Bush fires may follow floods as climate chaos grips Australia

Australia could be heading for a period of drought and intense bush fires toward the end of the year. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY - Australia could be heading for a period of drought and intense bush fires towards the end of the year as the nation grapples with climate extremes that are costing the economy billions of dollars.

Parts of Australia are already reeling from heavy rain and flooding that has damaged crops, swept away roads and cost lives. The chaotic weather has been driven by an atmospheric phenomenon called La Nina, but climate researchers see hotter and drier conditions ahead.

“The most likely scenario for later this year is El Nino,” according to Professor Scott Power, director of the Centre for Applied Climate Sciences at the University of Southern Queensland. The weather pattern typically brings warmer-than-average temperatures to Australia.

The world is experiencing its third straight year of La Nina, something that has only happened twice since 1950.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent and the impact of climate change can be particularly harsh. Flooding cost the economy around US$3.5 billion (S$4.62 billion) in the 2021-2022 fiscal year, which followed devastating bushfires in the summer of 2019-2020.

Rain over the past three years has led to excessive plant growth that could pose a bush fire risk if conditions become more hot and dry, said Dr Agus Santoso, a climate scientist at the University of New South Wales (NSW).

Another climatologist agrees. “All you need really is a hot day with some wind and something to start a fire, and off you go,” said Dr Janette Lindesay, a professor at the Australian National University.

Prolonged wet weather also makes it harder for so-called fuel reduction burning, where authorities conduct controlled fires to cut back easily combustible dead and dried vegetation.

Climate models by Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology indicate La Nina has weakened from its peak in 2022. A compilation of average international estimates on the department’s website signals conditions edging towards El Nino, but the bureau cautioned on long-range forecasts.

The bush fires in late 2019 and early 2020 torched an area about the size of Britain and killed an estimated 1 billion native animals.

The prospect of more extreme weather is causing concerns for farmers, who are worried that they will not be able to plant crops in coming months. Australia is one of the world’s biggest grain exporters.

“It’s not a given we are going to be able to plant canola, or barley, or wheat in a few months time,” said Mr Xavier Martin, the president of NSW Farmers. “It’s been more uncertain in the last five years than it has been in the previous decades.” BLOOMBERG

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