years as early bushfires continued to blacken all in their path; Melbourne's water storages dipped to a 22-year-low, and the city sweltered through its fourth day above 35 degrees since the beginning of summer.

But while Victorians look to the horizon and pray for immediate relief, there is evidence that our intemperate climate is only going to get worse in future. A lot worse.

Climate modelling by the CSIRO forecasts that we can expect the state to get hotter and drier in the years to 2030, with more days in the high 30s and more extreme weather events such as flash flooding and storm surges.

The national science agency first carried out modelling for the state in
2001, with further work in 2004 and joint research with Melbourne Water in 2005. But the climate impacts and risk group's principal research scientist, Kevin Hennessy, says its projections carry new significance in light of the extreme drought and heightened public awareness of climate change.

"Water resources, agriculture, forests, fisheries, energy, coastal settlements, tourism and health will all be affected," Mr Hennessy says.

And the combined effects of climate change in metropolitan Melbourne have not yet been teased out of the research.

"(The) effect of heatwaves, such as increased heat-related illness and death, fire activity, smoke pollution, use of air-conditioners and demand for energy (can all be expected).

"Then there is the buckling of railway lines and melting of tar on roads. All these would have major implications for emergency management, road maintenance, hospital admissions, and peak power capacity," Mr Hennessy says.

A predicted drop in water run-off will be another significant outcome of climate change. Already this year, the state's water storages have fallen to record low levels as a result of the drought. By 2030, the CSIRO has predicted that run-off will have decreased by between 5 and 35 per cent on 2001 levels.

CSIRO research also predicted a sea-level rise of between 3 and 17 cent, along with more frequent storm surges — temporary rises in sea levels caused by very low pressure.

"This means we will see more events similar to the storm that hit Melbourne in February 2005, when Middle Park Beach was almost washed away," Mr Hennessy says. "It will also mean more long-term, gradual erosion."

According to the Bracks Government's Melbourne 2030 planning blueprint, metropolitan Melbourne is expected to absorb an additional 1 million people over the next 24 years — a factor not included in the CSIRO's projections — straining water resources and boosting energy use even further.

The Federal Government's agricultural economics agency, ABARE, predicted this week that Australia's domestic energy consumption would be 46 per cent higher by 2030 than in 2005.

The Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment has stressed that despite the doom and gloom predictions, it is working hard to prepare for climate change.

"This means working with everyone from agricultural scientists, coastal sewerage planners and public health specialists to prepare Victoria for what looks certain to be a hotter, drier future," a spokeswoman told The Age.

Mr Hennessy says the CSIRO's focus has now shifted away from fine-tuning the forecasts towards finding solutions. "The emphasis now is on adaptation and solutions, not just for individuals but for whole communities to be more resilient."

Informant: binstock


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