What's up with the weather (and why the answer is not black and white)

Voice of Real Australia is a regular newsletter from Australian Community Media, which has journalists in every state and territory. Sign up here to get it by email, or here to forward it to a friend. Today's newsletter is written by ACM'S National grains industry reporter Gregor Heard.

The horrendous fire conditions through NSW and Queensland have sparked the obvious question: what has brought these terrible set of circumstances upon us, is it climate change or is it natural weather patterns?

While there are various commentaries around arguing a variety of points the actual answer lies somewhere in between.

The warming and drying patterns experienced by areas in the mid-latitudes across the globe as part of climate change have been one part of the mix that has led to the record-breaking drought that has eastern Australia tinder dry.

But it is not as simple as chalking up the fires to climate change.

Normal weather patterns have also played a major role in the drought.

A young man ponders exactly what happened on the NSW Mid-North Coast just days ago. Photo: Jamie-lee Schmitzer

A young man ponders exactly what happened on the NSW Mid-North Coast just days ago. Photo: Jamie-lee Schmitzer

This year we have seen an extremely strong Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) negative event.

While the Indian Ocean may seem far removed from Taree or Port Macquarie or any of these fire-hit regions looking out over the Pacific, the IOD can be a major driver of weather over eastern Australia, especially when the Pacific Ocean is in a neutral phase, as it is now.

The IOD negative is bad news for anyone wanting rain.

For the layman it means there is little tropical moisture generated over north-western Western Australia. That means less rain-bearing fronts are swept to the east. And that's exactly what happened this year.

The good news is, unlike an El Nino, an IOD negative almost always breaks down before Christmas with the onset of the Indonesian monsoon season so there currently does not look like there is any climate driver blocking normal late summer rainfall.

However, don't get too comfortable and think that just because the IOD is over the drought will end and we'll all go back to normal.

As respected climatologist Peter Hayman explains, climate change and weather patterns are like the tide and the waves.

Climate change is the tide, gradually going in, while weather patterns are the waves.

Will every wave go in to an unprecedented level?

No, there will be some that are not as strong, but the trend, driven by the tide, is for them to go further and further.

But what knocked over the sand castle, the wave or the tide?

Sobering stuff - and something we, as a nation, can't afford to just push onto the backburner the minute we do see some rain.

Gregor Heard

National grains industry reporter, ACM

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