Sydney storms could be making the Queensland fires worse

Claire Yeo, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

A strong low-pressure system has meant severe thunderstorm and hail warnings are in effect for much of the New South Wales South Coast. At the same time, very dry conditions, strong winds and high temperatures are fuelling dozens of bushfires across Queensland.

The two events are actually influencing each other. As the low-pressure system moves over the Greater Sydney area, a connected wind change is pushing warm air (and stronger winds) to Queensland, worsening the fire conditions.

Read more:
Drought, wind and heat: when fire seasons start earlier and last longer

These lows over NSW are the kind we might see a couple of times a year – they’re not just regular weather systems, but neither are they massively out of the ordinary.

However, when combined with the current record-breaking heat in Queensland, the extra wind is creating exceptionally dangerous fire conditions. Queensland’s emergency services minister, Craig Crawford, has warned Queenslanders:

We are expecting a firestorm. We are expecting it to be so severe that it won’t even be safe on the beach […] The only thing to do is to go now.

Conditions in Queensland

At least 80 bushfires were burning in Queensland on Wednesday, with more than a dozen fire warnings issued to communities near the Deepwater blaze. Queensland Police Deputy Commissioner Bob Gee said that “people will burn to death” unless they evacuate the area.

These fires have come during a record-breaking heatwave. On Tuesday Cooktown recorded 43.9℃, beating the previous November high set 70 years ago by more than two degrees. Cairns has broken its November heatwave record by five whole degrees.

Grasslands and forests are very dry after very little rain over the past two years. Adding to these conditions are strong winds, which make the fires hotter, faster and harder to predict. This is where the storm conditions in NSW come in: they are affecting air movements across both states.

NSW low is driving winds over Queensland

A large low-pressure system, currently over the Hunter Valley area, is causing the NSW storms. As it moves, it’s pushing a mass of warm air ahead of it, bringing both higher temperatures and stronger winds across the Queensland border.

Once the low-pressure system moves across the Hunter area to the Tasman Sea east of Sydney, it will drag what we call a “wind change” across Queensland. This will increase wind speeds through Queensland and temperatures, making the fire situation even worse.

This is why emergency services are keeping watch for “fire tornado” conditions. When very hot air from large fires rises rapidly into a turbulent atmosphere, it can create fire storms – thunderstorms containing lightning or burning embers. Strong wind changes can also mean fire tornadoes form, sucking up burning material. Both of these events spread fires quickly and unpredictably.

Read more:
Turn and burn: the strange world of fire tornadoes

What does this mean for the drought

Unfortunately, it’s not likely the heavy rains over NSW will have a long-term effect on the drought gripping much of the state. While very heavy rains have fallen over 24 hours, the drought conditions have persisted for years.

Read more:
Trust Me, I’m An Expert: Australia’s extreme weather

The wet weather may bring some temporary relief, but NSW will need much more rain over a longer period to truly alleviate the drought.

In the meantime, the Bureau of Meteorology will be monitoring the Queensland situation closely. You can check weather warnings for your area on the bureau’s website.The Conversation

Claire Yeo, Supervising Meteorologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Australia burns while politicians fiddle with the leadership

Sophie Lewis, UNSW and Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, UNSW

With swathes of New South Wales still smouldering and temperature records tumbling all over the world, Malcolm Turnbull is losing his grip on the prime ministership, partly because of his inability to land a very modest emissions policy. His is the latest failure in a decade-long story of broken climate policy in Australia.

Like most voters, scientists are tired of these political games when clearly so much more is on the line.

Read more:
The too hard basket: a short history of Australia’s aborted climate policies

That’s because what is happening now with extreme weather events and longer fire
seasons is exactly what we forecast a decade ago. This isn’t breaking news. In fact, the science around the role of climate change in extreme temperatures is so solid that the editors of the world-leading Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society have discouraged scientists from researching extreme temperatures in its annual extreme events issue.

Why? Because, according to the journal’s editors, the scientific value of these studies is now “limited”. The climate signal in extreme heat events has become so clear that it is no longer a novel line of investigation. In short, climate change now plays a role in every extreme heat event.

Contrast this with the equivocation of our political leaders. Turnbull claimed in March this year that “you can’t attribute any particular event – whether it’s a flood or fire or a drought or a storm — to climate change”. He made this statement after 69 houses in Tathra in southern NSW were destroyed by an unseasonably late bushfire during a heatwave – and heatwaves are clearly linked to climate change.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott made an almost identical claim back in 2013, after an early season bushfire in the Blue Mountains destroyed 196 homes, during a succession of hot days in a warmer than average October.

Just this month, drought was declared for all of NSW and the bushfire season began two months early. The state had its earliest ever total fire ban, and fires have already burned through large parts of coastal southern NSW.

Australia’s fire season is now so long, it overlaps with California’s, stretching our resources and our ability to prepare for and respond to catastrophic fires.

Clear evidence

In light of the clear evidence, it takes a very special kind of politician to ignore the role of climate change in extreme weather events. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would choose to play party political games as whole townships are threatened by fire and drought extends through NSW and Queensland.

And yet Turnbull has dumped plans to legislate even the lower boundary of Australia’s Paris Agreement emissions target as part of the National Energy Guarantee. The result is that Australia is once again left without a sensible climate policy.

Turnbull’s backdown also tells us exactly how far his and his colleagues’ political vision extends into the future: as far ahead as the next election. But while our leaders struggle with political myopia, the heart of climate science remains a big-vision, long-term approach.

Decades ago climate scientists told us that the first signs of climate change would appear in the temperature record, and extreme heat events would become more common and more extreme. This is exactly what has happened, only much faster than projected.

The first study to tease out the climate change component in an extreme heat event was an examination by the UK Met Office of the 2003 European heatwave that killed an estimated 70,000 people. It took almost two years to produce that result.

Today, scientific advances mean that researchers can do this kind of attribution study in mere days. As a result of these improvements, the attribution of climate change’s role in many extreme temperatures is now unequivocal. More recent research shows that some 2016 events across the world, including the extended mass bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, could not conceivably have happened without climate change.

Read more:
It’s official: 2016’s Great Barrier Reef bleaching was unlike anything that went before

Turning our focus to the coming decades, we find that even if the world meets the more generous Paris goal of keeping global warming below 2℃, Sydney and Melbourne could see 50℃ days and 25 more heatwave days every summer. Worryingly, right now we are on track to exceed 3℃ of warming.

Now let’s add some perspective about what we are currently experiencing.
Australia’s supercharged heatwaves and winter bushfires have occurred with just 1℃ of global warming.

Yet even with this small amount the climate signal is so clear that when one of the authors of this article was asked by a reporter if there was likely a climate change influence on our hot April, she confidently replied, “I would bet my house on it”. Four months later, the bet is still on.

It is time to stop dismissing our record-breaking temperatures, droughts and winter bushfires as natural variability. The role of climate change in extreme heat is now so pervasive that it is almost a given.

Asking climate scientists whether global warming plays a role in extreme temperature events is like asking a medical researcher whether a case of the ‘flu might just be linked to the influenza virus. The answer is obvious.

Any politician who ignores the clear link between weather extremes and climate change – choosing instead to trot out platitudes about how Australia’s climate has always been tough, or quote Dorothea Mackellar (who, surprisingly enough, was not a climate scientist) – is effectively saying “let’s do nothing about this growing problem”.

An attitude of “nothing to see here” from our leaders, when all the evidence says otherwise, leaves our health sector, economy, ecosystems and, as we see now, our struggling farmers exposed to climate change impacts.

It may also leave those politicians and industry leaders making such claims wide
open to potential liability for future loss and damages, if recent legal cases are any guide.

Read more:
Climate change is a financial risk, according to a lawsuit against the CBA

For almost a decade, most of our politicians have been so busy bickering over who gets to be leader that they have failed to show the real leadership required to look at Australia’s future beyond the next election cycle.

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Enough. Most Australian voters surely care less about who is running the country than they do about making sure our country is still a habitable place to live in the future.

Sophie Lewis, ARC DECRA Fellow, UNSW and Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, Research Fellow, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Drought, wind and heat: when fire seasons start earlier and last longer

Owen Price, University of Wollongong

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service declared the earliest total fire bans in its history this week. The entire state was declared to be in drought on the same day.

The combination of winter drought and hot, dry weather has made dangerous fires increasingly likely.

Read more:
After the firestorm: the health implications of returning to a bushfire zone

Already this week two fires on the south coast have escaped containment lines and destroyed houses. The weather during these fires was 6℃ warmer than the August average, dry and extremely windy. The wind speed peaked at 104 kilometres an hour in Bega and 85km/h in Nowra, two towns close to where fires broke out.

Under these conditions, bushfires will spread quickly, produce large numbers of embers and are hard to stop.

Our fire seasons now start earlier and last longer. This means we’re increasingly likely to see repeats of historically large fires threatening residential areas.

Fire seasons are longer

Current dry conditions are reflected in the maps of live fuel moisture produced by Dr Rachael Nolan of Western Sydney University.

Nolan R.H., Boer M.M., de Dios V.R., Caccamo G., Bradstock R.A. (2016), Large-scale, dynamic transformations in fuel moisture drive wildfire activity across southeastern Australia. Geophysical Research Letters 43, 4229-4238.

This method tracks the weekly moisture content of the forests in southern Australia, as observed by NASA’s MODIS satellite. The latest map shows a patchy distribution of dry areas and a drying trend over recent weeks.

It looks like NSW’s fire season has already started, and it’s likely to be bad. Last year’s fire season also extended well into autumn, with serious bushfires burning in mid-April.

Fire agencies usually enjoy a six-month break from bushfires between April and September, but this year they had only three months’ respite.

This reflects evidence of a trend toward more extreme fire weather over the past 30 years, and lengthening fire seasons.

This problem is being keenly felt in western United States, where fire agencies have warned that the fire season now lasts all year round. Not only that, there is clear evidence climate change is increasing fire activity in the United States; the record for the largest fire in California history has been broken two years in a row.

Alarming precedents

The most damaging fire season for NSW in the past 30 years was in October 2013 when the Linksview fire destroyed 200 houses in the Blue Mountains.

The build-up to that season was eerily similar to this year, with a winter drought and bushfires in September, but the moisture maps show that the forests are drier now than at the same time in 2013, and we have already seen serious bushfires in August.

Read more:
Future bushfires will be worse: we need to adapt now

As we move into September and October, the weather will warm, which means any remaining moisture in the ground and plants will evaporate even faster than at present, and fires will be more intense and spread faster. The only thing that will reduce the risk is soaking rain of at least 100mm.

Whether or not that will occur in the next two months is almost impossible to predict. At the moment it seems unlikely. The Bureau of Meteorology’s latest seasonal forecast, issued on August 16, considers it likely that dry conditions will persist for the next three months.

The heightened risk of bushfire this season should be a wake-up call for residents in bushfire-prone areas. Most people in really risky areas such as the Blue Mountains are well prepared, but many people who are a little more removed from the forests are not aware of the risk.

Read more:
Where to take refuge in your home during a bushfire

For example, many residents of Wollongong probably don’t know this October is the 50th anniversary of the great 1968 fires that swept down the Illawarra Escarpment into the suburbs of Figtree, Bulli, Austinmer and others.

The footprint of the 1968 Illawarra fires, which burned through residential areas.

If the same footprint of fire were to occur again, some 5,000 houses would be affected. The present indicators suggest a repeat of this event is more likely than at any time for decades.

Residents need to prepare a bushfire survival plan, which includes a decision on whether to stay and defend or to leave as soon as they learn about a nearby bushfire.

Read more:
Our deadly bushfire gamble: risk your life or bet your house

Current research at University of Wollongong suggests that the biggest influence on the risk of house loss during a bushfire is the actions that the residents themselves take. This includes ensuring that natural and man-made fuels are kept to a minimum in the garden, especially close to the house, and also defending the house from spot-fires caused by embers.

The Rural Fire Service has a wealth of advice for preparing for bushfires on its website.

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We’re look at a torrid upcoming fire season, dependent on the vagaries of the Australian climate. Either way, now is the time for people to brace themselves and get prepared.

Owen Price, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Crews Race to Control South Australia’s Worst Bushfire in 3 Decades

The number of house severely damaged or destroyed now stands at 26 confirmed, plus other buildings. The number may yet rise.


Thirteen homes have been destroyed in the worst bushfire in South Australia since 1983.

That number is expected to rise to more than 30 homes as specialist crews of firefighters assess the damage in the Adelaide Hills and try to control the blaze, which has been burning since Friday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reports.

But it is a race against time as weather conditions are expected to hamper efforts on Wednesday, with high temperatures and winds expected.

More than 1,100 properties lie in the affected area and authorities say they will have a better idea of the damage as the day goes on.

Fire crews are working to protect pockets of homes from the blaze and will increase their efforts to control the fire from the air.


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