Inured to Climate Change in North Queensland

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Meghan Dansie, a freelance reporter originally from Queensland.

Tape up the windows, fill the bathtub and sinks with drinking water, secure loose objects outdoors, hunker down and hope for the best.

These are the lessons that I and other children in North Queensland learned for dealing with cyclones, whose season runs from January to April in Australia’s tropical north.

As the Indigenous people of North Queensland knew, the expansive region has a wet season (summer) and a dry season (winter). The Yirrganydji of Far North Queensland separated the wet season, or kurrabana, into two minor seasons: jawarranyji, or “storm time,” which runs from November to January, and jimburralji, or “cyclone time,” from January to May. As I told my partner, who was born in Sydney, “You get a week or two of winter, then it’s lovely, then it gets hot and humid, then it rains, and then the cyclones come.”

Growing up next to the Great Barrier Reef, as I did, has many benefits. I’m thankful for the wild childhood I enjoyed, especially now that I live in Melbourne. I grew up free-range, in the outdoors. I spent many a sun-filled day water-skiing, camping or playing on the beach in the back of our house, a sandy expanse that sometimes had more nesting turtles than people on it.

But growing up next to a tropical reef that is a UNESCO world heritage site brings challenges.

When low pressure systems move across the warm Pacific waters to the east of Australia, they can intensify and turn into tropical cyclones. As the oceans get warmer, cyclones are expected to become more frequent and more severe.

The federal Bureau of Meteorology has declared that this Australian summer will be defined by a La Niña weather system, when warm water is pushed toward the western parts of the Pacific Ocean. Warmer waters cause greater levels of evaporation, and therefore more rain.

In Australia’s tropics, this translates to more cyclones. On average, nine to 11 tropical cyclones develop around Australia each summer, with about four making landfall. The bureau is predicting an average to slightly above average number of cyclones this year.

Children in other countries may be familiar with having a “snow day” off from school. In 2008, I got a week off school after the campus went underwater when Severe Tropical Cyclone Larry made landfall as a Category 5 storm.

I quickly realized that this was not the stroke of good luck it first seemed. I was stuck indoors in the damp heat, without power and often without internet or phone service. Some of my friends’ houses flooded. One had water pouring through the windows, like on a sinking ship.

I have clear memories of the cyclones I experienced growing up. Deafeningly loud rain; windows flexing in and out as winds test the limits of human manufacturing; and trees bending and snapping like bamboo chopsticks in violent gusts that reached nearly 300 kilometers, or 185 miles, per hour.

I’ve been thinking lately that being inured to extreme climatic events may be contributing to another thing that North Queensland is known for: stubborn denial of climate change.

When you not only accept, but expect, such severe weather events to occur every summer — sometimes numerous times — extremity becomes normalized.

When you view extreme weather events as an impactful but inescapable norm, it’s hard to believe that you could be exacerbating them, let alone do anything to mitigate them.

It sounds strange to suggest that conservatism over climate action in Australia, and particularly North Queensland, comes from a respect of the natural world. There are many factors at play in the political equation — for one, coal mining is the biggest industry in the region.

But I do believe that the collective annual experience with extreme-weather events lessens the shock value of climate change’s existential threats. It makes people view climate change as something they can prepare for and recover from, not something they should prevent or minimize.

There is a certain Romantic beauty to this vision of Mother Nature as a force of awesome power, one that giveth and taketh as she pleases. One of Australia’s most well-known poems, “My Country,” by Dorothea Mackellar, captures this Australian Romanticism:

There is a certain beauty to the dominant architectural style of Queensland homes. Houses are built on tall stilts, with the assumption that meters-high floodwaters are a real possibility.

There is a certain complacency to such attitudes of resignation, too. Because, as the effects of climate change become more severe, Romantic ideals and wooden houses on stilts will not be enough to keep the lapping, existential realities of climate change at bay.

Now for our stories of the week.

Australia and New Zealand

Heavy ash fell over Nomuka, Tonga, as seen from a New Zealand military surveillance flight on Monday.Credit…New Zealand Defence Force, via Reuters
  • Tonga’s Airport Is Finally Cleared, but Ash Still Poses a Range of Threats. Ash from a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific nation presents risks to drinking water and air quality, experts say. Quantifying them in real time is a challenge.

  • Australia’s (Brief) Idea to Ease Supply Chains: Juvenile Forklift Drivers. A proposal, and the rapid retreat that followed, both elicited waggish mockery and highlighted a serious economic problem.

  • With a Repair Ship Many Days Away, Tonga Faces Weeks of Digital Darkness. After a huge volcanic eruption severed the island country’s lone connection to the global internet, a difficult repair job, delving deep into the ocean, lies ahead.

  • After Australia, Djokovic is likely to run into problems in France and the U.S.The French authorities say that players must be vaccinated to compete in the French Open, the next of the four Grand Slam tournaments.

  • Mapping a First Look at Tonga’s Devastation After the Volcano Eruption. Our map shows the death and damage that the Tongan government reported in the days after the eruption triggered a tsunami that battered the island nation.

  • Why Trump and DeSantis Are Talking About Australia. For conservatives, the country has become a symbol of coronavirus “tyranny.”

  • An Island Nation Covered in Ash Now Worries About a Covid Intrusion. Aid workers risk bringing in a virus Tonga has so far kept out. But there are more immediate problems, as its government confirmed in its first statement since the disaster.

  • Djokovic Returns to Warm Embrace in Home Country of Serbia. Novak Djokovic’s deportation from Australia over his vaccination status could signal future difficulties in his quest to win a record 21st tennis Grand Slam title.

  • At the Australian Open, Everyone Not Named Djokovic Is Ready to Star. After Novak Djokovic’s immigration troubles, he is gone, but don’t worry: Plenty of other stars and story lines are ready for the spotlight.

  • Serbia’s Leader Denounces Australia’s Treatment of Djokovic as ‘Orwellian’. In the tennis star’s homeland, even those who didn’t support his decision to remain unvaccinated against the coronavirus said that he had been mistreated.

    How the ‘Djokovic Affair’ Finally Came to an End. Novak Djokovic lost to a government with powerful laws, determined to make an example out of him.

  • The Mental Health of Tennis Players Is No Longer in the Shadows. The sport is very stressful, and many professionals had to often manage their anxiety alone. Now the tours provide help.

  • Novak Djokovic, a Master on the Court, Keeps Making Errors Off It. Djokovic, the Serbian tennis star, is at the center of some of the most divisive debates of the pandemic: Individual versus community, science versus quackery.

  • When Tennis Became a Stage for Right and Wrong During a Pandemic. The move to deport Novak Djokovic is not just an exercise of Australian law. It represents an enforcement of collectivist values against an athlete who sought to play by his own rules.

Around the Times

A worker at the Tabqa Dam in 2017.Credit…Delil Souleiman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
  • A Dam in Syria Was on a ‘No-Strike’ List. The U.S. Bombed It Anyway.A military report warned that striking the giant structure could cause tens of thousands of deaths.

  • 80 Years Ago the Nazis Planned the ‘Final Solution.’ It Took 90 Minutes.As Germany observes the anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, witnesses of the Nazi era are dying and antisemitism is resurgent in Europe and the United States.

  • U.S. Drops Its Case Against M.I.T. Scientist Accused of Hiding China Links.Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering, was arrested a year ago, accused of concealing his affiliations with Chinese government institutions.

  • This ‘Plastic Man’ Has a Cape and a Superhero’s Mission: Cleaning Up Senegal. Dressed head to toe in plastic, Modou Fall is a familiar sight in Dakar. But however playful his costume, his goal couldn’t be more serious: ridding the capital of the scourge of plastic bags.

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