Forecaster Blog: Was it really better in the old days?

30 Jan 2014 9

Ben Macartney

Chief Surf Forecaster

By Chief Swell Forecaster Ben Macartney, Thursday, 30 January 2014

Have you ever dreamed of building a time machine and travelling back in time, hundreds of years into the past to surf perfect empty Kirra - back when the sand was perfect and tropical cyclone swells were in abundance? Me neither, but we’ve all heard the calls from crusty old blokes that it was better back in the day. I’ve always ascribed this to selective memory – or more specifically our tendency to clearly recall standout events in our lives (like epic Kirra with three guys out) while conveniently blanking out the negative or uneventful (like a two month flat spell). But it now appears all those old blokes rattling on about how good the surf used to be just might be right – at least with respect to tropical swells.

Long before the concrete jungle and surfers materialised it appears Kirra was regularly cranking out waves like this for centuries. Image: Coastalwatch Plus member Ross Loehr.

Long before the concrete jungle and surfers materialised it appears Kirra was regularly cranking out waves like this for centuries. Image: Coastalwatch Plus member Ross Loehr.

A recent study published in the science journal Nature shows the number of Tropical Cyclones hitting tropical Australian coasts has fallen to the lowest levels in 500 years. These findings are in line with climate model simulations predicting  fewer tropical cyclones as the Earth warms, coupled with a higher incidence of severe tropical cyclones - it’s just that this trend appears to be occurring much sooner than the modelling anticipated. The findings show seasonal cyclone activity effecting Queensland is at its lowest level since 1400AD and also indicates the decline began about 40 years ago – which kind of fits with all those cranky old man claims that it used to pump non-stop across southeast Queensland in the summers of the 1960’s and early 1970’s.

The study analysed the chemical makeup of stalagmites (the ones that grow upwards from the cave floor in limestone caves), looking at layers approximately 1/10th of a millimetre thick. The stalagmites arise from hundreds of years of mineral laden rainwater dripping from the ceiling directly onto the same spot on the cave floor. Because Rainwater from tropical cyclones has a distinct chemical signature that differentiates it from normal monsoonal rain, the researchers were able to match their findings with cyclone records from the Bureau of Meteorology (that go back to 1906) to generate a Cyclone Activity index spanning the last 1,500 years.

Tropical Cyclone Yasi, one of the strongest tropical storms ever recorded, crossed the northern Queensland coast back in February 2011.

Tropical Cyclone Yasi, one of the strongest tropical storms ever recorded, crossed the northern Queensland coast back in February 2011.

Who ever thought a bunch of these guys could tell us how good the surf used to be?

Who ever thought a bunch of these guys could tell us how good the surf used to be?

The  findings are in line with conclusions from previous studies into long term cyclone behavior that show the last century of cyclone activity in Australia has been very low compared to previous centuries. So what are the implications? On the one hand it just may be the case that changes in cyclone frequency anticipated by climate modelling are already upon us and that the trend will continue as warming continues into the future. This would continue to see fewer, but more intense tropical cyclones affecting the region. Another possibility is that we’re just in the midst of a interdecadal lull in tropical cyclone activity and that a return to the higher incidence, long term average could be just around the corner. Obviously this second scenario has good implications for East Coast surfers – but also presents a potential disaster in the making for the overdeveloped southern Queensland coastline.


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