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Neville Nicholls
A Report for the Department of Climate Change
January 2008

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Neville Nicholls
A Report for the Department of Climate Change
January 2008

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Published by the Department of Climate Change © Commonwealth of Australia, 2008
ISBN – 978-1-921297-67-0
This work is copyright. It may be reproduced in whole or in part for study or training purposes subject to the inclusion of an
acknowledgment of the source, but not for commercial usage or sale. Reproduction for purposes other than those listed above
requires the written permission of the Department of Climate Change.
Requests and inquiries concerning reproduction and rights should be addressed to:
Communications Manager
Department of Climate Change
GPO Box 854
Participants in a workshop on Climate Change and Extreme Climate Events held in Canberra on 8 September 2006 contributed
to the discussions about research that needs to be done and to the content of this report.
Designed by Roar (DE&WR 3988)

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Executive summary ________________________________________________________________1
Introduction: Why the focus on extremes? _____________________________________________2
Box 1: Can individual extreme events be explained by climate change? ______________________ 3

What is a climate or weather extreme? ________________________________________________4

Recent progress in global monitoring of changes in extremes ______________________________7
Box 2: Tropical cyclones and climate change__________________________________________ 8

How are climate extremes changing across the world?____________________________________9

How have climate extremes changed in Australia? ______________________________________ 11
Box 3: Australian climate data – quality and availability ________________________________ 11

Temperature ________________________________________________________________ 12

Rainfall ____________________________________________________________________ 14

Tropical cyclones, extra-tropical systems, strong winds, and hail __________________________ 15

Droughts ___________________________________________________________________ 16

Sea level ___________________________________________________________________ 17

What has caused these changes in extremes? __________________________________________17

Box 4: How well do climate models simulate extremes? ________________________________ 18

How will extremes change in the future? _____________________________________________19

What needs to be done? ___________________________________________________________20
References ______________________________________________________________________22



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> Decrease over north-east Australia of the number of
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY tropical cyclones, accompanied by an increase in intensity;
Extremes are the infrequent events at the high and low end > Decreased hail frequency in some places;
of the range of values of a particular climate or weather
variable. A small change in the average of a climate variable > Increase in large hail (2cm diameter) and reduction in
such as temperature can cause a large change in the average recurrent interval for hail exceeding 6cm diameter
frequency of extreme temperatures such as frosts. Extreme in Sydney;
weather and climate events can cause severe impacts > More droughts over most of Australia by 2030;
on society, the economy, and the environment. Several
climate and weather extremes have cause severe impacts > Increased frequency of extreme fire danger days
in Australia in recent years. For example, Eastern Australia (except Tasmania).
experienced record temperatures during the period 1-22 There is, however, considerable uncertainty in these
February 2004 which led to “the most significant medical projections, arising from the limited number of climate
emergency in the south-east corner [of Queensland] on simulations from which they are derived, as well as
record” (Canberra Times, 24 February). Tropical Cyclone Larry model deficiencies.
left 100 square kilometres of World Heritage listed rainforest
in north Queensland as “coleslaw and sticks” in March 2006, Further work is needed to refine our understanding of
according to the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service extremes and their possible changes, including:
(The Age, 11 April 2006, p 13). But are these examples of a > A reanalysis of tropical cyclone data, to facilitate
human influence on weather and climate extremes? A wide comparisons of the frequency and intensity of current-day
range of extreme weather events is possible even with an cyclones with those in the past.
unchanging climate, so it is difficult to attribute an individual
> Analysis of historical changes in drought frequency,
event to a changed climate. As well, until recently the quality
intensity and duration, using multiple drought indices,
and quantity of data to study changes in extremes have
e.g. rainfall deficiency, standardised precipitation index,
been insufficient to allow credible examination of whether
soil moisture deficit and Palmer Drought Severity Index.
extremes are changing.
Climate change projections are required for the same
Over the past decade there have been increased international indices, including estimation of drought return periods
efforts to improve the quality and availability of data suitable relevant for assessment of Exceptional Circumstances.
for determining whether or not extremes have changed.
> A regional reanalysis, including homogenisation of upper-
Analyses of these data indicate that more than 70% of the
air data, to facilitate studies linking specific extremes with
global land area sampled exhibited a statistically significant
synoptic patterns.
decrease in the annual occurrence of cold nights and a
significant increase in the annual occurrence of warm nights. > Improved downscaling of small-scale synoptic events
Precipitation extremes showed a widespread and significant such as tornadoes, hailstorms and thunderstorms that are
increase, but the changes are much less spatially coherent difficult to monitor using conventional meteorological
compared with temperature change. Other extremes such as networks and approaches, to facilitate an increased focus
tornadoes are much harder to monitor and it is thus much on studies of these small-scale events.
harder to determine whether or not there has been a change
> Improved climate models, with higher resolution and
in their frequency and/or intensity. Changes in Australian
improved parameterisation of small-scale processes that
extremes are generally similar to the changes that have been
lead to extremes. This will require involvement of the
observed globally. Some of these changes, at least in the case
user community in the design of ACCESS (the Australian
of extreme temperatures, now appear to be at least partly
Community Climate Earth System Simulator).
attributable to human influences on the climate.
> Development of high quality historical data sets for wind
The changes in Australian extremes likely to accompany anticipated
speed and hail, to facilitate documentation of any trends in
future increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse
these extremes.
gases include (from various sources – see text for details):
> Improved historical data sets of rainfall and temperature
> Increase in frequency of days over 35ºC by 2020;
should include the effects of urban heating, rather than
> Decrease in frequency of days below 0ºC by 2020; removing such effects.
> Increases in intensity of heavy daily rainfall events,
although there appears likely to be considerable spatial
variation in this;


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> An increased emphasis is required on sub-daily

precipitation extremes, and the analysis of historical INTRODUCTION:
changes in extremes would be facilitated by increased
palaeo-climatic emphasis on extreme events. WHY THE FOCUS ON
> Joint analyses of multiple extremes (e.g. strong winds and
heavy rainfall) that might exacerbate the impacts either
extreme would have on its own. Extreme weather and climate events can cause severe
impacts on our society and environment. For instance,
> Studies to determine how much of the recent trends in heatwaves can be devastating for societies that are not used
extreme temperatures are attributable to human actions, to coping with such extremes. The 1995 Chicago heatwave
and how this varies seasonally and spatially. was such an event (Karl and Knight, 1997) where over 500
> Integrated assessments are needed to determine how people died from heat-related illnesses. The 2003 heatwave
communities could or should react to changes in extremes. in Europe was unprecedented in terms of loss of life, with
over 30,000 deaths in Europe (14,947 deaths in France alone,
> A comprehensive assessment of projected changes in Poumadere et al. (2005)) attributable, at least in part, to
extreme daily temperature, rainfall, wind, fire danger, the excessive and persistent heat (IFRCRC, 2004). The 2003
tropical cyclones, hail, tornadoes and storm surges. To heatwave also led to destruction of large areas of forests
ensure internal consistency, this would require a suite of by fire, and affected ecosystems and glaciers (Gruber et al.,
simulations from selected climate models that perform well 2004; Koppe et al., 2004; Kovats et al., 2004; Schär and
in the Australian region. Jendritzky, 2004; Kovats and Koppe, 2005). According to
reinsurance estimates, the drought conditions during the
summer of 2003 caused crop losses of around US$13 billion,
while forest fires in Portugal were responsible for an additional
US$1.6 billion in damage (Schär and Jendritzky, 2004).

Impacts of some recent extreme events in Australia

(Hennessy and Fitzharris, pers. comm.)
Droughts: the droughts of 1982/83, 1991-95, and
2002/03 cost about $2.3 billion, $3.7 billion and
$10 billion, respectively. Government drought relief
averaged $100 million per year.
Sydney hailstorm, April 1999: Cost $2,300 million of
which $1,700 million was insured.
East Australian heatwave, 1-22 February 2004: The
south-eastern Queensland ambulance service recorded
a 53% increase in ambulance callouts.
Canberra bushfires 2003: Wildfires caused $350 million
damage. About 500 houses destroyed, and four people
killed. Three of the city’s four dams were contaminated
for several months by sediment-laden runoff.
South-east Australia storm, 2 February 2005:
Insurance claims reached almost $200 million.
Transport was severely disrupted. Both Melbourne
commercial airports were inaccessible for some hours.
Tropical Cyclone Larry, 20 March 2006: Significant
damage or disruption to houses, businesses,
industry, utilities, infrastructure (including road, rail
and air transport systems, schools, hospitals and
communications), crops and state forests, costing
$350 million. Fortunately, the 1.75 m storm surge
occurred at low tide.


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Several climate and weather extremes have had deleterious
impacts on Australia in recent years. Eastern Australia Box 1: Can individual extreme events be explained
experienced record temperatures during the period 1-22 by climate change?
February 2004. Mean maximum temperatures for the A wide range of extreme weather events is possible even
period were 5-6ºC above average throughout large areas of with an unchanging climate, so it would be difficult
eastern Australia, reaching up to 7ºC above average in parts to attribute an individual event, by itself, to a changed
of New South Wales (National Climate Centre, 2004). The climate. As well, extreme weather results from a
number of successive hot days and nights set new records. combination of factors. For example, the formation of a
The run of nine consecutive nights above 30ºC in the rural tropical cyclone requires warm sea surface temperatures
town of Oodnadatta is without precedent in the Australian and specific atmospheric circulation conditions. Because
climate record. Adelaide had 17 successive days over 30ºC some factors may be strongly affected by human
(the previous Adelaide record was 14 days). Sydney had influences (e.g. sea surface temperatures) but others
ten successive nights over 22ºC (the previous record was may not, this will complicate the detection of a human
six, set in 2001 and 1988). About two-thirds of continental influence on a single, specific extreme event.
Australia recorded maximum temperatures over 39˚C in
the period 1-22 February. Temperatures peaked at 48.5˚C However, we may be able to determine whether
in western New South Wales. The high temperatures led to anthropogenic forcing has changed the probability of
newspaper headlines such as “Hot spell hits with collapses” occurrence of a specific type of extreme weather event
(Sunday Mail, Adelaide, 8 February), “Taking the heat in such as heatwaves. This can be addressed, for example
state of distress” (Daily Telegraph, Sydney, 12 February), for the 2004 southern Queensland heatwave, by studying
and “Sweltering temperatures make school children sick” the characteristics of Queensland summers in a climate
(Queensland Times, 19 February). Brisbane recorded a model, either forced only with historical changes in
temperature of 41.7ºC on the weekend of 21-22 February, natural factors such as volcanic activity and the solar
exceeding the previous February record by nearly one degree. output, or by both human and natural factors. Such
That weekend the Queensland ambulance service recorded experiments may indicate whether, over the 20th century,
“a 53% increase in ambulance callouts”, and the ambulance human influences have increased the risk of southern
service Commissioner described it as “the most significant Queensland temperatures as hot as those in February 2004.
medical emergency in the south-east corner [of Queensland] The value of a probability-based approach (“is there a
on record” (Canberra Times, 24 February). change in the likelihood of an event that results from
Currently, about 1100 heat-related deaths occur each year human influence?”) is that it can be used to estimate
in Australian temperate cities (McMichael et al., 2003). The the influence of external factors, such as increases in
projected rise in temperature over the next 50 years, along greenhouse gas concentrations, on the frequency of
with anticipated demographic change, is predicted to result specific types of weather events (e.g. frost). However,
in 3200-5200 more heat-related deaths in all Australian careful statistical analyses are required, since the
cities, with decreases in deaths related to cold temperatures likelihood of individual extremes, such as a late spring
(as the climate warms) being “greatly outnumbered by frost, could change due to changes in variability as well
additional heat-related deaths” (McMichael et al., 2003). As as changes in the mean climate. Such analyses rely on
well, the warming caused by the enhanced greenhouse effect climate model-based estimates of variability, and thus an
may lead to enhanced bush fire risk (Williams et al., 2001; important additional requirement is that climate models
Hennessy et al., 2006), with increased likelihood of deaths. adequately represent climate variability.
Much of the increased risk would be related to an increase in
The same likelihood-based approach could be adopted
hot extremes, rather than a general warming.
to examine possible changes in the frequency of extreme
Another extreme event, Tropical Cyclone Larry, left 100 hydrological events such as heavy rainfalls or floods.
kilometres square of World Heritage listed rainforest in Climate models predict that there will be changes in
north Queensland as “coleslaw and sticks” in March 2006, the incidence of many types of extreme weather events,
according to the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service including an increase in extreme rainfall events, due
(The Age, 11 April 2006, p 13). Thirty Queensland parks and to human influences on the atmosphere. There is some
state forests were closed or partly closed as a result of the evidence of increases in extreme rainfall events in at
cyclone impacts, with an estimated damage cost to the parks least some regions in recent decades. However there
and reserves of $10 million. The Parks Service considered is as yet no conclusive evidence that these increases
the survival (after Larry) of the southern cassowary, an are necessarily linked to increasing greenhouse gas
endangered species, around Mission Beach, to be tenuous. concentrations in the atmosphere.
Insured damages totalled $350 million.


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Shorter-lived and smaller-scale phenomena, such as

thunderstorms and tornadoes, can cause severe damage. A WHAT IS A CLIMATE OR
severe hailstorm struck the eastern suburbs of Sydney in the
evening of 14 April 1999, causing damage estimated at $2.3 WEATHER EXTREME?
billion, making it Australia’s costliest natural disaster ever. Extremes are the infrequent events at the high and low end
The storm was highly unusual. Not only did it produce some of the range of values of a particular variable. The probability
of the largest hail ever recorded in Sydney, but it occurred of occurrence of values in this range is called a probability
at a time of year when severe thunderstorms are normally distribution function (pdf) that is, for many variables, shaped
rare and at a time of day when the probability of storms similarly to a “Normal” or “Gaussian” curve (the familiar “bell”
developing, or existing storms maintaining their intensity, is curve). Figure 1 shows such a pdf and illustrates the effect a
low (Nicholls, 2001). small shift (corresponding to a small change in the average
Sometimes two or more extremes can occur simultaneously, or centre of the distribution) can have on the frequency of
thereby increasing the damage or risk that would result extremes at either end of the distribution. An increase in the
from a single extreme. For example, high winds sometimes frequency of one extreme (e.g. the number of hot days) will
accompany heavy rainfall events. Heavy rainfall can weaken often be accompanied by a decline in the opposite extreme
the hold of tree roots, thereby increasing the likelihood that (in this case the number of cold days such as frosts). Of
a tree will be uprooted in the strong winds. Strong winds course, changes in the variability or shape of the distribution
associated with cyclones may also occur at the same time can complicate this simple picture but the figure shows that
that high sea levels occur, increasing the likelihood of in this case, the number of very cold nights has been reduced
coastal inundation. Similarly, heatwaves can cause heat- by more than 50% as the mean temperature increased by less
related deaths, fires, smoke pollution, respiratory illness, than a degree1 .
increased peak energy demand for air-conditioning,
blackouts, increased water demand and buckling of
railways. Little work has been done on the risk of such joint
occurrences, whether we might expect a change in the
frequency of such simultaneity of extremes in the future, or
determining the impact and cost of the joint extreme relative
to a single extreme.
These are just some examples of the damage and loss
of life caused by climate and weather extremes. Tropical
cyclones and floods together account for more than 70%
of known natural hazard deaths in Australia since 1788
(Blong, 2004). Thunderstorms account for about 11% of
deaths. Meteorological extremes (tropical cyclones, floods,
thunderstorms and bushfires) produced 93.6% of known
building damage from disasters suggesting that non-
meteorological natural hazards are far less important. There Figure 1: Illustration of the effect of increase in mean
is widespread interest in how and why climate and weather temperature on risk of extremes. Blue (1957-1980) and red
extremes are changing, and in the question of whether or (1981-2005) show for Melbourne, Australia, the probability
not human activities are causing changes in extremes. But distribution function of daily minimum temperatures.
the answer to such questions is rarely simple. Even the Vertical coloured broken lines show mean minimum
question of definition of a climate or weather extreme can temperatures for the two periods. Vertical broken black
be complex. line shows probability of extreme cold (<1ºC) temperature.
The increase in mean minimum temperature has led to a
substantial decrease in the probability of temperatures
<1ºC (mean number of days <1ºC was 1.7 per year in first
period, declining to 0.7 per year in second period). Nicholls
and Alexander (2007).

Note that much of the warming in both means and extremes in Figure 1 probably reflects urban heating effects that can be very strong in winter minimum
temperatures. The figure is included to illustrate that a small change in the mean of a distribution can lead to large changes in the frequency of extremes,
rather than to attribute any change to a specific cause.


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The principal focus in this report is on weather extremes, all events above this percentile. This index was calculated by
rather than climate extremes. So much of the focus is on Haylock and Nicholls (2000) using three different methods:
extremes calculated from daily temperature and precipitation averaging the highest four events for each year; averaging
data, rather than longer-term extremes (although droughts the highest 5% of daily rainfall totals above 1mm; and
are considered). Synoptic events such as tropical cyclones are averaging all events above the long-term 95th percentile. The
also examined. extreme percent reflects changes in the upper portion of the
daily rainfall distribution. The percentage of the total rainfall
The large impacts climate and weather extremes can have,
from the higher events is an indictor of changes in the
and the possibility that their frequency of occurrence may
shape of the rainfall distribution. This index was calculated
change substantially with even small changes in average
for each year by dividing the extreme intensity by the year’s
climate, means that changes in extremes may be the first
total rainfall. Different trend magnitudes are found for the
indication that climate is changing in a way that can affect
different definitions of extremes (Haylock and Nicholls 2000;
humans and the environment substantially. On the other
Alexander et al., 2006b; Gallant et al., submitted). Different
hand, problems with data and analyses of extremes can
definitions even resulted in different signs of the trends, as
make it very difficult to determine whether or not they
well as their magnitude.
are changing. The extra effort required for such analysis
of changes in extremes may, in some cases, simply not be So which is the best index of extreme rainfall intensity
worthwhile. In some cases, it is likely that changes in the and how should it be calculated? The best guide of index
frequency of extremes may simply reflect changes in the design must be the final purpose of the index (Haylock and
mean of the variable under consideration. Thus an increase in Nicholls, 2000). If the aim is to use the index for climate
mean temperature could be expected to lead to an increase change detection, then a complex index can be considered.
in the number of extremely hot days, unless the probability On the other hand, an index for use by the public should be
distribution changes shape or variance in such a way as as clear and simple as possible. Explaining to a farmer that
to offset the effect of the increase in mean temperature. the proportion of annual rainfall from the highest 5% of
In such cases it may be simpler and more cost effective to events has increased but the actual number of events has
parameterise the changes in extremes by the changes in the decreased may be confusing. An index such as the amount
mean of the variable. In other cases however, the shape of of rain from the top four events is much clearer. However,
the distribution may change so radically that the change in if the desire is to find an index that reflects changes in the
the mean does not provide a good prediction of changes in shape of a frequency distribution, then an index such as the
the frequency of extremes of the distribution. For instance, average intensity of the highest 5% of events may be better.
Easterling et al. (2000) suggest that precipitation extremes For analysis of shapes of distributions, parametric approaches
may be changing more dramatically than would be expected (i.e. fitting statistical distributions to the data and then
from a simple shift of the distribution. Determining which of examining how the values of the parameters defining these
these cases predominates is an important research question, distributions change with time) might also be considered
and probably will vary from place-to-place as well as (e.g. Groisman et al., 1999). The difficulties in defining
between variables. appropriate indices for different users highlights the need for
readily accessible climate datasets which users can analyse
One problem with determining whether or not extremes
according to their individual needs.
are changing or will change in the future arises from the
need to define an extreme more precisely than is illustrated Similar problems with definitions can arise no matter what
in Figure 1, and the existence of different possibilities for climate or weather variable is being considered. For instance,
calculating a specific extreme. Although the concept of should a time series showing changes in the number of
extremes as the tails of a probability distribution appears tropical cyclones include all tropical cyclones or just the
simple, in reality there are many definitional possibilities. most intense? There have been attempts to reduce the
For instance, Haylock and Nicholls (2000) examined three confusion caused by a multiplicity of definitions of extremes,
different measures of extreme precipitation: the number of by promulgating definitions and undertaking analyses with
events above the long-term 95th percentile, referred to as a defined subset of possible definitions. Table 1 provides
the extreme frequency; the average intensity of rain falling such a set of definitions for extremes determined from
in the highest events, referred to as the extreme intensity; daily temperature and rainfall records (Alexander et al.,
and the proportion of total rainfall falling in the highest 2006b). Even after a set of definitions is arrived at, however,
events, referred to as the extreme percent. The extreme there still remain major problems in monitoring changes in
frequency index examines changes in the number of extreme weather and climate extremes, although substantial advances
events. The extreme intensity describes changes in the upper have been made in this area over the past 15 years or so.
percentiles and, unlike an analysis of a single percentile Care does need to be taken to ensure that some or all of the
threshold (e.g. Hennessy et al., 1999), incorporates changes in common problems with instrumental climate data do not


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affect the analyses of extremes. These problems include but are not restricted to (Nicholls et al., 2006):
> changes in site location
> changes in site condition or local environment
> changes in instrumentation
> changes in observing practices
> changes in network distribution.

ID Indicator name Indicator definitions UNITS

TXx Max Tmax Monthly maximum value of daily maximum temperature ºC
TNx Max Tmin Monthly maximum value of daily minimum temperature ºC
TXn Min Tmax Monthly minimum value of daily maximum temperature ºC
TNn Min Tmin Monthly minimum value of daily minimum temperature ºC
TN10p Cool nights Percentage of time when daily minimum temperature < 10th percentile %
TX10p Cool days Percentage of time when daily maximum temperature < 10 percentile %
TN90p Warm nights Percentage of time when daily minimum temperature > 90th percentile %
TX90p Warm days Percentage of time when daily maximum temperature > 90th percentile %
DTR Diurnal temperature Monthly mean difference between daily maximum and minimum ºC
range temperature
FD0 Frost days Annual count when daily minimum temperature < 0ºC days
SU25 Summer days Annual count when daily maximum temperature > 25ºC days
TR20 Tropical nights Annual count when daily minimum temperature > 20ºC days
WSDI* Warm spell duration Annual count when at least 6 consecutive days of maximum days
indicator temperature > 90th percentile
CSDI* Cold spell duration Annual count when at least 6 consecutive days of minimum temperature days
indicator < 10th percentile
RX1day Max 1-day Monthly maximum 1-day precipitation mm
precipitation amount
RX5day Max 5-day Monthly maximum consecutive 5-day precipitation mm
precipitation amount
SDII Simple daily intensity The ratio of the number of wet days (> 1mm) to annual total mm/day
index precipitation
R10 Number of heavy Annual count when precipitation > 10mm days
precipitation days
R20 Number of very heavy Annual count when precipitation > 20mm days
precipitation days
CDD* Consecutive dry days Maximum number of consecutive days when precipitation < 1mm days
CWD* Consecutive wet days Maximum number of consecutive days when precipitation ≥ 1mm days
R95p Very wet days Annual total precipitation from days > 95th percentile mm
R99p Extremely wet days Annual total precipitation from days > 99th percentile mm
PRCPTOT Annual total wet-day Annual total precipitation from days ≥ 1mm mm
Table 1: The extreme temperature and precipitation indices used by Alexander et al., (2006a7). Precise definitions are
given at (From Alexander et al., 2006a)


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quality stations, perform quality control, and investigate
RECENT PROGRESS IN trends in extreme events (Nicholls and Alexander, 2007).

GLOBAL MONITORING The collation and analyses of daily datasets has not been
a simple task. One reason is that many countries do not
OF CHANGES IN have the capacity to freely distribute daily data. Another
reason is that data need to undergo rigorous quality control
EXTREMES before being used in any extremes analysis since values are
likely to show up erroneously as extreme when incorrectly
The various assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on recorded. In recent years, the World Meteorological
Climate Change (IPCC) provide an indication of progress over Organisation (WMO) Expert Team on Climate Change
the past 15 years in the assessment of climate extremes and Detection, Monitoring and Indices (ETCCDMI) has overseen
their changes. The 1992 Supplement Report to the (First) the development of a standard software package that not
Scientific Assessment of climate change from the (IPCC) only quality controls data but provides researchers with
concluded that global mean surface air temperature had the opportunity to exchange and compare results. The
increased by about 0.3 to 0.6ºC over the past 100 years, but main purpose of the quality control procedure is to identify
did not even consider the question of whether extremes errors in data processing such as negative precipitation or
in temperature, precipitation or circulation features such daily minimum temperatures greater than daily maximum
as tropical cyclones had changed (Folland et al., 1992). By temperatures. In addition, “outliers” are identified in daily
1995, the Second Assessment Report (SAR) of the IPCC was temperatures i.e. values outside a given number of standard
specifically addressing the question “Has the climate become deviations of the climatological mean value for that day.
more variable or extreme?” (Nicholls et al., 1995). They These can then be manually checked and removed or
concluded that “Overall, there is no evidence that extreme corrected as necessary. The software, RClimDex, developed by
weather events, or climate variability, has increased, in a the Climate Research Branch of the Meteorological Service of
global sense, through the 20th century, although data and Canada (,
analyses are poor and not comprehensive.” The SAR noted also calculates a standard set of 27 extremes indices derived
that the data on climate extremes and variability available from daily temperature and precipitation. While the quality
at that time were inadequate to say anything about recent controlled daily data are rarely exchanged, there have been
global changes, although in some regions where data are fewer obstacles to exchanging the climate extremes data
available, there had been changes in extreme events. The calculated using this software.
SAR also concluded that we should expect “an increase in
the occurrence of extremely hot days and a decrease in the In addition to these quality control measures, perhaps an
occurrence of extremely cold days”, in the future (Houghton even more important aspect of the study of extremes is to
et al., 1995, p 7). remove inconsistencies or “inhomogeneities” (that is, artificial
changes which cannot be explained by changes in climate –
Nicholls (1996) observed that a major problem undermining see Nicholls et al., 2006) from the daily data prior to analysis.
our ability to determine whether extreme weather and As noted above, such inhomogeneities can be introduced
climate events were changing was that it is more difficult into climate data by the relocation of an observing site to
to maintain the long-term homogeneity of observations a more shaded or exposed location, or the implementation
required to observe changes in extremes, compared to of more accurate recording instrumentation. However, the
monitoring changes in means of variables. Ambiguities identification, removal or indeed correction of these types
in defining extreme events and difficulties in combining of errors is complex and difficult (Aguilar et al., 2003). The
different analyses from different sites also complicate ETCCDMI has therefore also coordinated the development
attempts to determine, on a global scale, whether extreme of other standard software, RHTest, using the Wang (2003)
events are changing in frequency. methodology, which can be used in tandem with RClimDex.
An international workshop on weather and climate extremes However, identifying potential problems is only the first step.
was held in 1997 to examine what needs to be done On regional scales there has been some limited success in
to improve datasets and analyses for extreme weather correcting daily temperatures (e.g.Vincent et al., 2002) and
monitoring (Karl et al., 1999), inspired by the inability of the precipitation (e.g. Groisman and Rankova, 2001) for such
IPCC SAR to determine whether extreme events had been inhomogeneities, but globally, given the many different
increasing globally. The Workshop noted that the “first step in climate regimes, this task has proved too problematic and so,
the detection/attribution of climate change is the assembly in general, suspicious data have not been included in studies
of high-quality time-series of key variables”. This led to a (Alexander et al., 2006a).
series of workshops using a common approach to select high


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(e.g. Holland et al., 1988; IPCC, 2001). More recently,

Box 2: Tropical cyclones and climate change
there has been concern that the relative frequency
Tropical cyclones generally only form in areas with of very strong tropical cyclones may be increasing
sea surface temperatures (SSTs) above 26.5ºC (e.g. (Emanuel 2005; Webster et al., 2005; Hoyos et al.,
Pielke, 1990). This well-documented climatological 2006), although there are concerns with the quality
relationship has led many to speculate that years with of the historical tropical cyclone data on which
warmer SSTs should, all other factors remaining equal, these studies relied (McBride et al., 2006). However,
have more tropical cyclones (e.g. Riehl, 1951). In turn, the evidence for more intense hurricane activity in
this has led to many studies exploring links between the North Atlantic seems strong, and Goldenburg et
SSTs and Atlantic tropical cyclone numbers. Thus al., (2001) attribute this increased activity partly to
Wendland (1977) concludes that an increase in annual increases in SSTs, as do Klotzbach and Gray (2006).
SSTs of 1.1ºC would lead to almost a doubling of Santer et al., (2006) attributed the warming SSTs
cyclone numbers in the North Atlantic, if other factors to human (enhanced greenhouse) factors, so it
did not change. However, tropical cyclones would also seems more likely than not that human activity has
be affected by changes in the stability of the tropical contributed to the recent enhanced hurricane activity,
atmosphere (Oouchi et al., 2006) and the importance of at least in the North Atlantic. The frequency of severe
factors other than SSTs complicates the attribution of tropical cyclones (Categories 3, 4 and 5) on the east
changes in cyclones to warming trends in tropical SSTs. Australian coast is simulated to increase 22% for the
IS92a greenhouse gas scenario from 2000-2050, with a
In the Australian region, variations in the number
200 km southward shift in the cyclone genesis region,
of tropical cyclones from year-to-year are strongly
leading to greater exposure in south-east Queensland
correlated with local SSTs before and near the start of
and north-east NSW.
the cyclone season, the strongest correlations being
with October SSTs (Nicholls, 1984). However, the
correlations with SSTs later in the cyclone season first
These and other multi-national efforts to collate and quality
drop to zero, and then become negative (with SSTs
control daily weather data meant that, by the time of the
from February and later). Australian region tropical
IPCC Third Assessment (TAR) in 2001, more could be said
cyclone numbers are also correlated with indices of the
about how extreme weather events appeared to be changing.
El Niño from the central and east equatorial Pacific,
The IPCC TAR concluded (IPCC Summary for Policymakers,
suggesting a remote effect on tropical cyclone numbers
2001) that:
(presumably operating through the effects of the El
Niño on the tropical atmosphere around Australia) > In the mid- and high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere
(Kuleshov, 2003). It is therefore difficult to estimate, over the latter half of the 20th century, it is likely that there
based on these empirical results, what the effect of a had been a 2 to 4% increase in the frequency of heavy
general warming (i.e. an increase in SSTs) would have precipitation events.
on Australian region tropical cyclone numbers. If the
> Since 1950 it is very likely that there had been a reduction
only variable affecting tropical cyclone numbers was
in the frequency of extreme low temperatures, with
the SST just prior to the start of the cyclone season
a smaller increase in the frequency of extreme high
(September-November), then the results of Nicholls
(1984) suggest (see his Figure 9) that a 1ºC increase in
SST would result in about five more tropical cyclones > In some regions, such as parts of Asia and Africa, the
(cf the mean number of ~10) per year. However, since frequency and intensity of droughts had been observed to
1981 (when reliable records start) there has been no increase in recent decades.
significant trend in the number of Australian tropical
> Changes globally in tropical and extra-tropical storm
cyclones, but there has been an increase in cyclone
intensity and frequency were dominated by inter-decadal
intensity (a reduction in central pressure) (Kuleshov,
to multi-decadal variations, with no significant trends
2003; Hennessy, 2004).
evident over the 20th century. Conflicting analyses make it
Given the empirical evidence of a relationship between difficult to draw definitive conclusions about changes in
SSTs and tropical cyclone numbers, it is not surprising storm activity, especially in the extra-tropics.
that one of the early concerns about the possible
> No systematic changes in the frequency of tornadoes,
effects of the enhanced greenhouse effect was an
thunder days, or hail events were evident in the limited
increase in the frequency of tropical cyclones, although
areas analysed.
atmospheric scientists have tended to discount this


DE&WR3988_WeatherExtreme.indd Sec2:8 24/1/08 3:07:24 PM

The TAR also concluded that it was likely or very likely that
continued anthropogenic interference with the atmosphere HOW ARE CLIMATE
would lead to increased numbers of warm extremes, heavy
rainfall events, tropical cyclone peak wind intensities, and EXTREMES CHANGING
droughts, and decreased numbers of cool extremes.
Subsequently, increased efforts to collate and analyse data
on weather and climate extremes (including the more recent Alexander et al., (2006a) found that over 70% of the global
workshops noted above) meant that much more of the land area sampled showed a statistically significant decrease
globe could be examined for trends in extremes by 2006 (e.g. in the annual occurrence of cold nights and a significant
Alexander et al., 2006a), in time for inclusion in the IPCC increase in the annual occurrence of warm nights. Some
Fourth Assessment completed in January 2007. regions experienced a more than doubling of these indices.
This implies a shift in the distribution of daily minimum
temperature throughout the globe towards warmer
temperatures. Daily maximum temperature indices showed
similar changes but with smaller magnitudes. Precipitation
extremes showed a widespread and significant increase,
but the changes are much less spatially coherent compared
with temperature change. Significant increases in observed
extreme precipitation have been reported over some parts
of the world, for example over the United States, where the
increase is similar to changes expected under greenhouse
warming (Semenov and Bengtsson, 2002; Groisman et al.,
2005). Summaries of how various climate extremes have
changed in recent decades, an assessment of whether there is
evidence that these changes are the result of human activity,
and projections of future changes of these extremes due to
human interference in the climate system are noted in Table
2 (from Solomon et al., 2007).
The strongest evidence that extremes are changing, and
that this is the result of human activity, is for daily
temperature extremes (both warm and cold extremes). The
evidence is less compelling with regard to precipitation
extremes (either short-term heavy rainfall events or extended
extremes such as droughts), although there is evidence
suggesting that changes in these extremes are similar to
those expected from human influences on the climate.
Trends in synoptic systems (e.g. tropical cyclones) are more
difficult to assess, because of difficulties in monitoring these
systems consistently over several decades, and difficulties in
modelling and understanding them. Determining whether
sub-synoptic scale systems (e.g. tornadoes) are even
changing is even more challenging.


DE&WR3988_WeatherExtreme.indd Sec2:9 24/1/08 3:07:26 PM


Likelihood that trend Likelihood of

occurred in late 20th discernible human Likelihood of future trend
Phenomenona and century (typically post influence on based on projections for 21st
direction of trend 1960) observed trendb century using SRES scenarios
c e
Warmer/fewer cold days/ Very likely Likely * Virtually certaind
nights over most land
Warmer & more frequent Very likelyd Likely (nights) e * Virtually certaind
hot days/nights over most
land areas
Warm spells / heat waves. Likely More likely than Very likely
Frequency increases over notf
most land areas
Heavy precipitation events. Likely More likely than Very likely
Frequency (or proportion notf
of total rainfall from heavy
falls) increases over most
Area affected by droughts Likely in many regions since More likely than * Likely
increases 1970s not
Intense tropical cyclone Likely in some regions since More likely than Likely
activity increases 1970 notf
Increased incidence of Likely More likely than Likelyi
extreme high sea level notf,h
(excludes tsunamis) g
Table 2: Trends, attribution and projections of global extreme weather and climate events. Only extremes for which there
is evidence of an observed late 20th century trend are included. Thus, cold spells and small-scale weather phenomena
for which there are insufficient studies for assessment of observed changes are not included in Table. Asterisk in column
headed “D” indicates that formal detection and attribution studies were used, along with expert judgement, to assess the
likelihood of a discernible human influence. Where this is not available, assessments of likelihood of human influence are
based on attribution results for changes in the mean of a variable or in physically related variables, on qualitative similarity
of observed and simulated changes, combined with expert judgement. Likelihood terminology: “very likely” means >90%
probability, but <99%; “likely” means >66% but <90%; “more likely than not” means >50%. (from Solomon et al., 2007).
(a) See Table 3.7 for further details regarding definitions.
(b) See Table TS-4, Box TS-3.4 and Table 9.4.
(c) Decreased frequency of cold days and nights (coldest 10%).
(d) Increased frequency of hot days and nights (hottest 10%).
(e) Warming of the most extreme days and nights each year.
(f) Magnitude of anthropogenic contributions not assessed. Attribution for these phenomena based on expert judgement rather than formal
attribution studies.
(g) Extreme high sea level depends on mean sea level and on regional weather systems. It is defined here as the highest 1% of hourly values of
observed sea level at a station for a given reference period.
(h) Changes in observed extreme high sea level closely follow the changes in mean sea level {}. It is very likely that anthropogenic activity
contributed to a rise in mean sea level. {9.5.2}
(i) In all scenarios, the projected global mean sea level at 2100 is higher than in the reference period. {10.6}. The effect of changes in regional
weather systems on sea level extremes has not been assessed. (Solomon et al., 2007)


DE&WR3988_WeatherExtreme.indd Sec2:10 24/1/08 3:07:27 PM

HOW HAVE CLIMATE Box 3: Australian climate data – quality and availability

EXTREMES CHANGED IN The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has developed

a number of datasets for use in climate change
AUSTRALIA? monitoring. These datasets typically include
50-200 stations distributed as evenly as possible over
Trends in Australian temperature and precipitation extremes the Australian continent, and have been subject to
have been examined extensively (e.g. Suppiah and Hennessy detailed quality control and homogenisation. This
(1996, 1998); Plummer et al., (1999); Collins et al., (2000); involves identifying and correcting data problems using
Haylock and Nicholls, (2000); Manton et al., (2001); Griffiths statistical techniques, visual checks and station history
et al., (2005); Nicholls and Collins (2006); Gallant et al., information (Nicholls et al., 2006).
submitted). Nicholls et al., (2000) examined Australian trends
in a wide variety of climate extremes and concluded that: The period for which data are available for each
element is largely determined by the availability
> the number of weak and moderate tropical cyclones of data in digital form. Whilst nearly all Australian
observed has decreased since 1969 which, although monthly and daily precipitation data have been
consistent with changes in the Southern Oscillation digitised, a significant quantity of pre-1957 data
Index, may be partly caused by changes in the (for temperature) or pre-1987 data (for some other
observational system; elements) is yet to be digitised, and so is not currently
> the number of intense tropical cyclones has increased available for use in the climate change monitoring. In
slightly since 1969; the case of temperature, the start date of the datasets
is also determined by major changes in instruments or
> windiness in the eastern Bass Strait has fallen, while it observing practices for which no adjustment is feasible
has increased slightly in the western Bass Strait, since the at the present time.
early 1960s;
The datasets currently available cover:
> there has been a strong decrease, since 1910, in
the intensity of rain falling on very wet days, and in the > monthly and daily precipitation (most stations
number of very wet days, in the south-west of commence 1915 or earlier, with many extending
the continent; back to the late 19th century, and a few to the
mid-19th century);
> there has been a strong increase in the proportion of
annual rainfall falling on very wet days in the north-east; > annual temperature (commences 1910);

> no clear trend has emerged in the percentage of the > daily temperature (commences 1910, with limited
country in extreme rainfall (drought or wet) conditions, station coverage pre-1957);
since 1910, although Burke et al., (2006) reported an > dewpoint/relative humidity (commences 1957); and
increase in the Palmer Drought Severity Index in south­
western and eastern Australia from 1952-1998; > monthly evaporation (commences 1970).

> there is a downward trend in frequency of cool nights, with Datasets covering cloud amount, wind speed and
some evidence of an upward shift in frequency of warm mean sea level pressure are under development. The
nights (since 1957); development of a homogenised wind speed dataset is
expected to be particularly challenging because of the
> there is some suggestion of an increase in frequency of great sensitivity of measured wind speed to changes in
warm days since the mid-1970s; and instruments or the local site environment, and a lack
> no clear trend exists in the frequency of cool days. of field comparison studies between different types of
instruments used over the period of record.
The remainder of this section updates the results of Nicholls
et al., (2000), where possible, based on recent studies. The trends based on these datasets, as they become
available, can be found at
cgi-bin/silo/reg/cli_chg/trendmaps.cgi. This site uses
gridded analyses based on the datasets, and also
provides more information about the datasets.
Care does need to be taken with using Australian
climate datasets. For instance, some earlier work


DE&WR3988_WeatherExtreme.indd Sec2:11 24/1/08 3:07:29 PM


reported a substantial decline in precipitation in the

Snowy Mountains, but this was an artificial decline
resulting from changes in stations used to calculate
District Average Rainfall (Nicholls, 2000). Viney and
Bates (2004) pointed out that the datasets used in
studies of rainfall events including extremes usually
included stations with unidentified accumulations
(i.e. some daily rainfall reports represented the total
collected over more than a single day), and that this
raised concerns about the findings of these studies.
The possible presence and impact of untagged
accumulations needs to be considered on a case-by­
case basis.

Figure 2: Australian average number of hot days (daily

Temperature maximum temperature ≥ 35°C), cold days (daily maximum
The 2004 east Australian heatwave occurred against a temperature ≤ 15°C), hot nights (daily minimum
background of a long-term increase in the frequency of temperature ≥ 20°C) and cold nights (daily minimum
hot days and nights and a decrease in the number of cold temperature ≤ 5°C) per year. Note that annual averages of
days and nights in Australia (Figure 2; Collins et al. 2000; extreme events are based on only observation sites that
Nicholls and Collins, 2006) and more generally across the have recorded at least one extreme event per year for more
western Pacific–eastern Asia region (Manton et al., 2001). than 80% of their years of record. Dashed lines represent
Griffith et al., (2005) reported almost universal increases linear lines of best fit. (from Nicholls and Collins, 2006)
in maximum and minimum mean temperature across the
Asia–Pacific region, along with decreases in the frequency
of cold nights and cool days. Most stations showed an More detailed Australian spatial and seasonal analyses of
increase in the frequency of hot days and warm nights, trends in temperature extremes have been produced by
with only a few significant decreases. Significant decreases Alexander et al., (2006b). They showed that annually averaged
were observed in both maximum and minimum temperature maximum and minimum temperatures are increasing across
standard deviation in some coastal Australian stations. For most of Australia with an associated statistically significant
both maximum and minimum temperature, the dominant decrease in the annual occurrence of cold nights (Figure 3a)
distribution change involved a change in the mean, impacting and cold days (Figure 3b). All the other temperature indices
on either one or both distribution tails, with no significant show similar spatially coherent trends commensurate with
change in standard deviation. Over the 1957 – 2004 period, warming: reductions in frost days and cold spells and an
the Australian average number of hot days (35ºC or more) per associated significant increase in all the other temperature
year has increased by 0.10 days per year, the number of hot indices, particularly the annual occurrence of warm nights
nights (20ºC or more) per year by 0.18 nights per year, while and warm days (not shown). These results agree well with
the number of cold days (15ºC or less) per year has decreased Collins et al. (2000) who studied changes in annual extreme
by 0.14 days per year and cold nights (5ºC or less) per year by temperature trends up to 1996. The trend in the minimum
0.15 nights per year. On the longer-term, Stone et al., (1996) temperature and cool nights is in general larger than the
found a decline in the number of frost days in north-east corresponding location for maximum temperature and cool
Australia. Plummer et al. (1999) looked at the frequency of days. Spatially, the trends in mean maximum and minimum
occurrence of low minimum temperatures across Australia temperatures are mostly statistically significant in the east
since 1961, using a high quality daily temperature record. of the continent and are up to 0.4°C per decade, i.e. a total
There has been a 3% decrease of cool nights over Australia increase of about 2°C since 1957. In the south-east, the trend
annually, with a 5% decrease in winter. The stations examined in cool nights is stronger than the underlying warming of the
were from small towns or remote locations, so this decrease minimum temperature. Within the south-east region there
presumably does not reflect urbanisation. The strongest are small pockets where the mean minimum temperature has
decrease has occurred over the northern parts of the country. been decreasing. There are also non-significant decreases in
These areas have experienced an apparent increase in cloud temperature in the north-west of the continent along with
cover that may have contributed to the decline in cold small increases in the number of cool days and nights.
temperatures and frosts.


DE&WR3988_WeatherExtreme.indd Sec2:12 24/1/08 3:07:30 PM

Annual results can mask significant seasonal changes so
Alexander et al., (2006b) analysed minimum and maximum
temperatures for four seasons separately. This analysis (Figure
3) demonstrated that decreases in annual mean maximum
temperature in north-west Australia are due to a decrease in
daytime temperature in summer. Cold days are increasing in
this region and warm days are decreasing.

Figure 3b: Seasonal trends (ºC/decade) in mean minimum

temperature (LHS) and mean maximum temperature
(RHS) for 1957-2005. Statistically significant trends
shown in colour. Maps overlaid with annual trends
(%/decade) at each station location with sufficient data
represented by upward (downward) triangles for increasing
(decreasing) trends for (a), (c), (e) and (f) cold nights
(TN10p) and (b), (d), (f) and (h) cold days (TX10p). The size
Figure 3a: Seasonal trends (ºC/decade) in mean minimum of the triangle reflects the magnitude of the trend. Bold
temperature (LHS) and mean maximum temperature indicates statistically significant change. (from Alexander
(RHS) for 1957-2005. Statistically significant trends et al., 2006b)
shown in colour. Maps overlaid with annual trends
(%/decade) at each station location with sufficient data The cold tails of the probability distributions of minimum
represented by upward (downward) triangles for increasing daily temperature are warming faster than the warm tails
(decreasing) trends for (a), (c), (e) and (f) warm nights of maximum daily temperature in every season (Alexander
(TN90p) and (b), (d), (f) and (h) warm days (TX90p). Size et al., 2007), consistent with the results of Trewin (2001). In
of the triangle reflects the magnitude of the trend. Bold general the rate of warming in the cold tails of maximum
indicates statistically significant change. (from Alexander temperature distributions is more similar to the warming
et al., 2006b) trend in the warm tails of maximum temperature than is
the case with minimum temperature. The warming in the
extremes is greater in proportion than the warming in
the mean indicating that the shape and scale of the daily


DE&WR3988_WeatherExtreme.indd Sec2:13 24/1/08 3:07:34 PM


maximum and minimum temperature distribution may Nicholls and Lavery, 1992) were due, primarily, to increased
be changing. numbers of events. Intensity of rain events had generally
declined, offsetting some of the increase in rainfall that
This possibility of a changing shape of the distributions
might have been expected from more frequent events.
would account for the fact that the very extreme minimum
temperatures have tended to warm much faster than the Suppiah and Hennessy (1996, 1998) found positive trends in
mean minimum temperatures. An example is shown in heavy rainfall from 1910 to 1990 during the summer half-
Figure 4, for Melbourne. Both the coldest night of the year, but only 10-20% of stations had statistically significant
year and the mean minimum temperatures have increased trends. During the winter half-year, heavy rainfall also
since 1957, but the rate of increase of the cold extreme increased, except in far south-west Western Australia and
is about twice the rate of increase of the mean minimum inland Queensland. There was a reduction in the number of
temperature. The same result is exhibited at nearby stations dry days in both halves of the year, except in far south-west
Wilsons Promontory and Cape Otway, suggesting that the Western Australia and at a few stations in eastern Australia
stronger trend in the extremes is not due to an urban heat where there had been an increase in the number of dry days
island effect. in the winter half-year. Changes in the number of dry days
were statistically significant at over 50% of stations. There
had been a general decrease in dry days with an increase in
heavy rainfall intensity in the north-east and south-east, and
a decrease in total and heavy rainfall in the south-west.
Haylock and Nicholls (2000) analysed daily rainfall at 91 high
quality stations over eastern and south-western Australia
to determine if extreme rainfall had changed between 1910
and 1998. Three indices of extreme rainfall discussed earlier
were examined with significant results including a decrease
in the extreme frequency and extreme intensity in south-west
Western Australia and an increase in the extreme percent in
New South Wales and Queensland. Total rainfall is strongly
correlated with the extreme frequency and extreme intensity
indices, suggesting that extreme events are more frequent
and intense during years with high rainfall. Due to an
increase in the number of rain days during such years, the
proportional contribution from extreme events to the total
rainfall is not necessarily high.
The most recent examination of trends in extreme
precipitation in Australia (Alexander et al., 2006b) found
that the trends in precipitation totals and extremes vary
Figure 4: Trends in annual mean minimum temperature at throughout the seasons, highlighting the importance of
Melbourne and in the temperature of the coldest night of examining each season rather than just the annual average,
the year. particularly for rainfall (Figure 5). For instance, southern
Queensland (central-east) shows decreasing rainfall trends
in summer and autumn, yet in spring there is an increase in
Rainfall rainfall through this region. As well, the spatial variability in
Nicholls and Kariko (1993) calculated the number, average
precipitation is much greater than for temperature, and in
length, and average intensity of rain events at five stations
some places the trends in the means and extremes are not in
located in eastern Australia for each year from 1910 to
the same direction. Most striking is the significant decrease
1988, using daily rainfall totals. A rain event was defined
in both the mean and maximum 1-day rainfall in south­
as a period of consecutive days on which rainfall has been
eastern Australia in March-May.
recorded on each day. Annual rainfall variations were
primarily caused by variations in intensity. Fluctuations in the In winter a decline in rainfall in the south-west is evident,
three rain event variables were essentially independent of and the totals on the extreme days are also declining
each other. This was due, in some cases, to interrelationships over the last 100 years, however there is a mixed response
at interdecadal timescales offsetting relationships of the more recently. In the last 50 years mean rainfall decreases
opposite sense at shorter timescales. Twentieth century are evident down the east coast, and the extremes show
increases in east Australian rainfall (up to the late 1980s – strong declines.


DE&WR3988_WeatherExtreme.indd Sec2:14 24/1/08 3:07:56 PM

In spring there was generally little change in the mean
across Australia from 1901-2005, except for some increases
in the centre and east and decreases in the south-west.
The trends in the rainfall total on the day with the maximum
precipitation are increasing almost everywhere, even in the
south-west, indicating that the intensity of the rainfall is
increasing. This signature appears to be present in the most
recent 50 years except that the regions with increases in
the extremes have more definitive increases than the means
while in the south-east and far-west there are decreases
and the magnitude of the maximum 1-day rainfall has
also decreased.
In summer, as in spring, the 1-day maximal rainfall trends
were increasing almost everywhere over the period
1910-2005. These follow the slight increase in the mean
precipitation. The more recent trend shows a very mixed
signal in the means across the continent. In general,
the directions of the trends in the extremes follow the
mean trends, with significant decreases in maximal 1-day
precipitation on the east coast and in the far south-west.
One important feature is the statistically significant
decrease in total rainfall in the east and the increase in
the north-west. As suggested in Nicholls (1997) and Power
(1998), the increase in rainfall since 1950 in the north­
west in summer is associated with a decrease in maximum
temperature. The driver behind the increase in rainfall over
this region is not clear. One suggestion is that the continental
warming further south is driving an enhancement of the
Australian monsoon (Wardle and Smith, 2004), which in turn Figure 5: Seasonal trends (%/decade) in mean rainfall
may be due to an increase in anthropogenic aerosols over for 1910-2005 (LHS) and 1951-2005 (RHS). Statistically
Asia (Rotstayn et al., 2006). significant trends shown in colour. Maps overlaid with
The focus in most of the work on rainfall extremes in annual trends (%/decade) at each station location with
Australia cited above has been on extremes identifiable from sufficient data represented by upward (downward) triangles
daily observations. Little work has been done on changes in for increasing (decreasing) trends for (a)-(h) seasonal
extremes on a sub-daily timescale, or on longer (multi-day) maximum 1-day precipitation totals (RX1day). The size
sequences of rainfall extremes. Yet these timescale extremes of the triangle reflects the magnitude of the trend. Bold
can cause enormous damage e.g. through flash flooding. indicates statistically significant change. (from Alexander
et al., 2006b).

Tropical cyclones, extra-tropical systems, strong

winds, and hail
Nicholls et al. (1998) showed that the number of tropical
cyclones observed in the Australian region (south of equator;
105-160°E) had apparently declined since the start of reliable
(satellite) observations in the 1969/70 season (although
note that Kuleshov, 2003, found that data reliability was
lower prior to 1980). However, the number of more intense
cyclones (with minimum pressures dropping to 970 hPa or
lower) had increased slightly while the numbers of weak
(minimum pressures not dropping below 990 hPa) and
moderate systems (minimum pressures between 970 and
990 hPa) had declined. The decline in the number of weaker


DE&WR3988_WeatherExtreme.indd Sec2:15 24/1/08 3:08:01 PM


cyclones partly reflects changes in which systems are years. The starting point of this study was 1957, as it is the
considered as tropical cyclones. The decline in the number starting point of daily data in digital form at the majority
of cyclones more intense than 990 hPa primarily reflects of stations. Nicholls et al., noted a marked fall in pressure
the downward trend in the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI). gradient (and thus in wind speed) over eastern Bass Strait,
Previous work has demonstrated that the number of tropical offset to some extent by a slight rise in the west. This is more
cyclones observed in the Australian region each cyclone marked in summer than winter. Trends in the direct wind
season is related to the value of the SOI prior to the start measurements at Flinders Island and at King Island support
of the cyclone season. This relationship is clearest with the these findings. Considerably more work is needed to produce
number of moderate cyclones. The SOI is only weakly related a dataset useful for determining trends in wind speed across
to the number of intense or weak cyclones. The increase in Australia, especially extreme winds.
the number of intense cyclones is not attributable to the
Small-scale phenomena such as tornadoes and hail are
trend in the SOI. Recent work (Hennessy, 2004; John McBride,
very difficult to monitor over the long periods required to
pers. comm.) suggests that the increase in the frequency of
diagnose possible changes in frequency or intensity. Schuster
intense tropical cyclones noted by Nicholls et al., (1998) has
et al., (2005) document how improvements in monitoring
not continued, although such an increase appears to have
networks have led to apparent massive increases in the
occurred in other ocean basins (Webster et al., 2005). It is
recording of hail over New South Wales since European
still not clear whether the historical database is sufficiently
colonisation. They do report, however, a decline of about
accurate to credibly diagnose multi-decadal trends, because
30% in the number of hailstorms affecting Sydney in the
of changes in observing systems (e.g. satellite imagery) and
period 1989-2002 compared with 1953-1988. This decline is
techniques for diagnosing cyclone intensity.
presumably not reflecting a change in monitoring systems.
Mid-latitude westerly winds appear to have increased in both One way around the problems with monitoring small-scale
hemispheres, related to changes in the so-called “annular extremes is to use downscaling, to relate the small-scale
modes” (related to the zonally averaged mid-latitude systems to larger-scale circulation (which should be more
westerlies) which have strengthened in most seasons from consistently monitored). Kounkou and Timbal (2006) used
1979 to the late 1990s, with poleward displacements of a downscaling tool to analyse cool-season tornadoes and
corresponding jetstreams and enhanced storm tracks. These their likely changes. The tool was used to detect areas
have been accompanied by a tendency toward stronger over Australia where cool season tornadoes (CST) are
wintertime polar vortices throughout the troposphere and likely to occur. It is based on the analysis of two particular
lower stratosphere. Significant decreases in cyclone numbers, parameters: the 700 hPa surface lifted index and the vertical
and increases in mean cyclone radius and depth over the wind shear between 850 hPa and the surface. There has been
southern extra-tropics have occurred over the last two or a marked increase in the risk as diagnosed from the re­
three decades (Simmonds et al., 2003). analyses since 1979.
Trends in wind speed are an important aspect of climate
change and variability (Nicholls et al., 2000). These trends are
difficult to determine directly, as records of wind speed at
Droughts have been widespread in various parts of the
any given station are highly sensitive to changes in the local
world since the 1970s (Dai et al., 2004). Some droughts seem
environment (e.g. buildings erected in the vicinity) as well as
to be influenced by changes in SSTs, especially in Africa
to systematic changes arising from altered instrument types.
and western North America, and through changes in the
Wind speed can also vary greatly over short intervals in both
atmospheric circulation and precipitation in central and
space and time. This makes it difficult to verify the validity
south-west Asia.
of any given observation at a station. The field of sea level
atmospheric pressure is much more coherent in space and In Australia and Europe, direct relationships to global
time, and is more suited to validity checks. Nicholls et al., warming have been inferred through the extreme nature
(2000) used pressure gradients as a surrogate for windiness. of high temperatures and heatwaves accompanying recent
The pressure gradient is the major influence on the large- droughts (Nicholls, 2004). Recent Australian droughts, in
scale wind field. Only locations in Bass Strait could be used general, were no worse, in terms of total precipitation, than
for this, because of the specific data needs. The windiness were earlier droughts. The driest period, across Australia,
index seemed most appropriate for coastal regions, but a since the start of the 20th century was the 1930s and early
network of stations recording pressure is needed to estimate 1940s. However, temperatures have been higher in the more
windiness. Bass Strait was one ocean situation where recent droughts. Thus mean maximum temperatures were
sufficient data were readily available to allow the appropriate very high during the 2002 drought, as was evaporation.
calculations. There are eight stations in or bordering Bass This would suggest that drought conditions (precipitation
Strait with daily pressure records over most of the last 40 minus evaporation) were worse than in previous recent


DE&WR3988_WeatherExtreme.indd Sec2:16 24/1/08 3:08:11 PM

periods with similarly low rainfall (1982, 1994). Mean
minimum temperatures were also much higher during WHAT HAS CAUSED
the 2002 drought than in the 1982 and 1994 droughts.
The relatively warm temperatures in 2002 were partly the THESE CHANGES IN
result of a continued warming evident in Australia since the
middle of the 20th century. The possibility that the enhanced EXTREMES?
greenhouse effect is increasing the severity of Australian Can we blame climate change for the extreme southern
droughts, by raising temperatures and hence increasing Queensland heatwave of February 2004, or for other
evaporation, even if the rainfall does not decrease, needs extremes? The attribution of a single event to climate change
to be considered. Studies of possible trends in Australian might never be possible, because almost any weather event
droughts are complicated by the lack of information about might occur by chance, in a climate unmodified by human
trends in soil moisture – in the absence of such information behaviour as well as in a changed climate. However, the risk
droughts are usually diagnosed simply by rainfall deficiencies. of specific extreme events occurring (e.g. a heatwave) may be
Nicholls et al., (2000) examined an index combining the area changed by human influences on climate.
of the country in drought (i.e. below 10th percentile, based Recently, the first attempts to determine whether any
on annual rainfall) with that in wet conditions (i.e. above changes in extremes could be attributed to human
90th percentile) and thereby showed how extreme, in terms interference with the atmosphere have been reported. Stott
of widespread precipitation, a particular year is. If Australia et al., (2004) investigated the extent to which climate change
were tending to have more “droughts and floods” there could be responsible for the high summer temperatures in
would be a positive trend apparent in this index. There was Europe during the summer of 2003 over continental Europe
no obvious long-term trend. However, Burke et al., (2006) and the Mediterranean. They concluded that it is very likely
did report a trend towards increased Palmer Drought that human influence had more than doubled the risk of a
Severity Index in eastern and south-western Australia over regional scale heatwave like the 2003 event. This was a study
the period 1952-1998. of a regional-average of summer mean temperatures. The
first attempts at attributing changes in extremes based on
daily data (rather than extremes of seasonal means) have
Sea level also been undertaken. Christidis et al., (2005) analysed a
Relative sea level rise around Australia averaged 1.2 mm/year new gridded dataset of daily temperature data (Caesar et al.,
from 1920 to 2000. There are only two Australian records of 2006) and detected robust anthropogenic changes in indices
sufficient length to allow a credible examination of changes of extremely warm nights, although with some indications
in the frequency of extreme sea level events, Fremantle that the model overestimates the observed warming of warm
(data available since 1897) and Fort Denison, Sydney (data nights. Human influence on cold days and nights was also
available since 1914). Church et al., (2006) reported that at detected, although less convincingly.
both locations extreme sea level recurrence intervals were
typically three times shorter after 1950 than in the pre-1950
period. They also found evidence that the extreme sea level
events were rising faster than mean sea level.


DE&WR3988_WeatherExtreme.indd Sec2:17 24/1/08 3:08:12 PM


temperatures, but since extreme temperatures have been

Box 4: How well do climate models increasing similarly to mean temperatures (Griffiths et al.,
simulate extremes? 2005) it is reasonable to extrapolate his conclusions to the
Since most extreme events are of relatively small frequency of extremes, and to conclude that the enhanced
spatial scale, and relatively short in duration, it greenhouse effect is likely contributing to the observed
seems likely that relatively coarse resolution climate increased frequency of hot days and nights. An analysis of
models would be unable to adequately simulate their temperature records in Australia (Jones and Fawcett, 2004)
characteristics. Surprisingly, this is not the case, at suggests that the rate at which extremely hot conditions are
least with the modern climate models. Thus Kharin being observed is being inflated by global warming.
et al., (2005) note “On the whole, the AGCMs appear Arblaster and Alexander (2005) combined the results
to simulate temperature extremes reasonably well” from Alexander et al., (2006a) and Tebaldi et al., (2006) by
which also support the conclusions from Kiktev et al., comparing observed changes in extremes across the globe,
(2003). Vavrus et al., (2005) found that climate models with the extremes in 20th century simulations in models
reproduced the location and strength of cold air forced with historical external forcings. The observed and
outbreaks. The models have less success in simulating simulated trends generally agreed quite well, especially
some other extremes. Sun et al., (2006) investigated in the case of increases in the frequency of warm nights
the simulation of daily precipitation and reported that (statistically significant over southern Australia in both
most models underestimate the intensity of heavy models and observations) and decreases in the frequency
precipitation events, and simulate too many days of of frost days over southern Australia. There was less clear
light precipitation. Emori et al., (2005) showed that similarity between observed and simulated changes in the
models could realistically simulate daily precipitation if frequency of heavy precipitation events over Australia,
some restrictions are applied to their parameterisation although globally there was a tendency in both observations
schemes. Burke et al., (2006) show that a climate and simulations for increased frequency of heavy rainfall
model can simulate the observed trend in the Palmer events at mid-latitudes.
Drought Severity Index. Finally, the spatial resolution of
coupled models is generally not high enough to resolve
tropical cyclones and to simulate their intensity. To
overcome this problem a common approach has been
to use a high-resolution atmospheric model forced
by changes in sea surface temperatures. Bengtsson
et al., (2006) show that at least one model broadly
reproduces the global features of tropical cyclones.
Haylock et al., (2005) examined the ability of
statistical and dynamical downscaling of simulations
by climate models to simulate heavy precipitation.
They found that no one downscaling system, or type
of downscaling, consistently outperformed the others.
They argued for the use of “as many different types of
downscaling models, GCMs and emission scenarios as
possible when developing climate change projections
at the local scale.”

It is possible to argue that human influences are increasing

the likelihood of heatwaves in Australia. Stott (2003)
compared simulations from the UK Hadley Centre coupled
model with observed near-surface temperatures over land,
for continental-scale regions including Australia. The model,
when forced with natural and anthropogenic changes in
forcing factors did an excellent job reproducing the trends
since about 1950. Stott’s study indicated that greenhouse
gases were causing warming in Australia through the
second half of the 20th century. Stott examined only mean


DE&WR3988_WeatherExtreme.indd Sec2:18 24/1/08 3:08:14 PM

IPCC scenario is followed. Spatial patterns of projected
HOW WILL EXTREMES changes in temperature extremes are very stable, and the
pattern increases in amplitude as the rate of emissions
CHANGE IN THE increases. Models also project a trend towards a world
characterised by intensified precipitation, with a greater
FUTURE? frequency of heavy precipitation events and longer dry
Kharin and Zwiers (2005) examined global projected changes spells, although with substantial geographical variability
in temperature and precipitation extremes in transient and more inter-model differences than is the case with the
climate change simulations performed with the second temperature extremes projections.
generation coupled global climate model of the Canadian Projected changes in Australian extremes with enhanced
Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis. Three-member greenhouse gases include:
ensembles were produced for the period 1990–2100
using the IS92a, A2, and B2 emission scenarios of the > 5-50% increase in numbers of days over 35ºC by 2030
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Changes in (Suppiah et al., 2006).
temperature extremes over most of the globe are largely > 10-80% decrease in frequency of days below 0ºC by 2030
associated with changes in the location of the distribution (Suppiah et al., 2006).
of annual extremes without substantial changes in its
shape. Globally averaged changes in warm extremes are > General increases in rainfall intensity (McInnes et al., 2002;
comparable to the corresponding changes in annual mean Whetton et al., 2002; Walsh et al., 2001; Abbs, 2004; Abbs
daily maximum temperature, while globally averaged cold et al., 2006) but with considerable spatial variation.
extremes warm faster than annual mean daily minimum > Decrease in numbers of tropical cyclones, accompanied
temperature. This latter effect occurs because changes in by an increase in intensity (Abbs et al., 2006; Walsh et
extremely cold temperatures are amplified by the surface al., 2004). The frequency of severe tropical cyclones
albedo feedback in regions that are covered with snow in (Categories 3, 4 and 5) on the east Australian coast is
winter, such as Europe, North America and the Arctic. With simulated to increase 22% for the IS92a greenhouse gas
global warming, the snow cover retreats in these areas, scenario from 2000-2050, with a 200 km southward shift
exposing a lower albedo surface, which in turn accelerates in the cyclone genesis region, leading to greater exposure
warming at the surface. However, a notable exception is in south-east Queensland and north-east NSW.
Australia, where such feedback would not operate. Here
the mean minimum temperature was projected to increase > Decreased hail frequency in Melbourne and Mt Gambier
at double the rate of the extreme minimum temperatures (Niall and Walsh, 2005).
(defined from a 20-year return period). Note that this is the > 20% increase in large hail (2cm diameter) and 40%
opposite of the situation observed at Melbourne in recent reduction in average recurrent interval for hail exceeding
decades, where the extreme minimum temperatures have 6cm diameter in Sydney (Leslie et al., 2006).
warmed faster than the mean minimum (Figure 4).
> Up to 20% more droughts over most of Australia by 2030
Kharin and Zweirs (2005) also examined extreme (Mpelesoka et al., submitted). Projected changes in the
precipitation events. They found in their model Palmer Drought Severity Index for the SRES A2 scenario
integrations that changes in precipitation extremes occurred indicate an increase over much of eastern Australia
as a result of changes in both the location and scale of the between 2000 and 2046.
extreme value distribution and the changes in the extremes
However, the considerable uncertainty that is associated with
exceeded substantially the corresponding changes in the
these projections needs to be recognised. For instance, the
annual mean precipitation. In Australia, their model
tropical cyclone projections are based on only two climate
projected little if any change in mean precipitation, but
simulations, for one scenario of greenhouse gas emissions.
increases of 5-10% in the 20-year return value of daily
Until more simulations can be performed, with a wider range
rainfall. The probability of precipitation events that are
of climate models and scenarios, and with improved climate
considered extreme at the beginning of the simulations
models, the above-quoted projections should be considered
is increased by a factor of about 2 by the end of the 21st
indicative at best.
century everywhere (including Australia).
Extreme sea level events can be expected to increase,
Tebaldi et al., (2006) reported that the trends in temperature
as mean sea level increases (Church et al., 2006) due to
extremes that began to be detected above the noise in the
thermal expansion and glacier and ice-sheet melting. For
late 20th century (e.g. Christidis et al., 2005) are projected to
the expected mid-level rise in mean sea level over the 21st
continue and intensify into the future, regardless of which
century the logarithmic relationship between sea level rise


DE&WR3988_WeatherExtreme.indd Sec2:19 24/1/08 3:08:15 PM


and increases in the frequency of extremes may mean that

regions that were inundated only once per year may become WHAT NEEDS TO BE
semi-permanently under water. Changes in storminess may
enhance or offset the changes in extreme events resulting DONE?
from increases in mean sea level. Most of the extremes discussed in the previous section lead
Weather conducive to bushfires seems likely to increase in to inconclusive results regarding observed trends, because
the future also. Hennessy et al., (2006) used daily-observed of concerns about the quality, comprehensiveness, and
weather variables to calculate fire danger indices for various comparability of data over decades. The major exception
Australian locations, for current conditions. They then is for extreme temperatures, where extensive work and
applied daily weather data simulated by a climate model international cooperation over the past decade or so has
run with an enhanced greenhouse gas situation. They found led to a clear depiction of increasing warm extremes and
that an increase in fire-weather risk was likely at most decreasing cold extremes (and some studies now attribute
sites, including an increase in the number of days when the these changes in extremes to human influences on the
fire danger rating was extreme. For example, their results atmosphere). But for all the other extremes (droughts,
indicated that Canberra was likely to have an annual average heavy rainfalls, cyclones, tornadoes etc.) the data concerns
of 28-38 days of very high or extreme fire danger by 2050, overwhelm us, still. Is there a way forward? For some
compared with the current average of 23 days. Tasmania was extremes the answer is, of course, “Yes”. Tropical cyclones
found to be relatively unaffected by this intensification of have been observed with satellites since before 1970.
fire danger, possibly reflecting the fact that rainfall variations Although the satellite technology has changed, along with
are a strong determinant of Tasmanian bushfire behaviour the methods used to determine the intensity of the systems,
(Nicholls and Lucas, 2007) and so unless rainfall decreases it should still be possible to examine the historical satellite
then a substantial increase in fire danger may be less likely. pictures to determine whether, for instance, tropical cyclones
in the mid-1970s were routinely analysed as moderate
rather than intense. This effect would need to be very clear,
if it were strong enough to be able to account for the
substantial apparent trend towards more frequent intense
cyclones (Webster et al., 2005). For small-scale events such
as tornadoes, focusing on areas where tornadoes have been
monitored for several decades, and where there has been a
sufficient population to ensure that systems are not missed,
might be the way forward (rather than relying on collating
numbers of systems from all areas including those where
tornado monitoring is a new concept).
For some other extremes (most notably drought) the problem
is more definitional – Dai et al., (2004) and Burke et al.,
(2006) use the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) to
examine changes in droughts. Is this the most appropriate
index, and how much of an apparent trend is due to the
temperature term in this index? Critics of the PDSI (e.g. Alley,
1984) suggest that it is of insufficient complexity to account
accurately for the wide range of environmental conditions
that may in reality occur such as, frozen soil, snow, and the
presence of roots or vegetation. Therefore the calculated soil
moisture is inferior and should not be used as a measure of
hydrological drought.
Few formal detection and attribution studies have been
applied to extremes, as yet. This is partly because of
concerns regarding the quality of the historical data, or its
completeness. But in Australia these two concerns are, for
many extremes, not a serious problem. Also, model runs
required for such studies have been completed as part of
the IPCC Fourth Assessment (e.g. Arblaster and Alexander,


DE&WR3988_WeatherExtreme.indd Sec2:20 24/1/08 3:08:17 PM

2005). So, formal detection and attribution studies could be > Improved downscaling of small-scale synoptic events
applied, without too much difficulty, to at least temperature such as tornadoes and thunderstorms that are difficult to
extremes and precipitation extremes, for Australia. This could monitor using conventional meteorological networks and
answer the question “Has human interference with the global approaches, to facilitate an increased focus on studies of
atmosphere led to changes in the frequency and/or intensity small-scale events.
of extreme weather over Australia?”.
> Improved climate models, with higher resolution and
These questions need to be answered specifically for a variety improved parameterisation of small-scale processes that
of extremes, notably: lead to extremes. This will require involvement of the
user community in the design of ACCESS (the Australian
> Extreme temperature
Community Climate Earth System Simulator).
> Heavy precipitation events (and floods and hail)
> Development of high quality historical datasets for wind
> Tropical cyclones speed and hail, to facilitate documentation of any trends in
> Strong winds these extremes.

> Droughts > Improved historical datasets of rainfall and temperature

should include the effects of urban heating, rather than
> High sea level events removing such effects. An increased emphasis is also
> Small-scale extremes (e.g. severe thunderstorms, hail required on sub-daily precipitation extremes, and the
and tornadoes). analysis of historical changes in extremes would be
facilitated by increased palaeo-climatic emphasis on
The data availability will vary between these different extreme events.
extremes, as will our ability to model and predict their
frequency or intensity. Also, the various combinations of > Joint analyses of multiple extremes (e.g. strong winds and
these extremes (e.g. the frequency with which strong winds heavy rainfall) that might exacerbate the impacts either
occur in concert with high sea level) need to be considered. extreme would have on its own.

Specific questions for each of these extremes would include: > Studies to determine how much of the recent trends in
extreme temperatures is attributable to human actions, and
> Is this extreme changing in frequency or intensity? how this varies seasonally and spatially.
> Is it likely to change in the future? > A comprehensive assessment of projected changes in
> What are the gaps in knowledge about this extreme? extreme daily temperature, rainfall, wind, fire danger,
tropical cyclones, hail, tornadoes and storm surges. To
> How do we fill these gaps? ensure internal consistency, this would require a suite of
In turn, these questions will need to be addressed by a simulations from selected climate models that perform well
variety of approaches, requiring improvements in data and in the Australian region.
modelling, as well as fundamental understanding of the > Integrated assessments to determine how communities
causes of these extremes. could or should react to changes in extremes.
Some specific needs for future work for Australian Finally, what needs to be done to reduce the likely impacts
extremes include: of any changes in extreme weather? As Lynch (2004) notes,
> A reanalysis of tropical cyclone data, to facilitate “Australia is facing increasing losses from extreme climate
comparisons of the frequency and intensity of current-day events, such as more intense hail storms, or more frequent
cyclones with those in the past. droughts and fires”. Are such extremes a “dangerous”
interference with the climate? Since heatwaves lead to
> Analysis of historical changes in drought frequency, human casualties, and since human influences do appear
intensity and duration, using multiple drought indices, e.g. to be causing increases in the frequency of Australian
rainfall deficiency, standardised precipitation index, soil heatwaves, can we conclude that we have already reached
moisture deficit, Palmer Drought Severity Index. Climate a point of “dangerous” interference with the climate? This
change projections are required for the same indices, depends on the perspective of the affected community
including estimation of drought return periods relevant for – what might not be considered dangerous to Australia
assessment of Exceptional Circumstances. considered as a single entity might be extremely dangerous
> A regional reanalysis, including homogenisation of upper to specific local communities, such as those exposed to an
air data, to facilitate studies linking specific extremes with increased fire risk. Lynch et al., (2004) note that: “Involving
synoptic patterns. local residents in the integrated assessment of the impacts


DE&WR3988_WeatherExtreme.indd Sec2:21 24/1/08 3:08:18 PM


of climate change on their community redirects the project

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Neville Nicholls
A Report for the De
January 2008

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