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How climate change influenced Australia's unprecedented fires

Posted on 18 January 2020 by dana1981

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections, and has been adapted into a new myth rebuttal on climate-wildfire connections with the short URL

Australia’s frightening bushfires, which kicked off an early fire season in September 2019, have already had cataclysmic effects, and the continent is still just in the early months of the southern hemisphere’s summer. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service has described the bushfires as unprecedented in size and scale, having burned more than 46 million acres (18.6 million hectares), killed at least 29 people, and destroyed more than 2,200 homes.*

Parts of Australia have had the worst air quality in the world. The air quality in Sydney has literally been alarming, having set off smoke alarms in buildings throughout the city’s central business district and exceeded hazardous levels for more than 30 days. Military assets have been deployed in response to the fires at a scale not seen since World War II. Researchers estimate that more than a billion animals have been killed. Several species will likely be pushed to extinction.

The conditions and climate change-wildfire connections in Australia have been strikingly similar to those amplifying California’s record 2018 wildfire season, but on a much larger scale. Scientific unknowns remain regarding some of those connections, but others are a straightforward result of physics – more heat creates more wildfire fuel.

The politics and climate policy environment down under, on the other hand, more closely bring to mind those at the national level in the U.S. than to the situation in California.

How climate change exacerbated Australian and Californian fires

Despite widespread conspiracy theories about the bushfires, emerging science continues to find links between global warming and worsening wildfires, with the issue a focus of continuing investigation. As climate scientist Kevin Trenberth explained in a recent interview with videographer Peter Sinclair, global warming directly intensifies wildfires by drying out soil and vegetation, creating more fuel to burn farther and faster. That’s particularly a problem in drought-prone regions like Australia and California.

The Millennium drought in southeastern Australia from 1997 to 2009 was the driest 13-year period on record, according to a report by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). The drought was broken by Australia’s two wettest periods on record in 2010 and 2011, but then came yet another intense drought from 2017 to the present. In fact, 2018 and 2019 were Australia’s hottest and driest years on record. On December 18, the continent had its hottest day on record, with an average high temperature of 107.4 degrees F. California experienced a similar “weather whiplash,” swinging from record-breaking drought in 2012–2016 to a very wet rainy season in 2017–2018. That combination generated growth of new plants that were subsequently dried out by record heat, creating fuel for the state’s record 2018 wildfire season.

California’s drought was made worse by a persistent high-pressure system off the coast known as the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge.” That high-pressure ridge diverted storm systems to California’s north, leading to years of low precipitation. Researchers have suggested that climate change may cause such blocking systems to form more frequently. A 2018 study led by UCLA’s Daniel Swain found that as temperatures continue to rise, California will see a shift to less precipitation in the spring and fall and more in the winter, lengthening the wildfire season.

The situation in Australia is again strikingly similar to that in California. Researchers have shown that global warming is expanding an atmospheric circulation pattern known as the Hadley cell. This circulation is caused by hot air at the equator rising and spreading toward the poles, where it begins to cool and descend, forming high pressure ridges. In Australia, this process creates what’s known as the subtropical ridge, which as CSIRO notes, has become more intense as a result of global warming expanding the Hadley cell circulation. A 2014 study, CSIRO’s David Post and colleagues reported that stronger high-pressure ridges have been decreasing rainfall in southeastern Australia in the autumn and winter. The significance? The lack of rainfall creates more dry fuel for fires and lengthens the bushfire season.

Based on this scientific research, the latest IPCC report found in 2014 that “fire weather is projected to increase in most of southern Australia,” with days experiencing very high and extreme fire danger increasing 5-100% by 2050. And a 2015 CSIRO report concluded, “Extreme fire weather days have increased at 24 out of 38 Australian sites from 1973-2010, due to warmer and drier conditions … [forest fire danger index] increase across southeast Australia is characterised by an extension of the fire season further into spring and autumn … partly driven by temperature increases that are attributable to climate change.”

Australia has among the world’s worst climate policies

According to the Climate Change Performance Index created by environmental groups, Australia is 56th out of 61 countries evaluated. In the category of climate policy, Australia comes in dead last with a score of zero because “experts observe that the newly elected government has continued to worsen performance at both national and international levels.”

In 2014, the Liberal Party (which, confusingly, is politically conservative by U.S. measures) became the first in the world to repeal a carbon tax. Echoing an approach taken by Oklahoma’s U.S. Senator James Inhofe on the floor of the Senate in 2015, Australia’s current Liberal Party Prime Minister Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal to the floor of the Australian House of Representatives in 2017. The country’s climate negotiators were accused of sabotaging the international climate agreement in Madrid in 2019, as they tried to use old “carry-over” carbon credits from the Kyoto Protocol to meet current climate goals.

Australia is the world’s leading exporter of coal and the second-largest producer and exporter of liquid natural gas, and the government recently proposed opening new coal mines and ports in what would be one of the world’s largest fossil fuel expansions. According to a recent report produced by the United Nations Environment Programme, Australia’s fossil fuel extraction-based emissions will nearly double from 2005 to 2030. In November, the Swedish central bank divested from Australian government bonds because of the country’s high emissions. Despite all this, as record bushfires continue to rage, Liberal Party leaders have maintained their position that Australia does not need stronger climate policies.

In short, as the country’s citizens and many visitors get a glimpse at its potentially dystopian future of worsening droughts and bushfires, its political leaders are doing everything they can to increase the fossil fuel extraction and combustion that experts conclude are exacerbating these extreme events. If the Paris climate goals are exceeded, the current record Australian temperatures will become the norm for the country. The public appears increasingly concerned: In a November Guardian Essential poll, 60% of Australian voters said the government should do more to reduce risks posed by the warming climate, and this concern has been clear in U.S. network and cable TV coverage of Australian citizens’ reactions to the fires. But Morrison and his Liberal party nonetheless prevailed in the last federal election in May 2019, and barring an early dissolution, they won’t face re-election until 2022.

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Comments 1 to 17:

  1. Canada places right after Australia on the Climate Chnge Performance Index at 55th place. We do have a carbon tax at the federal level, but there are so many expemtions for large industrial polluters that it is next to meaningless. The same goes for the carbon tax that was introduced over a decade ago in BC, but allows exemptions for some of the largest greenhouse gas emitters like the natural gas sector in this province.

    John Horgan offers tax break incentives to $40B Kitimat LNG project

    When you include methane leakage from gas wells, the sector could have have the same climate change impacts as coal production of the same level.

    We also have our wildfire issues here in the Canadian west although the death toll has not been as horrific as in Austrlia. That is probably due to luck more than anything else as thousands of people were driving through flames to escape the early 2016 spring fires in central Alberta.

    Harrowing Fort McMurray wildfire escape

    In BC in both 2017 and 2018 we were extremely lucky there were no known fatalties from the massive fires across the province. My brother and his family still live in the central BC city where I grew up, he spent most of his career in forestry fighting fires in the summer. 2017 he and his wife went to a small neighbourhood outside of town to help a friend move the essentials out of her house as they were evacuated from a fire my brother said was already burning right in the subdivision. They then hurried home and packed their own essentials as the entire city of over 20,000 received an evacution order.

    They were the last car out of the city heading north with fire burning on both sides of the road and went and stayed with family in a small city an hours drive north. Until much of that area was also evacuated, they then drove the seven hours down here witnessing fire after fire along the way.

    My brother was still in shock after he was describing this odyssey and as I said, he fought fires as a living starting with rapid response in the 1980s where they were dropped from helicopter into alpine terrain to put out fires before they had a chance to spread.

    He's not easily rattled, but these fires are like nothing anyone here has ever seen and it is the same across the globe.

    That year wasn't as bad here, partly because the fire services did a stellar job, I spent one Sunday afternoon watching a trio of amphibious water bombers make pass after pass on a small fire buring about 1 kilometer north of my home. It was fascinating to watch, they'd approach from the west over some low mountains about ten seconds apart, drop their loads of water then continue down to the large lake below, scoop another load of water and loop around to make another pass. They did this for six hours with refueling breaks until the fire was out.

    There was no stopping the wildfire that started in that area the next year it took off so fast and burned over 4,000 hectares, over 30 homes and shut down the main highway for days. I was ready to leave immediately if the wind have shifted towards this area.

    We don't live in normal times, we are not served at all by policy makers who behave as if fossil fuel business as usual is anything else than a growing catastrophe for not just us humans but life itself.

    As Australia is finding probably more than most other places on Earth. How many hundreds of thousands or even millions of species will be lost when the last of the Great Barrier Reef dies.

    We are being sold a fantasy and getting ashes in exchange.

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  2. The current bushfires are indeed unprecedented in several ways which is particularly concerning. The denialists have leaped on the 1974 Australian bushfire season, which had 117 million hecatres burned for the season as a whole. The denialists do not mention almost all this area was grasslands in central Australia, and had zero effect on their economy and wasn't even noticed until satellite data came in. The Guardian should have mentioned all this in passing, to help neutralise the denialists rhetoric.

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  3. There's something totally off at a systemic in government, the press and the private sector. We have international summit after summit going back decades where policy makers supposedly come to agreement on how to ensure ecological integrity without which we won't have an Earth to live on like the Rio summit way back in 1992. Climare change specific international accords to definitively act on this critical issue like Kyoto over 20 years ago and the Paris accord less than five years ago. Story after story in the press about the catastrophic impacts of climate change already. Some nations like Canada have declared a climate emergency.

    And yet nothing effective at a systemic level has been done. Canada may have delcared a climate emergency, but some provinces are fighting tooth and nail to maintain massive fossil fuels exploitation for decades more. Even the federal government here claims to be behind a real climate change mitigation plan, but then also touts oil and gas as our main economic driver for the foreseeable future.

    It seems that no one with the power to actually implement the critical policy changes is willing to do so. In the US Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Accord and if the conservative party had won the last election in Canada last fall it would have likely done the same.

    It ran on the platform of an oil and gas energy corridor spanning all of Canada to ensure that nothing impeded the sector in the future like the delay in building the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in BC right now.

    Conservative government would create national energy corridor, Scheer says Social Sharing


    When we look at the catastrophic impacts already and how precarious life itself is becoming on Earth, fossil fuels business as usual should be a reckless fringe cause shunned by all who want an actual future.

    But instead the fossil fuels agenda is the linchpin of some of the most powerful nations and parties that govern them.

    And we get catastrophic impacts like massive wildfires that are driving some species extinct, the disconnect here is horrific.

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  4. What is a system? Governments are designed to work slowly - they can never produce but only consume.

    Systems, whatever they happen to be, break down over time just like everything else and only life can put them back together.

    "The people lead--> Governments follow..." (I'm sure it wasn't only Arnold Schwarzenegger that said that one!)

    Wasn't someone designing a liquid metal battery????

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  5. Doug_C  @3 says "There's something totally off at a systemic in government, the press and the private sector. We have international summit after summit going back decades where policy makers...And yet nothing effective at a systemic level has been done."

    There sure is, but for the answer perhaps read the recent article on this website titled "Fossil fuel political giving outdistances renewables 13 to one" describing how American fossil fuel corporations  fund political campaigns and poltical lobbying far more than renewables corporations do the same. Politicians won't want to offend their sugar daddies. Perhaps its similar in Canada?

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  6. nigeli @5

    I think that's exactly what it is, the same goes for where I live here in BC. The oil and gas sector spends huge amounts of money to make sure the candidates who will support it are elected then to make sure that those politicians know exactly what policies to implement  lobby them constantly.

    $5.2 million in political donations and more than 22,000 lobbying contacts


    In the period in question, oil and gas lobbyists were having an average of 14 contacts a day with government officials in BC. That was on top of the $5.2 million that was committed to political campaigns between 2008 and 2015 in BC, a significant amount of money in this relatively small political forum.

    Plus all the wonderful press that the oil and gas sector seems to get here for free.

    It's not that we don't have viable options to fossil fuels, it's that because of a pre-existing economic and political advantage the fossil fuels sector is effectively killing their competition before they can even get started. 

    The tail now wages the dog, we are no longer being served by the fossil fuels sector, everything and everyone is being sacrificed in an endless pursuit of greater market control and profit by this one sector.

    In Australia it's coal and natural gas, here in Canada it is all three, but especially the tar sands bitumen that some would sacrifice anything to keep producing no matter the impacts. 

    The center for tar sands production burned down in 2016 due to an April heat wave with temperatures in the 20s C at a time when it can be -20 C at that time of year. It's highly likely that climate change played some role in that disaster, but it had almost no impact on government, business and public support for the oil and gas sector there.

    There is a rare cancers spike in the region almost certainly due to the chemicals emitted by bitumen processing, but that hasn't detered the industry one bit. The doctor who reported it was fired.

    Doctor who raised alarm about cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan let go


    The fish in the nearby rivers and lakes are also diseased by the massive tar sands projects.

    Fish deformities linked to oil pollution in U.S. and Alberta


    Exactly who is this sector serving if it destroying the capacity of the Earth to support life including us.

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  7. On a slightly different note, I was intrigued by the "Climate Change Performance Index".  From what I can see it puts a lot of emphasis on the movement to renewables, but does not give credit for using nuclear as an alternative to fossil fuels.  The report contains the word nuclear exactly once, where they make the statement that renewable installations outpace nuclear.

    To be specific, a country will get points for reducing GHG emissions by switching away from fossil fuel, but if they move to renewables they get additional points in the "renewable use" category. A move to nuclear earns no such extra ("climate change") points from what I can see.

    I'm not thrilled about nuclear, but I believe that its merits need to be weighed fairly. What I think I'm seeing is an quiet anti-nuke idealogy being bundled up under the banner of "Climate Change Performance".

    I'd rather not (re-)litigate the merits of nuclear here. It certainly is not clear-cut. But what I would like to know from fellow commenters is whether I have read that right:

    Is the "Climate Change Performance Index" implicitly and silently opposed to nuclear energy?

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  8. ianw01 @7

    A couple to things to add about nuclear power, it is already the safest form of power production, has over a million times the energy density of fossil fuels which in turn have much greater energy density than renewables like solar and wind power.

    With new reactor types like pebble bed and molten salt reactors the already high safety factor becomes much higher and with molten salt reactors the nuclear waste issues is mitigated by a factor of about 100.

    One of the main issues with the current fleet of nuclear power reactors is that they almost all use pressurized water as a moderator and coolant and so need massive primary and secondary containment which is not perfectly fail-safe. They also use solid fuel which quickly degrades under the intense heat and neutron bombardment in a nuclear reactor core. Reprocessing this spent fuel is expensive and dangerous.

    With molten salt reactor cores the fissile material is in solution in an unpressurized molten salt and remains in the reactor until almost all of it is converted to short lived fission products that don't need to be safely stored for the thousands of years that TRUs(transuranic actinides) need to be. Some of those fission products are commercially valuable like the noble metals that are produced as part of the fission process as well as xenon and small amounts of Pu-238 used in deep space exploration as fuel and power production. A molten salt reactor is also a medical isotopes reactor and there would never be a shortage of the Technetium-99m and iodine-131 used in imaging. Bismuth-213 can be used to treat cancer tumors. Most of these fission products can be pulled from an operating molten salt reactor by hydrogen parging of a side stream of the molten core salt.

    Exposure to ionizing radiation is the main fear around large scale nuclear power, but this is something all life is exposed to constantly including us.

    Are Our Bodies Radioactive?

    The evidence is starting to show that life is negatively impacted by the removal of a certain level of ionzing radiation, which would confound the Linear no-Threshold model of risk from ionzing radiation which states that ionizing radiation is hazardous down to a zero dose rate.

    Stress induction in the bacteria Shewanella oneidensis and Deinococcus radiodurans in response to below-background ionizing radiation

    For these and other reason we should be taking a much closer look at nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels in combination with low density renewables. It's not an either/or equation, it's about everything we have now to replace all fossil fuels as rapidly as we can before the condition become so catastrophic that it becomes impossible to mitigate climate change.

    Reading the article about talking about over a billion organisms killed by the current massive outbreak of wildfires in Australia and how they have almost certainly driven some species extinct, I think we are getting close to that point now. 

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  9. For anyone interested in what a viable nuclear reactor type on the scale necessary to fully replace fossil fuels would probably look like.

    Why the molten salt fast reactor (MSFR) is the “best” Gen IV reactor


    Also an interesting piece from Forbes on perhaps why nuclear power has found it so hard to compete with fossil fuels especially in America.

    Why Renewables Advocates Protect Fossil Fuel Interests, Not The Climate


    There's little doubt in my mind that large scale nuclear power is probably the last hope we have to mitigate this growing catastrophe cuased by virtually unregulated fossil fuels use that already kills millions of people each year from air pollution alone.

    Advocates for nuclear power like Alvin Weinberg were deeply concerned about climate change long before it became a mainstream issue and Weinberg specifically designed a safe nuclear power reactor in the 1960s as his solution to this existential threat.

    The Passion of Alvin Weinberg


    Weinberg's mentor was Eugene Wigner, the physicist who did the groundbreaking research that gave us semi-conducting transistors that underlie most of modern technology, we wouldn't have PCs or the internet in the present form without his insights.

    He was also the one who came up with the idea of molten salt nuclear reactors way back in the 1940s. A nuclear physics student of his I communicated with said that in 1960 Wigner was telling his students that thorium - burned in his molten salt reactors - would be the salvation of mankind.

    From what I can see we definitely need that form of salvation and now.

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  10. ianw01 @7

    "Is the "Climate Change Performance Index" implicitly and silently opposed to nuclear energy?'

    Don't know for sure, but something might be going on. Nuclear power is a dirty word in many western countries. Its not liked by the general public because of safety problems and disasters  like Chernobyl and Fukushima for understanable reasons. Policy makers pick up on this.

    However the scare stories about nuclear radiation look exaggerated. I've read credible reports that nuclear power (including the nuclear accidents) kills and injures far fewer people per megawatt / hour than fossil fuels power, and moderately fewer than renewables. A surprising number of people fall off ladders erecting solar panels etcetera! Heres a relevant article:

    Like others point out, there are questions about the validity of the linear no threshold model. Its complicated but the impression I get from looking at intelligent commentary and research on both sides of the issue is low dose radiation is likely zero or very low risk, not worth bothering about.

    However nuclear power has some big problems. Waste disposal is still not sorted out on a durable long term basis and of course this feeds public scepticism. Its higher cost than wind power and coal power (refer Lazards analysis, free online). Its slow to build for various reasons and this is a big issue given the speed climate change is progressing.

    However imho nuclear power has considerable merit, at least as "part of the mix". 

    Solar and wind power have intermittency issues, and as a stand alone solution require a lot of storage that is currently high cost. They currently typically rely instead on gas back up power which is not ideal. If you inject some nuclear power into the mix you get clean energy and need much less storage.

    I think we need all the tools we can get and the grid can have a range of power sources. This article shows that nuclear power can also be used to counter renewable intermittency issues.

    Of course storage costs will drop and renewables may well win the day. But my point is there doesn't seem to be a robust case to deliberately exclude nuclear power.

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  11. DougC,

    I have responded to your post here where it is on topic.  Please try to post on related threads in the future.

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  12. I have a lot of doubt about the Linear no-Threshold model of ionizing radiation risk, first off the biological response to ionizing radiation is not linear, it shows a definite threshold where the response is dose dependent.

    Evidence for formation of DNA repair centers and dose-response nonlinearity in human cells

    DNA is not a static target for all damage that accumulates and produces a linear risk of cancer depending on the amount of damage done to DNA strands. A single DNA molecule will experience between 1,000 and 1,000,000 strand breaks a day, most of them single strand breaks that are immediately repaired. Most of the double strand breaks will also be repaired with no errors that could potentially lead to cancer. Even misjoined DNA will not necessarily progress to cancer, that process is complex and still not fully understood.

    The main causes of DNA damage are oxidation, that is normal cellular respiration without which we cannot live. Chemical exposure from the substances we introduce into our bodies mostly from food and drink. And brute physical damage from physical injury, if you hit your thumb with a hammer for instance, you are doing massive damage at the level of DNA.

    We don't tell people to stop breathing, eating or drinking, we also don't tell people to not do anything that may cause physical trauma to tissue. We do however demand that there is no addition exposure to ionizing radiation when some research indicates that within a certain threshold it may reduce mortality not increase it.

    Nuclear shipyard worker study (1980–1988): a large cohort exposed to low-dose-rate gamma radiation

    When the US Navy received ancedotal reports in the 1970s that exposure to gamma radiation from activated steel by some of its workers was causing a higher incidence of leukemia it began a large scale study of tens of thousands of worker in three cohorts. The non-nuclear workers, the low dose workers and the high dose workers.

    Those workers exposed to the highest rates of gamma radiation, but still within a safe threshold had the lowest mortality of all three cohorts.

    And yet the demand from regulators is that nuclear power must not release almost any additional radiation into the environment while at the same time we are making the Earth uninhabital from fossil fuels.

    Coal power puts out about 100 times the radiation as nuclear power, yet it is somehow exempt from these restrictions on ionizing radiation that are strictly enforced on nuclear power and used as a rationale to not build any new nuclear power plants. This situation create costs that makes nuclear power unable to compete with "cheap" fossil fuels that have externalized costs that are astronomical. 

    Coal Ash Is More Radioactive Than Nuclear Waste

    The death toll globally mostly from the air pollution that comes from coal burning for power is in the millions of people.

    Air pollution

    As far as I'm concerned it's radiophobia that is behind this existential threat we face from fossil fuels as much as anything else.

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  13. Sorry, I didn't see post #11 before making my last comment, I'll post in the relevant section in the future,

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  14. Nigelj:

    I have responded to you here where it is on topic.

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  15. Something related to the bushfires: 'Silent death': Australia's bushfires push countless species to extinction

    Also apparently 80% of the Blue Mountain forests have been lost. 

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  16. alisonjane @16, this website focuses on the climate impacts on the bushfires in Australia because its a climate science website. I mean, who would have thought? :) The website has never said other factors aren't involved.

    It does seem intuitively obvious at first glance that dead branches etc on the ground wouldn't help the situation, and might make it easier for fires to start and get going. However I'm 99% sure I heard the Fire Service say this wasn't a big factor in these fires. And fire spreads largely between the tree canopies which are quite close together. 

    Do you think you might give us some specific examples of those regulations please? Or a link that goes to the relevant page?

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  17. There is quite a bit of disinformation floating around about Green Party and it's supposed influence on fuel-management policy. Factchecking for claim that green party suddenly changed policy to support backburning here after the fires (they didnt - they have statement supporting fuel reduction). It is also hard to see how Greens could actually influence policy when not in power anywhere. This newspaper article quotes NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environments which states that there has been no reduction in burn-offs (target had been exceeded), but I cant find hard-data on area of controlled burns.

    Also worth noting the misreporting about arson debunked here.

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