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Climate Change



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Issue #1437      25 November 2009

Fire danger rising at home and around the world

“Decisions by the Australian and the Victorian governments, together with those of other governments around the world, on reducing greenhouse gas emissions will have a direct influence on increases in the risk of very high and extreme fire danger days in Victoria due to anthropogenic climate change.” – Prof. David Karoly, Professor of Meteorology, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne. Submission to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.

The Tarkine Forest in Tasmania is unique as a temperate forest ecozone containing Antarctic flora and habitat for endangered species such as the Tasmanian Devil. After surviving decades of heavy mining and logging it they will be further greatly diminished through dramatic climate change in the decades to come.

In 2007, The Climate Institute released groundbreaking research that showed fire danger increasing as emission levels rise. To make sense of the data in recent years, the researchers had to create two new categories of bushfire conditions: “very extreme” and “catastrophic”. This summer, for the first time the latter category is now in use as “catastrophic” or “code red” conditions.

Since this research, Australians have been hit with the most shocking fires in our history, and we are not alone. Around the world, wildfire patterns are shifting, with increases in frequency and intensity of fire in many parts of the world as carbon pollution levels rise and the planet continues to heat up.

Climate change does not start bushfires by itself, but it is clearly stirring the cocktail of conditions necessary for the sort of catastrophic fires that devastated Victorian communities in February 2009.

In September 2009, the Bushfire CRC (Cooperative Research Centre) warned of the potential for “above normal” fire activity across southern Australia for the 2009/10 summer. This warning takes into account a range of factors, including fuel load, the long drought, and below average winter rains in inland eastern areas.

Earlier in the year, Monash University scientists confirmed the link between rising carbon pollution and the trend towards more intense and more frequent drought in southern Australia.

As Australians prepare for yet another bad bushfire season, with fires already affecting communities in parts of Queensland, and South Australia and Victoria labouring under spring heatwaves, it is crucial that action is taken now – to reduce emissions and reduce the risk of catastrophic fires.

A weak response to climate change will condemn Australians to worsening bushfire conditions. The response must be two-fold: Australia and the world must cut emissions if we are to avoid the worst scenarios. At the same time, we need to prepare communities and emergency services for some, now inevitable, worsening of fire danger.

Fire and climate change

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes – with high confidence (i.e. at least 90 percent certainty) – that heatwaves, fires and other extreme weather events are likely to become more intense and more frequent as the globe warms. This means a decreasing capacity for fire authorities to prevent and manage fires, and a higher likelihood of fires spreading more quickly.

In 2007, the Bushfire CRC, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO Marine & Atmospheric Research produced the report Bushfire Weather in Southeast Australia: Recent Trends and Projected Climate Change Impacts.

A key conclusion of the report is that there has been a general trend towards more fire weather over the last 30 years or so, with the majority of the most intense fire weather seasons occurring since the late 1990s. Moreover, fire seasons are starting earlier and finishing later.

The report included modelling of near-future fire weather risk in the southeast with the following results:

  • The number of “very high” or “extreme” fire weather days is projected to increase under all scenarios developed by the report’s authors. If the rate of global warming is low, the number of extreme days increases 5-25 percent by 2020 and 10-50 percent by 2050. If the rate is high, however, the number of extreme days rises as high as 65 percent by 2020 and 100-300 percent by 2050. In other words, the number of very high or extreme fire weather days is projected to be 16-24 by 2050, compared to only 15 today. Very extreme fire weather days now occur on average once every 2 to 11 years at most sites in the study. By 2020, they may occur twice as often; by 2050 four to five times as often.
  • At a high rate of global warming, by 2020 the incidence of catastrophic fire weather days nearly doubles, and by 2050 the risk of such fires is substantially more commonplace. For the Melbourne region, for example, this means catastrophic fire days will occur not once in every 33 years as at present but once every 2.4 years on average.

It is important to understand that, consistent with recent changes in global temperature and sea level, contemporary climate models may well be underestimating future fire risk. Indeed, the strength of the recent jump in fire weather in the southeast of the continent is equal to or exceeds the changes estimated to occur by 2050 in the modelling.

The recent observed rise in fire danger may be due to a mixture of natural variability and anthropogenic climate change. The relative importance of these two factors is not known at this time, but evidence for a human signature in rising fire danger is becoming clear.

Black Saturday

The meteorological conditions that precipitated Victoria’s horrific “Black Saturday” fires were extraordinary:

  • In the fortnight preceding February 7, Victoria was hit by a record-breaking heatwave with, for the first time, the capital experiencing three days in excess of 43°C in a row.
  • On the day itself, record high temperatures were observed by weather stations across the state, including those in and around Melbourne, together with 120km/h winds and a relative humidity (RH) of around 6 percent. Indeed, the city had had no measurable precipitation from January 3 – the driest start to the year in more than 150 years. Elsewhere, the RH ranged between 20 percent in Orbost to 4 percent in Shepparton.
  • These staggering temperatures were, in turn, preceded by 12 years of well-below average rainfall over much of southeastern Australia. Since 1950, average temperatures on the Australian continent have increased by between 0.4 and 0.7°C, with less rainfall in the southeast and an increase in the intensity of droughts.
  • The Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) for February 7 reached unheard of, definitively catastrophic levels, ranging from 120 to 190 – surpassing the FFDI readings for either the 1939 Black Friday or the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires.

The fires killed 173 people, injured 414 and displaced more than 7,562. Insurance companies received over 8,000 claims worth more than $1,000 million.

In the week following the fires, Dr David Karoly, Professor of Meteorology at the University of Melbourne and Head of the Victorian Government’s Climate Advisory Group was reported as saying:

“The risk of increased intensity and increased frequency of fires is real, it is already occurring and it will get worse under climate change.”

Similarly, the Bureau of Meteorology’s former Principal Scientist, Prof Neville Nicholls remarked:

“The really crucial thing linking this to climate change is the three-day heatwave rather than the really hot temperatures on the day of the fires. By then, the situation was already primed… I think it is beyond reasonable doubt that global warming and the enhanced greenhouse effect has exacerbated the severity of the tragedy.”

And Dr Blair Trewin, Director of the National Climate Centre said:

“We have a fair degree of confidence that some of [the] long-term drying is consistent with climate change.”

In other words, Victorians were, in all likelihood, brutally confronted with the consequences of past policies. These were the fires of climate change. Climate change is no longer a matter for the future; it is already here.

Fire danger rising

Climate change is bringing about dramatic and very fast shifts in fire danger worldwide, according to a recent study by the University of California, Berkeley and Texas Tech University. While some regions may experience reduced fire danger, others – such as Tibet and California – will suffer worsening conditions. In announcing their findings, the researchers made specific reference to the recent Victorian fires, pointing out the consistency between what the science is saying and this dreadful event. In their 2007 research, CSIRO and the CRC for Bushfires predicted an exponential growth in total fire risk once global warming rises above 2 degrees.

Recent reports of increasing fire danger in southeastern Australia are consistent with scientific reports from other fire-prone parts of the world, such as Spain, the western United States and Canada.

Global warming and increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere are predicted to lead to an increase in woody vegetation and changes in the mix of trees and shrubs, making large parts of the landscape more fire-prone.

United States: In a 2004 paper in the journal Science, researchers reported a “sudden and marked” increase in wildfire activity in the western US in the mid-1980s. Fires became more frequent, lasting longer through a longer wildfire season.

Canada: Over the past four decades, fires have burned significantly larger parts of the forested landscape of British Columbia, the Yukon and other western parts. At the same time, the summers are getting hotter, according to a 2004 report published in Geophysicalt Research Letters.

Spain: An analysis, published in Climatic Change, of fire records and the records of 350 weather stations covering the eastern Iberian Peninsula for the second half of the 20th Century shows a “clear pattern” of increasing summer and average annual temperatures; 0.35°C higher every decade on average.

At the same time, fire records suggest a “clear increase” in the annual number of fires and area burnt over the last century. Also, a slight increase in average summer rainfall seems to be promoting higher fuel loads. The role of fire as a cause of global warming is still not well understood. A recent paper in the journal Science suggests that more and bigger fires seem to be setting in motion a feedback effect.

In particular, fires associated with deforestation – such as those in the Amazon and Indonesia – are adding substantial amounts of carbon to the global burden, fuelling global warming and raising the fire danger worldwide.  

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