How flat is Australia?

We recently drove down the coast to Mackay, then inland and South to Carnarvon Gorge before returning home via Clermont and Charters Towers. I will write about Cape Hillsborough and the Gorge in due course but first I will share my overwhelming impression from the 1800 km, twenty hour, trip: it’s flat!

Really, really, flat!

We have known for a long time that Australia is flat – old, worn down, eroded, etc – but there’s a difference between book-knowledge and body-knowledge.

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People in Australia before the Europeans arrived

In the middle of last year I compiled Where Did We Come From?,  a  sequence of articles and links about the evolution of our own species from the time we diverged from other apes up to the last few tens of thousands of years.

The last few articles in that sequence focused on Australia, and later additions crept ever closer to our own time. In the interests of making all the material more manageable, this post is its Australian content with some further additions. As before, it is arranged chronologically.

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Our very own hockey stick

Everyone with even the slightest interest in climate change has heard of the ‘hockey stick’ which showed in 1998 that recent warming is unprecedented in human history (the background is here, on wikipedia, if you want it).

What we may not have been particularly aware of was that it was based primarily on Northern hemisphere data. In hindsight, that meant there was the ghost of a hope that the temperature trend didn’t apply to Australia, but a team led by Joelle Gergis of Melbourne University has just laid that phantasm to rest: we now have our very own hockey stick.

Temperature reconstruction graph
Fig. 4 from Gergis et al.

The temperature reconstruction uses 27 proxy records, relying equally on tree rings and coral cores, and concludes that summer temperatures in the post-1950 period were warmer than anything else in the last 1000 years at high confidence, and in the last ~400 years at very high confidence.

RealClimate introduces the study here (that’s where I found out about it, in case you hadn’t guessed).

Update, 25 March 2013: A reader recently alerted me to the fact the Gergis et al’s paper was withdrawn before publication. It appears that there were technical flaws in it which meant it didn’t meet the expected standards of proof.

As far as I can determine, however, its conclusions were still probably correct – as one would expect, given that it was only extending northern hemisphere records into the southern hemisphere and one would not expect to find any great north-south difference.

Update 2, June 2020: The original paper seems to have been replaced in 2016 by another by the same authors, Australasian Temperature Reconstructions Spanning the Last Millennium.  Their conclusions are essentially the same:

Regardless, the most recent instrumental temperatures (1985–2014) are above the 90th percentile of all 12 reconstruction ensembles (four reconstruction methods based on three proxy networks—R28, R3, and R2). The reconstructed twentieth-century warming cannot be explained by natural variability alone using GISS-E2-R. In this climate model, anthropogenic forcing is required to produce the rate and magnitude of post-1950 warming observed in the Australasian region.