Mar 9, 2022 - Science

Australia declares national emergency over severe east coast floods

Residents steer boats around flooded houses

Residents steer boats around flooded houses in the Windsor suburb of Sydney on March 9. Photo: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared a national emergency Wednesday to speed up the delivery of aid to parts of the country's east coast that have been devastated by widespread, record floods for several weeks.

What they're saying: The national emergency declaration will "ensure all our emergency powers are available and that we cut through any red tape we might face in delivering services and support on the ground,” Morrison said in the press release.

  • “We are dealing with a different climate to the one we were dealing with before. I think that’s just an obvious fact,” Morrison said during a visit to Lismore, an area affected by the flooding.
  • “And Australia is getting hard to live in because of these disasters.”

The big picture: About 60,000 people were under evacuation orders as of Tuesday due to the severe rains and flash floods that have killed at least 20 people.

  • Parts of Sydney have received nearly four inches of rain in 24 hours. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the city has had its wettest start to any year on record since 1956, with areas already seeing more than 34 inches of rain in 2022.
  • Australia's government also outlined new aid measures, including additional disaster payments to adults and children affected by the flooding, and funding to support legal assistance services and the mental health of schoolchildren, among other efforts.

Between the lines: Morrison has received criticism for a perceived slow response to the catastrophic flooding, The Guardian reported.

Context: Two factors may be worsening the rainfall: climate change and La Niña.

  • One of the firmest conclusions of climate change research is that hydrological extremes, both heavy rains and drought, are worsening around the world, including in Australia.
  • This is occurring due to warming ocean and air temperatures, which increase both evaporation and the ability of the atmosphere to carry more moisture.
  • In addition, heavy rains are more likely in eastern Australia during La Niña years, which feature milder ocean temperatures in parts of the western tropical Pacific Ocean. The outlook for the fall in Australia shows continued wetter-than-average conditions in the eastern part of the country, and these can be tied to the La Niña pattern.

Flashback: In recent years, eastern Australia has fluctuated between drought, heat waves, wildfires and flooding.

  • A U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published earlier this month warned that climate change could drastically increase the frequency of the 1-in-100 year flood, transforming it into an event that occurs several times a year.
  • Globally, the IPCC report states, "flood risks and societal damages are projected to increase with every increment of global warming."

Go deeper: In photos: 60,000 under evacuation orders in Sydney as floods lash Australia

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