From space, Australia’s smoke plumes can look like aggressive rivers, flowing relentlessly from the nation’s southeastern forests and bushlands.
By Mark Kaufman
But this fire season’s colossal blazes — born under record-breaking heat and dryness — can’t be written off as the dark days of 2019-2020, a time in history when naval ships shrouded in an orange haze rescued Australians trapped by flames, and piles of dead animals lay along the road.
Rather, it’s Australia’s future.
“This is going to be a repeated experience in the years to come,” said Christine Eriksen, who researches disasters at Australia’s University of Wollongong. “We can’t relegate this to the history books.”
It will become a repeated experience because there will be more fire weather as the planet relentlessly warms. Southeastern Australia itself has heated up by around 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, since the late 1800s.
Australia’s national science research agency, CSIRO, expects more severe and frequent fires. The nation’s Department of Home Affairs concluded that with a “driver of a changing climate there is growing potential for some natural hazards to occur at unimagined scales, in unprecedented combinations and in unexpected locations.”
For decades, Australian fire and climate researchers made the potential for unprecedented fires clear.
“We can see that the warnings were given,” said James Ricketts, a veteran volunteer firefighter in Australia and a climate change impacts researcher who has coauthored climate analyses for CSIRO. “[Warnings] were published in nice, easy scientific prose.”
“The message has always been the same,” he added. “Increased warming means increased fire risk.”
Of course, no fire is created by a warming climate alone. In Australia’s case, in addition to long-term warming, a recurrent, short-term climate cycle, called the Indian Ocean Dipole, has resulted in profoundly low rainfall over Australia. That means drought and exceptionally parched bushlands. But unprecedented heat (Australia recently broke its record for its hottest day ever — two days in a row) amplifies this drought.
“Reverberations of these epic bushfires will be felt for generations,” Joe Fontaine, a lecturer in environmental and conservation sciences at Australia’s Murdoch University, said in a statement. “The current drought is as bad as the Federation drought [1895-1903] but it is hotter. Hotter drought means both elevated bushfire risk and unstoppable fires as we’ve all seen in the media.”
These fires may be unparalleled in history. But that won’t last long — not with concentrations of heat-trapping carbon dioxide rising in the atmosphere at rates that are themselves historically and geologically unprecedented.
“[These bushfires] are not going to be so unprecedented in future years,” said the University of Wollongong’s Eriksen. “What we’re seeing is continued spreading. They’re getting bigger. That’s going to be the pattern we see in future years.”
“What you’re talking about this year is fire everywhere in every state — that’s what is unusual,” said Ricketts, who has already fought a few fires this season.
Australia’s stuck in a fire cycle because its forests themselves are caught in a vicious fire cycle. For nearly forty years, Ricketts has watched the forest become more flammable. Through the years repeated fires have, in many places, left forests dominated by drier, temperate trees and brush that can quickly resprout after a blaze burns through.
These forests regrow, and then, in hotter climes, become more likely to burn. “They bounce back and create new growth that will dry,” said Eriksen. “It feels like there’s a never-ending spiral.”
“You can’t see the end of it. It just keeps going.”
“That’s what’s most terrifying about the current situation,” she added. “You can’t see the end of it. It just keeps going.”
The fires will almost certainly just get worse in the 2020s and beyond. That’s because global carbon emissions — which reached their highest point ever in 2019 — must drop to zero for the planet to stop warming. U.N. scientists stress that civilization must slash emissions immediately. But, realistically, that’s a long, long, long, long way off, to be frank.
Australia certainly isn’t helping to ambitiously cut the globe’s carbon emissions. It’s one of the world’s largest exporters of coal, which emits more carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel.
t’s likely Earth will warm by at least another 1 degree Celsius this century. That would bring Earth’s average warming to around 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-Industrial Revolution levels, which is the warming limit set by the historic Paris climate accords. (Under the leadership of the Trump administration the U.S will officially leave this global pact in November).
Even at 2 degrees C of warming, the environmental effects will be significant. A recent study found southern Australia will experience up to another additional month of “high” fire danger each year at 2 C, compared to limiting Earth’s warming to a more moderate 1.5 C. Over 15 years ago, the climate research Rickett’s contributed to concluded that the risk for fire weather will increase by 2020 (it certainly has!), and this risk would increase significantly more by 2050. For example, by 2050, high fire danger days would balloon to between 30 to 38 days, from just 23 days in the early aughts.
Any way you cut it, Australia’s fire risk is only going up. This means Australians will breathe more hazardous smoke. It might mean more tragedy for firefighters (we hope not). It means more dead koalas.
The science about the growing odds for catastrophic fires has been clear for decades. “The likelihood of such things existing was predicted,” said Ricketts. “We’ve put out a lot of warnings.”
The worst has been realized, for now. Only rains and favorable weather will douse this year’s climate-enhanced flames.
“It does make you feel incredibly small,” said Eriksen. “Humans have a tendency to think we’re always in control.”
First published at Mashable Australia. Wednesday 8 January 2020. See; https://mashable.com/article/australia-fires-climate-change/