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Climate Change and the End of Australia

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That's true – but it's only part of the story. Thanks to record-high levels of carbon in the atmosphere, surface temperatures in the ocean near Australia last year were the highest ever recorded – nearly one degree above normal. And climate scientists have long warned that warmer oceans increase the risk of faster, more deadly hurricanes. "We realized way back in 1987 that CO2-induced warming would increase the speed limit on hurricanes," Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT, has said. "It surprised us how much power increase you got with just a little bit of increase in the sea-surface temperature."

Murdoch's papers also failed to point out that the more coal the country burns and exports, the fiercer its hurricanes are likely to become. "Unless we start reducing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere soon," says Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, "the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future."

Australia, in fact, has been getting a glimpse of the global-warming future for more than two decades. What Australians call "The Big Dry" began in the early 1990s and quickly grew worse, with a dozen years of below-average rainfall. Drinking-water reservoirs for Melbourne, with a population of 4 million people, were soon depleted. Topsoil from farms started to dry up and blow away – one dust cloud was nearly 1,000 miles long and 250 miles wide. In Sydney, the dust storms were so bad they shut down the airport and ferry service, forcing people to stay indoors. In a single day, scientists estimated, several million tons of topsoil had been stripped from deserts and farms and blown out to sea. As Dianne Thorley, the mayor of a small city in the drought-stricken Murray-Darling Basin, told a reporter, "Australia is drying up, a little bit like a dried apple."

In a sense, Australia is a creation of human ingenuity. Of the six inhabited continents, Australia is the driest. Except for a tropical belt in the north and some temperate areas in the southeast, the entire place is a desert. The fact that 22 million people can inhabit the continent is a tribute to engineers, who have figured out a way to extract enough water out of the ground and collect it in enough reservoirs to allow Australians to grow tomatoes and take hot showers whenever they please. Indeed, the greatest engineering achievement in Australia may be the construction of an elaborate network of canals and waterways that transformed the Murray-Darling Basin, a formerly scrubby wasteland covering 1 million square miles in southeastern Australia, into an agricultural wonderland. The basin now produces about 40 percent of the nation's food, enabling Australia to become a major exporter of wheat.

But that engineering triumph has come at a cost. The industrial-scale farming operations that took over the basin have depleted nutrients in the soil, sucked rivers dry and replaced deep-rooted indigenous plants well-adapted to Australia's extreme climate with shallow-rooted crops that need constant irrigation to survive. As a result, all the extra water being pumped into the land has raised the water table in many places, releasing salt deposits into the soil. "Salinity is not just poisoning the soil, it is also wrecking the water supply for people downstream," says Billy Squire, an environmental activist in the basin. "It is a slow-motion disaster."

Transforming a harsh desert into farms and shopping malls has also left large parts of Australia hugely dependent on seasonal rainfall. After all, engineers can redistribute water, but they can't manufacture it. As the Big Dry dragged on, rainfall declined in the southern part of the country, where most of the people live and the majority of the food is grown, fueling the risk of catastrophic bush fires. The reasons for this change in rainfall patterns are complex, but many climate scientists believe that the Big Dry was driven by subtle shifts in the structure of Australia's atmosphere caused by the dramatic buildup of carbon pollution. "The storm track, which brings rain-bearing weather to Australia, has shifted a few degrees south," says Karoly, the University of Melbourne scientist. "Rain that had fallen on southwestern and southeastern Australia now falls on the ocean." Global warming, in other words, shifted the continent's vital rainfall out to sea.

For farmers in southeastern Australia, the minute shift in atmospheric conditions was devastating. In the Murray-Darling Basin, water reservoirs declined by two-thirds in the past decade, leading to severe water shortages for many farmers and ranchers. Thirsty cattle sickened and died. Rice yields declined by 98 percent. The basin's waterways and canals, long considered an engineering triumph, turned into a network of mudholes and dried-up creek beds. Many farmers, unable to make it, were forced to sell or abandon their land.

In desperation, local water boards authorized crazy cloud-seeding experiments in a failed attempt to "manufacture" rain. Big cities also responded by trying to come up with a technological fix. In Melbourne, officials pushed through a controversial $3.5 billion project to build one of the world's largest water-desalinization plants, capable of converting 110 million gallons of seawater into fresh drinking water every day – roughly a third of the city's water consumption. "Desalinization is a very expensive way to create drinking water," says James Bradfield Moody, the director of development at one of Australia's top science agencies. "It is no replacement for rain."

Smaller cities, unable to afford such costly projects, turned to even more desperate measures. Toowoomba, an agricultural town perched on a plateau 80 miles inland from Brisbane, found its drinking­water reservoir down to only seven percent of capacity. The regional council floated the idea of building a $68 million treatment plant that would essentially turn sewage into drinking water – he first of its kind in Australia. Despite reassurances that the recycled water would be safe to drink, residents rejected the proposal, unable to get their minds around the fact that they were going to have to drink their own piss. Instead, the council voted to build a 20-mile pipeline to draw water from another reservoir. It also decided to tap the Great Artesian Basin, a deep aquifer that underlies nearly a quarter of the continent, further depleting the only source of fresh water for much of inland Australia. "It's the water equivalent of burning the furniture to heat your house," says Moody.

Last summer, it finally rained in southern Australia. In fact, it flooded. Many farmers in the region took that to mean the Big Dry was over. More likely, it was only a short reprieve. Climate models show that the drought is likely to worsen in the coming decades. "When it comes to water, we are living beyond our means in Australia," says Moody. "In the long run, the life we have created here is unsustainable without major changes."

Without water, Australia not only dries up – it also burns. Wildfires have long been a routine part of life here, and Australians considered them a manageable risk. But all that changed in late January 2009, when the temperature in Melbourne spiked to 110 degrees for three days in a row. The public transportation system literally collapsed, as steel trolley rails bowed in the heat, and hundreds of thousands of homes lost power. John Brumby, the state premier of Victoria, held a press conference warning that the coming Saturday, February 7th, would be the "worst day in the history of the state." By that point, thanks to the Big Dry, rainfall had been below normal for nearly a decade, sucking the moisture out of the soil and making trees and plants as brittle as matchsticks. "The state is just tinder-dry," Brumby warned, calling on Victorians to prepare for the worst.

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