No Water Down Under No Water Down Under
The Planet

No Water Down Under

by Ben Jervey

February 6, 2009

Australia runs dry, and we're not far behind

Last week at the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic pulled out of his quarterfinal match, something a defending champ had never before done. His reason-the heat. The same day, Serena Williams described playing on the sweltering Melbourne hard courts, before officials closed the stadium's roof, as an "out of body" experience. "Like I felt I was watching someone play in a blue dress, and it wasn't me, because it was so hot out there." As Australia, which is acutely vulnerable to climate change, continues to heat up, the days of this Grand Slam tournament as an outdoor event seem to be numbered.The city of Melbourne stood as ground zero of a brutal, unprecedented heat wave-the worst three days all topping 44 degrees Celsius (or 110 Fahrenheit)-that shut down the city's trains, blacked out half a million homes and businesses, buckled rail tracks, and killed at least 20 people. And while we know better than to blindly confuse weather with climate, according to Penny Wong, the country's climate change minister (hey, why don't we have one of those?), "Eleven of the hottest years in history have been in the last twelve…all of this is consistent with climate change, and with what scientists told us would happen." David Karoly, a meteorology professor at the University of Melbourne, IPCC scientist, and one of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winners, said that the heat was "unusual but it will become much more like the normal experience, in the range of normal heatwaves, in 10-20 years."Southern Australia is 12 years into a massive, crippling drought that has no historical precedent. Joe Romm at Climate Progress has called the country "the canary in the coal mine for climate-driven desertification." As the island nation warms, it's getting sucked dry. The Australian Alps have endured their driest three years ever. Water from the country's most vital river system, the Murray-Darling Basin, responsible for a quarter of the country's food production, now doesn't even reach the sea 150 days a year. Scientists and government officials are-to be blunt-freaking out.Back in February of 2007, a report on climate change by the New South Wales government suggested that southern Australia could be virtually uninhabitable within a lifetime. The country's Water Services Association urged that "drought" had become a redundant term. "The inflows of the past will never return," warned Ross Young, WSA's executive director. "We are trying to avoid the term ‘drought' and saying this is the new reality." Headlines have sounded like copy for Hollywood disaster flick trailers: "Sydney: 50 years to live," "Parched: Australia faces collapse as climate change kicks in."This isn't only Australia's problem. I've been in California for the past week, and here drought is the hot topic. Last Thursday, Governor Schwarzenegger warned that the state "is headed toward one of the worst water crises in its history." Department of Water Resources director Lester Snow echoed: "We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history."Even worse-there's plenty of research to suggest that the American Southwest, like Australia, is headed more towards permanent desertification than passing drought. A 2007 study published in Science anticipated a not-too-distant future with Dust Bowl-like conditions stretching from Kansas to Southern California by 2050. Since then, the predictions have only gotten more and more dire: the tropics are expanding; climate effects are "largely irreversible for 1,000 years," and the American Southwest is screwed.The Scripps Institution of Oceanography summed it up last year in a report that attributed the drying trend to human-induced climate change, one that concluded with a startlingly blunt warning: "Our results are not good news for those living in the western United States." We'd do well to pay close attention to Australia's plight.Photos for illustration from flickr users johnny jet and brettmarlow1, licensed under Creative Commons.
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No Water Down Under