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Page last updated at 18:12 GMT, Thursday, 27 December 2007

Australia braced for extreme weather

By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Lake Eucumbene in Old Adaminaby, Australia
Australia has been hit in 2007 by the most severe drought on record
"I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of rugged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains."

Dorothea Mackellar's classic bush poem "My Country" captures the essence of Australia's wild and varied climate and landscape.

Australians are often at the mercy of hostile conditions, and this has helped shape the national character.

Nature is about to put that resourceful and blunt approach to life to the test yet again.

Eastern parts of the continent have been warned to expect more flooding and severe storms in the coming days.

A cyclone alert has been issued for coastal areas of Queensland and tourists on Fraser Island north of Brisbane have been told to expect dangerous beach conditions.

There is a wild outlook too for Australia's biggest city, Sydney, which has been advised to prepare for thunder and hail.

Flooding in Gippsland region of eastern Victoria
After the drought downpours flooded many eastern regions

It is already been a grim festive season for farmers in northwest New South Wales, who have been forced to inspect flood damage by boat after seeing their properties inundated.

Rescue helicopters have been delivering emergency supplies to stranded families and their livestock.

Heavy rains caused flooding in the Outback town of Coonamble and some isolated farms are likely to be cut off for up to a week.

Across the continent, Perth in Western Australia has sweltered under searing temperatures above 40C and bush fires have added to the misery of residents and emergency crews hoping for a quiet Christmas.

South Australia is also expected to bake in similar heat in the lead up to the New Year.

It has been a different story though on the island state of Tasmania, where snow was forecast for higher ground.

Sydney has had its soggiest November and December for years.

"We had a distinct change in our rainfall pattern in November," explained Clinton Rakich from the Bureau of Meteorology.

"We experienced very much above average rainfall and December's proving to be another relatively wet month," he explained to the BBC.

More rain needed

The grey skies are most welcome. Australia has been besieged by the worst drought anyone can remember.

Roger Stone, University of South Queensland
It will take a lot more than one reasonable wet season to fix
Roger Stone, University of Queensland

The forecast for the next three months has thrown up a mixed bag.

The country's east and south-west can look forward to rainfall above the average heading into early autumn.

The picture is not so rosy for central and southern parts, where the "Big Dry" is likely to persist.

Experts are associating the wet weather in Australia's eastern states with La Nina.

Roger Stone, professor of climatology and water resources at the University of Southern Queensland, believes recent downpours will continue well into the New Year.

"It is a good sign and with the La Nina pattern in the Pacific Ocean there's potential for that type of rainfall to continue through the summer," Prof Stone told the BBC news website,

"But Australia being a large country, there are many parts of the nation still badly affected by drought."

"I think because of the massive rainfall deficits built up over many, many years - decades in some instances - it will take a lot more than one reasonable wet season to fix," he said.

Relief for farmers

Some climatologists worry that La Nina may be losing its potency because it is not dumping the massive amounts of rain in Australia that it used to.

Australian farmer
Farmers were among the hardest hit by the heavy drought

"El Nino has been giving us drought but La Ninas haven't been giving us as much (rain) as they should," said Prof Stone.

"Whether that's part of a long-term climate change issue or associated with some natural variability we don't know."

Away from flood affected areas, farmers are celebrating the wet spell.

"The rain's been absolutely fantastic,' said Jock Lawrie, president of the New South Wales Farmers Association.

"It's been great for the emotions."

"They've been predicting this La Nina change for about six to eight months and it's taken a long while for it to get going," he said.

"Certainly what they're saying at the moment is that there's a good chance we'll get above average rainfall."

"If that continues for the next three to four months that will really start to put a brake in the drought, which is something we're really looking forward to."


SEE ALSO
Australia slashes wheat forecast
18 Sep 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Where El Nino means hunger
30 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Australia farmers feel drought strain
18 Jun 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Heavy rains hit parched Australia
18 May 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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