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‘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.

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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.

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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.