Australia — Australia is naturally the most fire-prone continent on earth but climate change appears to be making the wildfires that regularly sweep across the country more ferocious, scientists said Monday.
The intensity of the firestorm that killed at least 126 people in Victoria state has stunned Australians, even though they have a long history of dealing with bushfires.
The government-run Bureau of Meteorology said Australia’s dry climate and naturally combustible vegetation, including oil-rich eucalyptus forest, meant fire was an intrinsic part of the country’s landscape.
The history books back up the theory — 75 dead in the “Ash Wednesday” fires of 1983, 71 killed in “Black Friday” 1939 and dozens more stretching back to the early days of white settlement in Australia.
But the wildfires that hit Victoria on the weekend were the nation’s deadliest and experts believe the problem is linked to climate change.
“Climate change, weather and drought are altering the nature, ferocity and duration of bushfires,” said Gary Morgan, head of the government-backed Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre.
“This weekend’s fires highlight the importance of scientific research in order to improve our understanding of the multiple impacts of bushfires.”
Australian poet Dorothy McKeller described the country as a land “of drought and flooding plains” and University of Sydney bushfire expert Mark Adams said there was evidence it was becoming even more volatile.
“I have never seen weather and other conditions as extreme as they were on Saturday, the fire weather was unprecedented,” Adams said.
“We don’t have all the evidence yet to fully explain this day in terms of climate change, however all the science to date shows that we can expect more extreme weather in the years to come.
“That includes hotter days and drier landscapes across southern Australia.”
Research by the Bureau of Meteorology and the government science organisation CSIRO predicts the number of days when bushfires pose an extreme risk in southeastern Australia could almost double by 2050 under a worst-case climate change scenario.
Australia’s wild weather included a once-in-a-century heatwave that sent temperatures soaring to 46 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit) in the southeast just before the bushfires erupted, along with severe flooding in the north.
Environmental group Greenpeace said such occurrences would become more commonplace if climate change continued unabated.
“As climate change continues to gather pace, Australia is at risk of more frequent drought, higher temperatures, more frequent and intense bushfires, as well as increased severity of cyclones and flooding,” Greenpeace campaigner leader John Hepburn said.
“The scale of this tragedy should be a clarion call to politicians for the need to begin treating climate change as an emergency.”
Monash University researcher David Packham said authorities had failed to properly manage Australia’s forests, providing fuel for the fires.
He suggested they could learn from Aborigines, who for thousands of years conducted controlled burn-offs in the forests in order to prevent massive conflagrations.
“We have thumbed our noses at what these people did and knew and we just can’t keep on doing it,” he said.