Saturday, November 9, 2019

East Coast of Australia literally on fire, #bushfires driven by global heating



The east coast of Australia is literally on fire, in early November, with bushfires spread up and down the east coast of Australia, particularly New South Wales. This is not normal for early November.

Fire conditions are exacerbated by the rising temperatures of global heating and change in rainfall patterns, and higher evaporation rates.

Professor David Bowman, a bushfire expert, commented "As a society we are running out of time to adapt to climate change driven bushfires, and policy failure will lead to escalating disasters that have the capacity to eclipse the worst disasters we have experienced."





Adam Bandt, Greens MP spokesperson on climate change sums it up succinctly.



The view from Port Macquarie:






According to reports, Around a hundred bushfires are ablaze in the New South Wales and Queensland countryside. In the early hours of Saturday morning there were 82 fires burning across the state, with 45 yet to be contained. Nine of those fires were at emergency warning.

"We have never seen this many fires concurrently at emergency warning level," New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told public broadcaster ABC. "We are in uncharted territory."

MidCoast Mayor David West, from the town of Brimbin, said he had never seen anything like the nearby fire, according to the Sydney Morning Herald report.

"I'm looking at a sky that's screaming danger, that's saying 'get out of my way, I'm going to kill you'," he said.

"I know that sounds melodramatic but it's not. This is a fire that's devouring everything in its path."

The main coastal highway, the Pacific Highway, is closed in both directions between Cundletown and Nabiac. Motorists are advised to avoid non-essential travel as there is no diversion.

A climate Council report from 2015 - The Burning Issue: Climate Change and the Australian Bushfire Threat - found the length of the fire season increased by almost 19% globally between 1978 and 2013. Longer fire seasons are reducing opportunities for controlled burning and intensifying pressure on firefighting resources.

Here is what they found:
Australia’s bushfire preparedness is at risk from climate change as bushfire seasons increasingly lengthen and overlap with fire seasons in the Northern Hemisphere.

Large areas of southeast and southwest Australia are facing above-average bushfire potential for the 2015/2016 summer. Most of the southeast coast of Australia is expected to experience above normal bushfire potential due to a long-term rainfall deficit, relatively low soil moisture, and relatively warm conditions predicted for the summer.

Globally, the length of the fire weather season increased by nearly 19% between 1979 and 2013. Longer fire seasons will reduce opportunities for controlled burning and increase pressure on firefighting resources.

Some of Australia’s key firefighting aircraft are leased from overseas and are contracted to North American firefighting services during their summer. The fire seasons of the two hemispheres – and the demand for these critical shared firefighting aircraft – will increasingly overlap, challenging such arrangements.

During the past decade, state fire agencies have increasingly needed to share personnel and other firefighting resources during peak demand periods. This pressure will continue to intensify and the number of firefighters will need to double by 2030 to meet demand.

4. Stronger climate change action is needed to reduce bushfire risk.

Australia’s emissions reduction target of 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030 is not sufficient to protect Australians from worsening bushfires and extreme weather events.

Australia must cut emissions more rapidly and deeply to join global efforts to stabilise the world’s climate and the vast majority of Australia’s fossil fuel reserves must stay in ground.

The Australian government is allowing apocalyptic fire conditions, endangering human life and the destruction of property by not escalating action on climate change, by not escalating Australia's climate ambition.

The Guardian reports that:
  • Two people have died Kangawalla fire near Glen Innes.
  • Seven people are still unaccounted for and there are fears the death toll will rise as emergency services are able to access impacted areas.
  • At least 150 homes have been destroyed and there are concerns for schools, bridges and other infrastructure may have also been damaged or lost.
  • More than 1300 people have fled their homes and are taking shelter in evacuation centres, according to the Red Cross.
  • There are more than 80 fires are burning with about half of those uncontained.

What the Guardian report does not mention is the loss of natural infrastructure, the species and habitats destroyed in these fires, which provide the underlying support for us all.




What the bushfire experts say:

Adjunct Professor Jim McLennan, a Bushfire Safety Researcher in the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University:

"The devastating bushfires in NSW and Queensland are unprecedented in terms of being so early going into the south-eastern Australian bushfire season, and where they are burning.

These areas have rarely had intense fires because of their moist soils and vegetation.

However, the fire situation is consistent with our new world of bushfire threat associated with climate change.

Residents have previously not had to contend with such intense fires threatening so many locations. Levels of property preparation to resist ember attack, and household readiness to evacuate, are both likely to be lower than desirable.

Local fire and emergency services personnel will be stretched to manage what is likely to be ‘new territory’ for many. Emergency management authorities will probably have to re-examine their bushfire risk mitigation plans and resourcing to adapt to this new level of threat."

Andrew Gissing, an emergency management expert with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and General Manager of Resilience at Risk Frontiers (a consultancy that provides research and modelling on natural disasters) commented:

"Climate projections estimate an increased frequency in severe Bushfire weather in the future and a lengthening of fire seasons which inevitably will put pressure on Bushfire fighting resources and communities in Bushfire prone areas. Increased use of autonomous technologies in the future could assist fire fighting efforts.

It is likely that the fire threat in Northern NSW and South East Queensland will continue for weeks unless significant rainfall occurs assisting fire fighters to extinguish blazes.”

Professor Ross Bradstock from the Centre for Environmental Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong stated:

"The situation in northern NSW is unprecedented in terms of the amount active fire, extensive dryness and exposure of human communities along the coast.

Thus we are seeing a tragic conjunction of circumstances that reflects decades of encroachment of urban and peri-urban development along the coast and hinterlands with resultant exposure of people and property.

The disastrous 2018 fire in the coastal community of Tathra was a harbinger of things to come, not only now but into the future as our forests continue to dry under climate change.

This unfortunate mix of urban and peri urban development into drying, fire prone landscapes is playing out across the world: e.g. California.


David Bowman, a Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, and Director of the Fire Centre Research Hub in the School of Natural Sciences, The University of Tasmania commented:

"I think the key point is that this current burst of fire activity, that builds on recent (certainly since the turn of this century) unprecedented bushfires across a broad spectrum of Australian ecosystems present a critical ‘linkage’ to understand how climate change will transform bushfire behaviour, frequency and ecological impacts.

What I mean, is that we are clearly transiting away from the stage of ‘what climate models tell us about the possible effects of climate change on bushfires’ to ‘observing and experiencing extreme, unusual, and ecologically and economically damaging bushfires driven by anomalous climate conditions’.

It is paramount we document (i.e. do post fire investigations of the ecological and economic impacts and climate drivers) these bushfires, as this knowledge will help use adapt to future bushfires which are set to get even more destructive.

As a society we need a much larger and more informed discussion about bushfire adaption that is grounded in the scientific reality of these destructive events, moving beyond media sensationalism.

Even though these fires are currently occurring, and people are suffering great hardships, I believe It is now timely and appropriate for a discussion of the linkage between climate change and bushfire to occur, noting we need to acknowledge uncertainties and complexities.

As a society we are running out of time to adapt to climate change driven bushfires, and policy failure will lead to escalating disasters that have the capacity to eclipse the worst disasters we have experienced."


Dr Paul Read, an expert in bushfire, arson and climate change at Monash University highlighted pollution as a health problem from the bushfires, but also drew attention to the need to address the underlying drivers of greenhouse gas pollution:

"An air quality index (AQI) above 300 is considered hazardous to everybody, not just the vulnerable, and usually prompts a community alert as it can lead to life-threatening medical emergencies.

In the past week or two, we've already seen AQIs beyond this range in The Hunter, Central Coast, Sydney and Illawarra. Today (Sat 9) parts of Queensland have reached vast levels up to 407, much higher than most of Indonesia during last month's Borneo fires where 100,000 deaths and premature deaths were expected based on actual results in 2015.

Note the words 'premature death' is of concern for all residents and not just those in the fires' direct pathways.

...

So is it climate change?

Jury's always out when it comes to science, as it should be, but I'd lay bets that it is climate change affecting our seasons. And this is scary for everybody.

We need to sensibly, gently (but rapidly) adjust our ways of doing economics and politics worldwide, at the same time strengthening our capacity to cope with natural and man-made disasters. Bushfires are, after all, a combination of both.

Dr Richard Thornton is CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, commented:

“Unfortunately we knew, along with the fire services, that this fire season had the potential to be devastating. Our Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook*, released in late August, showed above normal bushfire potential along the east coast of Queensland, New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria and Tasmania, as well as parts of southern Western Australia and South Australia.

Firefighters in New South Wales and Queensland have been battling severe bushfires since early September, and there’s a lot left in this fire season.

This fire season is influenced by the warm and dry conditions we’ve been experiencing all year. In south east Queensland and northern New South Wales, the last three years have been dry and warm – it is these conditions that are driving the severity of the current bushfires.

When preceding conditions have been like this, and the bush and grass is so dry, it doesn’t take much for a fire to get going once the wind is up. Unfortunately that is what we’ve seen, not just in recent days, but over the last few months.

We need to start preparing now for these future risks, and not just the coming months, but the coming years and decades – we cannot keep doing things the same. No matter what we think we control, we will also need to be ready for the unexpected, and to do that we need to find a way to embrace uncertainty and plan for the inevitable. The issues are complex, and this is the role of research.

We cannot any longer be sure of what is possible with our seasonal cycles.

We need to focus on mitigation from climate change.

This is an area in critical need of further research into weather prediction, land planning, infrastructure development, population trends, and community awareness. Yes, climate change is causing more severe weather, but demographic changes are having an equal impact and deserve just as much of our attention.”

*The Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook: August 2019 is available at https://www.bnhcrc.com.au/hazardnotes/63

This is what the leading scientist for the Berkeley Earth project identifies in a tweet:



Insurance campanies withdrawing from bushfire risk, while making global heating worse

Insurance companies are starting to cancel policies for insuring against risk of bushfires, while continuing to insure fossil fuel infrastructure which is exacerbating climate change making bushfire risk greater.

Thanks to Market Forces for highlighting this onging hypocrisy in the insurance industry:




Sources:

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