Scientists say climate change increased risk of extreme bushfires in Australia

The researchers found the climate models consistently underestimated the observed increase in temperatures in southeast Australia

bushfire in Victoria Australia
Photo of a fire in Victoria, Australia, by Forest Fire Management Victoria Forest Fire Operations Officer Dion Hooper. It was taken in January, 2020 on Wombargo Track looking towards Cobberas (north of Buchan in East Gippsland).

A group of scientists published a study that shows global warming led to warm and dry weather that created conditions favorable to large bushfires in Australia.

From the BBC:


…Global warming boosted the risk of the hot, dry weather that’s likely to cause bushfires by at least 30%, they say.

But the study suggests the figure is likely to be much greater. It says that if global temperatures rise by 2C, as seems likely, such conditions would occur at least four times more often. The analysis has been carried out by the World Weather Attribution consortium.

Co-author Geert Jan van Oldenborgh of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute in De Bilt, The Netherlands, told the BBC even the study’s very conservative estimates were troubling.

“Last year the fire prevention system in Australia, which is extremely well prepared for bushfires, was straining. It was at the limits of what it could handle, with volunteers working for weeks on end,” said Prof van Oldenborgh.

“As the world warms, these events will become more likely and more common. And it’s not something that we are ready for.”

During the 2019-2020 fire season in Australia, record-breaking temperatures and months of severe drought fueled a series of massive bushfires across the country. At least 33 people were killed and more than 11 million hectares (110,000 sq km or 27.2 million acres) of bush, forest and parks across Australia burned.

Although it makes sense that human-induced global warming is likely to have led to more bushfires, assigning a figure to that increased risk is complex. That is because other factors not directly related to climate change may also play a significant role. These include increased water use making the land drier, urban heating effects or unknown local factors.

Nevertheless, Prof Jan van Oldenborgh and 17 fellow climate scientists from six countries gave it their best shot. “It was by far the most complex study we have undertaken,” he told the BBC.

The researchers found the climate models consistently underestimated the observed increase in temperatures in southeast Australia and so could not pinpoint a figure for the increased risk from climate change. They were, however, able to tease out a minimum risk.

“We show that climate change definitely increases the risk of the extreme weather that makes the catastrophic bush fires (that south-east Australia has experienced) in the past few months more likely by at least 30%.

“But we think it could be much more. We don’t know how much more. It could be a lot more.”

Prof van Oldenborgh is among those attempting to find out if the current climate computer models really are underestimating the influence of global warming – and if they are, working out how to correct them.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

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