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Australia’s climate: worse then and getting worse now, fascinating new account

book review Sunburnt Country

Book review by Crystal Bevan.

EARLY AUSTRALIAN SETTLERS faced not only starvation due to limited food supplies and failing crops, but also natural disasters similar and relatively more destructive than the ones we face today. Attempting to live and settle with an alien landscape’s volatile climate almost decimated the Europeans and their attempt to settle in Sydney.

Our climate has always been volatile and unpredictable, and in recent years there has been serious evidence that rising temperatures are causing frequent and more damaging floods and fires. Rising temperatures have also initiated dangerously long and sweltering heat waves. Modern Australia could be faced with very real unlivable conditions much like those that faced our colonial counterparts.

Sunburnt Country: The History and Future of Climate Change in Australia  details climate researcher Joelle Gergis’ endeavor to reconstruct Australia’s climate history over the last 1,000 years as she formed the South Eastern Australian Recent Climate History (or SEARCH team). This team provided the scientific analysis of exactly how climate change, including more extreme droughts and flooding, has affected Australia and what our country’s weather may look like as this worsens.

Land of extremes then and now

Starting with the Australian climate as detailed by European colonial settlers, Gergis tells a story of how our country’s climate has always been variable and extreme. This style of engaging the reader through firsthand accounts of early Australia is gripping, and even for a weather novice like myself caused me to become invested in reading on for the reveal of a climate no one alive today has lived through.

The second part of Gergis’ book takes one through the first recorded weather history in our country, as the instruments became available and the drive for recording the conditions of a variable climate become apparent. Besides outlining how our weather progressed past the early days of settlement, Gergis gives detailed and concise scientific information on how the weather is recorded and what climatic systems already drive much of the pattern of our weather.

With the SEARCH team research Gergis speculates on what the future of Australia’s weather holds. Scientific evidence makes clear the impact of the human induced industrial revolutions and carbon emissions shaping the Southern Hemisphere’s climate, and what may be done to combat rising temperatures in Australia – although it may be too late to instigate any real solutions.

What ancient tree rings and coral reefs tell us

Besides the weather accounts from early settlers, other aspects of the book I found particularly engaging included the analysis of paleoclimatic research, such as ancient tree rings and coral reefs.

The health of Australians in the chapter Silent Killers, additionally provides a fascinating account of how our society is physically impacted by extreme weather due to climate change and how this may become an “apocalyptic future”.

As someone who was a complete weather novice coming into Sunburnt Country, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to understand and engage with a book about the nature and science of our climate. It broadened my understanding and has made me increasingly interested in learning more about Australia’s weather and how climate change is altering its path.

I recommend this book to anyone who has a keen interest in the climate of Australia or is merely curious about what our weather looked like before human life and during colonial days. Sunburnt Country provides a riveting account backed by specific and relevant science. The focal point of only using Australasian climate research causes Gergis’ book to stand out as one of the only specific climate accounts of our country.

Melbourne University Press, $35.99

COVER IMAGE SOURCE: Melbourne University Press.  BACKGROUND IMAGE: David Hancock / Dreamstime

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