Climate experts continue to examine data from the disaster which decimated swathes of southeastern Australia, to determine to what extent the fires can be attributed to drought linked to climate change. Australian researchers have investigated extent and possible causes of the infernos.
One study revealed approximately 5.8 million hectares of broadleaf forest were destroyed in New South Wales and Victoria between September 2019 and January 2020.
The shock came from realising that this season was off the charts globally
Professor Matthias Boer
This accounts for roughly 21 percent of Australia’s forested area, making these fires proportionately the most devastating on record.
Professor Matthias Boer, from the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, told AFP: “Halfway through Spring 2019 we realised that a very large part of the eastern Australian forest could be burned in this single season.
“The shock came from realising that this season was off the charts globally in terms of the percentage of the continental section of a forest biome that burned.”
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Professor Boer added how his study almost certainly underestimates the extent of forest loss, as Tasmania was not included in the data.
Australia’s annual average forest loss to wild fires is usually far less than two percent.
Another study published today examined the year-long drought in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin.
Such dry spells both create more fuel for wildfires as well as making it harder for forests to recover after each fire.
A team led by the University of Melbourne’s Dr Andrew King examined a phenomenon known as the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), which has a direct effect on rainfall levels in Australia and elsewhere.
Since 2017 much of Australia has experienced widespread drought, something the study attributed to a relative lack of negative IOD events — when there are warmer than normal sea surface temperatures in the east Indian Ocean with cooler waters in the west.
These events affect weather patterns and typically bring greater rainfall to southeast Australia, and are made less frequent as global sea temperatures warm.
Dr King and his colleagues looked at rainfall statistics and found the 2016 winter witnessed extremely heavy rainfall and a corresponding negative IOD event.
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Since then, the Murray-Darling Basin has experienced 12 consecutive seasons with below-average precipitation – the longest period on record since 1900.v
Dr King told AFP: ”With climate change there have been projections that there will be more positive IOD events and fewer negative IOD events.
“This would mean that we’d expect more dry seasons in Australia and possibly worse droughts.”
Professor Boer believes climate change was all but certain to make Australia increasingly prone to wildfires and urged the government to strengthen fire readiness measures and “take urgent and effective action on climate change.”
In another paper, scientists Benjamin Sanderson and Rosie Fisher examine some of the factors that have influenced the current fire season and what gaps in knowledge could be addressed to better prepare society for more potentially extreme events in future.
The paper says in the case of recent events in Australia, “there is no doubt that the record temperatures of the past year would not be possible without anthropogenic influence”.
The study adds that “under a scenario where emissions continue to grow, such a year would be average by 2040 and exceptionally cool by 2060”.
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