2011 Flood Cause

Why did the 2011 Australian floods happen?

The main reason the 2010-2011 floods happened in Australia is, quite simply, because of the unusual amount of rain.

Australia spends many years in drought, often caused by the El Niño effect. When an El Niño occurs, changes in sea surface temperatures cause a shift in air pressure which, in turn, can result in climatic anomalies, such as severe droughts in Australia. These years are punctuated by years of normal rainfall, but occasionally, Australia gets the opposite to an El Niño, which is La Niña.

This means that weather conditions, etc, are in reverse to those seen during El Niño, and Australia experiences far more rain than usual.

Australia had been coming out of an El Niño for some time, which means that many parts of Australia had seen gradually increasing rainfall. The rainfall recorded in September 2010 made it Australia's wettest month overall in 110 years. Queensland already experienced flooding in early 2009 (at the same time that southern Australia had the terrible Black Saturday bushfires), and higher than normal rainfall in 2010, increasing towards the end of the year.

By then, the ground was simply too saturated to hold any more water. Add to that the effects of the cyclone which crossed the north Queensland coast at Christmas time, bringing excessive rainfall to north and central Queensland, and the ground was waterlogged. (A similar pattern led to the Brisbane floods of 1974.)

Radar images show how large the cyclone system was, even though it was only a category one cyclone, the lowest grade. Low wind speeds do not necessarily mean low rainfall, and in this case the cyclone brought large amounts of rainfall right along the coast. Some of the water runoff from the north flowed down through the inland river system; some of the rainfall fell into the catchment areas of coastal rivers further south. The rivers broke their banks more easily, and there was nowhere for the excess water to go.

Rain continued to fall heavily throughout early January. On 10 January 2011, Toowoomba, a city which sits at an elevation of 700m at the top of the Great Dividing Range, received 150 mm of rain within a 40 minute period. The ground could not hold any more water.

Wivenhoe Dam
Water collected along the escarpment at the top of the range and created the wall of water, a 7m high inland "tsunami", that went through the city and down the range. This wall of water rushed through Lockyer Valley downstream of the main Wivenhoe Dam that protects the city of Brisbane from flooding.  Additional rain in the catchment sent Wivenhoe Dam to 190%.

2011 Flood at Goodna

The gates had to be opened, sending the equivalent of two Sydney Harbour's worth of water into the Brisbane River each day. This is largely why Brisbane, Ipswich and Goodna flooded. An inquiry into the release of water from Wivenhoe is underway.

Many of the river systems further west which were affected by the flooding which had occurred regularly through December and January feed into the Darling River, which then leads to the Murray River.

The Darling River catchment, and catchments east of this, received more rainfall than its capacity can take, and as the floodwaters moved downstream, communities in New South Wales, western Victoria and South Australia were affected as well.

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