Rain-Soaked Rural Australia Asks: When Will It End?

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We were flying over flooded farms and homes in northwestern New South Wales when Bryce Guest, the helicopter pilot showing us around, said something that stuck with me.

“Australia is all about water — everything revolves around it,” he said. “Where you put your home, your stock. Everything.”

A few years ago, that focus on water meant trying to deal with drought. The area now drowning had been a wasteland of dust and cracked red earth. Bryce talked about the cycle farmers endured: First, they stopped adding to their fields and herds; then they culled and cut back; and, at the very end, they started selling furniture from their own homes just to survive.

“To get to this point now,” he said, rising above a soaked flood plain that stretched for as far as the eye could see, “there was just a monstrous amount of rain.”

“But it could be worse,” he added. “With drought, you can’t grow or do anything.”

Comparing one weather extreme to another is common in rural and regional Australia, and for the most part, the people who live in these sorts of places are resilient and ready for whatever comes.

But as I wrote in an article that will soon be published, the past few years have demanded more perseverance than even the hardiest Australians might have expected. The Black Summer bush fires of 2019 and 2020 were the worst in Australia’s recorded history. This year, many of the same areas that suffered through those epic blazes endured the wettest, coldest November since at least 1900.

The costs that come with these extremes are piling up as global warming supercharges Australia’s already intense climate variability. Government budgets for emergencies have increased, and so have insurance rates. Many families that are still traumatized by drought and fires are now reeling from pandemic lockdowns, floods and a recent mouse plague.

“We are being hammered by these extremes,” said Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Center of Excellence for Climate Extremes at the University of New South Wales. “Some are related to natural variability, some are related to changes in climate, and some are related to human design decisions — building things in places that don’t take into account these variabilities.”

On the ground, the people I met last week were less focused on the causes than the effects. As we edge closer to 2022, even the toughest, strongest, most community-minded Australians are desperate for a break from the deluge of disaster.

“It feels constant,” said Brett Dickinson, 58, a wheat farmer in Wee Waa. “We’re constantly battling all the elements — and the animals, too.”

Now here are our stories of the week.

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