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Natural disasters in Australia

Photograph by Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Sacred Country Unwrapped

Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Strength Dignity Pride, from exhibition Sacred Country Unwrapped, 2007. Courtesy of Collector Gallery Artspace and Bookshop.

Australia experiences a range of 'natural disasters' including bushfires, floods, severe storms, earthquakes and landslides. These events cause great financial hardship for individuals and communities, and can result in loss of life, which has become part of Australian folklore.

However, these events are also considered both part of the natural cycle of weather patterns in Australia as well as being affected by human factors such as overstocking, vegetation loss, dams, groundwater and irrigation schemes. These patterns are recognised by terms such as a 100-year drought - a drought of severity that is only seen once in a hundred years. Fire can often follow drought, and drought can be followed by flood. Severe fires followed by drought can also contribute to soil erosion.

The experience of natural disaster has come to be seen as part of the Australian national character as described in the poem 'My Country' by Dorothea McKellar (1904).

I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror - the wide brown land for me!

Drought

Photograph of Drought by Mark Rogers

Mark Rogers, Drought, 1999. Courtesy of Mark Rogers.

A drought is a prolonged, abnormally dry period when there is not enough water for users' normal needs. Drought is not simply low rainfall; if it was, much of inland Australia would be in almost perpetual drought. Because people use water in so many different ways, there is no universal definition of drought.
Living with Drought, Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology

Australia has experienced two significant '100-year droughts' in the last 100 or so years as well as others not described here. These major droughts have resulted in financial losses, personal hardship and environmental damage. In Western New South Wales and west Darling areas, the 1895 Federation Drought was exacerbated by heavy overstocking, and the arrival of rabbits which crossed the Murray River into western New South Wales in 1881 and reached plague proportions. Overstocking caused widespread severe erosion and increased the effects of the drought.

The 'Federation Drought', 1895-1902

In the five years leading up to Federation in January 1901, there were intermittent dry spells throughout Australia. By spring 1901, very dry conditions were being experienced across all of eastern Australia. Rivers in western Queensland dried up and the Darling River almost ran dry at Bourke in New South Wales. Murray River towns such as Mildura, Balranald and Deniliquin, which depended on the river for transport, suffered badly.

During this drought there was extended use of stock routes in Western New South Wales and the opening up of new stock routes to take advantage of 'native wells' with consequent evaporation of the wells. Together with engineering of irrigation schemes along the Murray-Darling River, the consequences were salinity problems and a rabbit plague (Bobbie Hardy, Lament for the Barkindji, Rigby Press, 1976).

1982-83

In 1982-83, large areas of central and eastern - particularly south-eastern - Australia experienced unprecedented low rainfall levels. This was the culmination of the four-year drought that had begun in 1979. It is estimated that the total cost to the economy was around $A7 billion. Agricultural losses, such as the death of livestock, resulted in massive job losses in rural areas. The effects of the drought contributed to the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires across Victoria and South Australia (see below).

1991-95

This drought in north-eastern New South Wales and much of Queensland, was the result of the lowest rainfall levels on record. A number of major water reservoirs went dry and many others fell to critically low levels. Average rural production fell by over 10 per cent and rural unemployment rose. Loss to the economy is estimated at around $A5 billion.

2002-06

Eastern and southern Australia is once again experiencing widespread drought, with agricultural income in 2006-07 expected to be at the lowest level since 1994-95.

Fire

Bushfires are different from controlled burning. Indigenous communities have used fire as a hunting and farming tool to assist with regeneration. Indigenous Australians used controlled burning and fire management to encourage the growth of new plants and to prevent the growth of long grass which contributes to the tinder or fuel for bushfires.

Fire management also allowed animals to escape, although some were lost to hunters. Eucalypts, for example, require occasional burns to regenerate. Fire stick farming used over tens of thousands of years created the fertile grazing plains west of the Blue Mountains. Long periods of dry, hot weather and natural vegetation that burns easily makes Australia particularly vulnerable to bushfire.

Australian bushfires can be particularly severe as eucalyptus trees contain large amounts of oil which can burn very fast and very hot. Other human management factors which have contributed to the severity of bushfires include high fuel loads, a change from fire prevention to fire fighting measures and not building adequate buffer zones to protect built assets (Nairn Inquiry, 2003). As Australians learn to understand more about bushfires, bushfire prevention strategies are being adopted.

The 1967 Tasmanian fires

In 1967 southern Australian was experiencing drought conditions. On 7 February, 264,270 hectares were burnt in southern Tasmania in just five hours. Of the 110 fires burning that morning, the worst was the Hobart fire. The fire made its way over Mt Wellington and encroached on the city's western suburbs. Sixty-two people died, and 1,400 homes and other buildings were destroyed. At the time, it was the largest loss of life and property in Australia from fire on any single day in Australia's history.

The Ash Wednesday bushfires, 1983

In the summer of 1983, conditions in Victoria and South Australia contributed to extremely high ignition levels. Drought conditions with a heatwave with temperatures of 43 degrees Celsius meant that forests were highly combustible. On Wednesday 16 February (now known as 'Ash Wednesday'), around 180 bushfires were burning across both states, the largest of them starting in Victoria. Of significance was that out of the Ash Wednesday fires Victorian rescue teams were reorganised to better fight future fires, through improved radio networks, single command centres and linkages between established rural and city firefighters.

Photograph of volunteer crew of MLO 10 from the ACT Bushfire Service patrolling the Mount Franklin containment line, Brindabella Ranges

Volunteer crew of MLO 10 from the ACT Bushfire Service patrolling the Mount Franklin containment line, Brindabella Ranges, on the night of 11/12 January 2003. Photo by David Tunbridge. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Canberra, 2003

In mid-January 2003, extreme weather conditions led to multiple outbreaks of fire in Namadgi National Park to the south of Canberra. Strong winds pushed the fires into forested areas adjoining Canberra and on the afternoon of Saturday 18 January, firestorms fanned by high winds hit Canberra suburbs. Thousands of hectares of forest and park lands were burnt out.

Heatwaves

A heatwave is a prolonged period of excessive heat, which results from a certain combination of temperature, humidity, air movement and duration.

Heatwaves are the most underrated of the natural disasters, as the bushfires that accompany many heatwaves tend to get most of the attention, and in Australia they have caused the greatest loss of life on any natural hazard (except disease).

Unlike bushfires, there is generally no escaping a heatwave. While the 1939 'Black Friday' bushfires in Victoria killed 71 people and are written into our history, the accompanying heatwave - which triggered the blazes - claimed 438 lives and yet remains largely unacknowledged.

Floods

Floods occur when water covers land which is normally dry. Floods in Australia range from localised flash flooding as a result of thunderstorms, to more widespread flooding following heavy rain over the catchment areas of river systems. Flooding is also a regular seasonal phenomenon in Northern Australia. Australian towns were built on floodplains despite warnings from local Aborigines. Nyngan (meaning flood in its local Aboriginal language) was severely flooded on 23 April 1990.

Gundagai was rebuilt on a new site after a flood in 1852 wiped out 71 buildings, and 89 of the town's 250 inhabitants died. More people would have perished were it not for the heroism of local Aborigine Yarri of the Wiradjuri people and his mate Jackie, who saved more than 40 people using a simple bark canoe.

Recently, town councils and shires have started mapping the 100-year flood areas so that the extent of the flood plain can be mapped for town planning, building regulations and zoning for land use to avoid building on flood-prone areas. Regional flood mitigation programs have been initiated by the Australian Government to work with state and territory governments.

Northern Tasmania, 1929

In April 1929, 22 people died when heavy rain caused severe flooding in the north east of Tasmania. In addition, 14 people died when the Briseis Dam on the Cascade River gave way, inundating the town of Derby. A further eight people (six from one family) were drowned near Ulverstone when a truck crashed into a flooded river.

South-eastern Australia, 1952

In June 1952, torrential rain fell over south-eastern Australia where the ground was already saturated from good autumn rains. Major flooding occurred on every river in the Gippsland area of Victoria and adjacent southern coastal New South Wales. Further severe flooding occurred in October and November 1952 in south-eastern Australia.

Brisbane, Queensland, 1974

Photograph of the town of Charleville inundated by the April 1990 floods.

The town of Charleville inundated by the April 1990 floods. Image courtesy of the Bureau of Meteorology.

In January 1974, the weakening Cyclone Wanda brought heavy rainfall to Brisbane and many parts of south-eastern Queensland and northern New South Wales. One third of Brisbane's city centre and 17 suburbs were severely flooded. Fourteen people died and over 300 were injured. Fifty-six homes were washed away and 1,600 were submerged.

Queensland and New South Wales, 1990

Over one million square kilometres of Queensland and New South Wales (and a smaller area of Victoria) were flooded in April 1990. The towns of Nyngan and Charleville were the worst affected with around 2,000 homes inundated. Six people were killed and around 60 were injured.

Cyclones

A cyclone is an area of low pressure around which the winds flow clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere. If the sustained winds around the centre reach 119 km/h (with wind gusts in excess of 170 km/h), then the system is called a severe tropical cyclone. In other countries severe tropical cyclones are called hurricanes or typhoons. The Tropical Cyclone Season in Australia extends from November to April. Some of the most destructive cyclones which have hit the Australian mainland include:

Cyclone Mahina, 1899

In March 1899 in Cape York, Queensland, Cyclone Mahina resulted in the greatest death toll of any natural disaster in Australia's recorded history. Over 400 people died, including the crews of around 100 pearling fleet vessels, and an estimated 100 local Aborigines.

Cyclone Ada, 1970

Tropical Cyclone Ada caused severe damage to resorts on the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, in January 1970. Its path of destruction included the islands of Daydream, South Molle and Hayman. The damage bill was estimated at $A390 million and 14 people were killed.

Photograph of the devastation inflicted on Darwin by Cyclone Tracy in December 1974.

The devastation inflicted on Darwin by Cyclone Tracy in December 1974. Photo by Australian Information Services. Image courtesy of the Bureau of Meteorology.

Cyclone Tracy, 1974

On Christmas Eve 1974, Cyclone Tracy struck the city of Darwin in the Northern Territory. One hundred and ninety-five millimetres of rain fell in less than nine hours, and winds of around 250 km per hour flattened the city. In terms of damage to a community, Cyclone Tracy remains Australia's most destructive for property damage. 71 people were killed, and many thousands injured. Of a population of 43,000, 25,000 were left homeless. One result was the priority given to the development of cyclone-proof buildings.

Cyclone Larry, 2006

The Far North Queensland coast was declared a natural disaster zone after the severe impact of tropical Cyclone Larry on 20 March 2006. The category five cyclone registered winds of up to 290 km/h. Major damage was caused to homes, other buildings and agricultural crops, but no loss of life occurred. $A1.5 billion was the estimated total damage bill for the affected regions.

Australians in the face of adversity

The resilience of Australians is often most apparent in times of crisis. Grant Devilly, a trauma specialist at the University of Melbourne's psychology department, says the typically Australian 'she'll be right' mentality is invaluable in time of crisis, and Australian's are 'pretty bloody resilient'. Louise Milligan, in her article 'The Plucky Country' (The Australian, 20 January 2003), points out that victims of disasters in Australia tend to adopt the attitude that 'the main thing is we're alive - it's only bricks and mortar'.

Auxiliary Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Pat Power, has a similar view:

I have been a priest 38 years and I stand in awe of the resilience of human nature in situations of personal tragedy. Just to see people retaining their sense of humour and a sense of camaraderie, and the public responding so generously - it's something that makes me proud to be an Australian.
The Australian, 20 January 2003

This Australian character of showing resilience in the face of natural disaster and the natural cycle of drought, fire and floods has helped define our language and sense of humour as well as our music, poetry, literature and comedy.

Useful links

Cyclones

Floods

Drought

Bushfire

Heatwave

Listen, look and play

Natural disaster links

Last updated: 30th April 2008

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