Sunday, February 6, 2011

Cyclone Yasi/Queensland Floods/Protests in Cairo

Recent storms, flooding, as well as Cyclone Yasi in Australia have spurned some to think that these 'unusual' weather patterns are due to climate change. The primary reason may be due to the scale of the event  and its presentation, rather than the event itself. Almost instant televised news accounts that lead up to the pending catastrophe, such as ABC24's constant coverage of the Queensland Floods, Anna Bligh's almost hourly updates of the impending disaster and then following that, the prelude to and persistent reportage of the anticipated impact of Cyclone Yasi as the worst event that individuals in Queensland would  ever experience - in other words the unfolding event(s) as they occur, gives a remote audience a sense of being there - a presence in their absence; anticipation, anxiety and feelings of sympathy for those caught within the occurrence and its destructive aftermath. In fact, the high drama inflicted on the viewing public prior to Cyclone Yasi far outweighed the actual event!
Constant media saturation depicting loss and devastation as well as  interviews with people who have endured hardship because of the happening, lead us to believe that these events are worse than those previously experienced by individuals in our country. I would argue that it is due to the fact that we are drawn so easily into the drama via ubiquitous communications technologies that we experience local as well as world events as all encompassing, frightening, life threatening and catastrophic. Note the outpouring of sympathy and solidarity from people world-wide for protesters in Egypt. Would this have occurred without media intervention and  up-to-date reportage of the unfolding event? Indeed, the heightened sense of being there (participation via  virtual means), seeing things as they unfold, engenders a relationship between the viewer, others and world events, one unprecedented in world history, however this does not necessarily mean that the events themselves are essentially different from events from the past, or that people did not experience high levels of hardship and pain, it's just that these recent occurrences are experienced and perceived in divergent ways. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center is probably the best example here, not only because of its impact on the social and economic life, the number of deaths that occurred but on the psychology of people throughout the world. Indeed, footage of the United Airlines Flight 175 as it impacted on the south tower of the World Trade Center may possibly be the most iconic image of the 21st century, transmitted repeatedly until it infiltrated the world psyche.
Before the Internet (blogs, twitter, Facebook, etc), mobile phones, i-phones, televisual link-up to other states and countries, there was only telephone, radio and newspapers and although the radio provided regular news it certainly could not convey the immediateness that our advanced communications technologies engender. However, the reader here may find it interesting in light of the recent extreme weather  in Australia that in 1934 in Melbourne 36 deaths were attributed to a flood that occurred in November of that year. The remainder of that summer, and also autumn 1935, was noteworthy for several other unusually heavy rain events in Victoria, a departure from the otherwise generally dry decade of the 1930s.
According to the Bureau of Meteorology 'floods are a fact of life in a Queensland Summer'. The benchmark was set by one in 1870 when, legend has it, men drank in the hotel while up to their chests in water.
After a cyclone in Queensland in 1916, 61 people died. In 1963 I experienced the flooding in Melbourne and in 1974 I remember what the BOM refers to as 'The Big Wet'. The year 1973 was one of the wettest known over much of Australia, and in keeping with the strong La NiƱa event that prevailed, the 1973/74 northern wet season started early. By the end of 1973 large areas of the country were saturated. Then came January 1974, which featured probably the biggest continent-wide drenching since European settlement, inundating vast areas of the country.
It seems to me that Australia is a country of extreme weather patterns and that at least once per decade, perhaps more often, we experience floods, fire, tornadoes, flash flooding, hail storms and drought. 
I'm not saying that we shouldn't reduce our carbon emissions, of course we should try to reduce the amount of pollution in the air and its obvious impact upon our environment, but what I am saying is that whether or not we do this or not, it's not going to change the fact that 'weather' is a fact of life and that the media plays a big part in the way we view events and their disastrous consequences. Around about this time two years ago (actually 7 February 2009) Victoria experienced 47 degree heat and the Black Saturday bush fires were responsible for 173 deaths, 400 injuries and the destruction of thousands of homes.
Images slow-burnt into our memories somehow fade in recent media accounts of the deluge that continues to cover our land and I'm sure that unfortunately even these memories will fade, only to be usurped by media images that seize us in more compelling ways.

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