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‘Unprecedented’ number of emergency-level wildfires scorch eastern Australia

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2019-11-08 Andrew Freedman
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An “unprecedented” outbreak of emergency-level bushfires has scorched a vast area of New South Wales during the past few days, with fire weather only beginning to improve on Friday, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) and Bureau of Meteorology. 

As of early Saturday morning local time, the RFS reported 82 fires burning across the state of New South Wales, mainly near and just inland of the coastline. Of these blazes, 45 were not yet contained, and 12 were designated as having the highest alert level of an “Emergency Warning."”

“Discuss your bush fire survival plan tonight and stay updated on conditions via the NSW RFS website,” the agency tweeted ominously.

The fires, which have destroyed homes and threatened large communities such as Port Macquarie, a city of 46,000, are the latest outbreak in what is already an unusually active and early bushfire season.

More dangerous fire weather conditions are anticipated next week, and the early season blazes do not bode well for the summer, when large parts of Australia tend to see their peak fire risk.

Following some of the driest first 8 months of the year in southern and eastern Australia. The Forest Fire Danger Index has hovered at unusually high levels for this time of year, particularly for coastal areas of southeast Queensland and northeast New South Wales, where the fires flared up again this week.

Satellite images showed an explosion of fire activity, with smoke plumes extending hundreds of miles downwind, over the Pacific Ocean.

Nearly 900 firefighters battled blazes amid hot, dry, and windy weather on Thursday and Friday in New South Wales, including about 70 aircraft. A startling image taken by Japan’s Himawari satellite on November 7 shows several fires burning along the coast in New South Wales, with smoke and dust blowing out to sea, where it was ingested into a cyclone and transported south, toward the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.

“We are in uncharted territory,” said Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, according to the BBC. “We have never seen this many fires concurrently at emergency warning level.”

At the peak of the fire outbreak Thursday and Friday, local time, 17 emergency-level fires were burning simultaneously across New South Wales.

On Nov. 7, Greg Allan, spokesman for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, emphasized the early date of these fires, given that the summer hasn’t yet set in. “We’re only in October — we’ve still got to get through summer. There’s a potentially long road for the fire season ahead,” Allan said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Climate change and the Indian Ocean Dipole are ramping up the fire danger

The bushfires this week are taking place in areas of Australia that are projected to see increases in the average forest fire danger index and the number of days with severe fire danger due to human-caused global warming, according to a 2015 federal climate report. Studies published since have also warned that one of the most robust findings of climate research is that the fire season will lengthen in large parts of Australia, and that conditions will become more conducive to severe fires as the climate warms and vegetation dries out faster and more extensively.

Australia has seen an increase in fire danger since 1950 across most of eastern Australia, the BOM has found. These trends include areas of southeast Queensland and parts of northeastern New South Wales, and capture an increase in the frequency and severity of dangerous fire weather conditions.

This smoke from Australian wildfires is blown out to sea on Nov. 8, 2019, as seen from Japan's Himawari Satellite. (CIRA/RAMMB) This smoke from Australian wildfires is blown out to sea on Nov. 8, 2019, as seen from Japan's Himawari Satellite. (CIRA/RAMMB)

The U.S. is also grappling with the ramifications of climate change when it comes to wildfires, particularly in the West. 

You’re likely to hear more about Australian bushfires in coming weeks, since winter and spring rainfall was significantly curtailed across portions of the country. This is a trend that is related to a predominantly natural climate cycle known as the Indian Ocean Dipole, which involves a pattern of air circulation across the Indian Ocean.

Many locations in coastal New South Wales, for example, saw January to August rainfall totals that were 50 percent below average, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

In some places, dry weather trends date all the way back to 2017. “Trends towards a lengthened fire season have already been discerned in some areas of the country, with the fire season typically starting earlier in the year in southern Queensland, inland and southern New South Wales, and Victoria,” the BOM found.

A positive Indian Ocean Dipole the past two years has meant drier-than-average conditions in much of Australia. The BOM found that it’s unusual to have back-to-back years with a positive dipole pattern, which helps influence precipitation patterns across South Asia and Oceania.

A positive IOD occurs when the water is cooler than average off the coast of Sumatra, leading to reduced atmospheric lift there and reduced rainfall over Australia, and there are warmer than average waters off the coast of Africa. This climate cycle is changing over time as ocean and air temperatures increase in response to growing amounts of greenhouse gases in the air due to human activities, namely the burning of fossil fuels for energy.

“While the IOD is a natural mode of variability, its behavior is changing in response to climate change. Research suggests that the frequency of positive IOD events, and particularly the occurrence of consecutive events will increase as global temperatures rise,” the BOM stated.

Climate trends in Australia show sharp warming and an increase in extreme events. Last summer, for example, was the country’s hottest on record, and the BOM found that climate change exacerbated extreme heat events as well as droughts during the year.

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