outside view of flooded research greenhouses
outside view of flooded research greenhouses

Flooding and Storms Wreak Havoc for Australian Scientists

Record-breaking rainfall has caused widespread flooding and devastation in Queensland and New South Wales, forcing the closure of some university campuses.

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Bianca Nogrady

Bianca Nogrady is a freelance science journalist and author who is yet to meet a piece of research she doesn't find fascinating.

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Mar 4, 2022

ABOVE: Flooded research greenhouses at the University of Queensland Lee Hickey

Australia’s east coast has been drenched with record-breaking rainfall, causing floods that have submerged major cities including the Queensland state capital Brisbane, killed at least 16 people, and wreaked major devastation across both Queensland and New South Wales.

Around 90 centimeters of rain fell in the space of one week on some areas of the coast, with 61 cm on the city of Brisbane in just three days. Combined with a high tide, the Brisbane River flooded and inundated around 15,000 homes. Further south, the northern New South Wales town of Lismore received 70 cm of rain in just 30 hours, which sent the Wilsons River surging over its levee bank and broke its previous high-water mark record by 2 meters.

The heavy rainfall is likely the result of a so-called atmospheric river that transports moisture-laden air from the ocean and across the northern east coast. The rainfall is arriving on land saturated from two consecutive years of the La Niña weather system, which also has brought rainfall and cooler temperatures to the area. 

The flooding has also affected multiple university campuses. Times Higher Education reports that Southern Cross University’s campus in the flooded town of Lismore will be closed for classes “until at least May,” with instruction moved online as the campus serves as recovery center. Several other institutions, including Griffith University and the University of the Sunshine Coast, have closed some of their campuses. 

At the University of Queensland in Brisbane, plant biotechnologist Ian Godwin describes an awful sense of déjà vu as he and colleagues watched research greenhouses disappear under water for the second time in 11 years.

“In short, they’re stuffed,” says Godwin, who directs the university’s Centre for Crop Science. The flood waters, which reached 2 meters at the research site, destroyed the electrical equipment that maintains temperature levels inside the greenhouses and flooded the crops inside. “There’s no way of cooling or opening vents, so when the sun’s out the glasshouses rapidly get up to about 50 degrees [Celsius].”

Affected research projects included work on genetically-modified, self-reproducing, high-yield sorghum and cowpea, and research on improving drought tolerance by altering crops’ root structure and leaf size. Godwin says while some of the plants may survive without significant damage or loss of research value, other projects will need to start from scratch. 

For some graduate students and postdocs, the experiments affected represent the last of a series “that enables them to put it all together,” he says. Researchers from the center were able to get into the greenhouses on Thursday and have been collecting viable seed, washing off plants and finding them temporary new homes in greenhouses around the area that have been volunteered by other universities and the state government. “There’s going to be a lot of plants going on little holidays to places like Toowoomba,” Godwin says.

Jemma Purandare, an environmental science PhD candidate at Griffith University in Brisbane, has had to completely rethink her research after the sites she had been preparing to sample for sediment analysis were transformed by the flooding. While her home was high up enough to avoid the waters, “I was trapped at home watching this relentless, torrential rain going, ‘oh my god, what am I going to do?’” she says. 

I was trapped at home watching this relentless, torrential rain going, “oh my god, what am I going to do?”

—Jemma Purandare, Griffith University

Her PhD has involved research on sediment transport within estuaries around the Gold Coast region of Queensland to determine how much of the sediment is coming from the coast and how much is coming from inland. Purandare had collected around half the samples from one section of the Gold Coast Broadwater estuary region, but her plan to complete sampling was delayed first by the Omicron surge and then by the floods. 

The floods will completely change the baseline conditions in the region, she says. “I can’t go and sample the locations that I was going to because it’s not going to be representative anymore.” Consequently, Purandare has decided to pivot her research focus to examining the effect of the floods on sediment in the estuary, which could illuminate where the sediment is coming from and what effect it might have on aspects such as water quality and seagrass beds. 

For Brendan Mackey, the floods provided a real-world and real-time illustration of his and his colleagues’ conclusions in the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. In fact, he was in the middle of delivering a briefing to journalists about the report when the flooded creek near his house on the Gold Coast uprooted a tree and toppled it into his swimming pool.

Mackey, a climate scientist at Griffith University and director of the university’s Climate Action Beacon research hub, says the rainfall was the most intense he had ever experienced, even having lived and worked in the tropics. At the same time he was on the webinar with journalists, he was receiving updates by phone from a family member further south in Lismore, who was stranded on the roof of his home awaiting rescue.

The flooding mirrors a similar event in 2011 in Brisbane that was described at the time as a “once in a century” flood. It highlights how climate change is likely to result in increasingly frequent weather-related disasters, Mackey says. “There has been a significant increase in the intensity of heavy rainfall events since the 1960s,” he says. “As global warming increases, you’ll get an ongoing increase in intensity of heavy rainfall events, and thus increasing the magnitude of flooding.”

While the initial flooding has now eased, Brisbane is still experiencing severe storms that are compounding the damage. The low pressure system has moved south, bringing heavy rainfall and flooding to Sydney and coastal New South Wales.