Are we causing longer, more intense bushfire seasons? Opinion Article

Feb 08, 2016 - 4:00pm

This article first appeared in ABC's The Drum on 8 February, 2016.

John Connor   
CEO, The Climate Institute
  

Over summer we have yet again witnessed frightening, destructive bushfires in South Australia and Western Australia.

Now, in Tasmania, we face the global tragedy of bushfires continuing to burn in extremely vulnerable world heritage alpine old growth forests, incinerating 1,000-year-old trees. Ancient ecosystems may be lost forever.

Each summer we have learned to expect horrific bushfires across southern Australia. I am not alone, I am sure, in the creeping sense of dread I experience as the first vision breaks on the news, signalling the commencement of what has become known as Australia's annual "bushfire season".

Faced with this annual carnage, and the astonishing efforts of the people who battle these fires, many of us with a few decades under our belt can't help but recall times not too long ago when these raging infernos didn't seem quite so ubiquitous during summer. A time when we didn't have this awful feeling that bushfire season is actually getting more intense and longer. A time when we weren't faced with the spectre of climate change, caused by human activity, and the question of whether it is making these disasters worse.

But are we recalling an actual past? Or creating it to escape harsh reality?

Scientists from the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) refer to the occurrence and severity of fire weather across a year as the Forest Fire Danger Index, or FFDI.

Their ongoing research since the 1970s has revealed statistically significant increases in the FFDI at more than 42 per cent of their fire research sites across southern Australia. They have concluded that extreme fire weather has increased and the fire season has lengthened across large parts of Australia.

So it would seem these changes are not limited to our imaginations. In fact, such was the extraordinary intensity of the terrible 2009 "Black Saturday" fires in Victoria, that the Australian Emergency Management Committee created two new categories for the national fire danger ratings - "Extreme" and "Catastrophic/Code Red".

In the last fortnight, UK scientists from the Met Office and the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit announced 2015 was the planet's hottest year on record. In Australia, eight out of our hottest 10 years have been since 2002, with 2013 being the hottest and 2015 the fifth hottest.

According to the CSIRO, the average temperature of our continent has risen by almost a degree since Federation and rainfall in the south has fallen. They say there is "high confidence that projected warming and drying in southern and eastern Australia will lead to fuels that are drier and more ready-to-burn, with increases in the FFDI and a greater number of days with severe fire danger." This appears to be what is happening in World Heritage Tasmania.

And climatologists from the University of Melbourne have found that natural climate variation cannot explain our record summer temperatures - that climate change caused by human activity delivered a five-fold increase in risk of extreme summer temperatures over the record 2012-13 Australian summer.

The CSIRO and BOM have modelled Australia's 2050 climate under two scenarios: a low and a high emissions scenario. Low is where the planet takes action to limit climate change in line with the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. High is where carbon pollution is allowed to continue entering our atmosphere at the levels it is today.

Under the high scenario, compared to our climate from 1980 to 1999, they project that extreme fire weather will increase by up to 50 per cent under the low scenario by 2050, and to 300 per cent under the high emissions scenario.

Should we continue to pump carbon pollution into our atmosphere at present levels, a host of scientific researchers have made various predictions for each of the southern states of Australia.

In NSW, very high to extreme fire risk days would increase up to 50 per cent with an extended fire season in most regions. Instead of experiencing a catastrophic "Black Saturday" level fire event every 30 years,Victoria could face one every two or threeAdelaide can expect an up to 25 per cent increase in the FFDI by 2050 and south-west WA can expect severe fire danger weather to almost double by 2090. By the turn of the century, Tasmania can expect lengthening bushfire seasons and a 120 per cent increase in days of very high fire danger.

The point is that when summer rolls around each year and we are faced with the incessant distress of raging bushfires around our country, if we become concerned that they seem to be more intense and happening over a longer period of time, the science is saying we are right. And scientists are clear that the real cause is not just climate change. It is our continued growth in heat trapping carbon pollution that is stoking the fires of this new deadly climate change.

If Australia doesn't take stronger action, along with the rest of the world, to end carbon pollution - the action we agreed with in Paris - the carnage from ever more extreme and lengthening bushfire seasons will increasingly plague us and our children's future.

John Connor

John Connor was CEO of The Climate Institute from 2007 to March 2017. Whilst qualified as a lawyer, John has spent over twenty years working in a variety of policy and advocacy roles with organisations including World Vision, Make Poverty History, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NSW Nature Conservation Council. Since joining The Climate Institute in 2007 John has been a leading analyst and commentator on the rollercoaster that has been Australia’s domestic and international carbon policy and overseen the Institute’s additional focus on institutional investors and climate risk. John has also worked on numerous government and business advisory panels.

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