Science says climate change is sucking crucial rain from southern parts of Australia

Rain in Melbourne. James D. Morgan/Getty Images

Human-caused climate change is robbing southern parts of Australia of crucial rain by shifting Southern Ocean westerly winds towards Antarctica, according to the latest research.

Nerilie Abram, from the Australian National University (ANU), says the loss of rain, combined with 2016 being on track to smash the hottest year record, is ominous.

“Our findings confirm that climate change is already having an impact on parts of Australia,” says associate professor Abram from the Research School of Earth Sciences and ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science.

“Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are remote but this region influences Australia’s heat waves, affects whether our crops get the winter rainfall they need and determines how quickly our ocean levels rise.”

Winter rainfall in southwest Australia has declined by more than 20% since the 1970s because of the shifting westerly rain belt. Perth now relies on a desalination plant to supplement its water supplies.

While the findings show climate change is causing westerlies in the Southern Ocean to shift closer to Antarctica, the study found the bigger picture of the region’s climate trends is still unclear.

“Antarctica and the Southern Ocean experience extreme fluctuations in climate year to year,” says Dr Abram.

“In most cases our short climate measurements in this remote region are not yet long enough for the signal of anthropogenic climate change to be clearly separated from this large natural variability.”

Measuring the surface climate across Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean only became possible with the advent of regular satellite observations in 1979.

The research team investigated how recent Antarctic climate trends compared to past climate fluctuations using natural archives such as ice cores drilled into the Antarctic ice sheet. They also studied how Antarctica’s recent climate changes compared with climate model simulations, including future climate-change scenarios.

The research, which involved ANU and 16 other institutions from around the world, is published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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