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GES DISC provides rapid analysis of factors contributing to record Australian floods

Rainfall and temperature data and anomalies demonstrate dramatic departures from normal conditions

GES DISC provides rapid analysis of factors contributing to record Australian floods

IR image of clouds associated with storms causing floods in Queensland, Australia

GES DISC provides rapid analysis of factors contributing to record Australian floods

Extremely heavy rainfall fell in Queensland, Australia in late December 2010, causing record-breaking floods.  The heavy storm rainfall added to several months of above-average rainfall in the region.  The rain in December 2010 was augmented by Tropical Storm Tasha, which attacked the northeastern coast of Australia on Christmas Day. According to news reports, the massive area of flooding was described as the size of France and Germany combined. Roads and homes were submerged by flood water, with flood damage described as "catastrophic", and government predictions that it would take a year to recover.   World economics was impacted as Queensland is a major supplier of coking coal used in steel production, and most coking coal mining and production was shut down.  Sediment and organic matter flowing from the flooded rivers was predicted to detrimentally affect the pristine waters of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Data and services at the NASA GES DISC can be utilized to provide a rapid preliminary analysis of the factors contributing to this natural disaster.  Figure 1 shows the 30-day rainfall total, anomaly and percent of normal over Australia (these data displays are updated daily at the URL:  These images show the dramatic nature of the rainfall, which in some cases was over 250% of normal (Figure 1c) in the coastal areas of Queensland.

Australia rainfall, January 2011, total and anomaly

Figure 1:   a) Total rainfall during the past 30 days; b) Rainfall anomaly; and c) Percent of normal ((rainfall – climatology)/climatology) X 100%.

Figure 2 shows animations of the heaviest rainfall events in the region in late December. Figure 2a is a large-scale animation showing clusters of thunderstorms in the western Pacific region associated with above-normal surface temperatures (Figure 3). Figure 2b is a close-up animation showing the development of a series of strong thunderstorms in the coastal region of Queensland.

Large scale animation of storms in Australia, December 2010

Figure 2a:   Animation of western Pacific and eastern Indian Ocean cloud IR observations, showing clouds associated with heavy rainfall over Queensland, Australia.


Close-up animation of December 2010 storms in Queensland, Australia

Figure 2b:  Close-up animation of clouds associated with heavy rainfall and flooding in Queensland, Australia, in late December 2010.


Figure 3 displays surface skin temperature from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on NASA's Aqua satellite for November 2010.  Because this data product is measured directly at the surface of the Earth, "bulk" sea surface temperature (SST) in the top meters of the ocean could actually be higher and influence weather dynamics even more.   Note that while Pacific Ocean areas to the north of Australia and Indonesia have cooler than normal temperatures due to La Niña conditions (see below), the waters adjacent to Queensland are actually 1-2° above normal.  Sea surface temperatures around Australia have been increasing consistently, with the 2010 average SST (excluding December 2010) higher than any time in the record beginning in 1910.  (Annual Australian Climate Statement 2010)  Also note that the noticeable cool anomaly in eastern Australia was due to heavier-than-normal rainfall and cloud cover during November.

 November 2010 skin surface temperature & anomaly, western Pacific

Figure 3:  AIRS surface skin temperature data for November 2010.  (Top)  Surface skin temperature.  (Bottom)  Surface skin temperature anomalies.  These plots show conditions related to the ongoing La Niña event in the western Pacific region.

As noted above, the ocean regions adjacent to Queensland in the western Pacific are being influenced by a strong La Niña event. The El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) index in Figure 4 shows that this event is one of the strongest in the data record.  In regions of the western Pacific, El Niño conditions generally cause reduced rainfall in Indonesia and Australia (which can increase the potential for wildfires), while La Niña conditions generally induce increased rainfall.   Thus, the flooding in Queensland – while unprecedented in severity – is consistent with the La Niña-influenced weather patterns, augmented by the general warming trend observed in both land and ocean temperatures.

 Plot of ENSO index and current state comparison, January 2011

Figure 4:  Indices describing ENSO events. (Top) Multivariate ENSO index.  (Bottom) Multivariate ENSO index for six strong La Nina events since 1949 vs. recent conditions.

(Images and animations for this news item were created by Dr. Zhong Liu, GES DISC / George Mason University Center for Spatial Information Science and Systems)

Two major operational users of satellite remote sensing for global crop monitoring are the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) and the U.N. World Food Program (WFP). The primary goal of FAS is to improve foreign market access for U.S. agricultural products. The WFP uses food to meet emergency needs and to support economic and social development. Both use global agricultural decision support systems that can integrate and synthesize a variety of data sources to provide accurate and timely information on global crop conditions.

The Agriculture Data and Information Services Center (AGDISC) is part of the NASA Earth Science Division Applied Sciences Program - Agriculture, one of eight National Applications. The aim of the Agriculture National Application is to improve agricultural competitiveness through a better understanding of weather and climate, especially prediction of events with increasing accuracy and longer lead times, and integration of predictions and observations into local and regional decision support systems used in agriculture management.

The Agriculture DISC ( is a contribution of the Goddard Earth Sciences (GES) DISC, via the NASA-supported project, "Integrating NASA Earth Science Enterprise Data into Global Agricultural Decision Support Systems." This project is part of the Earth Science Research, Education, and Applications Solutions Network (REASoN CAN-02-OES-01).

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Last updated: Jan 07, 2011 11:47 AM ET