SYDNEY • The Australian city of Sydney is world famous for its shimmering harbour and clear blue skies. Not this summer.
As bush fires ravage Australia's east coast, pollution is becoming a regular occurrence in the country's biggest city - triggering health warnings and intensifying the debate about climate change in the world's driest inhabited continent.
Pockets of the city ranked worse than Shanghai yesterday, with one suburb showing a "very unhealthy" reading of up to 206, the World Air Quality Index shows, while Shanghai came in at an "unhealthy" 160.
A separate index compiled by the state government in New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital, rates anything above 200 as "hazardous".
Parts of Sydney yesterday carried that highest warning, reaching as high as 622, and the local authorities warned people to stay indoors if possible, particularly those with heart and lung diseases.
With summer barely under way, Sydneysiders are waking up to a city clouded in a choking haze caused by smoke from more than 100 bush fires in New South Wales.
Since the start of October, there have already been 17 days with "hazardous" readings in the Sydney region, according to the state's Department of Environment.
Comparatively, there was only one day with a reading in excess of 200 during the state's previous fire danger season, from Oct 1 last year to March 31, and none in the period before that.
The ferocious and early start to this year's fires has stoked a debate around whether the federal government - a champion of the coal industry - is doing enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly dismissed claims that his government's approach to climate change has contributed in any material way to the current emergency.
The country recorded its lowest level of rainfall for the month of November, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said yesterday. All of Australia received less then 50mm of rain last month, with parts of the west coast getting less than 1mm.
The dry weather extends a drought that has gripped the east coast for three years and left bushland tinder-box dry as bush fires rage across the most populous states.