2006: Drought, Floods, and Broken Records
by: Anna Salleh 14 December 2006
The Australian Alps had the thinnest and shortest snow season since at least 1982. Planet Earth had its sixth hottest year on record and a deluge of severe record-breaking weather, according to a new report.
The findings come from the World Meteorological Organization's (WMO) preliminary report on global climate data for 2006, released today.
"All over the world we are starting to see extreme weather records being broken," says Dr Michael Coughlan, head of the National Climate Centre at Australia's Bureau of Meteorology, which contributed to the WMO report.
"While we have had severe events in the past, there does seem to be a pattern now of increasing severity."
This year was the sixth hottest on record and 2005 was the second hottest.
"It's unequivocal that temperatures are rising," says Coughlan.
He says the WMO compared this year's temperatures with instrumental records dating back to 1861 and palaeoclimate data extending back thousands of years.
High temperatures and low rainfall through 2006, combined with an El Niño, brought severe drought to much of southern Australia.
Major cropping zones had the driest and warmest 5 years on record.
And the Australian Alps had the thinnest and shortest snow season since at least 1982, and anecdotally for at least 40 years.
"In terms of the rainfall this is certainly one of the worst drought on record," says Coughlan.
Southeastern Australia also had record low temperatures in May and June and severe crop-damaging frosts in late September and mid-October.
This year's drought followed a 5 to 10 year decline in rainfall in southern and eastern Australia.
And in the case of southwest western Australia the downward trend in rainfall extends back 20 to 30 years, says Coughlan.
He says that in this area research by the Indian Ocean Climate Initiative has linked the decline in rainfall partially to greenhouse gas-induced global warming.
But in southeastern Australia, where the downturn in rainfall is relatively recent, this link has yet to be made, says Coughlan.
Australia was not the only place affected by drought, says the WMO report.
Long-term drought was a problem in the US, Brazil, China and southern Africa, where at least 11 million people were affected by food shortages.
The decrease in rainfall leading to drought in some places is accompanied by increases in rainfall elsewhere, leading to floods.
Overall, the trend in Australia is for increasing rainfall, just not in the agricultural areas.
Australia's tropical north had its fifth wettest wet season on record and tropical cyclone Larry in March was the strongest cyclone to make landfall in Queensland since 1918.
Flooding was also a feature globally.
The Indian monsoon, for example, brought the highest rainfall in 24 hours ever recorded in several locations.
Meanwhile, the Danube river reached its highest level for more than a century in April 2006 affecting tens of thousands of people in eastern Europe.
In May, floods in some of the New England area of the US were the worst in 70 years.
And the Canadian city of Vancouver had its wettest month ever in November.
Somalia is currently suffering the worst flooding in recent history with some places receiving more than six times the average monthly rainfall, affecting hundreds and thousands of people.
Last year also saw the largest ozone hole over the Antarctic and a continued sharp decrease in Arctic sea ice. Over 60,000 square kilometres (about two thirds the size of the state of New South Wales) is being lost a year.