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Explained: Why Australia is looking at a climate change angle to its bush fires

Australia bush fires: Because the climate is hot, dry and prone to droughts, at any time of the year, some parts of the country are prone to bushfires. Such fires happen when grass, branches, trees start burning in an uncontrolled manner.

Written by Mehr Gill , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: November 14, 2019 7:14:13 am
Explained: Why Australia is looking at a climate change angle to its bush fires Forest trees are on fire in Hillville, New South Wales state, Australia, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP)

Australia has declared a state of emergency for the state of New South Wales (NSW) along with a catastrophic fire warning — the highest level of bush fire danger — in light of widespread bushfires that have left at least three people dead. Bushfires are a routine occurrence in the country, but this bushfire season is believed to be the worst and has started even before the beginning of the Southern Hemisphere summer.

As per the NSW Rural Fire Service, when catastrophic fire warnings are put in place, residents are supposed to leave bushfire prone areas immediately. Across NSW, over 600 schools were shut on Tuesday. Furthermore, these bushfires are also affecting the quality of air in the areas surrounding them. Between 5 – 6 am on Tuesday, the highest readings for PM 2.5 and 10 (rolling 24 hour average) reflected 223 and 399, respectively for the region of Northern Tablelands in NSW. These readings fall in the “hazardous” category (readings above 200) as per the Australian scale.

What is distinct about the present bushfire season?

Because the Australian climate is hot, dry and prone to droughts, at any time of the year, according to the Australian government’s geoscience department, some parts of Australia are prone to bushfires. Such fires happen when grass, branches, trees start burning in an uncontrolled manner. For New South Wales and Queensland, the peak risks for bushfires is during spring and early summer, which is around this time of the year, giving residents time to prepare. An article in the Australian edition of The Conversation noted, “These patterns now seem to be breaking down, and bushfires are happening outside these regular places and times.” On Tuesday, 75 fires were ablaze, out of these nine were considered at the emergency level and 37 were not contained. The day saw over 300 new bushfires as well.

Explained: Why Australia is looking at a climate change angle to its bush fires A cluster of burnt out cars sit at a property at Rainbow Flat, Australia, November 11, 2019. (Image via Reuters)

What causes bushfires?

Bushfires, while are generally slow moving, have a higher heat output and can smoulder for days. In fact, bushfires are considered to be an intrinsic part of Australia’s environment and its natural ecosystem has been shaped by and has evolved with historic and recent fires. It is difficult to tame and control naturally occurring bushfires, but their consequences can be minimised if certain measures are taken.

Furthermore, factors such as fuel load (leaf litter, barks, small branches), fuel moisture, wind speeds, high temperature, oxygen, low humidity and ignition source are some of the factors that create a favourable environment for bushfires. They can be caused by both human activity and lightning, which responsible for about half of ignitions in Australia. The remaining fires have human origins that are classified as deliberate or accidental. In fact, police in Australia are investigating if the fire in Sydney’s upper north shore was deliberately lit by suspected arsonists. The Australian reported on Tuesday that a chain of suspicious fires were lit by arsonists in recent years.

Even so,speculation about the links between climate change and bushfires is starting to emerge, that “climate change is making a bad situation worse.” In an op-ed published in The Sydney Morning Herald on November 11, Greg Mullins who is the former commission of Fire and Rescue NSW and a councillor on the Climate Council, wrote: “Fires are burning in places and at intensities never before experienced – rainforests in northern NSW, tropical Queensland, and the formerly wet old-growth forests in Tasmania.”

She added, “The drought we are facing is more intense than the Millennium Drought, with higher levels of evaporation due to higher temperatures. This has dried out the bush and made it easier for fires to start, easier for them to spread quickly…” The article in The Conversation also acknowledged that while the bushfires are not directly triggered by climate change, “…climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and intense bushfires.” Yet another op-ed in The Sydney Morning Herald urged the Australian Federal government to take “urgent action” on climate change. The editorial of the paper too called for climate change to be a part of the bushfire discussion. On the other side of the spectrum, however, there are people who have labelled as dangerous, the Australian left’s “climate lunacy” implying that government policies cannot ease droughts and bring in rain.

Explained: Why Australia is looking at a climate change angle to its bush fires A firefighter on property protection watches the progress of bushfires in Old Bar, New South Wales, Australia November 9, 2019. (Image via Reuters)

History of bushfires

According to the Australian Capital Territory’s (ACT) Emergency Services Agency, since 2003 the region (which lies in NSW) has experienced relatively few bushfires. The agency notes that large bushfires burnt across ACT between 1919-20, 1925-26 and 1938-39, after which legislation governing bushfire management was introduced in the form of the Bushfire Act 1936. Between 1939 and 2003, several bushfire events in the ACT region burnt thousands of hectares and came close to the urban areas. In 2003, due to severe droughts and record high temperatures, lightning strikes over the Australian alps ignited over 80 fires in the state of Victoria, over 70 in NSW and and three in ACT, these fires that burnt for 60 days and burnt an area of 1.96 million hectares.

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