Australia recorded hottest and driest year in 2019 as weather trends confirm growing bush fire risk

A bush fire in Kangaroo Island, Australia. Bush fires are a regular hazard in Australia, but this year's crisis has been a devastating ordeal.
A bush fire in Kangaroo Island, Australia. Bush fires are a regular hazard in Australia, but this year's crisis has been a devastating ordeal.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY - Australian residents are bracing for the return of extreme fire conditions on Friday (Jan 10) as a report released on Thursday graphically revealed the unprecedented nature of the bush fire threat the country has been facing.

In the state of Victoria, thousands of people were urged to evacuate on Thursday as the heat and strong winds threatened to fuel fires in the East Gippsland and Alpine regions.

"We don't want to see any more people die," said Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews.

Emergency warnings were also issued for Kangaroo Island, in South Australia, and south of Perth, in Western Australia.

Bush fires are a regular hazard in Australia, but this year's crisis has been a devastating ordeal. So far, at least 27 people have died and more than 2,000 homes have been lost in fires that started in September - which is unusually early - and continue to threaten communities across the country.

A report released on Thursday by the nation's Bureau of Meteorology helped to shed light on the causes of the disaster.

The bureau's annual climate statement showed that 2019 was the hottest and driest year that Australia has recorded. Temperatures across the country were 1.52 deg C above average and rainfall was 40 per cent lower than average.

During the month of December, most of the country experienced its worst fire danger on record, including the south-east corner of the continent that has endured the worst of the recent fires.

The bureau said these records were part of a recent shift towards a warmer climate in which extreme events such as heatwaves and fire dangers are set to become more frequent and more severe.

"Australian temperatures have increased by 1.4 degrees since 1910 and most of that warming has occurred since the mid-20th century, so that's a shift in the entire frequency of weather," said a climate scientist at the bureau, Dr Karl Braganza.

The bush fires have prompted fierce debate in Australia about the causes, particularly the role that climate change is playing.

 
 
 
 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was initially reluctant to link the fires to climate change. As the crisis worsened in the past two weeks, he has eventually conceded that emissions reduction policies would help to reduce the fire hazard but has not indicated he will change his government's weak emission targets.

"At a global level, of course, global changes in the environment and the climate have a broader impact on the world's weather systems," Mr Morrison told ABC News on Thursday.

"What we've always said, though, is you cannot link any individual single emissions reduction policy of a country, whether it's Australia or anyone else, to any specific fire event. I mean that's just absurd."

The bureau's climate report confirms the trend that scientists in Australia have warned about for years: that the weather is becoming hotter and drier, and that this will increase the fire risk.

In 2008, a government-commissioned Garnaut Climate Change Review, by economist Ross Garnaut, explicitly warned that the country would face a greater fire risk by 2020.

It said evidence indicated that "fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense".

"This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020," the report said.

Dr Garnaut this week told SBS News he believed his warnings, sadly, had proven "ineffective".

Dr Braganza said this week that climate change was evidently making fire weather "more frequent and more extreme".

"The precise contribution of climate change to an individual weather event is quite difficult to determine," he said.

"We know there is a trend in the severity of the fire danger and the frequency of it and in the extension of the bush fire season," he said. "We have seen each of those eventuate in 2019 and we have seen it in years before that."

Still, experts say that this year's fires might not cause a change in public sentiment about the need for greater climate action.

 
 
 
 

Dr Zoe Leviston, a social psychology researcher from Edith Cowan University, said political leaders play an important role in shaping attitudes to climate change.

"It is natural to think the scale of this ongoing bush fire disaster should precipitate a mass shift in community sentiment about climate change," she said in a statement to the Australian Science Media Centre.

"But there is a caveat... People are more likely to change their climate attitudes based on who they last voted for, than to change their vote because of their attitudes to climate change."

She added: "Without true bipartisan political support for climate action, the only shift in community attitudes we might witness is to the extremes (aided and abetted by our social media environment)."