Climate Whiplash: Wild swings between weather extremes

08.02.24 By , , , , and

In late October 2023, after three years of above average rainfall had given way to El Niño and Australia’s driest three months on record, fires in the Western Downs Region of southeast Queensland destroyed more homes than were lost in that state in the infamous 2019-20 Black Summer fires. Just weeks later, nearby weather stations were registering their highest November rainfall on record, and December saw southeast Queensland hammered by extreme downpours and reeling from billions of dollars in flood damages. January has delivered severe and extreme heatwave conditions at times, as well as flooding rains.

Some have described the summer so far as one of whiplash – being hurtled violently from one extreme to another. Such experiences are not confined to Queensland, Australia’s most disaster-prone state. Communities throughout our eastern states, including Victoria and New South Wales, have similarly experienced wild swings between scorching heat and fire risk to intense downpours and flash floods, and back again.

What was originally expected to be a mostly dry El Niño summer has instead dispatched almost every possible extreme. Communities have been caught off guard, emergency services strained, and conventional meteorological wisdom challenged. Almost every state and territory has broken an extreme weather record.

Communities across the east coast are experiencing climate whiplash this summer – wild swings between many extremes – as climate change makes our weather more chaotic and dangerous.

In a rapidly changing climate, history may no longer be our best guide for what’s next. Our weather is noticeably more chaotic, unpredictable and dangerous.1 Climate drivers – recurring phenomena such as El Niño/La Niña, the Southern Annular Mode, and the Indian Ocean Dipole – may be interacting in complex new ways. Rising ocean temperatures are affecting rainfall patterns. Extreme events are becoming worse, more common, and less predictable. We are poorly prepared for these changes, and still doing far too little to tackle the root cause of the climate crisis: pollution from the relentless burning of coal, oil and gas

In this interim report, the Climate Council presents some key observations from the summer so far. What have we learned? What has surprised our experts? What has it taught us about our changing climate, and how we need to respond? This will be followed in March by a comprehensive analysis of the summer and the urgent actions needed to protect Australian communities from further climate harm.

Key Findings

1. Australians are weathering climate whiplash, as communities are hurtled between flooding rains to heatwaves and fierce fire conditions, and back again.

2. In a rapidly changing climate, historical weather patterns may no longer be the best guide for what’s happening, or what’s next, as records keep tumbling.

3. This summer, Australia is experiencing six, clear symptoms of an overheating planet that’s caused by pollution from coal, oil and gas.

4. Our weather is now more chaotic, unpredictable and dangerous due to climate change, which presents challenges for us all.