Australia has been burning since September 2019. The country has always experienced a ‘fire season’, but this year is fighting the worst bush fires in decades. Every state and territory in Australia have experienced fires this summer, with the biggest fires along the southern and eastern coasts, including the hubs of Sydney and Adelaide. The scale of the fires is unprecedented, fueled by record-breaking temperatures, months of severe droughts and strong winds.
The scale and speed of the fires is difficult to grasp. Just today the country’s capital Canberra has declared a state of emergency, with the fires approaching from the south and residents and businesses on alert for possible evacuation.
To date there have been 33 fatalities recorded and thousands displaced from forced evacuation of entire communities in the line of fire. It is thought that more than a billion animals have died across the burnt areas.
Is climate change the driving force?
This year sees a natural weather phenomenon known as the Indian Ocean Dipole resulting in a hot, dry spell across the country (more information can be found here).
Although, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that rising levels of CO2 are warming the planet, with Australia getting hotter over recent decades and temperatures projected to continue increasing. This year the country experienced a record high average temperature of 41.9 Celsius. This hotter, drier climate will result in more frequent fires that are more intense. Scientists say this bushfire disaster is exacerbated by climate change, enabling it to spread out of control quickly. This video demonstrates how rapid the fire front is progressing under the influence of wind.
Australia are subject to their environment, with severe heatwaves conditions reported to be developing this week, with very hot and humid days and nights to come across the country providing the environmental conditions to fuel the fire.
Last year the UN declared we only have 11 years to prevent unavoidable damage from climate change – many of which Australia will now be recovering from this natural disaster. The fires have brought home the real threats of climate change and the realities of a global temperature increase of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The prime minister has belatedly acknowledged the link between the bush fire disaster and a warming planet, saying the government will focus on climate adaption and building resilience rather than reducing emissions.
A Laureates Open Letter (link) from the Australia Research Council (ARC), signed by 80 of the country’s top researchers claims strong action to cut emissions is vital and requires global, collective action. The countries current visibility as ground zero for both climate impacts and climate policy uncertainty present a unique opportunity for them to emerge as a climate leader.