The weather is pleasantly warm here in the South East of England, the sun is (mostly) shining, birds are tweeting, trees and garden plants are in full leaf and there’s talk of drought and hosepipe bans on the way – yes, it seems that summer is almost on us.
Weatherwise, plenty was going on in the summer of 1911, so I’m busy getting prepared for quite a few instalments of “100 Years of Climate Change” in the months ahead.
For now, though, I’d like to look back a bit. We’ve had devastating earthquakes this year in New Zealand and Japan, which are still very fresh in the mind, but a few weeks before those disasters burst upon the world’s media, do you remember the floods and storms that were impacting Queensland, Australia?
In particular, you might recall Cyclone Yasi, a tropical cyclone that hammered Northern Queensland at the beginning of February this year, destroying houses in several towns and causing billions of dollars of damage to the sugar cane and banana crops. In an article dated 2nd February, Damian Carrington of the Guardian wondered whether this new “monster, killer storm” would affect attitudes to global warming. Professor Ross Garnaut, climate change advisor to the Australian government, spoke of even more extreme events to come, and warned that “if we are seeing an intensification of extreme weather events now, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
In the event, although it did great economic damage and destroyed homes and infrastructure, Cyclone Yasi turned out not to be quite as devastating as it could have been. It missed the city of Cairns, where over 150,000 people live, and there was but a single death attributed to the storm (a man died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a portable generator.)
Compare this, if you will, to Cyclone Tracy which mauled the city of Darwin in 1974 (under similar La Nina conditions, by the way, which also saw Brisbane under more flood water than it experienced this year), destroying 70% of its buildings, killing 71 people and causing a humanitarian disaster which was “without parallel in Australia’s history”, according to one commentator and which occurred well before the late 20th century warm spell began.
Back in 1911, there were also some pretty destructive cyclones making landfall in this region. In January, a big storm and gale-force winds caused havoc at Marburg in South West Queensland. In February, two great cyclones struck at Port Douglas, destroying crops, almost completely flattening the town and taking two lives.
And then, when a further massive cyclone approached the coast in March 1911, there was a further tragic loss. The steamer S.S. Yongala, a 350-foot vessel built in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, had just put out to sea from Mackay, heading north to Townsville. There were 122 people on board, and the ship’s cargo included a bull and a racehorse called Moonshine. On 23rd March, a signal station at Mackay received a telegram warning of the cyclone but they had no way of warning the Yongala, which had just left, as the ship had no radio. And although the skipper, Captain William Knight was an experienced and well-regarded seaman, the storm proved to be a disaster for the steamer – she sank, with all aboard her perishing. The only body to be washed ashore was that of Moonshine, the racehorse. The wreck lay undisturbed for almost half a century and was not fully located and identified until 1958.
There was a tragic irony in that a radio had actually been on its way to the Yongala – a wireless set had been ordered from the Marconi Company in England, but it arrived too late. If there had been a radio aboard, it would probably have made the difference between life and death.
Earlier this year, the centenary of the sinking of the Yongala was marked by a memorial ceremony at the maritime museum at Townsville.
There are two points I suppose I’d like to make. Firstly, to see cyclones, hurricanes and floods in their proper context, look at history (as today’s global warming enthusiasts seem unwilling to do.) These are not new phenomena, whipped up out of nowhere by man’s fondness for fossil fuels. The sort of extreme weather events we see taking place in recent times have also taken place repeatedly in times past, with – as far as we know – no greater frequency or intensity than they are taking place now.
Secondly, modern technology is the key to having a better chance of surviving these tantrums of nature. Using radio and telephone communications, towns and cities can be evacuated, isolated people can be warned and lives can be saved. This is what happened in Queensland earlier this year when Yasi was threatening, and it is what could have saved the Yongala and her passengers and crew a hundred years ago.