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.

Find out more about wind
turbines here.

Find
out more about solar here.

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