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Dorother Mackellar, the Firestorm and the Deluge

By Dave Riley

A considered and conservative report by David Karoly on Real Climate --Bushfires and extreme heat in south-east Australia -- concludes that yes indeed climate is a'changing.

But Karoly doesn't address the ecological irony that as Victoria (still) burns both New South Wales and Queensland are drowning. Dry old Bourke is now a disaster area as the Darling has consumed the town.

This post antediluvian scenario is only missing a plague of frogs...(With such a weather pattern , we'd only get cane toads anyway).

When you look at the satellite picture (right) the land mass looks like its about to be shifted someplace else by dint of climatic forces.

I am reminded of Dorothy MacKellars' nationalistic poem My Country
Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the rainbow gold,
For flood and fire and famine
She pays us back threefold.
and wonder how much pay back presumably exists in this national contract she has so much confidence in. Writing in 1908 (the summer of 1907/08 registered 246 deaths caused from the heat wave in the Southern States) she would have been familiar with the massive ecological consequences of the Federation Drought (1896-1901) which totally altered the colonization pattern of Australia as the sheep and wheat belt was massively rolled back for lack of pasture and water.

Dust blown from Australia was turning snow on the mountains along the spine of New Zealand's South Island red.

The Federation Drought signaled a major climate shift across eastern Australia from the wet period of the nineteenth century to a dry spell lasting until the middle 1940s (the Good Friday fires were in 1939) and generally has continued through the post war period but more starkly over the last 25 years -- going back to the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983.

For today's experience, Wikipedia now has an excellent summary of the Victorian Fires this month.

When you check out the figures for worst disasters in Australia's history -- while these February fires top the bush fire death toll, the figures for numbers dead due to heat wave are frightening:
1907/08..... 246
1911/12... 143+
Then there is 2009 Southeastern Australia heat wave. Nine day heatwave with Adelaide recording a record six consecutive days over 40 °C (104 °F) and a record high of 45.7 °C (114.3 °F) with a record overnight minimum of 33.9 °C (93 °F) on January 28. So far, 126 have died so far from the heat alone -- and this in the era of air conditioning, electric fans, refrigerators, trips to the beach or ambient air shopping towns and social services.

Much as I smirk at the sentimental nationalism in MacKella's poem -- a rote nationalism every child in primary school had to learn --on this re-reading I recognise that she did in indeed have a feel for the massive ambivalence the climate imposes on those who live here:
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of drought and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me!
"Her beauty and her terror!" Terror is hardly an attribute that is bandied about in standard chauvinistic parlance. People do not normally say," Quite. But then I'm frightened of my country. It scares the begeebers out of me!"

But if MacKellar can write these lines after the experience of the Federation Drought (she began writing the poem in 1904) what sort of relationship are we now entering into with this land and the weather that wafts over it?

We now know that there is a demon loose and feral in the South Pacific -- the El NiƱo-Southern Oscillation -- but do we truly comprehend its awesome power for chaos, especially in the context of a major world wide climatic shift? As Mike Davis has pointed out -- - Imperialism, El Nino and the Third World -- this is the stuff that changes history and destroys civilisations.

So when I look at the firestorm that was Victoria on February 7th. I am in awe and scared shitless. If you don't understand what I'm on about, go now and watch the fire storm footage captured in the Four Corners documentary .

I've seen fires but nothing like that and while video won't expose your flesh to radiant heat and your lungs to smoke, these images also don't give you any idea of the sound -- except for one survivor's comment,"it was like 10 Jumbo jets taking off."

Imagine that coming at you at 80 kmh per hour....

So yes, let's be very wary of this country's potential to foster "terror" in the heart's of its inhabitants in this epoch of galloping Climate Change!

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