Records fell up and down Australia’s east coast as rains, floods and insurance payouts all hit new peaks. As we welcome back the sun to our lives in 2023, what should we do to prepare for the next big wet?
In the far north Queensland town of Tully, just north of the 18th parallel south, there’s a big golden gumboot.
It’s apt for a place that might as well measure rainfall in metres.
It stands around 7.9 metres tall — the amount of rain recorded there in 1950, the highest annual total ever recorded in a rain gauge in Australia.
That’s an extraordinary amount of rain, but this region is no stranger to deluges.
More often than not, it’s the wettest place in the country each year.
This map shows you how exceptional the region is.
We’ve taken the past 30 years of rainfall data from nearly 1,000 rain gauges and mapped out the median rainfall at each.
You can see that far north Queensland has the heaviest rainfall, and it’s even plainer to see if we smooth things out.
Here, we’ve averaged out those weather stations to create a picture of how much rain we see in different regions from the moist (light blue — regions that record at least 500 millimetres of rain a year on average), to the wet (bright blue — at least a metre of rain), to the downright soggy (dark blue — at least two metres).
These aren’t precise predictions, but it gives you an idea of which regions normally get the most rain.
You can see that, other than a small part of western Tasmania, no other region comes close to the far north Queensland coast.
This year, Tully has had a lot of rain, as always. The rain gauge at the town’s sugar mill recorded just more than 3.5 metres of rain across the year. But frankly, 2022 may well go down as one of Tully’s least exceptional years.
It’s not alone anymore. This year it has been pushed down the wet rankings, along with some of the usual Far North Queensland suspects, to make room for areas much further south.
Here’s that map again, but this time showing this year’s rain.
The dark blue of heavy rain snakes its way down the east coast.
We’ve seen more of the country join the 1,000-millimetre club this year, and more coastal regions hitting more than 2,000 millimetres.
Parts of northern NSW have had between 3 and 4 metres of rain, as have some outlying areas of greater Sydney. Records have been broken in dozens of locations, including some that have stood for a very long time.
Professor Janette Lindesay, a climatologist at the Australian National University, says the combination of a third consecutive La Niña, the negative Indian Ocean Dipole and the Southern Annular Mode in the Southern Ocean have “conspired together” to produce the conditions for a wet year.
“It certainly has been one of the wettest periods that we’ve had for a long time, not necessarily a record in the extent of the entire last 140 years or so, but certainly in the last 20 to 50 years,” Professor Lindesay says.
The rain of 2022 has, in some ways, bucked an overall drying trend across much of Australia since the 1950s. Professor Lindesay says that’s a trend we expect to continue.
“Having said that, it’s highly likely that we will continue to see extremely wet periods interspersed in amongst the dry times,” she says.
“What we’re really seeing is an increase in extremes, in the frequency of extremes, and perhaps in the duration of those extremes.
“So dry gets drier and wet is getting wetter when it does happen.
“That’s directly attributable to global heating.”
The big difference is that a lot of these areas, unlike Tully, are not used to all this rain and that’s led to a lot of flooding.
Flooding in February and March became the single most expensive natural disaster in history, according to the Insurance Council, with more than $3.5 billion worth of claims paid out by insurers.
“I’ve met people who have experienced six, seven floods this year, just this calendar year,” emergency services minister Murray Watt says.
“That is different, to see people unable to escape that cycle of flooding.
“People are very fatigued, whether you’re talking about residents or farmers who’ve been hit by multiple disasters, or whether you’re talking about emergency personnel, local government leaders, all of the services who respond to these disasters.
“That has really taken a toll on people’s physical and mental health.”
Most states have seen flood emergencies this year, with both urban and regional communities affected.
October was the busiest month on record for Victoria’s state emergency service.
Border communities like Albury-Wodonga and Echuca-Moama were inundated, after heavy rainfall forced Hume Dam operators to increase water releases from the reservoir.
The chart below shows you the rainfall at the Hume Reservoir.
The dashed line is the highest ever year-to-date rainfall for each day of the year, before 2022.
The orange line is this year.
In Melbourne, the falls weren’t quite as dramatic, but heavy rains toward the end of the year contributed to the Yarra swelling its banks.
But it’s further north that the highest rainfall totals have been recorded — with February and March the stand-out months.
In Sydney, more than 2.5 metres of rain have fallen, breaking a record that’s stood for 72 years.
Most of the time, annual rainfall lies within the shaded region, totalling at year’s end between 862 and 1195mm of rain. In 122 years of rainfall data, the site had never topped 2244mm.
But as of December 22, the botanic gardens rain gauge had recorded 2577mm of rain for the year.
The pattern is much the same across greater Sydney: from Bankstown and Parramatta in the west to Rose Bay and Collaroy by the beach, annual rainfall records have fallen.
Further up the state, northern NSW and particularly Lismore were devastated by the flooding that followed record rains.
At the Mullumbimby weather station, a 1972 record was broken. In February, one metre fell in a single week.
As of December 26, Brisbane was just 26mm away from exceeding its 1972 record.
The Alderley rain gauge, in Brisbane’s north, got more than 45 per cent of its total 2022 rainfall in just one week at the end of February
All up, there are dozens of locations that have set rainfall records this year.
Most of them are along the east coast between Sydney and south-east Queensland.
Parts of inland NSW have also had remarkably wet years. Months of sustained downpours saw flooding in the Ivanhoe region.
And a few records have been broken in South Australia, the most westerly of those in the town of Wirrulla, on the Eyre Peninsula.
The rainfall total is less spectacular there, but Wirrulla’s a pretty dry place normally.
The town averages about 290mm of rain a year. This year it clocked 538mm.
While we haven’t all felt the massive downpours, most Australians will have experienced wetter-than-usual conditions this year.
This map shows you how much wetter 2022 has been.
We’ve taken data from nearly 1,000 weather stations, to map out how different this year’s rain is from the median of the past 30 years.
Again, this is not a precise reading for each point in Australia, but it shows you the broad trends across the country — with dark green the most wetter than usual and grey drier than usual.
Other than far north Queensland, which has had a relatively typical year, it’s been wetter than usual for most of the eastern half of the nation.
Those record-breaking regions along the east coast have seen, in some cases, more than 50 per cent more rain than usual.
The estimates in the map are less reliable in inland Australia, including most of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, as there are fewer weather stations there.
It’s been slightly drier than usual in the Top End, and there’s a mixed picture in the west with no major extremes.
Janette Lindesay says there’s been a long-term drying trend in south-west WA since the 1970s.
This year, again, Perth and surrounding areas missed out on much of the rainfall.
As of the end of November, the rain gauge at the Muja Power Station, about 60 kilometres inland of Bunbury, has received just 124mm of rain all year (we don’t yet have December figures).
Seventy per cent of that fell in May.
That makes it one of the most abnormally dry places in the country in 2022.
Our most expensive disaster
The Insurance Council labelled this year’s flooding the largest and most costly natural disaster in Australia’s history.
“What we normally do is we measure these events as they happen and isolate them one by one, but the reality is the floods started in February, March and it basically continued on a rolling pattern every few weeks across the whole east coast,” the council’s chief executive Andrew Hall says.
There have been more than 277,000 claims from declared events, with nearly $6 billion paid out as a result of major flooding.
Hall says insurers have paid out at least $11.3 billion in homes and contents claims in the past year, including those not associated with natural disasters.
Even if we weren’t directly affected, most of us will have at least noticed the effects of natural disasters, with surges in fruit and vegetable prices caused by the destruction of crops in some of Australia’s biggest food bowls.
And this year has raised questions about our readiness for future natural disasters, given the likelihood we’ll see more years as severe as 2022 as we increasingly feel the effects of climate change.
“I think what this year has shown us is that many parts of the country have not been as prepared as they need to be for the new climate that we are living through,” Murray Watt says. “You can see that in both urban and regional environments.”
“There are thousands of homes that are already built that face disasters and we need to think differently about how we can make existing developments much more resilient.”
He’s canvassed work to improve drainage systems in cities, retrofitting and raising existing homes off the ground, and a review of building codes.
He also says that when repairs are done to flood-damaged infrastructure, it should be built back better.
“When roads are washed away, all that happens is that funding is provided to repair the road to exactly the same level. And so, inevitably, the next time there’s a major flood the same thing happens all over again.”
Vulnerability on the rise
The east coast is particularly vulnerable to future events because it faces the full effect of La Niña weather patterns and east coast lows.
“They tend to be constrained by the coastal mountain ranges just inland from the coast,” Janette Lindesay says. “A lot of the rainfall that comes from those, which can be very intense and lead to flooding, doesn’t always make it over the coast range and into the interior.”
And as the climate changes, the environment in which weather systems are formed changes with it.
“Sea level is rising and has been now for well over 100 years, and it’s risen to quite a measurable extent,” Professor Lindesay says.
“That means that when you do get a storm like a low or tropical cyclone that has strong winds associated with it, and heavy rainfall, the drainage systems that are in place in cities like Brisbane and Canberra and Sydney may not be as able to cope as they used to be, because the level of the groundwater is being pushed up by intrusion of seawater because of the sea levels rising.”
In short, more areas are getting Tully levels of rain, without Tully levels of infrastructure.
“These events are rewriting flood maps,” says Insurance Council chief executive Andrew Hall. “So they will change risk appetites and pricing for certain areas.”
Higher risk and the associated higher insurance premiums that come with it are going to force many to reconsider where or how they live.
‘It’s almost wrong allowing people to live there’
State and federal governments are now working together to fund work that retrofits or raises homes to reduce flooding risks, or even buys flood-affected homes back if they’re at risk of severe and frequent flooding.
The first home in Queensland was approved for a buy back in October.
“They are critically important schemes and I think they will be models for the future,” Mr Hall says. “Rather than building back and hoping that doesn’t occur again, a different decision can be made.”
But he says governments also need to get firmer when it comes to developing on flood plains, which often has cheap land.
Like in Western Sydney, which he calls “Australia’s most unmitigated flood risk”.
“We’re still seeing developments happening in areas that are one-in-20-year flood risk every year … It’s almost wrong the government is allowing people to live there,” he says.
That’s a sentiment the new federal government appears to agree with.
“For a long time, in our hearts, we’ve all known that it doesn’t make sense for development to continue being approved for flood plains, and for a variety of reasons that has continued happening,” Mr Watt says.
The NSW government is currently working on a proposal for National Cabinet about regulating development in flood plains, which would force applications to be assessed against climate and disaster risks.
“I think that’s going to be a really landmark reform that the country badly needs,” he says.
“I think there are definitely parts of the country that we should resolve at both federal and state level to not approve future development. It makes no sense to approve future housing development in areas that we know are going to flood on a regular basis.”
What will 2023 bring?
For those sick of all this drizzle, the good news is that the sun is about to come out.
La Niña appears to be weakening, and the weather bureau says its models suggest it may end in the next couple of months.
“We’re looking at something closer to average rainfall through the rest of summer and into early autumn,” Professor Lindesay says.
The bureau warns, however, that its longer-term model is very uncertain beyond about April — so we don’t really know what’s in store for the rest of the year.
“We are hoping that we’re not going to get another La Niña,” she says. “It would be unprecedented within the record that we have for El Niño and La Niña to get four in a row.”
“We could go to El Niño, which would then tend towards drier conditions and even drought, or we could just go back to neutral in the Pacific, which would really be ideal I think, after what we’ve been through.”
But 2022 has taught us a lot of lessons that we’d be wise to heed, before we run out of time.
Mr Hall says we need to think ahead to the next big wet.
“We actually do have all the solutions here,” he says. “We know where the floods happen, we can predict where they’re probably going to happen and will get worse.
“We’ve got all the technology to build the right homes to withstand the right perils.
“It’s more just the will to do it, because it’s expensive, and it’s long-term thinking. The investments we make today … will mean that governments in two or three terms won’t be cleaning up as big a mess.”
It’s a challenge that the federal government says it wants to tackle.
“There is a major job to be done to continue building preparedness,” Murray Watt says.
“I’d like to think that we’ve made a good start on that since we took office.
“But there’s certainly a lot more to be done.”
Words: Casey Briggs
Production and editing: Leigh Tonkin
Photographs: ABC News, AAP, supplied
Notes on methodology
- Maps of rainfall in Australia were produced by fitting a spatial interpolation model using ordinary kriging.
- Weather stations were included in the maps of 2022 rainfall totals if they were missing rain observations on no more than 5 per cent of days. In total, 2361 weather stations were included in this analysis.
- Weather stations were included in the maps showing median 30 year rainfall and 2022’s deviation from median rainfall if they had at least 25 years of complete rainfall data between 1992-2021. Only years within that range were included in the analysis. In total, 971 weather stations were used.
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-12-31/australian-weather-rain-2022-records-broken-flooding/101789262 In 2022, Australia smashed rain records while floods caused record insurance payouts