A review of recent climate variability and climate change in southeastern Australia

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Abstract

Southeastern Australia (SEA) has suffered from 10 years of low rainfall from 1997 to 2006. A protracted dry spell of this severity has been recorded once before during the 20th century, but current drought conditions are exacerbated by increasing temperatures. Impacts of this dry decade are wide-ranging, so a major research effort is being directed to better understand the region's recent climate, its variability and climate change. This review summarizes the conditions of these 10 years and the main mechanisms that affect the climate.

Most of the rainfall decline (61%) has occurred in autumn (March–May). Daily maximum temperatures are rising, as are minimum temperatures, except for cooler nights in autumn in the southwest of SEA closely related to lower rainfall. A similar rainfall decline occurred in the southwest of western Australia around 1970 that has many common features with the SEA decline. SEA rainfall is produced by mid-latitude storms and fronts, interactions with the tropics through continental-scale cloudbands and cut-off lows.

El Niño-Southern Oscillation impacts on SEA rainfall, as does the Indian Ocean, but neither has a direct influence in autumn. Trends have been found in both hemispheric (the southern annular mode) and local (sub-tropical ridge) circulation features that may have played a role in reducing the number and impact of mid-latitude systems around SEA, and thus reducing rainfall. The role of many of these mechanisms needs to be clarified, but there is likely to be an influence of enhanced greenhouse gas concentrations on SEA climate, at least on temperature. Copyright © 2007 Royal Meteorological Society

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