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Rain bombs and megaflash lightning: Australia experiences unprecedented weather

Nine people have been killed during days of torrential rainfall and flooding

Australia’s east coast has been hit by record-breaking levels of rain over the past week with storms causing severe flooding and extensive damage to thousands of homes. 

Brisbane was one of the first areas to be hit over the weekend, with schools shutting on Monday as the Brisbane River reached its highest level since 2011. The amount of rain that’s fallen since last Thursday – more than 1.5 metres – comes close to the average annual rainfall for the region.

The weather system then moved south over northern New South Wales (NSW), with the state’s premier describing the weather as a “one-in-a-thousand year” event. Forecasts that the weather system is now heading further south have cast “an ominous warning for the Mid North Coast, Sydney and the South Coast”, said The Sydney Morning Herald

Trapped overnight

“The rain has been fierce and has continued, unabated,” said The Guardian, describing it as a “rain bomb” weather event. In the town of Woodburn, NSW, around 50 residents and their pets have been trapped overnight on a bridge as they tried to escape the rising floodwaters, the BBC reported.

Lismore, NSW, “is a community that has become used to flooding”, said The Guardian. “But this is not a flood, this is a catastrophe”, resident Sue Higginson wrote in the newspaper. “If you had a flood plan – which everyone on flood-prone land does, especially since 2017 – it was meaningless.” 

Lismore residents are experiencing some of the worst weather on record, and Higginson warned: “This is an emergency – a climate emergency.” 

Weather bomb

Nine people in Queensland have died, and the national death toll currently stands at ten. Many of the fatalities “were people who had attempted to cross flooded roads, either by foot or in a vehicle”, said Reuters. There have been a number of “close calls”, as residents have been stranded on their roofs or sheltered from the rain in their homes, said The Times.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the extreme conditions as a “weather bomb”, and reassured citizens that defence personnel are being deployed to lead rescue and recovery efforts. 

A weather bomb, the Met Office explained, is an unofficial term that refers to what happens when the central pressure inside an area of low pressure falls “at a very rapid rate”. 

Last week, meteorologists warned that low pressure over the south coast of Queensland was “dragging in moisture from the Coral Sea” and “lifting it over the coastline”. Colder air higher up in the atmosphere was “making the atmosphere unstable”, causing this moisture to fall as rain, said The Guardian

The complex weather pattern La Niña is “kicking in hard and heavy” this year, causing an “extended storm season”, wrote Genelle Weule at ABC News last month. The weather radar has been “chock full of orange, red and purple splotches” as “extreme storm events have shimmied across Australia.

“Along with flash flooding and high winds, angry black storm clouds can also produce spectacular and potentially dangerous light shows,” she added. This has included “megaflashes”, in which a single lightning flash stretches across hundreds of kilometres of the sky and lasts for several seconds.

Stoking criticism of government

The huge geographic spread of the latest floods is “stretching emergency resources”, said the Daily Mail. And they “are stoking criticism of the Australian government’s stance on climate change”, said the Financial Times

When asked about the floods on Monday, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg omitted any mention that warming global temperatures contribute to more extreme weather patterns, remarking instead that “forever it’s been thus”. 

Further flood warnings came as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest report on the global impact of warming temperatures yesterday. Among its findings, the report highlighted that coastal flood damage is projected to increase at least tenfold around the world by 2100. 

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