October 20, 2013

The devil's in the dust

Parched landscapes turn grey; and dusty. If the wind blows hard, dust gets whipped up. And then the farmers and the graziers of Central, Western and Northern Queensland have another battle on their hands: along with searing drought; destructive storms; flooding rains; bush fires, voracious locust swarms; invasive species, ferals and pests.

In four years of occasional extreme weather events and their consequences, I have witnessed Aussies bouncing back with the kind of resilience in the face of adversity that most people associate with wartime. The devastation in the Lockyer Valley and the Brisbane clean-up following the floods of January 2011; hail storms in December 2012 followed by the remnants of Cyclone Oswald a month later that wiped out citrus growers in the North Burnett; and the ravaging bush fires of southeast Tasmania earlier this year are three incidents that immediately spring to mind. The image of a grandmother and five children in the sea, clinging to a jetty while everything burned around them, is not easy to forget. In each case, the stoicism on display was extraordinary; although I'm sure many a broken spirit was nursed behind closed doors.

Australians are adept at preparation for life-threatening events. They know how to pare and dampen down their backyards and houses to minimise the risk of bush fires; they know how to batten down in the path of a Tropical Cyclone; and they are constantly advised to stock up on appropriate rations should an extreme weather event take out their power supply or sever their lines of communication.

Farmers in northern Queensland have been doing it tough, as the Aussies say, for a while now. The rains didn't come last summer; the cattle are hungry, and what little feed remains is being coated in dust. Graziers in the Channel Country have only had 30 mm of rainfall since January, the driest it's been for years. Scientists who run a DustWatch* programme across northern Australia are predicting a big year for dust. There have been 15 'dust events' in a month in Birdsville. Dr Craig Strong of Griffith University explains that, as well as drought causing vegetation to die back, some sediments deposited in the Eyre Basin by floodwaters in recent years have started to break down, and wind systems are still moving across this part of the world. The rainfall outlook for the coming months is not encouraging.

Dust gets into machinery and into houses. I can't help feeling, however, that Aussies would spend less time shovelling dirt out of their homes if they sealed their windows and doors. It doesn't seem to happen much here. We recently moved into a relative new-build and the large gaps and rattling have to be seen and heard to be believed.
I have to conclude that sturdier houses generally – as well as burying power lines underground – would reduce the damage from and costs of cyclone and storm. Roofs fly off and buildings collapse like houses of cards. I know both ideas would be hugely expensive, but would the one-off costs be greater than those of constantly repairing power infrastructure and settling buildings insurance claims?

There's obviously not much to see in a dust storm, but here's a photograph of one supplied to the ABC by a pastoralist from Noonbah near Stonehenge, southwest of Longreach.
* http://dustwatch.edu.au – community-based wind erosion monitoring across Australia

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