Australia Links Increasing Megafires to Climate Change

CANBERRA, Australia, January 6, 2022 (ENS) – Climate change has driven a measurable increase in Australia’s forest fire activity over the last 30 years, finds new research conducted by Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO.

The study identified a lengthening of the fire season towards autumn and winter, along with an increase in fire activity in cooler and warmer regions such as the alpine forests in Tasmania and the tropical rainforests of Queensland.

Australia’s mean temperature has increased by 1.4 degrees Celsius since 1910, with a rapid increase in extreme heat events, while rainfall has declined in the southern and eastern regions of the continent.

The CSIRO research, published in the journal “Nature Communications,” is the first of its kind and combines analysis of previous forest fire sites with eight drivers of fire activity, including climate, fuel accumulation, ignition and management techniques such as prescribed burning.

A small forest fire grows on a dry, windy evening in Seddon, South Australia, August 12, 2021 (Photo courtesy New Matilda)

Scientists were able to identify increases driven by the changing climate as distinct from increases due to natural variability based on 32 years of satellite data and 90 years of ground-based datasets from climate and weather observations, plus simulated fuel loads for Australian forests.

CSIRO scientist Dr. Pep Canadell said the research is one of the most extensive studies of its kind performed to date, and is important for understanding how continued changes to the climate might impact future fire activity.

Dr. Canadell is chief research scientist in the CSIRO Climate Science Centre and executive director of the Global Carbon Project, an international consortium of scientists under the umbrella of Future Earth and a scientific partner of the World Climate Research Programme.

“While all eight drivers of fire activity played varying roles in influencing forest fires, climate was the overwhelming factor driving fire-activity,” Dr. Canadell said.

The research results show the frequency of forest megafire years – when more than one million hectares burned – has jumped since the year 2000. Megafire years are likely to continue under future projected climate change,” Dr. Canadell said.

Globally, fire activity is decreasing, yet the extent of forest fires in Australia is increasing.

The CSIRO study looked at the 30 years from 1988 through 2019. The average annual area of forest burned in Australia increased 350 percent in the first 15 years of that period, and it jumped to a startling 800 percent increase from 2001 through 2019.

“In Australia, fire frequency has increased rapidly in some areas and there are now regions in the southeast and south with fire intervals shorter than 20 years. This is significant because it means some types of vegetation won’t reach maturity and this could put ecosystems at risk,” Dr. Canadell explained.

“Understanding these trends will help to inform emergency management, health, infrastructure, natural resource management and conservation,” he said.

But environmental advocates point out that Australia is not doing as much as most other nations to prevent and manage climate change.

On the annual Climate Change Performance Index released November 9, Australia dropped four places to 58th out of 64 places overall, ahead of only Korea, Taiwan, Canada, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan.

The Index ranked Australia last on climate policy, in 64th place.

Australia received very low ratings for its performance across the index’s four categories: emissions, renewable energy, energy use and climate policy.

The report, released at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow by Germanwatch, the New Climate Institute and the Climate Action Network, ranked Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom and Morocco as the five highest-ranked nations on the index, with the first three places left empty to illustrate that no country is doing enough.

“Although renewable energy is booming in Australia, all the work has been done by state and territory governments and the private sector, which is why Australia is rock bottom on the table of national climate policies,” said Australian Conservation Foundation climate and energy program manager Gavan McFadzean.

“While 130 countries have lifted their near term climate ambition, Australia has not, relegating us to the bottom of the pack with the likes of Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he said.

“The Australian government’s refusal to budge on 2030 targets has been widely criticized in Glasgow and is out of step with public opinion at home, with a major poll this year showing a majority of Australians, in every federal seat, wants stronger climate action this decade,” McFadzean said.

Comments about Australia by the Climate Change Performance Index, CCPI, are critical of the country’s lack of ambition.

“Australia’s federal climate policies are based on its Technology Investment Roadmap, TIR, aimed at supporting technologies intended to help reduce emissions by 2040, yet with continuation of fossil fuel-based energy consumption,” CCPI said in its analysis.

In October 2021, the Australian government, led by Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison, confirmed its long-term emissions reduction plan aiming for net zero by 2050, but announced no new policies or plans.

The Morrison Government does not have any policies on phasing out coal or gas, but carbon capture, utilization and storage as well as hydrogen are being promoted as low emissions technologies.

Even though the renewable electricity sector is growing, the experts believe that Australia has failed to take advantage of its potential, and other countries have outpaced it.

Now, after a decade of bitter opposition to development of a Queensland coal mine, the Indian conglomerate Adani is ready to ship coal to India from the North Queensland Export Terminal. Environmental advocates warn the burning of Adani coal will worsen climate change with CO2 emissions, and there are fears that coal mining, handling and transport will damage the Great Barrier Reef, already suffering the coral bleaching brought on by climate change.

Featured image: Megafire attacks Narrowneck in the Blue Mountains, Katoomba, New South Wales, Australia, October 21, 2013 (Photo by Gary Hayes)

Continue Reading