Australia is often called the lucky country. It is flush with natural resources—uranium, coal, oil, gold, and the rare earth minerals that are used in cell phones and electronics—and blessed with sparkling, pristine beaches that extend thousands of miles. It is home to some of the world’s oldest rainforests, lush tropical jungles with dense canopies that cover the northeastern tip of the continent. It is also a spacious country, almost as large as the continental United States, but with a population of just 22 million, smaller than that of Texas. About half of those people are clustered in three major cities that hug the eastern coast: Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.
But the floods of the past year hint at a new, less fortunate chapter in Australia’s history. On many fronts, Oz is a land under siege. A changing climate seems to be intensifying the long-standing cycle of drought and flood—a state of affairs that could magnify the gap between the continent’s soggy coasts and arid interior in the future. In addition to the flooding, recent years have brought record heat waves, costly crop losses, and brush fires of unimaginable ferocity. As the planet heats up, these events are expected to become more frequent and severe.
Australia exemplifies what global warming models have long predicted, climate experts say, and what is happening in this hardy nation offers a glimpse of some of what is on the horizon for the United States as well. Rising temperatures tend to produce more extreme weather events, according to the models. “Our recent extremes may be strongly climate change–driven,” says Penny Whetton, a climatologist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency, in Victoria. “They’re an illustration of what we expect to see more of in the future, when natural fluctuations are intensified by global warming.”
With warmer temperatures will come more floods like the ones that have buffeted Australia over the past year, but the other half of the climate equation is making itself abundantly felt as well. During the past decade, much of Australia was gripped by a fierce dry spell that sparked stringent water rationing measures throughout the southern and eastern parts of the country. Evening news shows regularly announced water levels in the nation’s reservoirs and featured stories about scofflaws being slapped with heavy fines after neighbors caught them hosing down their cars. In one celebrated incident, South Australia’s water minister quenched his thirsty lawn in flagrant defiance of the rules, triggering a public outcry.
Adelaide, the driest major city in the world’s driest inhabited continent, came close to running out of drinking water in 2009, and officials were days away from importing bottled water for some of the area’s million-plus residents. Farmlands in the once fertile Murray-Darling Basin—a region in Southeastern Australia the size of France and Spain combined—were turned into cracked dust bowls. More than 10,000 families, many of whom had farmed for generations, were forced off the land. Power plants were shut down for lack of cooling water. Record heat waves baked the soil, killed wildlife, and turned the bone-dry terrain into kindling for firestorms that incinerated entire towns.
Australia prominently wears the scars of these escalating skirmishes with nature. The nation’s capital, Canberra, is a parklike planned city of nearly 360,000 that occupies a patch of land partway between Sydney and Melbourne, with wide, tree-lined boulevards that radiate outward from Lake Burley Griffin. Yet today, an aerial view reveals huge swaths of the countryside surrounding Canberra blackened from a firestorm that threatened to engulf the city in 2003, after months of scorching weather turned pine forests into a giant tinderbox.
About 20 miles outside Canberra is the Googong Reservoir, a long finger of water that stretches more than 650 acres when filled to the brim. More than a million people get their drinking water from the reservoir, but the drought shriveled it to less than 30 percent of its capacity. Even after the recent drenching rains, water levels remain perilously low.
Elizabeth Hanna, a public health researcher at Australia National University in Canberra, has a hard time reconciling another shrunken body of water, Lake George, with the shimmering sea of her youth. “When I was a child, we’d drive up from Melbourne and it would be overflowing its banks,” she recalls.
Some of Australia’s sensitivity to climate change stems from its evolution as a continent. Around 45 million years ago, the Australian landmass broke away from Gondwana, an ancient supercontinent that encompassed South America, Africa, and Antarctica as well. Almost completely covered in rainforest in those days, Australia then drifted northward toward the equator in complete isolation for 30 million years. During that period, the central regions of Australia dried out and created some of the world’s most ancient deserts.
Australian soils are deficient in vital nutrients including nitrogen, phosphorus, and zinc, mainly because the region is so old, even in geologic time, and most of the country has not been revitalized by the soil-renewing activity of volcanoes or glaciers for tens of millions of years. “The country is already dry and ecologically fragile, with relatively poor soils,” says Steven Sherwood, an atmospheric physicist and codirector of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “It doesn’t have the resilience, so it’s more vulnerable to anything.”
Modern development has exacerbated some of those vulnerabilities. River systems have been heavily exploited for irrigation, which has hastened soil degradation, made the ground saltier, and contributed to creeping desertification. And roughly 85 percent of the population is crammed into coastal cities that are susceptible to storm surges and cyclones. But the prime driver of Australia’s unique vulnerability is geographic:
its location in the midst of three oceans, and the interacting currents that result.