Christa Pudmenzky has studied historical weather systems to predict modern day dust storms
Manually entering weather data from State and National archives, as well as maritime museums; scientists from around the world have recreated animated wind fields, or pressure maps, to watch Mother Nature in action from New Year’s Day 1871 to New Year’s Eve 2010.
“By looking back at the weather, through Captain’s ship logs and light house records, we can see when they recorded the dust storms and then find matching weather patterns using the 20th Century Reanalysis outputs,” said University of Southern Queensland PhD student Christa Pudmenzky.
“It’s a fascinating process, and quite nostalgic too in that many of the pages have coffee circles or rum stains, and you can almost picture the Captain at his desk, making his entry.”
Ms Pudmenzky said the purpose of the project, was to identify the climate drivers of severe dust storm events in Australia, with specific focus on the Lake Eyre Basin, Channel Country and NSW.
In 2009, the severe dust storm, Red Dawn, originated from the Lake Eyre Basin, Channel Country and north-western NSW and unleashed a 500 km wide, 1000 km long dust plume across Queensland, New South Wales, and Canberra between September 22 to 24.
The catastrophic event, described as “Armageddon” in the media, blew 2.54 million tonnes of desert dust and fertile top soil from central Australia to the eastern seaboard.
NASA reportedly measured the storm’s reach from its northern edge at Cape York, to its southern edge, to be 3450 km long; with air particle concentration levels almost 31 times higher than those experienced during a bush fire.
Ms Pudmenzky said dust storms were a potentially devastating weather phenomenon, lifting precious top soil and organic matter high into the atmosphere.
The abrasive nature of the winds could also destroy juvenile crops, close airports and roads and aggravate respiratory conditions.
“September to April is normally the dust storm season in El Niño years,” Ms Pudmenzky said. “With dust needing just 8 metres per second to take off and cause an ‘event’.
“What we hope to achieve, is that by reconstructing the climate for the past 200 years or more, we can provide an insight into the future and perhaps develop a seasonal or long-term forecasting model relevant to dust storm occurrence.”
Ms Pudmenzky said historical weather observation records are still being uncovered in museum cellars etc. and an ‘army’ of volunteers are involved in entering the vast amount of data into the Atmospheric Circulation Reconstruction over the Earth (ACRE) database centres at the Hadley Centre for Climate Research in the UK. This database is the backbone of the 20th Century Reanalysis project producing a comprehensive global atmospheric dataset. The aim is to use these tools to identifying potential relationships between climate change, low frequency climate variability and increased or changing dust storm activity.
“By marrying data from the late 1800s with 20th century technology, we have been able to create wind field, or pressure maps, like you see on the news each night during the weather update,” Ms Pudmenzky said.
“We can now simply choose a date and bring to life low and high pressure systems, creating interactive weather maps as though they were current systems.”
Weather conditions prime for dust storms included periods of extremely low rainfall, high temperatures and low pressure systems with virtually no vegetation or ground cover.
“And we’re trying to assess just how those environmental and climatic conditions have changed and whether dust storms have become more prevalent, or whether their intensity has changed through time,” she said.
“These are just some of the questions we are hoping to answer from analysing the Captain’s log books and light house records, and then inputting that data into our models to recreate the weather from yesterday to help forecast dust storms of tomorrow.”