Australian Floods 2011

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Flooding in Australia - January 2011

A new year has brought another major flooding incident as a result of unexpectedly heavy rainfall. Earlier in the month the coastal town of Rockhampton was in the news when the town was almost cut off by floodwaters and residents were threatened by venomous snakes.

Brisbane, Australia's third largest city, was the next major settlement to suffer, and recent news reports have focused heavily on the area.

Both Rockhampton and Brisbane are in Queensland, and the flooding covers an area the size of France and Germany.

What caused the flooding?

The annual monsoon season is partly responsible for the rainfall, but these particularly extreme weather conditions are being blamed on the additional influence of a large scale atmospheric phenomenon called La Nina which is explained well in this Telegraph article.

Heavy rainfall in the region has been added to by releases from the Wivenhoe Dam, upstream of the Brisbane River, which had to start releasing water as the reservoir approached full capacity.

Although the rainfall intensity has fallen, there is a delay as the flood peak works its way down through the river system. The drainage basin has been modelled, and data fed into computers to produce predictions and trigger automatic warnings.

Flooding in Brisbane

Brisbane is built along the lower stretches of the Brisbane River system, which has a number of tributaries. Not all of these are at risk from flooding, but the major focus has been on the city itself, which houses around 10% of Australia's population.

Flood history and public perceptions

The city has suffered major flooding before, most recently in 1974, when a 5.45m flood peak caused widespread devastation. The fear is that this year's flooding will be much worse, but the predictions are being revised all the time, and it may turn out to be a smaller flood. The fact that this event has been so well documented by traditional and social media however may increase the public's perceptions of its scale.

Up to the minute flood information

The Brisbane City Council website contains a wealth of information for residents, which demonstrates the flood management planning that a city like Brisbane prepares. This includes maps of streets at risk, sandbag locations and evacuation centres.

IT and communication concerns

The Brisbane City Council website was immediately switched to a low bandwidth version focussing on flooding information, with a link to the main website for other business. This is a smart move, as the pressure on the full-featured website would otherwise have caused issues for the servers hosting the site.

Get your students to think about the issues surrounding communications during a flood situation:

  • Increased telephone / mobile network usage as people try to contact friends and family and the emergency services
  • The need to communicate flood warnings to the public - members of the public also need to be able to access this information online, via the television and/or radio
  • Pressure on servers due to high volumes of traffic
  • Flood waters damaging power cables and radio transmitters or entering data centres

Queensland's IT community has been praised for its rapid and generous response to the crisis with individuals opening up private Wifi networks and mirroring vital flood information.

Looking at the flooding from a different angle

If you announced to your class that 'Ispwich has been flooded', it's highly likely that they would assume this to mean Ipswich in the UK rather than Ipswich in Australia. This acts as a reminder to check the facts but it also provides scope for a discussion about why both places are called Ipswich - is there a connection?

The camera never lies...

Like the Ipswich example above, students need to be critical about the information they receive, paying attention to the source and always considering the other side of the story.

In the days following the flood YouTube quickly began to fill with mobile phone and digital camera recordings, often from high vantage points. Does the footage show a city street or a flooded river? Where is the person behind the camera - in a boat or on dry ground?

There is also what has been described as the 'parallel universe' of different districts of Brisbane: the higher areas have been largely unaffected by the flooding, while the lower districts are inundated.

Flooding in other places

Australia isn't the only country experiencing serious flooding at the moment. In Sri Lanka at least 21 people have been killed and 325,000 displaced (BBC News, 13.01.11) while in Brazil more than 250 people have died as a result of flooding and subsequent mudslides (BBC News, 13.01.11).

Ask students to consider the balance of media reports - why is the news in the UK dominated by the Australian flooding? Should all flood events be given equal coverage? Is there a way to determine which is 'worse'?

Terminology and accuracy

Tragically, a large number of people (different reports provide conflicting numbers) are missing after a surge of water through the town of Toowoomba which was described as an 'inland tsunami'. Ask your students if they think it's correct to describe this as a tsunami, particularly when compared with other events such as the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.

Students should also be wary of reports on widespread panic, violence or looting. This could be on a much smaller scale than the news reports suggest. Consider the flip side - have students seen stories about acts of kindness or bravery?

A new perspective on your home

In many flood situations residents are forced to take a fresh look at a familiar place. Instead of viewing a road as a way to get from A to B, they need to think about the 'height' of the road and whether it will be flooded or not before they start to plot their route through the city.

If a flood submerges entire road networks, members of the public and the emergency services may find themselves navigating waterways. Without familiar road markings and boundaries this can be a difficult and dangerous task.

Questions for students

Some possible questions for students to consider:

  • To what extent was the flooding caused by human activities rather than natural causes?
  • Why was the electricity supply to Brisbane CBD switched off on January 11?
  • What will be short and long term impacts of the flood on local residents?
  • How will local wildlife be affected by the floods?
  • How might local wildlife make the flooding even more dangerous for people?
  • This Telegraph article describes a river flow of 9000 cumecs - how does that compare to local rivers? How about other major rivers?
  • How much of Brisbane's urban area is at risk from flooding?
  • What was the nature of the rainfall event that caused the flooding?
  • If you had a small amount of time to evacuate your home, what would you take?
  • How is the flooding affecting individual business and organisations? Read this article in which a local University describes the impact of flooding on the campus.
  • Why might this become Australia's 'most costly natural disaster'?

Flooding in GCSE and A-Level Geography specifications

Flooding is featured in most exam specifications at both GCSE and AS level including Edexcel GCSE B Unit 6, GCE AS Extreme Weather, AQA AS Core Rivers unit and WJEC AS.

Flood management is an area to consider, as is the extent to which human activity in the catchment area may have made the flooding worse than it otherwise would have been.

The Managing Flood Risk area of the GA website provides some excellent UK-based case studies and activity ideas.

The GA publication KS3 Geography Teachers' Toolkit: Future Floods - How can geography make a difference? will help you plan a unit of work using strategies which will challenge learners and help them make progress. It focuses on a fieldwork experience on flooding in York including preparation for the trip, fieldwork exercises and follow-up activities.


The Age - news reports from Melbourne's premier newspaper

The Australian - Australia's only national newspaper

BBC - Brisbane Floods: Your stories

BBC - Flooding peak looms for Brisbane (about the 1974 floods) 

The Telegraph - Brisbanites flee problem-plagued city

YouTube - Toowoomba Flood

This clip would be useful for the classroom as it is short, and shows the speed at which the water rises and its impact on cars. The commentary is also free from swearing, and shows the astonishment of the people capturing the images.

Students might be asked to consider whether this clip needs to be used in association with others to produce an appropriate and balanced 'picture' of the flooding.

Flickr - Flooding in Brisbane

Residents and visitors have already posted over 3000 images.

NearMap - Brisbane Map

High resolution aerial imagery of the recent flooding in Brisbane. Use the time slider at the top right of the page to see how the area looked before the floods.

ABC News - Brisbane Floods: Up close

Excellent high resolution aerial imagery showing before and after shots of the same locations - swipe your mouse over the photographs to reveal the alternative view.

Twitter - Brisbane City Council

You could also perform a Twitter hashtag search for #Brisbane #floods or similar to find many individual stories and additional sources of information.

A Devonian Geographer Down Under - the blog of an English geography teacher currently living and working in Brisbane.


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Andy Knill

Andy Knill GA Member

very comprehensive - I have been using the floods and bbc news images since term started and the floods in Brazil to emphasise the immediacy of geography in our lives - many links have been recommended on twitter.

GA Member

Thanks Andy - I'm glad you've found this page useful. Let me know if there are any other links you'd like to recommend and I'll get them added asap.

GA Website Manager


Julia Skinner Guest

Many thanks for linking with The Heads Office! I hope you are a regular visitor!

GA Member

Good stuff - handy for an Australian teacher of year 9 geogaphy (NSW) - it has been a bit wet


sarah jervis Guest

This page is great for my homework


yvonne murphy Guest

this was fantastic for my homework, best link off google ive ever found!


Damo Guest

Good for my homework


Ditiro Guest

What happened to the people of brisbane during the australian flood


cameron Guest

very good but could you add some of the solutions of the australian floods

John Lyon

John Lyon GA Staff

Cameron, thanks for the suggestion.
I've just completed a 700 word document outlining various proposed solutions to the floods. It'll be uploaded to the website very soon!


joshua pepper Guest

thank you so much! really helped for my case study work at sure everyone agrees with me! great stuff! thanks!


Hizza Inayat Guest

Thanks, this helped me study for a geography test, it also helped with my homework, this website is amazing:)

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