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Temperatures in Australia were relatively stable from 1910 until 1950, and since then have followed an increasing trend, with an overall increase during the period 1910-2005 of approximately 0.7°C. Overnight minimum temperatures have warmed more quickly than daytime maximum temperatures, but both have increased over almost the entire continent, with the largest increases occurring in north-eastern Australia. In conjunction with this trend, the frequencies of frosts and other extreme low temperatures have decreased, while the frequency of extreme high temperatures has increased, although at a slower rate. Over Australia the observed warming has accelerated in recent years, and the late-20th century warming has been largely attributed to the enhanced greenhouse effect.
Over the continent as a whole, rainfall has increased over the period 1900-2005, with the largest increases occurring over northern and north-western Australia. Since 1960, however, there have been substantial decreases in rainfall over three relatively small, but economically and agriculturally important, regions: south-western Western Australia; Victoria (particularly southern Victoria), and the eastern coastal fringe (particularly south-eastern Queensland).
Table 1.5 shows temperatures and rainfall averaged over Australia since the commencement of comprehensive national records. The article A hundred years of science and service - Australian meteorology through the twentieth century in Year Book Australia 2001 provides further details, including maps of temperature and rainfall trends to 1999.
While some temperature and rainfall data exist prior to the starting dates used in table 1.5, they have not been used in analyses of climate change. This is because large parts of the Australian continent had no observations before that time. In the case of temperatures, most pre-1910 data is also not comparable with post-1910 data, because the louvred, white-painted screen (the ‘Stevenson screen’) which is used for sheltering thermometers from direct solar radiation was only introduced as a national standard around that time. Many pre-1910 temperatures were measured in locations such as underneath tin verandahs or even indoors, and cannot be validly compared with more recent data (see the article Temperature measurement and the Stevenson screen in Year Book Australia 2005 for further details).
RAINFALL AND OTHER PRECIPITATION
Map 1.6 shows average annual rainfall over the Australian continent.
The driest section of Australia, with an average of less than 200 mm per year, extends over a large area from the west coast near Shark Bay, across the interior of Western Australia and northern South Australia into south-western Queensland and north-western New South Wales. The driest part of this region is in the vicinity of Lake Eyre in South Australia, where average annual rainfall is below 150 mm. This region is not normally exposed to moist air masses and rainfall is irregular, averaging rain on only around 20 days per year.
Very occasionally, favourable synoptic situations (usually, but not always, disturbances of tropical origin) can bring heavy rains to many parts of this normally arid to semi-arid region, with falls of up to 400 mm over a few days being recorded in the most extreme cases. Such heavy rainfalls often lead to widespread flooding and a subsequent short-lived ‘blooming’ of the desert regions. While such rain events are uncommon, the environment in Australia (both the lack of topographic barriers to moist air moving southwards from the tropics, and the presence of warm, rather than cold, waters as a potential source of moist air off the west coast) is more favourable to their occurrence than it is in some other arid zones. Rainfall in Australia’s deserts is consequently higher than in some other deserts; the Atacama Desert on the west coast of South America has locations where no rain has fallen for centuries, while large parts of the Sahara and Arabian deserts, and parts of central Asia, have average annual rainfall of 25 mm or lower. There is only one recorded instance, at Mulyie (about 100 km east of Port Hedland, Western Australia) in 1924, of an Australian station being rainless for a complete calendar year.
The region with the highest average annual rainfall is the east coast of Queensland between Cairns and Cardwell, where mountains are very close to the tropical coast. The summit of Bellenden Ker has an average of 8,020 mm over 33 years of records, while at lower elevations, Topaz has an average of 4,374 mm over 26 years, and Babinda 4,242 mm over 95 years. The mountainous region of western Tasmania also has a high annual rainfall, with Lake Margaret having an average of 2,955 mm over 60 years, and short-term records suggest that other parts of the region have an average near 3,500 mm.
The Snowy Mountains area in New South Wales also has a particularly high rainfall. While there are no official rain gauges in the wettest areas on the western slopes above 1,800 metres elevation, runoff data suggests that the average annual rainfall in parts of this region exceeds 3,000 mm. Small pockets with averages exceeding 2,500 mm also occur in the north-east Victorian highlands and some parts of the east coastal slopes.
1.6 AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL - 1961 to 1990
Australia’s rainfall pattern is strongly seasonal in character, with a winter rainfall regime in parts of the south, a summer regime in the north and generally more uniform or erratic throughout the year elsewhere. Major rainfall zones include:
Rain days and extreme rainfalls
The frequency of rain days (defined as days when 0.2 mm or more of rainfall is recorded in a 24-hour period) is greatest near the southern Australian coast, exceeding 150 per year in much of Tasmania, southern Victoria and the far south-west of Western Australia, peaking at over 250 per year in western Tasmania. Values exceeding 150 per year also occur along parts of the north Queensland coast. At the other extreme, a large part of inland western and central Australia has fewer than 25 rain days per year, and most of the continent away from the coasts has fewer than 50 per year. In the high rainfall areas of northern Australia away from the east coast the number of rain days is typically about 80-120 per year, but rainfall events are typically heavier in this region than in southern Australia.
The highest daily rainfalls have occurred in the northern half of Australia and along the east coast, most of them arising from tropical cyclones, or further south-east coast lows, near the coast in mountainous areas. Daily falls in excess of 500 mm have occurred at scattered locations near the east coast as far south as the Illawarra, south of Sydney, and falls exceeding 300 mm have occurred in north-eastern Tasmania and the Otway Ranges of southern Victoria. Most locations in temperate Australia away from the east coast have highest recorded daily rainfalls in the 75-150 mm range, although some locations have exceeded 200 mm. In these regions, extreme daily rainfalls are often associated with thunderstorms, for which rainfall recordings can vary dramatically over short distances.
The highest daily and annual rainfalls for each state and territory are listed in tables 1.8 and 1.9.
Heavy rainfall conducive to widespread flooding can occur anywhere in Australia, but is most common in the north and in the eastern coastal areas. There are three main flood types:
Drought, in general terms, refers to an acute deficit of water supply to meet a specified demand. The best single measure of water availability in Australia is rainfall, although factors such as evaporation and soil moisture are also significant and can be dominant in some situations. Demands for water are very diverse, and droughts therefore can be considered on a variety of timescales. Rainfall in a single year is important for unirrigated crop and pasture growth, while for large water storages and irrigation variations, on a multi-year timescale are more important. A succession of relatively dry years that are not exceptional individually can cause severe water shortages when aggregated over an extended period.
While droughts can occur in all parts of Australia, they are most economically damaging in south-eastern Australia (southern Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and the settled parts of South Australia), an area encompassing about 75% of Australia’s population and much of its agriculture. In south-western Western Australia, another economically and agriculturally significant area, interannual variability of rainfall is smaller than it is in the south-east and severe widespread droughts in individual years are a less important issue, although, in recent decades, this area has experienced a general decline in rainfall (see Climate change).
In terms of rainfall deficits over a one to two year period, the most severe droughts on record for eastern Australia have been those of 1901-02, 1982-83, 1994-95 and 2002-03, all of which were associated with El Niño. Occasionally, severe droughts are embedded within more extensive dry periods; the 1901-02 drought was contained within a persistently dry period from 1895-1903 (the so-called 'Federation Drought'). The 2002-03 drought, while not quite as dry over most of eastern Australia as those of 1901-02 or 1982-83, was particularly severe in its impacts for two reasons. First, it was accompanied by record high average maximum temperatures and, consequently, increased evaporation in many areas. Secondly, it affected virtually the entire continent. During earlier droughts the effects over Western Australia were more limited or non-existent. The direct effect of the 2002-03 drought on agricultural production is that it had a downward impact on gross domestic product growth of almost one percentage point between 2001-02 and 2002-03 (see the article in the National Accounts chapter in Year Book Australia 2005). Other notable droughts on the one to two year timescale include those of 1888, 1914, 1919-20, 1940-41, 1944, 1946, 1965, 1967 and 1972.
Longer-term periods of persistent below-average rainfall are also often loosely referred to as 'droughts', and apart from that of 1895-1903, have generally been more regional in nature. A typical example of such a long-term drought has occurred over large parts of eastern Australia since 2001, and in some areas, such as southern Victoria (including Melbourne), since 1997. The Sydney region and eastern Queensland have been affected since 2000. The south-west of Western Australia has also experienced a marked downturn in rainfall since 1970. Other extended dry periods of this type affected much of inland Australia from 1958-68, the south-east from 1937-45, and Queensland from 1991-95.
Typically, these multi-year dry episodes are not ones of continuous below-normal rainfall, but rather periods of near-normal rainfall over several months, alternating with drier periods, and few, if any, times of sustained above-normal rainfall to offset the dry periods. Large water storages are particularly susceptible to such events, as they typically rely on a relatively small number of wet years to offset losses during drier periods. The Sydney water supply catchments provide an example of this, with about 40% of the total inflows into the Warragamba catchment since 1910 occurring in the wettest 10% of years.
The period since 2001 has been the driest on record over parts of eastern Australia (see map 1.10), meaning that many large water storages have not recovered from the 2002-03 drought. While rainfall returned to near-normal levels in the second half of 2003 following the severe drought of 2002-03, there have been no periods of sustained above-average rainfall in most of the region since early 2001. For eastern Australia as a whole (defined as the combined areas of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania), the four-year period June 2001-May 2005 was the driest June-May four-year period on record. For Australia’s cropping regions only the period 1911-15 was drier. While a relatively wet winter and spring in 2005 resulted in a slight improvement in the situation, acute water shortages persist in many areas. Conditions in the period 2001-06 are comparable to those of the lengthy drought of the 1940s, although (to date) they have not persisted for as long.
1.10 AUSTRALIAN RAINFALL DECILES(a) - 1 June 2001 to 30 June 2006
Adding to the impact of recent dry conditions has been the accompanying increase in temperature. The period from the start of the 2002-03 El Niño event (March 2002) to June 2006 was clearly the warmest such period on record for eastern Australia. Maximum temperatures averaged over Australia were 1.12°C above the 1961-90 normal. In contrast, temperatures averaged through the driest periods of the 1940s were near the 1961-90 normal.
Drought definitions, and the area of coverage and length of droughts to that time, together with related information, may be obtained from the article Drought in Australia in Year Book Australia 1988.
Thunderstorms are most frequent over northern Australia. Thunder is heard at least once on 80 days or more per year near Darwin, largely as a result of convectional processes during the summer wet season. High frequencies (30-50 per year) also occur over the eastern uplands of New South Wales as a result of orographic uplift of moist air streams. Some parts of southern Australia receive fewer than ten thunderstorms per year, with eastern Tasmania receiving fewer than five. Through most of Australia thunderstorms are more common during the warmer half of the year, but along the southern fringe they also occur in winter as a result of low-level instability in cold air masses of Southern Ocean origin.
1.11 AVERAGE MAXIMUM TEMPERATURE(a) - January
1.12 AVERAGE MAXIMUM TEMPERATURE(a) - July
Average monthly minima
Average minimum temperatures in all seasons are highest in northern Australia and near the coasts, and are lowest in the mountainous areas of the south-east. The highest average January minimum temperatures (near 27°C) are found near the north-west coast, while in winter they exceed 20°C at some coastal locations in northern Australia and on the Torres Strait and Tiwi Islands.
Low minimum temperatures are highly sensitive to local topography, with the lowest minimum temperatures occurring in high-elevation valleys, as cold air drains from hills to valleys overnight, making hilltops and ridges warmer overnight, even in areas with local relief of only a few tens of metres. In the most favoured locations in the mountains of New South Wales average minimum temperatures are below 5°C in January and -5°C in July, while most inland areas south of the tropics have average July minima between 0° and 6°C.
1.13 AVERAGE MINIMUM TEMPERATURE(a) - January
1.14 AVERAGE MINIMUM TEMPERATURE(a) - July
The highest extreme maxima in Australia are recorded in two regions - the Pilbara and Gascoyne regions of north-western Western Australia, and a broad belt extending from south-western Queensland across South Australia into south-eastern Western Australia. Many locations in this region have recorded temperatures exceeding 48°C. Extreme temperatures in this southern belt are higher than those further north, due to the long trajectory over land of hot north-west winds from northern Australia, the lower moisture levels in summer compared with northern Australia, and the generally lower elevation (when compared with areas such as the southern Northern Territory and east-central Western Australia, both of which are largely more than 500 metres above sea level).
Most other locations in mainland Australia, except those near parts of the Queensland and Northern Territory coasts or above 500 metres elevation, have extreme maxima between 43° and 48°C. Most Tasmanian sites away from the north coast have extreme maxima between 35° and 40°C. The lowest extreme maxima are found along the north coast of Tasmania (e.g. 29.5°C at Low Head) and at high elevations (e.g. 27.0°C at Thredbo (Top Station)).
While extreme high temperatures are more common inland than they are near the coast, the highest temperatures recorded differ little between the two, except in Queensland, the Northern Territory and northern Tasmania. Notable extreme maxima observed near the coast include 50.5°C at Mardie and 49.1°C at Roebourne in Western Australia, and 49.4°C at Whyalla and 47.9°C at Ceduna in South Australia.
Extreme maximum temperatures recorded at selected locations, including the highest recorded in each state/territory, are shown in table 1.15.
Prolonged heat waves, with a number of successive days over 40°C, are relatively common in summer over much of inland Australia, as well as parts of the north-west coast. Many inland locations have recorded ten or more successive days of such conditions, increasing to 20 or more days in parts of western Queensland and northern South Australia, and 50 or more days in north-western Western Australia. These heat waves can be accompanied by oppressively warm nights, with Oodnadatta (South Australia) recording an Australian record nine successive nights above 30°C in February 2004.
Such prolonged heatwaves are rare in coastal regions, except in Western Australia. The record number of consecutive days in Melbourne over 40°C, for example, is five, with Brisbane and Sydney each registering two.
The coastal areas, though, can be affected by extreme heat over a period of one or two days. The most extreme heatwave in the recorded history of south-eastern Australia occurred in January 1939. Adelaide (46.1°C on the 12th), Melbourne (45.6°C on the 13th) and Sydney (45.3°C on the 14th) all set record high temperatures during this period, as did many other centres in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. This extreme heat contributed to the ‘Black Friday’ bushfires, in which almost 2 mill. hectares were burnt and 71 lives lost (see the Bushfires section of the Environment chapter in Year Book Australia 2004).
The lowest recorded temperatures in Australia have been in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, where Charlotte Pass recorded -23.0°C on 28 June 1994 (table 1.16), with a number of other locations recording temperatures below -15°C. It is likely that comparably low temperatures occur in similarly sheltered locations in the Victorian highlands, but no observing stations away from the exposed peaks exist in this area.
Away from the Snowy Mountains, the lowest extreme minima in Australia are found above 500 metres elevation on the tablelands and ranges of New South Wales, eastern Victoria and southern Queensland, as well as in central Tasmania. Many locations in this region have recorded -10°C or lower, including Gudgenby, Australian Capital Territory (-14.6°C) and Woolbrook, New South Wales (-14.5°C). At lower elevations, most inland places south of the tropics have extreme minima between -3°C and -7°C, and such low temperatures have also occurred in favoured locations within a few kilometres of southern and eastern coasts, such as Sale, Victoria (-5.6°C), Bega, New South Wales (-8.1°C), Grove, Tasmania (-7.5°C) and Taree, New South Wales (-5.0°C).
In the tropics, extreme minima near or below 0°C have occurred at many places away from the coast, as far north as Herberton, Queensland (-5.0°C). Some locations near tropical coasts, such as Mackay (-0.8°C), Townsville (0.1°C) and Kalumburu, Western Australia (0.3°C) have also recorded temperatures near 0°C. In contrast, some exposed near-coastal locations, such as Darwin, have never fallen below 10°C, and Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait, has an extreme minimum of 16.1°C.
The parts of Australia with the lowest extreme minimum temperatures are also the most subject to frost. The eastern uplands from southern Queensland to eastern Victoria experience ten or more frosts per month in each month from May to September, as do Tasmania’s Central Plateau and a few susceptible locations in south-western Western Australia and the Flinders Ranges region of South Australia. At lower elevations frost is less frequent and the season is shorter, although only the immediate coastal margins and the far north can be considered totally frost-free.
Frosts can occur at any time of year over most of Tasmania, much of inland Victoria and south-eastern South Australia, and the higher parts of the tablelands of New South Wales. In these regions the median frost period generally exceeds 200 days, extending out to 300 days in central Tasmania.
OTHER ASPECTS OF CLIMATE
In terms of the average water vapour content or humidity of the air, Australia is a dry continent. The amount of moisture in the atmosphere can be expressed in several ways, the most common being relative humidity. This measure can be thought of as the relative evaporating power of the air. When humidity is low, moisture on an exposed wet surface, like our skin, can evaporate freely. When it is high, evaporation is retarded. If the temperature is also high, people will feel discomfort or even stress as the body’s ability to cool through the evaporation of perspiration is diminished. The combination of high temperature and high humidity is potentially dangerous for people who are not adapted or acclimatised to such conditions.
The main features of the relative humidity pattern are:
By way of historical note, it is interesting that, as late as 1927, Griffith Taylor, from the Department of Physical Geography, University of Sydney, was asserting that tropical Australia was an unhealthy place to live, at least for women, because of its climate. However in recent decades the introduction of air conditioning, more appropriate building design, and improved health measures such as proper sanitation, have greatly increased the comfort levels of those living in the tropics.
Incoming global radiation includes radiant energy reaching the ground directly from the sun and radiation received indirectly from the sky that is reflected and scattered downwards by clouds, dust and other airborne particles.
While there is a high correlation between daily global radiation and daily hours of sunshine, the latter is more dependent on variations in cloud coverage. Daily global radiation is at its strongest, all other things being equal, when the sun is closest to overhead south of the tropics (21-22 December), or directly overhead in the tropics. On the north-west coast around Port Hedland, Western Australia, where average daily global radiation is the highest for Australia (22-24 megajoules per square metre), average daily sunshine is also highest, being approximately ten hours. By way of contrast, in Darwin the global radiation values for the dry month of July and cloudy month of January are comparable, yet the number of sunshine hours for July approaches twice that for January.
Sunshine here refers to bright or direct sunshine. Australia receives relatively large amounts of sunshine although seasonal cloud formations affect spatial and temporal distribution. Cloud cover reduces both incoming solar radiation and outgoing radiation from the Earth’s surface, and thus affects sunshine, air temperature and other measures of climate.
Most of the continent receives more than 3,000 hours of sunshine a year, or nearly 70% of the total possible. In central Australia and the mid-west coast of Western Australia, totals slightly in excess of 3,500 hours occur. Totals of less than 1,750 hours occur on the west coast and highlands of Tasmania, which is the equivalent of only 40% of the total possible per year.
In southern Australia, the duration of sunshine is greatest about December when the sun is at its highest elevation, and lowest in June when the sun is lowest. In northern Australia, sunshine is generally greatest over the period August to October prior to the wet season, and least over the period January to March during the wet season.
Average annual pan evaporation exceeds rainfall over most of Australia. It is highest in the north of Western Australia, reaching around 3,400 mm around Wyndham, and exceeds 3,000 mm over most of tropical Western Australia and the central Northern Territory. It is lower in tropical areas with higher rainfall and cloud cover, such as the Top End of the Northern Territory and eastern Queensland.
At the other end of the scale, Australia’s lowest pan evaporation occurs in Tasmania, ranging from 800 mm per year in the west to 1,200 mm in the east. Over the mainland it is below 1,400 mm over southern Victoria and adjacent parts of South Australia and New South Wales, and around 1,500 mm in the far south of Western Australia.
Over most of Australia evaporation is greatest in summer and least in winter, due to higher temperatures and solar radiation. In the far north, in contrast, the seasonal cycle is dominated by the effect of increased cloud cover during the tropical wet season. In this region evaporation peaks in spring, with a secondary peak in autumn in some places, and is lowest in late summer.
Seasonal distribution of cloudiness varies predominantly in line with seasonal variations in rainfall. In the southern parts of the continent, particularly in the coastal and low-lying areas, the winter months are generally cloudier than the summer months. This is due to the formation of extensive areas of stratiform cloud and fog during the colder months, when the structure of the lower layers of the atmosphere and higher levels of humidity favour the formation of this type of cloud. Particularly strong seasonal variability of cloud cover exists in northern Australia where skies are clouded during the summer wet season and mainly cloudless during the winter dry season. Cloud cover is greater near coasts and on the windward slopes of the eastern uplands of Australia and less over the dry interior.
The formation of radiation fogs, in which air near the ground is cooled by overnight radiation from the ground, is determined by the occurrence of a favourable blend of temperature, humidity, wind and overlying cloud cover. The nature of the local terrain can also be important for the development of fog, and there is a tendency for it to be particularly prevalent and persistent in valleys and hollows. The incidence of such fogs can vary significantly over short distances. Other types of fogs occur when low cloud covers high ground ('hill fog'), particularly where highlands are close to the coast, and more rarely, near some coastlines when warm moist air moves over relatively cool waters near the shore ('sea fog').
Fog in Australia tends to be more common in the south than the north, although parts of the east coastal areas are relatively fog-prone even in the tropics. Fog is more likely to occur in the colder months, particularly in the eastern uplands. Radiation fogs normally develop overnight and dissipate during the morning or early afternoon, although on rare occasions they persist through the day, particularly in inland Tasmania. The highest fog incidence at a capital city is at Canberra which has an average of 47 days per year on which fog occurs, 29 of which are between May and August. Brisbane averages 20 days of fog per year. Darwin averages only two days per year, mostly in July and August.
The mid-latitude anticyclone belt is the chief determinant of Australia’s two main prevailing wind streams. These streams tend to be easterly to the north of this belt and westerly to the south. The cycles of development, motion and decay of low-pressure systems that form to the north and south of the anticyclone belt and also intersperse between individual anticyclones result in a great diversity of wind flow patterns. Wind variations are greatest around the coasts where diurnal land and sea-breeze effects also come into play. Sea breezes play a prominent role in modifying coastal climates in many parts of Australia, particularly along the west coast of Western Australia where they are a major feature of the summer climate. In Perth the sea breeze is known as the 'Fremantle Doctor'.
Orography affects the prevailing wind pattern in various ways, such as the channelling of winds through valleys, deflection by mountains and cold air drainage from highland areas. The high frequency of north-west winds at Hobart, for example, is caused by the north-west to south-east orientation of the Derwent River valley, while wave effects on the lee side of the Adelaide Hills can lead to very strong local winds ('gully winds') in the eastern suburbs of Adelaide during periods of general easterly flow.
Perth is the windiest capital with an average wind speed of 15.6 km/h; Canberra is the least windy with an average wind speed of 5.4 km/h.
The highest wind speeds and wind gusts measured in Australia have been associated with tropical cyclones. The highest recorded gust was 267 km/h at Learmonth (Western Australia) on 22 March 1999 (with Tropical Cyclone Vance), while gusts reaching 200 km/h have been recorded on several occasions in northern Australia with cyclone visitations. The highest gusts recorded at Australian capitals have been 217 km/h at Darwin (during Tropical Cyclone Tracy), 185 km/h at Brisbane Airport and 156 km/h at Perth.
Dust storms are a regular occurrence on windy days in many of the arid zones of Australia. During drought years, they can extend to the more densely settled areas of the south-east, particularly when strong north- to north-westerly winds occur in advance of an approaching cold front. Well-known examples include those of February 1983, which plunged central Melbourne into darkness, and October 2002, which covered a vast area of eastern Queensland and New South Wales, including Brisbane and Sydney. These occurred in the later part of the severe El Niño-related droughts of 1982-83 and 2002-03 respectively.
While bushfires are not strictly a climatic phenomenon, both weather and climate are strong determinants in their occurrence and intensity. Provided vegetation is sufficiently abundant and dry, the spread of bushfires is most rapid in windy conditions with low humidity. In southern Australia such conditions are also normally associated with high temperatures. A Fire Danger Index, which combines expected wind speed, humidity, temperature and a measure of pre-existing dryness, is frequently used to assess the risk of rapid fire spread on any given day.
The most favoured season for bushfires varies in different parts of Australia. In south-eastern Australia (including Tasmania) the most favoured season is summer and early autumn; in coastal New South Wales and southern Queensland it is spring and early summer; and in much of northern Australia it is winter and spring (or the later part of the ‘dry’ season). In the arid zones of Australia large fires most commonly occur in the months following an abnormally wet season, when there is enough vegetation to provide fuel.
The south-east Australian bushfires which occurred at the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003 were among the most protracted and extensive of the last century. The 2002-03 bushfire season and its impact is discussed in the Bushfire section of the Environment chapter in Year Book Australia 2004.