First came the record-breaking drought and extreme heat. Then the bush fires began earlier than usual and in ecosystems that don’t typically burn. These blazes turned into a massive crisis that continues to garner global attention, with flames consuming a staggering amount of land prized for its biodiversity.
Now rain is finally falling in southeastern Australia, but it’s coming at a price. Thunderstorms are delivering localized deluges, with water rushing off topsoil that is too dry to absorb so much water in such a short period of time. Massive hail is slamming urban and rural areas alike. Outflow winds from these storms, which have struck the country during the past several days and are likely to continue for another day, are stirring up massive dust storms that evoke scenes from the American Southwest.
It’s an epic case of weather whiplash, and while these rains are helping firefighters gain control of some of the fires and even extinguish many of them, they’re not going to end the drought, or even remove the bush fire danger entirely during the rest of the summer.
Over the weekend, dust storms and hail blew into parts of southeastern Australia, from Victoria northeastward to Queensland. According to an ABC Australia news report, golf-ball-sized hail and winds of more than 70 mph hit Canberra, the country’s capital, and invaded Sydney. In Sydney and surrounding suburbs, trees were damaged and large hail fell as well.
In Canberra, the hail was large enough to damage cars and smash windows, and the storms led to more calls for emergency assistance in the capital than had occurred in the previous two years, ABC reported.
Extreme rainfall rates were recorded in some areas. According to the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), 1.7 inches of rain fell in one hour at the top of Mount Moornapa, about 120 miles east-northeast of Melbourne. The BOM reports that has a return interval of about once every 50 years, or a 2% chance of occurring in any given year.
A shift in the prevailing weather pattern has featured a more humid, onshore air flow that has converged on an area of low pressure that has set up across inland portions of eastern and southeastern Australia. This has yielded daily rounds of showers and thunderstorms, including severe storms, that has brought welcome rains for farmers and firefighters alike.
However, the forecast calls for a return to “severe” and “extreme” bush fire danger in parts of South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. The Bureau of Meteorology is also warning of the likelihood of dust storms, as a strong cold front pushes across southern Australia on Wednesday into Thursday. Trees weakened by fire and then by heavy rains may fall more easily, the BOM warns.
Cold fronts, and their associated wind shifts, have brought some of the most devastating bush-fire days of the ongoing crisis, propelling flames at more than 40 mph in new directions that force firefighters to retreat.
While the recent rains could dampen fire activity, the long-term drought conditions and warm temperatures will still make for dangerous fire weather. On Thursday, in particular, heat is forecast to intensify in New South Wales and Queensland, with a high temperature of 104 degrees predicted for Sydney, along with strong winds.