School of Earth Sciences - Theses

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    The impacts of climate variability and change on severe thunderstorm environments in Australia
    Allen, John Terrence ( 2012)
    Severe thunderstorms present a relatively infrequent but significant threat to property and life in Australia during the spring and summer. These thunderstorms can produce hailstones over 2cm in diameter, winds in excess of 90kmh-1 and less frequently tornadoes. Any of these phenomena can result in localised high impact severe events. Recent examples of this potential are illustrated by damage caused by the 1999 Sydney Hailstorm, 2008 Gap Microburst and the 2010 and 2011 Melbourne Hailstorms. This risk makes the implications of a changing and variable climate on severe thunderstorms important to understand. Recent studies into the impacts of anthropogenic climate change on severe weather events, including thunderstorms, suggest a potential increasing trend in both frequency and intensity for Australia. While current convective parameterisations in both global and regional climate models limit direct assessments of future convection, the use of environmental parameters to estimate changes in severe thunderstorm environments has been successful in other geographical regions. This study seeks an answer to the question “Is the frequency and distribution of severe thunderstorm environments in Australia likely to change in the future?” A database of 1550 independent severe thunderstorm reports in Australia has been developed for the period March 2003 to April 2010. Severe thunderstorm reports are then used to identify relationships with their associated environments estimated using proximal soundings from a mesoscale numerical weather assimilation and prediction model (MesoLAPS). This proximity climatology of known severe thunderstorm environments has been successfully used to derive covariate discriminants that identify the potential of an environment to produce severe thunderstorms. These covariates use variables describing the potential for organised convection (deep-layer wind shear), and the potential for instability over the depth of the atmosphere (convective available potential energy). Applying these discriminants to a reanalysis dataset (ERA-Interim), a climatology of the frequency and spatial distribution of environments favourable to the development of severe and significant severe thunderstorms for Australia has been developed for warm seasons during the period 1979-2011. This climatology demonstrates that inter-annual variability in terms of both the frequency and spatial distribution of environments is influenced by El Niño- Southern Oscillation. La Niña conditions are typically associated with an increased frequency and an inland shift of favourable environments over eastern Australia, while El Niño typically results in fewer environments, particularly along the coastal fringe. Applying this climatology, the environments simulated by two climate models (CSIRO Mk3.6 and CCAM) for the 20-season period 1980-2000 are examined over Australia and tested against the reanalysis climatology. In particular, the ability of the models to resolve the intra-annual variability and both quantify and simulate the spatial distribution of convective variables are analysed, and are found to perform reasonably well, especially in the case of the higher resolution CCAM. Finally, future simulations of severe thunderstorm environments from high emissions projections for the period 2079-2099 are presented for both models. Comparing these simulations to the 20th century, a potential small increase in the frequency of severe thunderstorm environments appears likely for southeast and eastern Australia under a warming climate.