'Flash droughts' new climate change effect

DANGER: Many parts of regional Australia are already under the influence of climate change, which will have significant consequences for farmers.
DANGER: Many parts of regional Australia are already under the influence of climate change, which will have significant consequences for farmers.

Regional Australia is already feeling the devastating impacts of climate change, including the new phenomenon of "flash droughts", a new report reveals.

The Climate Council report warned that without immediate action, the impacts would become more frequent and severe.

Australian National University professor and report author Will Steffen said the data showed many parts of the country were already influenced by climate change, as rain patterns are pushed further south by to the expanding subtropical zone.

Rainfall in the southeast has fallen 12 per cent since the 1990s, while in the southwest it's declined by up to 20 per cent since 1970.

The report also revealed meteorologists have begun using a new term - flash droughts - to describe the sudden onset and rapid intensification of drought conditions over a period of two to four weeks, which quickly rips moisture out of the upper lay of soil.

Prof Steffen said a continuous period of high temperatures, low humidity, and windy and cloudless days could create flash drought conditions.

"Acting together, these factors can quickly turn a manageable situation into severe drought conditions, and give farmers little time to prepare," Prof Steffen said.

"They'll hurt farms that have planted crops similar to grasses, such as wheat, which have shallower roots and are more vulnerable to quick-drying conditions."

Agricultural scientist and former young farmer of the year Anika Molesworth said climate change was already driving more extreme heat, which was drying out soil and making rainfall less effective when it actually does arrive.

Her region of Parkes in western NSW is still in the midst of a crippling drought, while the rainfall patterns have become "uncharacteristically harsh", sometimes dumping 50 to 100mm in a couple of hours.

"The soil is so dry for so long, it develops a repellence to the rain so it doesn't soak in, it just skirts along the surface," she said.

"It doesn't go down into the root zone of the plants, instead it just washes away all the top soil. It does a helluva lot of damage.

"The soil is foundation of any farm. Damage to our soils has huge consequences to the farm and profitability of our enterprise."

The report estimates that by 2038, extreme weather events driven by climate change could cost the Australian economy $100 billion every year - COVID cost $160 billion in 2020.

Economist Nicki Hutley said agriculture was among the most vulnerable industries to climate change.

"This past year is the harbinger of things to come if we don't act," Ms Hutley said.

"In the wine industry, there are already some areas where it is becoming less and less viable to grow and cultivate."


The drought, which is yet to break for many parts of the country, wiped 0.5 per cent of the nation's GDP.

"That's a significant drag on our economy," Ms Hutley said.

"Often agriculture exists in highly concentrated regions. So it's not just farmers that feel the effect, but all the supporting sectors in those communities."

There are 85,000 businesses in agriculture. Ms Hutley said it was the smaller businesses most at risk, as it was more difficult for them to manage risk year-to-year.

"The message is clear. We need to cut emissions by an average of 9 per cent per annum over 10 years to avoid a global increase of more than 2 degrees warming," she said.

"If we don't, agriculture will be devastated and many farmers will get wiped out.

"Yes, it costs to deal with climate change. But there are ways to benefit from dealing with it, and the costs of inaction are astronomical."

This story 'Flash droughts' new climate change effect hitting rural Australia first appeared on Farm Online.