Adding to concerns about the future for rural Australians, areport released today by some of the nation’s peak scientific bodies warns thatAustralia will face more intense bushfires in coming decades unless globalwarming is controlled.
The study commissioned by the Climate Institute and done in collaborationwith the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and the Bushfire Cooperative ResearchCentre, claims to be the most comprehensive study into Australia’s futureweather conditions.
And it predicts that by 2050 the number of days when fire conditions areextreme could increase by as much as 300 per cent.
According to the report, in the last few years the southern and eastern partsof Australia have suffered their worst fire weather seasons on record that datesback 30 years.
The Climate Institute says that period of ‘fire weather’ paints a picture ofwhat is to come.
‘Fire weather’ is the term used in this report to define the conditions thatdetermine how easy or difficult it is to fight fires.
The Climate Institute wanted an analysis done of what impact climate changewould have on fire weather, and director of policy and research Erwin Jacksonsays that impact is looking significant.
“What happens when you have low levels of global warming, say of around1 degree [Celsius], you get increases in fire weather, but they’re not hugeincreases in fire weather,” he said.
“However, if you get global warming in the order of three degrees, thenthe overall fire weather intensity of fire weather across Australia jumps byabout 20 per cent.
“So, it’s not a linear change. What you see is an exponential changewith higher levels of warming.
“The risk is unless we actually get climate change under control, wewon’t limit the amount of the fire weather that Australia will be experiencingin the future.”
The climate change data comes from the latest report from theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The groups have used that data, along with their own studies, to come up withmodellings for Australia’s future fire weather risk, and the predictions aregrim.
Within the next 12 years, the number of extreme days of fire danger – the thehighest risk rating – could grow by more than 60 per cent, and could increase byas much as 300 per cent by 2050.
The report does acknowledge that the rise in fire danger could be as much todo with natural variability as it does with human-induced climate change, andsays it may take decades to determine the role played by each of those factors.
The heat is on
But one of the report’s authors, Dr Chris Lucas, a research scientist forboth the Bureau of Meteorology and the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre,says he has no doubt that slowing the rate of climate change will reduce theoverall fire risk.
“I think that lowering the temperature and preventing further climatechange from happening is essential,” he said.
“This is driven in part by rising temperatures, lower rainfall whichwe’re seeing.
“The extended drought over Australia is likely due to climate change.The higher temperatures, the drought has been more severe the last five to sixyears.
With 20 years in fire and emergency management, Victorian Emergency ServicesCommissioner Bruce Esplin is also in no doubt that climate change is making thefire seasons longer and more intense, and he says this report now provides thedata to support the anecdotal evidence.
“It’s highlighting the fact that climate change is real,” he said.
“I think the report draws the conclusion that there’s a link betweenwhat could be a cyclical sort of drought conditions that much of Australia isexperiencing at the moment, but it’s also linked to the reality of climatechange, which is making the whole risk pattern that much worse.
“I think if people don’t start planning for climate change being realnow, then they’re just got their head in the sand.”
The report says better planning will be essential to reducing the risk ofmore catastrophic bushfire events like that seen in Canberra in 2003 in whichfour people died and more than 500 homes were lost, or even Ash Wednesday in1984 that killed 72 people and claimed 1,400 homes.
It is something that Mr Esplin has been calling for over his eight years asCommissioner, a position unique to the state.
“Historically around Australia, we’ve taken a view that we plan for thebad fire seasons and that planning is almost a seasonal level of planning,”Mr Esplin said.
“I think one of the things that has to occur right around Australia nowis that we plan for bushfire all year, every year, and I think that’s a realitythat people are going to have to address.”