‘Sprawling Heat Wave Of Historical Proportions’ Brings ‘Horrendous’ Wildfires To Australia

A “dome of heat,” has settled over Australia since the start of the new year, creating an historic heat wave. The temperatures have nurtured fires in five of Australia’s six states, including at least 90 wildfires throughout New South Wales in southeastern Australia, as well as the Island of Tasmania. In the latter case, the fires consumed over 100 homes and other buildings, 60,000 hectares of land (approximately 148,000 acres) and left up to 100 people unaccounted for as of January 6.

“We saw tornadoes of fire just coming across towards us,” one Tasmanian survivor said. “The next thing we knew everything was on fire, everywhere, all around us.” Another local resident said that “the trees just exploded” as he tried to help fire crews in the township of Murdunna, which was mostly destroyed by the blaze.

The heat wave is also setting new records: On Monday the national average temperature hit 40.33 degrees Centigrade (104.6 degrees Fahrenheit), topping the previous December 21, 1976 record 40.17 degrees Centigrade.

“It’s been a summer like no other in the history of Australia, where a sprawling heat wave of historical proportions is entering its second week,” wrote Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground today.

The Bureau of Meteorology even added new colors to its weather forecasting chart to account for the record heat levels. And by the end of Tuesday, by all accounts, seven of Australia’s 20 hottest days on record will have been set in 2013. As the New Scientist summed up matters yesterday:

Temperatures reached almost 48 °C on Monday at the Oodnadatta airport in South Australia, and 43 °C on Tuesday in Sydney. The typical January high is 37.7 °C at Oodnadatta. […]

At least 90 fires were sweeping through New South Wales by Monday, and 100 people remained unaccounted for in Tasmania following major fires covering 60,000 hectares. Bushfire experts warned that things could get worse. “The current heatwave is unusual due to its extent, with more than 70 per cent of the continent currently experiencing heatwave conditions,” says John Nairn, South Australia’s acting regional director for the Bureau of Meteorology, in comments to the Australian Science Media Centre.

Lack of rainfall in recent months has left soils completely dry and unable to release moisture that would take up heat from the air through evaporation. At the same time, vegetation across the continent that had been revived by rains over the past two years is now completely dried out. “Much of this grass is fully dried and is ready to burn,” says Gary Morgan of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre in Melbourne.

The severe fire conditions are expected to continue today. “Any fire that burns under the predicted conditions — 40C temperatures, below 10% humidity, winds gusting over 70km/hr (43mph) – those conditions are by any measure horrendous,” Rob Rogers, the deputy commissioner of the New South Wales rural fire service, told The Guardian.

In 2009, another flurry of wildfires hit the Australian state of Victoria, killing 173 people and causing $4.4 billion in damage. That same year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published predictions that days of extreme fire danger for southeastern Australia would increase 25 percent by 2020, and perhaps as much 70 percent by 2050.

Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard also took up the theme in reaction to the fires: “You would not put any one event down to climate change,” she said, but “we do know over time that as a result of climate change we are going to see more extreme weather events and conditions.”

Here in America, a 2009 report noted a significant uptick in the scale of wildfires, starting around the mid-1990s. Global warming is combining increasing drought conditions with higher temperatures, while also causing warmer winters that reduce snowpack in areas like Arizona and Colorado. At the same time, human development is pushing more people into forested regions, thus increasing the risk of damage. Not surprisingly, local and national officials have noted all these concerns as areas where policy has yet to catch up with reality.

29 Responses to ‘Sprawling Heat Wave Of Historical Proportions’ Brings ‘Horrendous’ Wildfires To Australia

  1. Jeff Poole says:

    Julia Gillard is as useless on Climate as your President Obama.

    Her ALP party and the opposition LNP are in furious agreement that climate change is bad, but they both support exporting 80% more coal! As we are the world’s largest coal exporter already that’s just crazy.

    It’s a bit like the parties are saying that ‘sexism is bad, bitches.’ No internal consistency except for the desire to screw money out of the ground.

  2. Gail Zawacki says:

    With vegetation dying off, not only in drier areas but even wetter areas, from air pollution as well as drought, trees and other plants are turning into tinder. The last time I went to California after a 20 year absence, I couldn’t believe how dramatically the entire landscape had turned to brown – and yet nobody even talked about it. It was shocking, as though people are sleepwalking through a graveyard. Things will be burning so fast there will not be nearly enough firefighters to contend with the conflagration.

  3. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    I think most of the 100 people have been accounted for. Despite all the damage there have been few injuries and no confirmed deaths.

    Tasmania is much cooler but the mainland is still hot.

    This is the new normal, we need to build houses to suit. Timber houses in steep wooded areas is no longer a sane option.

  4. Superman1 says:


    It is painful to watch the physical decline of our civilization in real time, and see absolutely nothing being done to reverse or even halt the decline. Unfortunately, in order for humanity to get its act together and make things happen, there have to be some large stakeholder groups with the motivation and capability to make it happen. Who are the major stakeholder groups?

    The fossil energy companies are satisfied with the status quo, and want only an expansion. The fossil energy workers, as we have seen after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, are satisfied with the status quo and their steady well-paid employment, and they are not interested in going off fossil fuels. The energy consumers are addicted to a high energy intensity way of life enabled by unlimited cheap fossil fuel, and they are comfortable with the status quo, irrespective of what the polls might say. And, the final major group, the politicians, are driven by their sponsors, the fossil energy companies et al, and the electorate. Since neither of these two stakeholder groups want a change in the status quo, the politicians will take no action to oppose them, as we are seeing only too clearly. Thus, there are no stakeholders that I can see who are motivated to make the changes of the magnitude required. I don’t see these changes happening voluntarily.

  5. Paul Magnus says:

    ““The current heatwave is unusual due to its extent, with more than 70 per cent of the continent currently experiencing heatwave conditions,”

    Is there a jet stream issue for Auz like in the Northern hemisphere?

  6. Paul Magnus says:

    Can the melting of the Arctic influence the weather as far south as Auz?

  7. Paul Magnus says:

    that is directly….

  8. prokaryotes says:

    In the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic, the dominant teleconnections in order of increasing time scale, are as follows: (1) Semi-Annual Oscillation (SAO)—inter-seasonal; (2) Southern Annular Mode (SAM)—annual/inter-annual; (3) El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO)—inter-annual; (4) Antarctic Circumpolar Wave (ACW)—interdecadal. Regional-scale teleconnections associated with ENSO include the Pacific-South America (PSA) and Antarctic Dipole (ADP) patterns.

  9. wili says:

    Welcome to hell on eaarth.

  10. SecularAnimist says:

    Superman1 wrote: “I don’t see these changes happening voluntarily.”

    Electricity from rooftop photovoltaics now costs less than half the average cost of grid electricity in Australia.

    So, yeah, why would anyone want to switch to solar power “voluntarily”? People generally have to be dragged kicking and screaming to cut their electric bills in half — right?

  11. Leif says:

    Let me answer your question with another if I may Paul. Can a relatively small patch of water in the South Pacific warming by a hand full of degrees profoundly affect the weather in North and South America as well as Africa and Europe to a lesser degree? I refer to El Nino, La Ninia? The answer to that is “of course.” Now change an area about the size India from sub zero reflective ice to above freezing dark open water with some 24 hours of summer sun adjacent to the northern borders of many continents. Can you assume that does not affect the climate less than 1/2 the world away?

  12. nyc-tornado-10 says:

    The lyrics to the midnight oil song “beds are burning” need to be updated. the new lyrics should be, “the western desert lives and breathes, in 50 degrees!” (celcius). it doesn’t rhyme like 45 degrees, but it is becoming accurate.

  13. Merrelyn Emery says:

    jeff, coal makes many of us feel sick but parts of the indutry are already in trouble and I’m sure the PM is well aware that there is more than one way to stuff a duck, ME

  14. Paul Klinkman says:

    Not every forest is dying off quickly. A few are. The greater problem is that we can find damage now in most of the world’s forests. In New England the maple syrup industry is in crisis because the maples can’t produce a third of the sugar that they used to produce. The maples are sick.

    If that damage continues forward, in ten years we’re going to see megafires in most of the world’s forests and in the Arctic tundra.

  15. Paul Klinkman says:

    Everybody who isn’t being paid by the fossil industry is one big stakeholder group. Most of us have kids, or at least nieces or nephews.

  16. Paul Klinkman says:

    9% of natural gas (mostly methane) leaks into the atmosphere, from dry wells and from pipeline leaks. It manages to be worse than coal for climate change, no small feat.

  17. Paul Magnus says:

    Loading…. GW….. Loading…. GW…. Loading…

  18. Paul Magnus says:

    mmm… I wonder exactly how…

  19. jyyh says:

    or “solar is not good in hot climate because of loss in efficiency”

  20. jyyh says:

    (sarc) clearly this is a case of Antarctica not responding quickly enough, if it would conform to the will of the people, it should melt in time to avoid these sorts of hot spells. (/sarc) Had this happened 10 years ago I’d looked how the Indian Ocean Dipole is doing but I don’t know where it is currently wrt relevance, are there currently better indexes of the large scale state of the Indian Ocean, or is there some sort of index on IO-southern ocean exchange which might pull the hottest airmasses over Australia. Anyway, I’d ask the physical oceanographers first about the origin of this.

  21. Superman1 says:

    Amazing how CO2 emissions and CO2 concentration keep rising steadily, with all these billions of people installing solar photovoltaics on their rooftops. But, don’t let reality intrude on your ideology.

  22. Superman1 says:

    Is this ‘one big stakeholder group’ motivated to make the changes of the magnitude required, as I stated above? I don’t think so. If they were, they would be nominating and electing politicians who put addressing the impending climate catastrophe number one on their agenda, not nominating politicians who don’t even address the issue in the Presidential debates. And, the politicians don’t address the climate change issue because they understand exactly where most of the electorate stands on making the sacrifices necessary to avoid horrific climate change.

  23. jyyh says:

    that would be an extreme summertime positive SAM, then? the big arctic storm of last august comes to mind, maybe there are some similarities? ENSO has been pretty much neutral since then.

  24. jyyh says:

    sorry, negative. i’ve heard of this but it’s the first timme i’ve checked how it’s defined. i’ll promise to get this and some others wrong in the future too.

  25. SecularAnimist says:

    With all due respect, you are misrepresenting my point, and I think you know it.

    But don’t let the ready availability of solutions, and the rapid rate of their ongoing deployment, intrude on your defeatism.

  26. Ronald Brak says:

    Let me check… No, it’s working.

  27. Ronald Brak says:

    With the number of Australians who have rooftop solar surely they’ll have to give up on those sorts of furphies soon.

  28. Ronald Brak says:

    A $23 dollar a tonne carbon price was introduced six months ago. Can you name any other countries that made that big a step last year?