One of the most dangerous bush fire days in the history of southeastern Australia, particularly from Greater Sydney north to Byron Bay, resulted Tuesday in numerous large and rapidly spreading blazes. But the day passed without the huge loss to life and property that was feared. It did, however, spark a political firestorm over the role that climate change is playing in intensifying the country’s bush fires.
Firefighters are bracing for more dangerous conditions in coming days, as the entire Australian continent is projected to be in a rain void of sorts, with just a few showers occurring over Tasmania during the next 10 days.
Tuesday featured more than 15 “emergency warnings” from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, which included the dire and direct wording of “It is too late to leave. ... Seek shelter as the fire approaches.”
More than 600 schools across New South Wales were closed, and several were evacuated because of the bush fire danger. Strong winds out of the northwest and a hot, bone-dry air mass catapulted fire danger to “catastrophic” risk level, its highest-ever, for the Sydney-metropolitan area. Late in the day, southerly winds, accompanied by 50-mph gusts, blasted northward, surging through Sydney at about 7 p.m. local time, rapidly dropping temperatures but playing havoc with firefighting efforts by shifting the direction of fire spread for the dozens of blazes already burning.
A large fire threatened homes on Tuesday afternoon in the community of Turramurra, 11 miles from downtown Sydney.
According to an Associated Press tally, more than 3,800 square miles of forest and farmland have already burned across New South Wales so far this unruly and angry fire season, more than three times the amount that burned during all of last season.
According to RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, New South Wales is gearing up for more dire fire weather from Friday into the weekend, and outlooks call for hot and dry weather next week, as well. It’s unlikely that ongoing fires will be extinguished before the return of perilous fire weather conditions again. For example, one fire west of Coffs Harbour, on the North Coast, was 370,658 acres in size as of Tuesday evening local time and not yet contained.
“You can guarantee we’re not going to be able to get around all of these fires before the next wave of bad weather,” Fitzimmons said.
“Unfortunately there’s no meaningful reprieve. There’s no rainfall in this change, and we’re going to continue to have warm dry conditions dominating in the days and weeks ahead.”
Fitzimmons issued a warning for the longer-term, as well, according to the Guardian.
“The real challenge is we have an enormous amount of country that is still alight," Fitzsimmons said. “They won’t have this out for days, weeks, months. Unfortunately the forecast is nothing but above-average temperatures and below-average rainfall over the next few months and we’ve still got summer around the corner.”
Computer models show a huge precipitation hole over Australia for at least the next 10 days, which is unusual. Little to no rain was recorded nationwide on Nov. 11.
Climate change: A political blame game
Climate change has long been a fault line in Australian politics, with several recent national elections hinging in part on the climate proposals of each major candidate. Current Prime Minister Scott Morrison has advocated for more coal development and has expressed skepticism about the severity of human-caused global warming, arguing that coal mining creates jobs. Most controversially, he has pushed forward with efforts to construct the Adani Mine in Queensland, which scientists have warned could pollute the imperiled Great Barrier Reef.
Many on social media denounced Morrison’s pro-coal stance, given the grave bush fire situation, citing the scientific evidence showing that climate change is already worsening the country’s bush fire problem.
On Tuesday, Sen. Jordon Steele-John, of the Green Party, blamed the major political parties, including Morrison, for not doing enough to reduce emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases. Australia is a leading producer of coal and has one of the highest carbon emissions per capita of any nation in the world.
“You are no better than a bunch of arsonists — borderline arsonists, and you should be ashamed,” Steele-John said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “Your selfishness and your ignorance have known no bounds for decades, and now our communities are paying the price.”
In response, Morrison called for toning down the rhetoric as the fires continue to burn, enshrouding areas from Sydney northward, nearly to Brisbane and southeast to New Zealand. He called for the focus to be on the operational task of putting the fires out before discussing climate change.
“The last thing that people in an urgent crisis need at the moment is hearing politicians shout at each other. There is a time and a place to debate controversial issues and important issues, right now it’s important to focus on the needs of Australians who need our help," Morrison said.
What climate science research shows
There’s little debate within the scientific community that Australia’s bush fire risk is increasing in large part because of human-caused global warming.
According to a comprehensive 2015 federal climate report, the ongoing bush fires are burning in areas of Australia that are likely to see an uptick in the average forest fire danger index and the number of days with severe fire danger. The study pinned these trends on human-caused climate change, in large part because a warming climate dries out vegetation faster, worsening drought impacts.
Studies published since have also warned that one of the clearest findings of climate research is that the fire season is getting longer in large parts of Australia, and that conditions will become more conducive to severe fires as the climate warms and vegetation dries out faster and more extensively.
Australia’s fire danger has increased since 1950 across most of the eastern part of the country, the Bureau of Meteorology has found. These trends include areas of southeastern Queensland and parts of northeastern New South Wales, and capture an increase in the frequency and severity of dangerous fire weather.
“Trends towards a lengthened fire season have already been discerned in some areas of the country, with the fire season typically starting earlier in the year in southern Queensland, inland and southern New South Wales, and Victoria,” the Bureau said.
Long-term climate trends in Australia show sharp warming and an increase in extreme heat events. Last summer was the country’s hottest on record, and the BOM found climate change exacerbated extreme heat events as well as droughts during the year. Overall, Australia’s average annual temperature has increased by 1.8 degrees since 1910, the BOM found, and a 2018 report by the agency said: “There has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather, and in the length of the fire season, across large parts of Australia.”
Other aggravating climate factors
In Australia, winter and spring rainfall this year has been well below average across parts of the country. This is a trend that is related to a predominantly natural climate cycle known as the Indian Ocean Dipole, which involves a pattern of air and moisture transport across the Indian Ocean.
Many locations in coastal New South Wales, for example, saw January-to-August rainfall totals that were 50 percent below average, according to the BOM. In some places, drier-than-average weather dates back to 2017.
A positive Indian Ocean Dipole the past two years has meant drier-than-average conditions in much of Australia, and El Niño, which was present for part of the period between 2017 to 2019, also influenced precipitation patterns. The BOM found it’s unusual to have back-to-back years with a positive dipole pattern, which helps dictate precipitation patterns across South Asia and Oceania.
A positive Indian Ocean Dipole occurs when the water is cooler than average off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia, leading to reduced atmospheric lift there and reduced rainfall over Australia. At the same time, positive dipole events feature warmer-than-average waters off the coast of Africa, which enhances atmospheric lift and leads to above-average rainfall there.
Importantly, this climate cycle, along with El Niño, which also has a major influence on Australia’s climate, is shifting as ocean and air temperatures increase in response to growing amounts of greenhouse gases in the air as a result of human activities.
Also, a disruption in the polar vortex swirling around the stratosphere above Antarctica during the Austral winter favored drier than average conditions in New South Wales, in particular. That same development also led to the smallest ozone hole above Antarctica since monitoring began.