Why is Australia Suffering a Shocking Bushfire Season?

As Australia’s bushfires continue to burn the world looks on in horror. There are many competing arguments being made about the principle causes of the human and environmental tragedy of this unprecedented bushfire season. The most compelling cause being discussed is climate change.

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull recently wrote “the lies of the climate deniers have to be rejected. This is a time for truth telling, not obfuscation and gaslighting”. He believes that Australia’s priority this decade should be their own green new deal in which they generate as soon as possible, all their electricity from zero emission sources. He hopes that they have come to a point of resolve as a nation to act on climate change. 

Meanwhile the current prime minister Scott Morrison has acknowledged that climate change has had an influence on the fires and has defended his government’s climate record. However, he has also said:

“job-destroying, economy-destroying, economy-wrecking targets and goals on climate change won’t change the fact that there have been bushfires or anything like that in Australia”.

One of the Australian government’s Backbench MPs Craig Kelly denied any link between climate change and bushfires in a contentious interview on British TV.

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Other factors have been cited as causes for the bushfires such as the amount of hazard reduction burning carried out, or the activities of arsonists – a claim shown to have been inflated and misrepresented.

Bushfire experts say that climate change is making it harder to carry out hazard reduction as a way of controlling the behaviour of fires and according to fire chiefs hazard reduction is not a panacea for extreme bushfires.

When it comes to bushfires there are two important influencers, extreme heat and dryness and both were remarkable for Australia in 2019.

Australia experienced its hottest year on record in 2019, with average temperatures 1.52C above the 1961-1990 average. Their second hottest year was 2013, followed by 2005, 2018 and 2017. On top of this Australia also had its driest ever year in 2019, with rainfall 40% lower than average, based on records going back to 1900. The 2019 spring months of September, October and November were the worse on a record going back to 1950 for bushfire risk.

New South Wales, one state hard hit by the bushfires broke its record by a greater margin, with temperatures 1.95C above average, beating the previous record year, 2018, by 0.27C. NSW also had its driest year.

Basically, we have a situation globally where rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are changing the earth’s radiation balance which is allowing less heat to escape.

Though Fire authorities and the Bureau of Meteorology use the forest fire danger index which is a combined measure of temperature, humidity, wind speed and the dryness to look at the risk of bushfires they do not have a measure of the amount of fuel on the ground.

Two other meteorological patterns have helped generate the extreme conditions that Australia has been experiencing and both these “modes of variability” were in “phases” that made conditions worse.

The Indian Ocean dipole was in a “positive phase”, meaning the Indian Ocean off Australia’s north west was cooler than normal and the west of the ocean was warmer.

Positive dipole events draw moisture away from Australia and tend to deliver less rainfall.

However, there is evidence that the extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are also impacting the dipole and another phenomenon, known as the southern annular mode (SAM).

In 2009 a study found that positive dipole events “precondition” the south of the country for dangerous bushfire seasons and that these events were becoming more common.

A trend towards more dangerous fire weather has been discovered by scientists.

Back in 2017 a study of 67 years of the Forest Fire Danger Index data found the following:

“There is a clear trend toward more dangerous conditions during spring and summer in southern Australia, including increased frequency and magnitude of extremes, as well as indicating an earlier start to the fire season”.

This trend continued in 2019 which was the riskiest year for bushfires since 1950.

A study was carried out of Queensland’s historic 2018 bushfire season which found that the extreme temperatures occurred simultaneously with the fires were four times more likely because of human induced climate change.

Australia’s National Environmental Science Program issued advice which was unambiguous in November 2019.

“Human-caused climate change has resulted in more dangerous weather conditions for bushfires in recent decades for many regions of Australia. Observations show a trend towards more dangerous conditions during summer and an earlier start to the fire season, particularly in parts of southern and eastern Australia. These trends are very likely to increase into the future, with climate models showing more dangerous weather conditions for bushfires throughout Australia due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Climate studies are showing that as more greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere the conditions in Australia for extreme bushfires will only get worse.

Professor John Shine, president of the Australian Academy of Sciences said recently that Australia needs a better understanding of fire behaviour and that the country would need to further improve its climate modelling ability if it was going to mitigate against the extreme events that would undoubtedly become more frequent and intense because of climate change.

He said:

“Australia must take stronger action as part of the worldwide commitment to limit global warming to 1.5° C above the long-term average to reduce the worst impacts of climate change.”

Professor Matt England of the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre, said:

“We are loading the dice for more and more of these summers. But we have had knowledge of this for some time. What we have seen in Australia this year will just be a normal summer if we warmed the planet by 3C. And an extreme summer would be even worse than we’ve seen now.”

Prof Nerilie Abram, a climate scientist at the Australian National University said:

“Even from my perspective, I am surprised by just how bad 1C of warming is looking. It’s worrying that we are talking about this as a new normal, because we are actually on an upward trajectory. Currently the pledges in the Paris agreement are not enough to limit us to 1.5C – we are looking more like 3C.”

Big centralised coal burning generators are being replaced with many more distributed renewable generators, but these will require more and differently designed transmission. The better and more distributed the generation system the greater the resilience in the face of natural disaster.

Australians need to face the fact that coal is on the way out. As we can see today it is a matter of life and death. Demand for their export coal is going to decline and expire and this is vital if the world is going to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.

The good news for Australia and indeed the rest of the world is that we can have abundant energy which is both green and cheap.

The cost of solar per watt is being reduced every year, by 13% last year alone and by over 90% over the last eight years. Due to research at the university of New South Wales we will soon see a standard solar panel increase its energy efficiency by another 50%. Batteries are seeing similar increases in efficiency and therefore affordability.

Unfortunately, Australia is only about halfway through its summer season. Normally, temperatures peak in January and February, meaning the country could be months away from finding relief.

The time for Australia and the rest of the world to take action is now to prevent catastrophic climate change.

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