Australia bushfires: Govt report in 2008 predicted climate change would intensify wildfires in 2020

A report commissioned by the Australian government 12 years ago predicted that as of 2020, climate change would intensify the country's bushfire season.

Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales (NSW), said climate change is undoubtedly a driving force behind the severity of the current bushfire season - despite what Australia's leaders are saying.

"We can certainly say it has contributed to the length and severity of this fire season... we knew this was going to happen," Perkins-Kirkpatrick, who specialises in climate extremes, told New Scientist.

In 2008, a report commissioned by the Australian government concluded that from roughly 2020, the country's bushfire season would begin earlier and become more ferocious due to global warming. 

"Recent projections of fire weather suggest that fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense. This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020," says the report, preserved by the National Library of Australia.

Yet many in Australia's current government are refusing to believe that climate change is responsible for the record-breaking heat and extreme dryness, which continue to foster the flames.

"We've had fires in Australia since time began," deputy prime minister Michael McCormack told ABC Radio in November, dismissing climate change as the "ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies".

According to Andrew Watkins at Australia's Bureau of Meteorology, two large-scale climate events are also underpinning the extreme fires. Drought has been exacerbated by the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), which has pushed warm water away from Australia towards Africa.

He also acknowledged the Southern Annular Mode (SAM), which has driven hot, dry winds from Australia's inland desert towards its east coast, fanning the flames in the fire-ravaged south-eastern states of NSW and Victoria. 

Bushfire recap:

  • The fires started in September, a month earlier than Australia's official fire-danger season which typically runs from October until March
  • The fires have burned through a greater area than the 2018 California wildfires and the 2019 Amazon fires combined 
  • The fires have ravaged rainforests in northern NSW and southern Queensland which have previously been too wet to burn
  • The fires have generated their own storm clouds, which can generate lightning - another fire starter
  • On January 1, Canberra's air quality was the worst of any major city worldwide
  • On December 18, Australia had its hottest single day on record, the average maximum temperature reaching 41.9C

It's believed more than 24 people have died and more than 2000 properties have been decimated. Roughly eight million hectares of land have been burned, and new estimates predict more than 1 billion mammals, birds and reptiles have perished in the fires. A number of endangered native species are feared to be extinct.

Watkins told the outlet that the hot, dry conditions should ease by March or April due to shifts in the IOD and SAM patterns, but it's unclear when they will return.

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