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W(h)ither the Godzilla El Nino?

- Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The predictions were dire, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. Australia would face a "Godzilla" El Nino event during the second half of 2015 and the first quarter of 2016, with increased likelihood of severe droughts, heatwaves and other cataclysmic weather-related events. The media response was immediate, and predictable. Serried ranks of experts were called upon to outline in lurid detail the cataclysmic weather events that were likely to unfold, and the consequent disastrous impact they would have on Australian agriculture, in particular. And almost invariably, the closing comments identified that the likely severity of the weather events would be made even greater by the impact of human-induced climate change, and that  events were a foretaste of the dire climatic conditions farmers should prepare for in the future.

The emergence of the El Nino conditions brought predictions from the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) of a greater likelihood of below average rainfall across southern Australia and the tropics, a greater likelihood of above average temperatures, and probable wetter conditions in Western Australia. To be fair the BOM did caution that prediction accuracy is lower for forecasts issued in spring and early summer. The caution expressed by the BOM, however, was not reflected in subsequent media reports, with an ABC for example report headlined  'Godzilla El Nino' intensifying: Drought, heatwaves and heightened bushfire risk expected this summer". This same tone was reflected in opinion pieces penned by academics, in reports in international newspapers, and even in reports carried in scientific publications such as Nature. The emergence of the El Nino event was also used as an opportunity to claim that future similar events are likely to be worse, as a consequence of climate change.

The weather events experienced throughout Australia over the past three months have failed to live up to the dire predictions that were given so much air time, and in many cases have been the exact reverse of what had been predicted as likely. Rainfall across much of Australia has been equal to or above average, areas considered in drought have been reduced, and many regions have experienced lower than average temperatures - at least up until this week. The El Nino conditions that were so earnestly discussed just months ago have broken down, and these is now talk of the emergence of the increased risk of higher than average rainfall over the coming months. 

Some will no doubt point to the bushfires in South Australia and Western Australia as evidence that some of the dire warnings were accurate, but this ignores the reality that bushfires are a part of normal Australian summers, something that has been the case since well before European settlement, judging by the Journals of early explorers. The continuing drought conditions in some areas of northern NSW and Queensland and western Tasmania might also be claimed to give credence to the El Nino  warnings, except that these developments largely predate the emergence of the El Nino conditions, and again are a normal feature of the Australian climate.

The BOM has frequently noted that El Nino conditions are not necessarily a harbinger of dryer and hotter conditions in Australia, and that in fact the link between such conditions is not strong especially at a regional level, and there is little correlation between the 'strength' of the El Nino conditions and the likelihood of drought or higher temperatures. Unfortunately, this caution is rarely reflected in media reporting, and farmers who responded to the warnings during 2015 by either reducing crop areas or selling livestock could in fact be worse off than those who did nothing. 

Unfortunately, it seems that in the age of instant electronic media reporting, sensationalism will always win out over more measured reporting, and the 'click-bait' mentality of editors seems to invariably mean that qualifications and cautions are buried at the back end of a story, or increasingly unlikely to appear. 

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