This summer, life in Australia resembles a compulsory and very unpleasant game of Russian roulette. A pool of hot air more than 1,600km wide has formed across the inland. It covers much of the continent and has proved astonishingly persistent. Periodically, low pressure systems spill the heat toward the coast, where most Australians live. At Christmas it was Perth. Then the heat struck Adelaide, followed by Tasmania, Victoria and southern New South Wales and Canberra. Over the weekend, it was southern Queensland and northern New South Wales that looked set to face the gun, and with every heat wave, the incidences of bushfires and heat-related deaths and injuries spike.
Australians are used to hot summers. They normally love them. However, the conditions prevailing now are something new. Temperature records are being broken everywhere. At Leonora, in the Western Australian interior, it reached 49?C last week — just one record among many. The nation’s overall temperature record was set on Monday last week. Then the following day, that record was exceeded.
The breaking of so many records indicates that Australia’s climate is shifting. This is supported by analysis of the long-term trend. Over the past 40 years Australia has seen a decline in the number of very cold days and the occurrence of many more very hot days. All of this was predicted by climate scientists decades ago and is consistent with the increasing greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere.
The new conditions have seen the Bureau of Meteorology add two new color categories to Australia’s weather prediction maps. Temperatures of 48?C to 50?C used to be the highest, and where such extremes were anticipated, the weather map was marked black. Over the last week, purple patches have begun to appear on some maps. They mark temperatures above 50?C. Pink, which is yet to be deployed, will denote temperatures above 52?C.
Climate extremes have a way of stacking up to produce unpleasant consequences. Two years ago, the ocean temperature off northwestern Australia reached a record high, and evaporation of the seawater led to Australia’s wettest year on record. This was followed in central Australia by the longest period without rain on record. The vegetation that had thrived in the wet now lies dried and curing, a perfect fuel for fires.
With abundant fuel and increased temperatures, the nature of bushfires is changing. Australians have long rated fire risk on the MacArthur index. On it, a rating of 100 — the conditions that prevailed in the lead-up to the devastating 1939 bushfires — represents “extreme” risk, but after the 2009 fires, a new level of risk was required.
“Catastrophic” represents a risk rating above 100. Under such conditions fires behave very differently. The Black Saturday fires of 2009, which killed 173 people, were rated at between 120 and 190. They spread so fast and burned so hot that the communities they advanced upon were utterly helpless.
The superheated air currently monstering the continent is fickle. Last week, Sydney residents watched in relative thermal comfort as those living just 100km to the south endured scorching heat, blustering winds and unstoppable fires. The forecast for coming days indicates that Sydney might once again be lucky, with the worst fire conditions striking 50km to the north of the city. However, things might work out differently.
The unprecedented conditions have seen many Australians rethinking their attitude to climate change. A good friend of mine farms just outside Canberra. A few years ago the drought was so severe that his 300 year-old gum trees died of thirst. Then the rains came on so violently that they stripped the precious topsoil, filling his dams with mud and sheep droppings. Last week he watched as his cousin’s property at Yass was reduced to ashes.
When I called he was trying to secure his own historic homestead from fire. He asked me if I thought the family would still be farming the area 50 years from now. All I could say was that it depended upon how quickly Australia and the world reduced their greenhouse gas emissions.
Australia’s average temperature has increased by just 0.9?C over the past century. Within the next 90 years they are on track to warm by at least another 3?C. Having seen what 0.9 of a degree has done to heat waves and fire extremes, I dread to think about the kind of country my grandchildren will live in. Large parts of the continent will be uninhabitable, not just by humans, but by Australia’s spectacular biodiversity as well.
The extreme conditions last week have raised the political heat around climate change. The Greens party condoned an anti-coal activist who created a false press release claiming that ANZ bank had withdrawn support for a major coal project, causing its share price to plunge.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Warren Truss of the National Party of Australia said it was simplistic to link the hot spell to climate change and “utterly simplistic to suggest that we have these fires because of climate change.”
Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter and the mining lobby is exceptionally strong. As calls to combat climate change have increased, the miners have argued that “mom and dad investors” will lose out if any effort is made to reduce the export or use of fossil fuels.
However, the smart money is no longer backing fossil fuels. In South Australia, wind energy has gone from 1 percent to 26 percent of the mix in just seven years, and nationally solar panel installations are 13 years ahead of official projections. Last year, Australia led the world in terms of number of individual solar installations.
And finally, with a carbon price in place, Australia’s emissions curve is beginning to flatten out. Despite these efforts, Australians are already enduring the kind of conditions they had hoped to avoid if strong, early action had been taken. Now, more than ever, they are in a race against time to avoid a truly catastrophic outcome.