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Drought of 1891 to 1903 reconstructed shows today's conditions likely to have more devastating effects

Nikolai Beilharz, Tuesday July 16, 2019 - 17:13 EST
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Rabbits died in large numbers due to lack of water and feed — Cockburn Railway, SA, 1892 - ABC

A reconstruction of the Federation drought has found that if it were to occur again today, its effects would likely be even more devastating in some areas of the country.

The 'once in a century drought', which went from 1891 to 1903, caused an ecosystem collapse affecting more than a third of the country.

The drought was one of the world's worst recorded 'megadroughts', which at its peak saw much of the country get less than 40 per cent of its annual rainfall, with 1902 the driest year on record.

Learning from history

The CSIRO has conducted new research trying to reconstruct the drought.

It did so by studying thousands of historical records and eyewitness accounts of the drought and combined that with rainfall records.

It said that more than 60 bird, fish, mammal, reptile, and plant species were severely affected across more than a third of Australia's land mass.

CSIRO researcher Dr. Robert Godfree said that unsurprisingly, the drought lead to widespread economic depression, as well the challenges nature faced.

"In New South Wales, most rivers stopped flowing and dust storms filled dams, buried homesteads and created ghost towns as people fled," Dr Godfree said.

"Wildlife and stock starved or died of thirst. Native birds and mammals died under trees, in creeks, and on the plains.

"Tens of millions of sheep and cattle were killed, and hundreds of millions of rabbits died of starvation after stripping the landscape of its plant life," he said

A little bit of history repeating

Researchers say that if a drought similar to the Federation drought was to take place today, changes in landscape and land use would change how parts of the country would react.

"There's been substantial changes in how the landscape is used, and I think that a drought of that severity returning today could be more devastating in some parts of the country, particularly where there is intensive agriculture," Dr Godfree said.

"Another area of concern is rivers that are regulated now and where there is a lot of human extraction [of water].

Dr Godfree said he was hoping that this research would help prepare the nation for droughts in the future.

"In the future, we hope to be able to determine whether a location is at immediate risk of biodiversity loss during extreme drought and take action to prevent it.

"We're looking to do this through reviewing recent rainfall data and using this to determine which areas, but also which ecosystems and species are on the brink of decline.

"These are complex systems these changes can occur suddenly."


© ABC 2019

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