For some time I’ve been considering making short videos exploring climate change, scepticism and related environment issues. This is the first in the proposed series (I hinted these would be coming in a December post).
The above video explores the link between the Australia’s extraordinary summer of heatwaves and fire. What we are experiencing is what the science predicted.
Most of all I wanted to tell a story: of what it means to be an Australian at this point in history, knowing a little something about the science of climate change and seeing scientific predictions play out. It’s about watching the land burn while the planet warms.
Stepping out the front door of my apartment block this morning I immediately took note of a scent familiar to many Australians: the acrid tang of burning eucalypts that invades ones nostrils and tickles the back of the throat.
The streets were shrouded in that familiar, and yet haunting, greyish blue haze.
You know when it’s a big one: hundreds of kilometres away you know what kind of beast it is. Out there, in the east it rages.
Perhaps all mega fires have this same smell, but for me the smell of burning eucalypt forests is a quintessentially Australian experience. Words are barely adequate to capture the scale of these fires.
“Yeah, it’s a big one mate…”
For me it conjures memories of catastrophic fires, when whole towns are wiped out and far too many innocent lives are lost.
Those fires came after a prolonged El Niño, record drought and severe heat wave. I remember the dead, brown lawns and the dust storm that presaged Ash Wednesday as it rolled across Melbourne’s suburbs.
Standing in the school yard, playing cricket with mates an unfamiliar rain began to fall: black shoot and fire blackened leaves, carried by the same winds fuelling the firestorm.
Perhaps my memory betrays me, but I recall those charred and partially burnt leaves twirling and spinning, hitting the asphalt like small black daggers.
The current Gippsland fire has burnt more the 59,000 hectares and destroyed homes. At least one person is dead.
The guys from BoM nailed it – its clear, concise and accessible. It deserves to be widely read. They spell out exactly how the present conditions are abnormal and unlike anything else we have experienced.
I strongly urge you to not only read this, but forward it via social media and personal contacts. Yes – email friends – email family – email anyone you think has the vaguest interest in the current heat wave.
At this very moment fires are burning in my home state of Victoria in regions I know very well. Fires are burning across the country. More temperature records are going to fall today.
Climate change is here - all of us are currently experiencing events predicted by scientists decades ago. The more the average Australian understands the connection between burning fossil fuels and the heat they are suffering, the greater the potential to build a critical mass of people advocating change.
It is time to be more than mere Cassandra’s, forecasting doom – its time raise awareness and call for action.
All too often people ask themselves what they can do: well it can start here.
Tell people: help foster a greater understanding. The mainstream media will continue to remain silent or confuse the public – but it is possible to work around them and build awareness. Social media gives us the tools to tell the story the Murdoch press seem incapable of doing.
If you all you do is communicate this piece to one person today, you’ve made a difference.
Australia has started 2013 with a record-breaking heat wave that has lasted more than two weeks across many parts of the country. Temperatures have regularly gone above 48°C, with the highest recorded maximum of 49.6°C at Moomba in South Australia. The extreme conditions have been associated with a delayed onset of the Australian monsoon, and slow moving weather systems over the continent.
Australia has always experienced heat waves, and they are a normal part of most summers. However, the current event affecting much of inland Australia has definitely not been typical.
The most significant thing about the recent heat has been its coverage across the continent, and its persistence.
It is very unusual to have such widespread extreme temperatures — and have them persist for so long. On those two metrics alone, spatial extent and duration, the last two weeks surpasses the only previous analogue in the historical record (since 1910) – a two-week country-wide hot spell during the summer of 1972-1973.
A good measure of the spatial extent of the heat is the Australian-averaged maximum daily temperature. This is the average of the highest daily temperature of the air just above the surface of the Australian continent, including Tasmania. The national average is calculated using a three-dimensional interpolation (including topography) of over 700 observing sites each day.
On Monday and Tuesday last week (January 7 and 8) that temperature rose to over 40°C. Monday’s temperature of 40.33°C set a new record, beating the previous highest Australian daily maximum of 40.17°C set in 1972. Tuesday’s temperature came in as the 3rd highest on record at 40.11°C.
The accompanying map of temperatures shows just how much of the country experienced extremely high temperatures, with over 70% of the continent recording temperatures in excess of 42°C.
Highest daily maximum temperature during the first two weeks of January. Australian Bureau of Meteorology
And it’s not like these sorts of days occur that often. The records set last week sit between two and three standard deviations above the long-term January mean of 35°C.
Perhaps more unusually, the Australian mean temperature (representing the average of the daytime maximum and night-time minimum) set record high values on both days at 32.22 (January 7) and 32.32°C (January 8), that were well above the previous high of 31.86°C, set in 1972.
However, it is really the duration of this extreme heat wave that makes it so unusual, and so significant in terms of impacts.
While some towns in Australia are famous for their extended runs of hot temperatures, the limited geographical nature of those events distinguish them from this January’s heat wave. Multiple days of extreme heat covering most of the continent are both rare, and isolated.
It is not that common for the Australian-average temperature to exceed 39°C for even two days in a row. A run of three days above 39°C has occurred on only three occasions, and a run of four days just once, in 1972.
The current heat wave has seen a sequence of Australian temperatures above 39°C of seven days, and above 38°C of 11 days straight.
The sequence of Australian mean temperature has been just as impressive. As things currently stand, the first two weeks of January 2013 now hold the records for the hottest Australian day on record, the hottest two-day period on record, the hottest three-day period, the hottest four-day period and, well, every sequential-days record stretching from one to 14 days for daily mean temperatures.
The number of records that have tumbled for individual sites are now too numerous to catalogue here, and the Bureau of Meteorology has prepared a Special Climate Statement with a detailed analysis the temperature records broken. The list of records is limited to just those stations with at least 30 years of records.
So, does all this have something to do with climate change?
To put it in context, we need to look at the influence of background changes in the climate system.
The planet is warming, and so is Australia
Planet Earth is warming up. Climate scientists use a range of different indicators to track global warming. These include ocean heat content, sea surface temperatures, sea level, temperatures in the lower and middle troposphere, and the rate of melting glaciers and ice sheets.
The surface of the earth, as measured by global mean temperature, has warmed by about one degree Celsius during the past hundred years, and the decade from 2001 to 2010 has been the warmest we have recorded.
This warming has been strongly attributed to increasing greenhouse gases from human activities. While there are a number of influences on the climate system, such as changing solar radiation and changing atmospheric aerosols, it is very clear that warming has been dominated by increased carbon dioxide levels.
The globe doesn’t warm uniformly everywhere, due mostly to natural regional variations in climate. In Australia, land temperatures and the temperatures of the surrounding oceans have warmed by approximately 1°C since 1910, fairly close to the global trends.
A warmer planet means a warmer atmosphere for all our weather and climate
As the climate system warms due to increasing greenhouse gases, more energy is retained in the lower atmosphere. That extra energy influences all our weather and climate.
In essence, every weather system and ocean current operates in a climate system that is now, on average, a degree warmer than a century ago.
In this way, the impact of global warming is clearly observed in a distribution shift of daily weather, as well as shifts in monthly and seasonal climate, to higher temperatures. As is now communicated by many climate scientists, the warming planet is loading the climate dice in favour of warmer conditions.
So, while the “cause” of an individual weather event, including heat waves, is always proximally linked to antecedent weather conditions — it is possible to determine the influence of climate change on the frequency of occurrence of such an event. This is expressed by the increased likelihood that these extreme events will occur in comparison with the past, or in comparison with climate modelling scenarios of an unchanging climate.
Even further, the antecedent weather conditions in the January heat wave have themselves displayed the influence of a warming world.
The lead-in climate conditions for this event were four months of very warm temperatures across Australia. September to December 2012 was the warmest such period on record (since 1910) for daily maximum temperatures.
During November, a precursor of the January heat wave affected many parts of the country for a prolonged period. It set the highest spring temperature on record for Victoria (and NSW fell just short of its record; it couldn’t beat the extreme heat that occurred in 2009). In this context, the recent heat wave is little more than an extension of a record hot four months for Australia, made worse because it is mid-summer.
We’re seeing more record-breaking heat events than cold events
A relatively small change in the average temperature can easily double the frequency of extreme heat events. Australia has warmed steadily since the 1940s, and the probability of extreme heat has now increased almost five-fold compared with 50 years ago.
Within the past decade, the number of extreme heat records in Australia has outnumbered extreme cold records by almost 3:1 for daytime maximum temperatures and 5:1 for night-time minimum temperature.
The duration of heat waves has increased in some parts, especially in the northern half of the continent. Put another way, the frequency of abnormally hot days (above the 90th percentile) has increased by 30% and the frequency of hot nights (above the 90th percentile) has increased by 50%.
It is worth noting the summer just gone in the US was the warmest on record, with extreme heat records broken at a rate never previously seen before. Studies here and overseas are now showing that many of the recent extreme summer heat events around the world — such as the European heat wave of 2003, the Russian heat wave of 2010, and US heat waves during 2011 and 2012 — would have been very, very unlikely without the influence of global warming.
Global warming is not only warming summer but also broadening the summer-like period of the year, creating the perfect set-up for record extreme heat.
Of great concern in Australia is the substantial increasing trend in severe fire weather — weather conducive to the spread and intensification of bushfires and grass fires — in about half of the monitoring sites studied around the country, with a concentrated increase in the southeast of the continent. The fire season is now longer, reducing the time for preparation such as fuel reduction.
Again this is not surprising, and has been predicted in advance — the combined impact of warming and cool season drying is increasing the fire danger in a region already highly fire prone.
We expect extreme warm weather events will occur more often
Future warming of the climate due to greenhouse gas emissions will very likely lead to further increases in the frequency of unusually hot days and nights and continued declines in unusually cold days and nights.
These changes will result in weather events which are increasingly beyond our prior experiences.
And it’s not just temperature extremes. Climate model projections indicate that the frequency of many different types of extreme weather will change as the planet warms.
The Bureau of Meteorology provides Australians with environmental intelligence for their safety, sustainability, well-being and prosperity. Our weather, climate and water services include observations, alerts, warnings and forecasts for extreme events. Neil Plummer does not consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
The Bureau of Meteorology provides Australians with environmental intelligence for their safety, sustainability, well-being and prosperity. Our weather, climate and water services include observations, alerts, warnings and forecasts for extreme events. Blair Trewin does not consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
The Bureau of Meteorology provides Australians with environmental intelligence for their safety, sustainability, well-being and prosperity. Our weather, climate and water services include observations, alerts, warnings and forecasts for extreme events. David Jones does not consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
The Bureau of Meteorology provides Australians with environmental intelligence for their safety, sustainability, well-being and prosperity. Our weather, climate and water services include observations, alerts, warnings and forecasts for extreme events. Karl Braganza does not consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
The Bureau of Meteorology provides Australians with environmental intelligence for their safety, sustainability, well-being and prosperity. Our weather, climate and water services include observations, alerts, warnings and forecasts for extreme events. Rob Smalley does not consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
It’s been a scorcher. With the mercury soaring to 42.3 C in Sydney last week and the city in meltdown, the papers screamed, “This is climate change. It is here. It is real.” Even the taxpayer funded Climate Commission could not hide their excitement declaring, “it was hotter than before” and that “climate change” was responsible for the “unprecedented” extreme heat Sydneysiders were experiencing.
And with the satellites unable to detect any global warming for the last 16 years, and the IPCC computer modelled predictions failing to come to fruition, Labor Government ministers were quick to exploit the situation to claim the “extreme heat” was evidence of why the Carbon Tax was needed to “do the right thing by our children”. Yet they failed to detail how, when, or by how much (even to the nearest 0.0001 °C) that the Carbon Tax would change the temperature.
But I wonder if any of these people actually knew that Sydney’s so-called ‘record hot day’ on Tuesday 8th Jan this year, that had them screaming “Global Warming”, was actually COOLER than the weather experienced by the convicts of the First Fleet in Sydney way back in the summer of 1790/91?
The indomitable Tamino spells out every thing that is wrong with Kelly’s arguments. However anyone with an once of logic or reason can see how deeply flawed his article his.
In short, Kelly cites a doubtful and unverified temperature records from Sydney from the 1790s.
Yes – this single data point from a period in which the techniques of data collection were at best crude is cited as proof there is no global warming. Sydney may have been really hot for a single day over 200 years ago?
How about an entire continent blanketed in a record breaking heat wave these past weeks?
Think upon Kelly’s words readers. Marvel at the fact that this man is an elected official and there is a very real risk he could make decisions that effect you and me and the future of our nation.
I do not merely cringe, I shudder with fear that there are men such as these.
Craig Kelly: ”You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
Nor is Kelly alone as his party, the Liberal National Party, is a veritable ship of fools. In case readers need to be reminded look upon the folly of the LNP and weep – yes weep – for the future of our nation:
There is a very real chance that later this year the LNP will gain government. Think upon that and what that means for climate change policy, mitigation or adaptation initiatives.
All of us – every Australian – has felt the effect of this incredible heat wave and fires. Whole towns have been destroyed.
Our island nation was at one point covered by a “dome of heat” – and it’s not over. We have potentially many more months of such conditions which bring the attendant risk of even more heat waves and catastrophic fires.
Kelly, an elected member of Parliament, whose responsibility should be to protect the future of this nation and help mitigate risk advocates ignorance.
Dangerous ignorance: a willed, deceitful and shameful ignorance.
Contrast Kelley’s words to the work of thousands of fire fighters and support services.
Contrast Kelly’s words to the suffering of those who have lost homes and property.
Contrast Kelly’s words to the reality of bitter ashes and fire.
Does it not make you wish to storm Parliament house and shake its foundations to the ground? To cast out the fools who are putting our future at risk?
Let me spell out it in no uncertain terms: the Liberal National Party is a danger to our future. It is a danger to your children’s future. A party that does not merely deny reality, but in the face of the what is clear and present danger elects to ignore the risks does not deserve to govern.
You may not like the present Gillard government. You may not agree with the policies of the Greens. You may be disappointed in the lack of resolve and lack of action by all our politicians. But the alternative? It is the Party of Abbot, Kelly and Bernardi: the party of denial.
What does it matter you ask?
A few words scribbled by an ignorant and second rate political player, whose name and deeds barely 1 in 1000 Australians are familiar with? Irrelevant, of passing interest – one more skirmish in the decades long climate debate?
Look around you.
This heat; these fires; this trauma.
And contrast Kelly’s words.
Can we assign blame for these exceptional extremes? Do we have the moral right to do so? Who may we ask is to blame?
The answer is surprisingly simple: complacent and ignorant politicians such as Kelly; the think tanks with their carefully crafted and marketed lies; Murdoch’s media empire.
Open the window or step outside and experience what it means to live on the front lines of climate change; turn to the media and gaze upon a blackened and scorched nation. Listen to the cries from the heart of the fires victims.
And know this is the handiwork of the deniers: Hell’s advocates.
Australia is a land of extremes. As global temperature rises, very hot days are becoming more frequent and heatwaves are becoming more prolonged across many parts of Australia.
The heatwave affecting Australia in late December and early January brought extreme heat to most of the Australian continent over a sustained period. Temperatures above 40°C and 45°C were unprecedented in their extent across the continent, breaking new records for Australian averaged maximum temperatures. The heat was also unprecedented in its duration.
They note the climate change connection:
Although Australia has always had heatwaves, hot days and bushfires, climate change has increased the risk of more intense heatwaves and extreme hot days, as well as exacerbated bushfire conditions. Climate change is making extreme hot days, heatwaves and bushfire weather worse.
The increase in extreme weather in Australia illustrates an important way that greenhouse gases are forcing a shift in climate that is very costly. This highlights the need for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The report also highlights the other risks associated with this kind of heat wave:
Heatwaves in recent years around Australia have resulted in increased hospital admissions for kidney disease, acute renal failure and heart attacks, and in death (Climate Commission, 2011). During the severe heatwaves in southeastern Australia in 2009, Melbourne sweltered through three consecutive days at or above 43°C in late January. There were 980 deaths during his period—374 more than the estimated 606 that would have occurred on average for that time of year, or an estimated increase of 62% (DHS, 2009). Most of the increase was among people aged 75 or older (DHS, 2009).
It is a well produced and very accessible report – I’d go so far as to say its a great document to give to that friend, colleague or acquaintance who isn’t clear on the connection between climate change and extreme weather events.
I have to applaud the Commission for creating this document and helping the general public understand the implications of climate change.
BONNIE WALKER’S DAUGHTER: It came from both directions. It came at us and then from the side.
TIM HOLMES: I ended up having to run down through a wooded area on my own, where there was so much smoke and fire, I didn’t know where I was. So I just kept running.
There was a moment of fear that this could be very, very dangerous. But I managed to run through and get to the water’s edge, which was a kind of a sanctuary.
BONNIE WALKER: A few minutes later, an image arrived which was really – it’s still quite upsetting to see the image, it’s all of my, our, five children underneath the jetty huddled up to neck deep sea water which is cold, we’ve swam the day before and it was cold.
So I knew that that would be a challenge, to keep three non-swimmers above water. And with only my mum and dad and our eldest daughter.
BONNIE WALKER’S DAUGHTER: Even though there was hot ash and everything all over us, it was still cold.
TIM HOLMES: We were relying on the jetty really. And the difficulty was, there was so much smoke and ember and there was only about probably 200mm to 300mm of air above the water. So we were all just heads, water up to our chins just trying to breathe because it was just, the atmosphere was so incredibly toxic.
BONNIE WALKER: That was a very perilous time.
TIM HOLMES: And it raged for three hours. Because there was a lot of sort of – well, it was a wooded point. So everything was on fire and it was just exploding all over the place. Yeah, amazing. Just scorched.
JAMES BENNETT: When the inferno finally subsided Tim Holmes salvaged his dinghy.
BONNIE WALKER: My father rallied against all odds and managed to go up and get a little dinghy off the foreshore. Loaded our children in and my mum and then dragged it into a headwind 200m or 300m around the point into the headwind. And got them to safety so that they weren’t breathing the polluted air.
JAMES BENNETT: After a sleepless night at the Dunalley Hotel, late on Saturday, the family is ferried back to safety by sea rescue volunteers.
BONNIE WALKER: I spent a lot of time with good friends and prayed like I’ve never prayed before and I think those prayers have been answered.
CHARLOTTE (BONNIE WALKER’S DAUGHTER): Mummy!
BONNIE WALKER: Yes Charlotte. Those prayers have been answered.
Rural fire crews are responding to dozens of fires across the state, as Premier Barry O’Farrell warns residents to prepare for what could be the worst fire danger day in the state’s history on Tuesday.
I’m presently caught up with work and real life commitments and not able to write a post today. However, watching events unfold these past two weeks the following thoughts occurred to me:
Barely a week into January and it is already shaping up to be an extraordinary month for weather extremes: record temperatures, devastating fires and a heat wave gripping the entire continent
Australia has a tradition of naming its worst fire days “Black days” – extreme conditions are extending for greater periods over the Australian continent and creating overlapping fire tragedies: they are being woven into Black Weeks and Black Months
The “worst” is yet to come – if you’re Australian you fully appreciate the fire season will last for several more months, thus extending the potential for extremes of heat and bushfires
Australia’s fire season is getting longer and the fires themselves are getting worse – trust me, every fire fighter knows this. I was ever so briefly a volunteer fire fighter and never fought a major blaze – but it has been common knowledge for years.
Hence the tentative name for this month – Black January.
Call me alarmist if you will. Perhaps it is far to early to apply such nomenclature – and I very much hope to be wrong. But all indicators are deeply troubling.
Should such conditions and the frequency of fires extend for the next several months it may have an impact on the public’s understanding of the science and reshape climate politics much like hurricane Sandy did in the United States. As always, the visceral, lived experience of climate change is what convinces the ordinary member of the public of its reality.
The good news – the fires have been downgraded ”…The Forcett fire, east of Hobart, has spread and is still active at Taranna and near the larger communities of Forcett, Eaglehawk Neck and Dodges Ferry.Chief fire officer Mike Brown says the fire has been downgraded from an emergency listing to a watch and act. But he says residents still need to be monitoring the situation.”
A good report from Al Jazeera:
The fires are described as the “worst in half a century”.