Climate change and Australia’s brushfires

2009-02-18

in Politics, Science, The environment, The outdoors, Writing

Skating on the Rideau Canal, Ottawa

Scientists frequently condemn journalists for being too quick to assert that particular events either support or call into question anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, reporting responsibly on the issue can be challenging. One the one hand, one cannot ignore the long-term contribution climate change makes to the frequency and severity of events; on the other, one doesn’t want to propagate the false idea that the accuracy or inaccuracy of climatic science hinges on a small number of extreme events of local weather trends.

A recent RealClimate post considers the case of Australia’s terrible recent brushfires. It considers a century worth of evidence on Australian brushfires, examining the importance of maximum temperatures, relative humidity, wind speed, and drought factors. Climate change trends are pushing in the direction of higher average temperatures and reduced rainfall. In the end, it comes to a measured by sobering conclusion:

While it is difficult to separate the influences of climate variability, climate change, and changes in fire management strategies on the observed increases in fire activity, it is clear that climate change is increasing the likelihood of environmental conditions associated with extreme fire danger in south-east Australia and a number of other parts of the world.

That may not be the kind of conclusion that translates easily into a headline for a popular newspaper, but it is the sort that we need to consider when making public policy on both climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded back in 2007 that:

An increase in fire danger in Australia is likely to be associated with a reduced interval between fires, increased fire intensity, a decrease in fire extinguishments and faster fire spread. In south-east Australia, the frequency of very high and extreme fire danger days is likely to rise 4-25% by 2020 and 15-70% by 2050.

Those fires will naturally contribute to positive feedbacks within the climate system, as heat-induced dryness prompts the fire-induced emission of greenhouse gasses previously bound up in forests and grasslands.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

. February 18, 2009 at 10:54 am

What if New Mexico doesn’t address climate change?

Published: Tuesday, February 17, 2009

If nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, New Mexico could experience some $3.2 billion in associated costs — led primarily by wildfires and health-care. This could translate to an individual tab of about 8 percent of annual household income by 2020, according to a report produced for the University of Oregon’s Climate Leadership Initiative’s Program on Climate Economics by ECONorthwest. In addition, the report warns, “continuing with the activities that contribute to climate change potentially could cost New Mexico almost $1.3 billion per year in missed opportunities to implement energy-efficiency programs and about $275 million per year in health-care costs from burning coal.” Combined total costs, under a “business-as-usual” approach to climate change would jump six-fold, to $18.4 billion, by 2080.

. February 28, 2009 at 9:29 pm

Is Climate Change Affecting Bushfires?

By kdawson on burning-question

TapeCutter writes “After the devastating firestorm in Australia, there has been a lot of speculation in the press about the role of climate change. For the ‘pro’ argument the BBC article points to research by the CSIRO. For the ‘con’ argument they quote David Packham of Monash university, who is not alone in thinking ‘…excluding prescribed burning and fuel management has led to the highest fuel concentrations we have ever had…’ However, the DSE’s 2008 annual report states; ‘[The DSE] achieved a planned burning program of more than 156,000 hectares, the best result for more than a decade. The planned burning of forest undergrowth is by far the most powerful management tool available…’ I drove through Kilmore on the evening of the firestorm, and in my 50 years of living with fire I have never seen a smoke plume anything like it. It was reported to be 15 km high and creating its own lightning. There were also reports of car windscreens and engine blocks melting. So what was it that made such an unusual firestorm possible, and will it happen again?”

. April 9, 2009 at 3:40 pm

More Australian Weather Records Tumble

The Big Dry Down Under just got a whole lot drier. The first three months of 2009 in the already parched Murray Darling basin had the least amount of rainfall since Australian weather records began 117 years ago.

This massive drainage supports $9 billion in agriculture but has been hammered by what some are calling the worst drought in 1000 years. Authorities in Australia make no bones about the cause of this freaky weather.

“We’ve had big droughts before and big floods before, but what we didn’t have was climate change,” said Rob Freeman, the chief executive of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

The Murray Darling is home to 2 million people who may not even have enough water to survive in the future. “I’d be loath to say that critical human needs will always be secure”, warned Freeman.

. April 9, 2009 at 3:41 pm

In an open letter the Australian Prime Minister, the firefighters union called for urgent government action to curb carbon emissions and control climate change:

“Firefighters work in conditions that most of the public try to flee. We often put our lives on the line. We understand that our job is dangerous by its very nature. However, we are gravely concerned that current federal and state government policies seem destined to ensure a repeat of the recent tragic events… Given the Federal Government’s dismal greenhouse gas emissions cut of 5 per cent, the science suggests we are well on the way to guaranteeing that somewhere in the country there will be an almost annual repeat of the recent disaster and more frequent extreme weather events.”

. August 10, 2010 at 11:13 am

Climate change ‘partly to blame’ for sweltering Moscow
By Katia Moskvitch
Science reporter, BBC News

Global climate change is partly to blame for the abnormally hot and dry weather in Moscow, cloaked in a haze of smoke from wildfires, say researchers.

The UK Met Office said there are likely to be more extreme high temperatures in the future.

Experts from the environmental group WWF Russia have also linked climate change and hot weather to raging wildfires around the Russian capital.

Meteorologists say severe conditions may linger for several more days.

The Moscow health department said earlier that the number of people dying daily in the city had reached about 700 – twice the usual number.

Jeff Knight, a climate variability scientist at the UK Met Office, attributed the situation in Moscow to a number of factors, among them greenhouse gas concentrations, which are steadily rising.

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