Australia is a land of extremes, and famously of "droughts and flooding rains". That's been truer than ever in the 21st century; since 1999 the country has see-sawed from drought to deluge with surprising speed.
There was the millennium drought, which lasted more than a decade and culminated in disasters such as Victoria's Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. Then, in 2011, Cyclone Yasi struck Queensland and a large swathe of Australia exploded under a green carpet of grasses, shrubs and trees.
Filming of the movie Mad Max: Fury Road was moved from outback Australia to Namibia after the big wet of 2010-11, because Australia's luxurious growth of wildflowers and metre-high grasses didn't quite match the post-apocalyptic landscape the movie's producers had in mind. In Alice Springs, the Henley-on-Todd Regatta was almost cancelled in 2011 because there was water in the normally dry river.
Globally, the big wet on land caused a 5 mm drop in sea levels as large amounts of rain were deposited on Australia, South America and Africa. This coincided with an unprecedented increase in carbon stored in vegetation, especially in arid and semi-arid regions of the southern hemisphere. The greening of Australia in particular had a globally significant impact.
Meteorologists have struggled to explain these wild variations in Australia's weather. Dry years with disappointing crops have been linked to the Pacific Ocean's El Niño phase (part of a cycle called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO)). But despite its huge influence, not even ENSO can fully account for Australia's extreme rainfall patterns.
Our research, published this week in Nature's Scientific Reports, offers an explanation. We found that conditions in the three oceans that surround Australia - the Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans - combine to amplify each other's influences on Australian weather.
Extraordinarily wet and dry years occur when the ENSO phase is in sync with two other cycles, called the Indian Ocean dipole (IOD) and the Southern Annular Mode (SAM).
The three have been synchronised since 1999, which explains why things have been so volatile this century. Courtesy http://theconversation.com/ Read more in the online edition here