Natural disasters are catastrophic events that result from the Earth’s natural processes. Some even say they are nature’s way of warning us – noting that some disasters are actually man-made because of climate change. Natural disasters in Australia predominantly can include heatwaves, bushfires, droughts, floods, severe storms, tropical cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides.
Natural disasters in Australia
Just in November 2020, The Washington Post reported that the Australian heatwave in Sydney recorded sustained day temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius – “a feat that had not been accomplished during the month of November in 160 years of record-keeping,” says weather Editor Andrew Freedman. 2019 was also recorded by the Australian Climate Council as Australia’s hottest and driest year ever (ranking second in a 110-year history).
This is not the first time the nation has saw such temperatures. In 2013, temperatures have regularly gone beyond the 40 degrees Celsius, resulting in a heatwave lasting more than two weeks. Places like Moomba in South Australia have also regularly recorded temperatures above 48 degrees Celsius.
But this problem is not unique to Australia, as global average temperature rises, hot days get hotter and heatwaves last longer and becomes a more frequent affair. Due to its geographical location and large spatial arid lands, Australia has long been susceptible to especially high temperatures.
As result, skin cancer is a major cause of illness in Australia, accounting for approximately 80 percent for all newly diagnosed cancers yearly. As a result, Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.
Record-breaking temperatures and months of severe drought have also caused a series of massive bushfires across Australia over the years, with the 2019 to 2020 bushfires receiving huge international attention. 33 lives were lost and over 11 million hectares of bush, forests and parks to perish (along with many wildlife species). The 2009 Black Saturday bushfire was by the far the most deadly in Australian history, with 173 lives lost, over 4,000 homes and structures destroyed.
According to the BBC, scientists warned that hotter, drier climates will contribute to frequent and intense bushfires. Given that many parts of Australia have been in drought conditions due to its climate, this makes it much easier for bushfires to spread and grow rapidly. Sometimes, it happens sporadically, too: “Grassland fires frequently occur after good periods of rainfall which result in abundant growth that dries out in hot weather,” says the Geoscience Australia department.
Natural climate patterns like are also said to contribute El Niño and La Niña to the ecosystem, causing wetter or drier weather across the globe, depending on geographical location.
Just this March, an estimated 18,000 people were evacuated in New South Wales due to severe floods resulting from heavy rainfall. The BBC reported, “days of torrential downpours have caused rivers and dams to overflow around Sydney and in southeast Queensland,” resulting in massive efforts for disaster relief, with the military being deployed to help with search and rescue. Named the 2021 Eastern Australia floods, over one billion Australian dollars’ worth of property have been destroyed and five casualties were recorded.
There are three main types of flooding experienced in Australia, according to the Australian government and the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience: Riverine floods, flash floods and coastal floods.
Riverine floods are the most common form of flooding in Australia. This happens when contributors like heavy rainfall exceeds the land’s ability to absorb water, causing the latter to become saturated and in turn, causing excess water to overflow into low-lying areas.
Flash floods occur whenever there are short and intense bursts of rainfall. This is one of the more dangerous forms of flooding as it happens very quickly, leaving less time for disaster warning and response.
Coastal floods are caused by rising sea levels, which can be due to several factors like waves, astronomical tides, storm surges, strong onshore winds and more.
Natural climate patterns like El Niño and La Niña also contribute to the ecosystem, causing wetter or drier weather across the globe, depending on geographical location.
Defined as a decline (or lack) in precipitation over a three-month period by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Australia is no stranger to droughts. Since the 1860s, severe drought has occurred in Australia at least once every 18 years, on average. On record, there have been nine major Australian droughts – largely owing to the semi-arid climate that spans across the largest parts of Australian lands.
In the years 2017 to 2019, Australia experienced a decrease in rainfall which led to record warm temperatures and exacerbated dry conditions. Natural climate patterns like El Niño and La Niña also contribute to the ecosystem, causing some regions to experience less rainfall than normal, which in turn results in drier lands. Drier lands also mean an increased risk for bushfires, this explains why droughts and bushfires often go hand-in-hand.
Also known as hurricanes or typhoons, cyclones are fairly common in Australia. On average, Australia experiences about 13 cyclones a year and cyclone season typically runs from November to April. However out of all cyclones, only half will ever become severe and reach landfall. North-western Australia is known to be the most cyclone-prone region.
A cyclone’s destructive effect is measured based on five categories: 1 being the lowest impact and 5 being catastrophic. However, it is important to note that the extent of destruction also depends on where it makes landfall – a location with a huge population and many buildings, or an arid land.
For example, one of the worst cyclones to hit Australia is Cyclone Marcia – a category 5 cyclone that hit Queensland in 2015, destroying over 350 homes, damaged nearly 2,000 properties and resulted in nearly USD $600 million dollars in damage. However, due to quick disaster warning and response efforts, there were no fatalities.
Due to the warm oceans in the tropical regions surrounding Australia, cyclones are fairly common as the conditions for it to take place requires sea surface temperatures to be above 26.5 degrees Celsius. In addition, storms also tend to happen more frequently in Australia than any other natural hazard.
Hail is a form of solid precipitation, hailstones form when raindrops are carried upward by thunderstorms into extremely cold areas of the atmosphere and freezes. Due to an unstable atmosphere caused by climate change, Australia is said to expect more hail events in some of its largest cities, as noted by a researcher at the UNSW Sydney’s Climate Change Research Centre.
In January 2020, Melbourne and Canberra experienced golf-ball sized hail during separate storms and a series of flash floods. Winds of up to 116 kilometre per hour was also recorded. More than 1,500 people reported damaged property including cars and houses.
In general hailstorms are not as destructive to human life as long as people stay indoors. However, the damage to property can take quite a big hit depending on the size of the hail. Hence, hailstorm fatality is relatively low, but it can be a huge inconvenience to daily life.
According to Geoscience Australia, the land experiences about 100 earthquakes measuring below a magnitude of 5 (measured on the Richter scale) each year. Earthquakes of such magnitudes can be life-threatening if no proper evacuation system is implemented within a state. However, given Australia’s swift modern earthquake monitoring, alert and evacuation system, earthquakes of such magnitudes generally result in little to no human fatalities. However, buildings with poor structure or weak foundations may suffer damage regardless.
Earthquakes are primarily caused by tectonic plate shifts that take place in the earth’s crust. The Australian plate is also the fastest moving continental land mass on Earth and is colliding into the Pacific and Eurasian Plate. This generates a lot of compressive stress on the Australian continent. The earthquakes are therefore caused by the sudden release of this stress whenever rocks deep underground break and move along a fault line.
Earthquakes measuring above a magnitude of 5 usually occur once every two years. Australia’s largest recorded earthquake happened in 1988 at Tennant Creek, measuring a magnitude of 6.6.
Tsunamis are primarily caused by tectonic plate convergence – this is an event when two tectonic plates collide, causing a rupture in the earth’s lithospheric crust and sending tidal waves into land masses. In short, yes, tsunamis are caused by violent seafloor movement, or earthquakes. However other things like landslides, undersea volcanic activity and meteorite impact can also cause tsunamis.
While not a common occurrence in Australia, tsunamis are always a possibility given Australia’s geographical location that is bounded by the Pacific and Eurasian plates where convergence occur quite frequently (see above).
The most recent tsunami in Australia was triggered by the devastating 9.0 magnitude earthquake that occurred in the Tohoku, Japan in March 2011. The earthquake sent waves measuring 35 centimetres high into the Port Kembla coastline. Strong currents were also recorded in several locations throughout Sydney harbour. Though this tsunami was mild and an after-effect of Japan’s devastation, the threat is still present.
A landslide refers to the movement of mass (rock, debris or earth) down a slope. They are also known as a type of “mass wasting” – any down-slop movement of soil and rock as a result of gravity. Landslides can occur in a variety of environments that has steep or gentle slopes – some common environments being mountain ranges, coastal cliffs and even underwater. The main cause of landslide is gravity, but other natural factors like heavy rainfall or earthquake can trigger a landslide, too.
The last catastrophic landslide occurred in 1997. The Thredbo landslide happened on July 1997 at the village and ski resort of Thredbo, New South Wales. Two ski lodges were destroyed and there were 18 fatalities.
Landslides are most common in hilly or mountainous landscapes, coastlines and river valleys. Regions with poor bedrock and soil conditions are also most susceptible to landslides. It is important to note that landslides can also be caused by human activities like coal mining.
How to prepare for natural disasters
While we can never escape the effects of Mother Nature, we can do our part to prepare for it. Peruse the following tips below on how to best prepare yourself:
- Australian Red Cross: REDiPlan
REDiPlan is an all-hazards emergency preparedness tool for all individuals and households in Australia. This includes a simple four-step approach: Get in the know, get connected, get organised and get packing.
- Get insured
Ensure that all valuable liabilities are protected by an insurance plan. This includes your home, valuable materials, vehicles and most importantly, yourself and your family members. Your insurance plan should also cover damages caused by natural occurrences.
- Familiarise yourself with disaster alerts and warning systems
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Standard Emergency Warning Signal (SEWS) are handy resources and tools to keep you updated on potential natural threats. Listen out for the SEWS siren broadcasted over radio and national TV channels, or head to the Bureau of Meteorology’s website for updates on climate conditions.
Additionally, never ignore Emergency Alert text messages sent by your local government and always heed their warnings or advice on evacuation protocols.
- Know your numbers
In case of any life-threatening emergencies, below are the important numbers to take note of:
000: Police, ambulance or fire services
106: If you have a hearing or speech impediment, dial this number from a teletypewriter to access the Text Emergency Relay Service.
112: This is the international standard emergency number. (Should you need an interpretation, call 131 450.)
132 500: This directs to the State Emergency Services (SES) for emergency help during natural disasters
13-11-14: 24-hour counselling service by Lifeline Australia. If a life is in danger, contact 000.
For state-specific contacts, visit the state and territory emergency services organisations page to contact various Emergency Services Organisations (ESO) for advice on what to do during an emergency.
If you do find yourself in a disaster-stricken area and are safe, register yourself as “safe” or locate family or friends in other affected areas using the Register.Find.Reunite service by the Red Cross.
- Be emotionally prepared
This is vital as it helps you stay in control to properly execute emergency plans. It also helps to reduce psychological distress and long-term mental health problems that can ensure as a result of trauma.
The Australian Psychological Society advises on three simple steps (AIM) to being psychologically prepared for emergences:
Anticipate that feeling worried or anxious are normal and natural responses to any possible life-threatening situation.
Identify specific physical sensations associated with your feelings of anxiety and whether you might have additional thoughts that might exacerbate your existing fears.
Manage your responses using controlled breathing techniques. Self-talk to stay calm as possible in order to focus on the immediate task at hand.
How to cope after a natural disaster
Surviving a life-threatening event is a very distressing experience and should not be ignored. Feelings of fear, anxiety and even trauma can lead to mental health illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), survivor’s guilt and more.
Below are some organisations you can consult to receive post-disaster relief and support:
- Helplines: Hotlines like Beyond Blue (1300-22-4636) and Lifeline (see above) provide support and advice for dealing with emotional impacts after surviving a natural disaster.
- Mental health professionals: Speak to your nearest doctor, counsellor or therapist about your situation.
- Financial assistance: Contact Services Australia (180-22-66) to find out if you’re eligible for government relief payments after a natural disaster. Visit here to see the various recovery payments available.
Natural disasters are distressing catastrophic events that happen regardless of human intervention. Even as the world progresses with various disaster-adapting systems, no amount of technological progress can prevent natural disasters. The best we can do is to prepare for it, and reduce casualties and fatalities as much as possible.