Wed, Jan 15, 2020 - Page 9 News List

Scientists paint Australia fires as red alert on climate change

By Laurie Goering  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, LONDON

With the sky outside a menacing red, Nerilie Abram’s family is staying inside, with the windows shut and curtains drawn at their home in Canberra, Australia’s smoke-choked capital.

On their return from recent holiday travels, “the kids didn’t want us to open the curtains because outside it looked scary,” the professor and climate scientist at the Australian National University said.

Family friends who struggle with asthma have left town, she said, and most residents who do venture outside wear disposable masks — although the city, which had the world’s worst air quality for several days last week, is running out of those.

“We’re been really caught off-guard by these fires,” said Abram, who works with the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes.

“Scientifically, it’s not surprising. We totally expected that as the climate warmed, fires in Australia would get worse. But the scale of this disaster is something I couldn’t have imagined, and it’s the same for a lot of people in Australia,” she said.

Large swathes of the country are battling wildfires that have killed at least 27 people and torched more than 10 million hectares in the wake of the southern-hemisphere nation’s hottest and driest year on record.

The ferocious, fast-moving blazes have consumed more than 2,000 homes, blanketed major cities from Sydney to Melbourne in thick smoke, killed an estimated billion animals and pushed exhausted firefighters to their limits.

While summer bushfires are nothing new in Australia, scientists say these are different.

Their scale and ferocity raise questions about how nature will recover — and the fires are now affecting a much higher percentage of Australia’s population, the scientists say.

In the well-populated southeast, nearly a third of people are estimated to have been directly affected by this season’s fire and smoke.

In a nation of just 25 million, “most people know someone who’s been affected,” said Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a climate scientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

That might have political implications in a country that less than a year ago elected a conservative coalition government with close ties to the powerful coal industry and a record of dismissing action on climate change as too costly.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been verbally abused while visiting fire-hit areas after returning from an ill-timed Hawaii holiday, with angry residents saying his government has done too little to respond and prevent damage.

“People are deeply affected,” said Joe Fontaine, a lecturer in environmental science at Murdoch University in Perth, noting “a deep sense of loss and anxiety in society.”

However, it was “a little too early” to tell if the bushfire crisis was shifting views on climate change, he added.

Australia’s brutal fire season stems from a confluence of threats, scientists say.

Climate change is generally causing a long-term trend toward hotter and drier conditions, while Abram said that shifts in clouds and winds are gradually driving winter rain toward Antarctica.

This season, unusual cold in the eastern Indian Ocean has cut off moisture moving to Australia.

All that adds up to an extremely dangerous fire season — but it might not be the “new normal” some have dubbed it, Abram said.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top