Climate models predicted Australian bushfires

Climate models predicted Australian bushfires

11 February 2009

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Australia — Australia may have just had a horrifying preview of what climate change has in store for its people. Even early warning couldn’t stop last weekend’s bush fires in Victoria claiming 170 lives and over 700 homes.

Climate models based on figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict more frequent – and more extreme – fires for southern Australia over the next few decades. Yet the role of climate change in recent fires has been downplayed, suggestsJohn Handmer of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre at RMIT University in Melbourne.

Certainly, last weekend’s fires were unprecedented: “We had a record heatwave, the worse fire danger index on record, during a record-breaking drought,” says Handmer. The fire danger index takes into account both temperature and humidity. Over 50 is extreme; on Saturday, the index is believed to have been 5 to 6 times higher.

The level of devastation raises questions about whether Australia should, like other fire-prone places such as southern California, evacuate its people rather than let them stay.

The fires also have worrying implications for drought-stricken Melbourne’s water supply. For the first time in 70 years, fires encroached on the city’s water catchment areas. As new trees grow, this could ultimately reduce the water run-off from the forest by up to 30 per cent, saysMark Adams at the University of Sydney.

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