Sunday, December 29, 2019

Australia Burns Again

Back in early November, David Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania had a bad feeling about Australia's thriving wildfires. 

The ingredients for wildfire hell had come together. The vegetation was exceptionally dry. There was no hint of meaningful rain. Winds howled through the country. And it was getting hotter. Eventually, Australia broke its record for its hottest day ever – two days in a row when an average maximum of 40.9C was recorded on December 17, broken a day later by 41.9C, both beating 2013's record of 40.3C. 

"I said 'this is unprecedented'", recalled Bowman (right). "The whole system was set up to burn". 

And all you need is a spark. The same thing happened in California, USA last summer. 

What's more, rainfall has been low in Australia this year, thanks to shifts in a climate cycle called the Indian Ocean Dipole, resulting in fewer clouds and storms forming near Australia. This means drought. Coupled with the extreme heat and the forests and grasslands are turned to kindling. 

And the fires did start. About five million hectares of Australia have burned and at least nine people have died. The most striking thing about the fires this time around is the continent-scale nature of the threat. 

The worst-affected state this year is New South Wales where 2,500 firefighters battle more than 100 blazes across the state, more than 30 of which are still not contained. 

Just an hour’s drive from Sydney, one "mega blaze" had raged across a 60km (37 mile) front north-west of the city. 

The fire in the Blue Mountains, a world heritage area and popular tourist destination, is some 64,000 hectares in size and out of control, the NSW Rural Fire Service said on December 22. 

The small town of Balmoral, south-west of Sydney, was largely destroyed and scores of homes were razed amid catastrophic conditions. 

Major roads south of Sydney have been closed and holidaymakers are advised to "revisit their plans" to travel, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. 

Thankfully, most Australians aren't literally in the path of Australia's flames – in any case, between one-third to a half of the Australian population won't escape its consequences, namely smoke saturated with tiny particles from burnt foliage and homes.

Authorities say the smoke that has smothered Australia’s most populous city as well as in other places has produced pollution up to 11 times greater than the hazardous level for human health. In Sydney, the air pollution has been hazardous for at least 30 days. 

Many Australians are already asking whether these fires are linked to climate change – but the science is complicated. Notwithstanding, scientists have long warned that a hotter, drier climate will contribute to fires becoming more frequent and more intense.

No comments: