Category Archives: The New Normal

Season of purgatory: the “new Australian summer” revealed in Victoria’s current bushfire emergency

Almost five years to the day after Black Saturday, Victoria finds itself in the grip of another bushfire emergency.

Thankfully there are no reported deaths, however at least 20 homes have been destroyed. The fires have caused major disruption, skirting the northern suburbs and putting the Hazelwood power station at risk.

The Age is providing excellent coverage on their website.

We must now come to terms with the fact that each summer is now a season of purgatory.

Summer is not merely the season to catch the Boxing Day test or escape to the beach. It is now a time to anxiously watch the weather and scan the horizon for the tell-tale signs of a fire.

This is the “New Australian Summer”.

Sure, some summers will be less extreme than others.

But as global temperatures continue to rise (in response to increasing quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere) we can expect the fires to come with greater frequency and ferocity.

As I have noted it is time we began discussions adapting to these changed conditions.

Several strategies come to mind:

  • a phased strategic retreat from at risk areas in the state (or country)
  • a greater investment in emergency services and management
  • changes to planning and development
  • changes to infrastructure.

With little doubt, by the middle of this century our hands will be forced.

Now is the time to start the conversation.

[Image source: The Age]

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Blackest day: stunning NASA images of NSW fires

Images from NASA allow us to appreciate the scope of the devastating NSW fires:


This satellite image was taken on October 17 (last Thursday), now regarded as one NSW’s worst fire days.

The shape of infernos to come: the NSW super fires as precursor to future catastrophes


Smoke this morning near Camden NSW, image @scottedougherty via Instagram

If you want a glimpse of the future and a foretaste of what a climate change has in store for Australia, then look no further to the unfolding catastrophe in New South Wales.

The NSW government has taken the extraordinary step of declaring a state of emergency. It gives emergency services extended powers to manage the threat to life and property. For the next 30 days police and other emergency services will have the power to forcibly evacuate populations and shut down utilities in threatened areas.

However the worst of it is far from over.

By the middle of this week conditions threaten to create a “super fire”. Three large fires burning in the Blue Mountains are at risk of joining up, creating a monster fire. Hundreds of thousands residents on the outskirts of Western Sydney may be directly impacted or face mandatory evacuation.

Already the cost has been high. Hundreds of homes have been lost, while one resident died defending his home.

One cannot find fault with work fires services in NSW battling the fires consuming the Blue Mountains and other parts of the state. Hundreds of fire-fighters are coming from states such as Victoria to assist. The courage and dedication of fire fighters has rightly been praised. Without doubt their efforts have saved lives and prevented an even greater tragedy.

But let’s not pretend climate change is not a factor, for surely it is.

NSW is experiencing the “worst bushfire disaster in 45 years” and it’s far from over.

It is the month of October, early spring, far from what has been traditionally the height of Australia’s bushfire season. While it is worth noting fires are not uncommon in early spring, the scale and intensity of the fires we’re seeing is unprecedented.

In an interview with ABC Radio, Victorian Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley drew the connection:

“Some may say it’s part of climate change, it probably is, the fact we’re seeing a different climatic condition coming across to affect the south-eastern side of Australia, (is) really important for us to understand this summer…”

For much of this year experts have been discussing and warning us about fires such as these. Their reasoning is simple and straight forward, readily understood by anyone with the willingness and wit to accept the science.

The world is warming thanks to human activities. As a consequence we’re loading the dice in favour of more extreme weather events through increased greenhouse emissions. The physics and chemistry is indisputable.

Bushfires have been a regular feature of the Australian environment. However, a warming planet creates conditions where the genesis of infernos like that raging in NSW are more likely.

While some have sought to “normalise” the fires as simply one more example of Australia’s sometimes harsh environment, the situation is unprecedented.

To draw attention to these unprecedented extremes is not to “politicise” the NSW’s bushfire tragedy: it is merely drawing attention to the inevitable consequences of global warming.

As Australians it is imperative we understand and talk about the connection between climate change and the increasing frequency and ferocity of these fires.

Thus, attempts by conservative politicians and parts of the media to shut down anyone who makes the obvious connection politicises the issue.

It is also doubly insidious act of censorship and control.

Firstly, these attempts at censorship are not made to spare the feelings of the victims of the fires, but to distract the Australian public from making the obvious connection.

Secondly, for decades Murdoch’s media empire and conservatives have preached climate change is either non-existent or a trivial problem. But when the impacts of climate change hits hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians, as they are in NSW right now, it is simply not possible for the sceptics to back track on decades of denial and obstruction.

To accept the problem as real, and draw the connection between climate change and the NSW inferno would be an admission of their culpability. Thus their desperate, indeed shrill, demand that no-one talk about climate change even when the worst of it is upon our communities. Their only true concern is that of their own reputation and the preservation of their world view.

This spring and the summer that will soon be upon us are precursors to years of climate disruption.

From this point forward, indeed the next several centuries, will be a time of increasing struggle and attempts hold off total collapse. The challenges will slowly ratchet up, and for a time most will not appreciate their connections. But slowly, and perhaps far too late, the pattern will emerge to even the most oblivious.

Paul Gilding in his book The Great Disruption offers valuable insight into what the future may bring:

“The science on this is now clear and accepted by any rational observer. While an initial look at the public debate may suggest controversy, any serious examination of the peer-reviewed conclusions of leading science bodies shows the core direction we are heading is now clear. Things do not look good…”

Gilding notes we should expect an “economic and social hurricane”:

“The science says we have physically entered a period of grate change, a synchronized, related crash of the economy and the ecosystem, with food shortages, climate catastrophes, massive economic change and global political instability. It has been forecast for decades, and the moment has now arrived…”

Without doubt we are witnessing the first stirrings of this period of transition and disruption. Get ready for each summer to be a time of high anxiety, of emergency declarations and the acrid smell of smoke.

Already I fear the day when Melbourne will experience a tragedy that will surpass the Black Saturday fires of 2009. The source of my concern?

Projections point to a time, well before 2100, when Melbourne will experience a 50 degree day. It is almost impossible to imagine the impacts of such extremes. But the portents and signs are there for those willing to look and draw the necessary lessons.

Go, turn on your television and stare into the fire and at the charred remains of streets and homes.

The shape of future infernos is there, taking form in the Blue Mountains.

Australia’s record breaking heat continues: warmest 12 months on record

Sometimes a picture says it all:


From the BoM FaceBook page.

The entire continent is experiencing above-average-to-highest-on-record temperatures.

Summer looks grim.

The new normal: tornadoes strike Italy; hundreds dead in UK heatwave; Shanghai’s record breaking heatwave; Japan’s new national heat record

While Australia is focussed on the shabby and debased election campaign in which environmental issues are barely mentioned, evidence of disruptive climate change is mounting.

Stunning video of tornadoes striking Milan in italy:

The impact:

See full story here – though in fairness, tornadoes are sometimes seen in this region.

At least 700 dead in 9 day in the July heat wave that struck the UK:

Up to 760 people have died in England during the first nine days of the ongoing heatwave, according to estimates from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine as temperatures today continued to soar above 30C (86F) for the sixth consecutive day.

The hot spell, which began on July 6, is unlikely to pass until the end of next week, leading the daily to conclude that “this number is likely to double”.

The government’s national weather office issued a health warning to the country’s south east, urging young people and the elderly, as well as people with respiratory difficulties, to take precautions against the high temperatures.

In Shanghai, at least 10 people died during a record heatwave:

Temperatures in parts of China have hit record highs, prompting an emergency level-two nationwide heat alert for the first time.

In Shanghai, at least 10 people have died from heatstroke, as the city experiences its hottest July in 140 years, reports say.

Local journalists have demonstrated the heat by frying meat on the pavement.

The national heat alert covers nine provinces, including Anhui, Jiangsu, Hunan, Hubei, Shanghai and Chongqing.

According to figures from the Shanghai Meteorological bureau, Shanghai has seen 24 days with temperatures at or above 35C in July.

“It should be a new record since Shanghai had its own weather recording,” said chief service officer Wu Rui.

“Also, in July of this year Shanghai reached 40.6 degrees Celsius, its highest ever temperature. So the highest temperature in July also broke a record.”

Japan has also seen extremes with record breaking heat:

An all-time national heat record was set in Japan today (August 12th) when the temperature peaked at 41.0°C (105.8°F) at the Ekawasaki site in Shimanto (part of Kochi Prefecture). The previous record of 40.9°C (105.6°F) was recorded at Tajima and Kumagaya on August 16, 2007. Tokyo endured its warmest daily minimum on August 11th with a low of 30.4°C (86.7°F). This was the 2nd warmest minimum on record for Japan following a minimum of 30.8°C (87.4°F) at Itoigawa on August 22, 1990.

California feels the heat: new report notes impact of climate change “significant and growing”

2008 Fires: California has seen an increasing incidence of wildfires

Climate change is not a problem for the distant future, or an issue that can be left to future generations to fix. The impacts are real and being felt today.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

California is feeling the effects of climate change far and wide, as heat-trapping greenhouse gases reduce spring runoff from the Sierra Nevada, make the waters of Monterey Bay more acidic and shorten winter chill periods required to grow fruit and nuts in the Central Valley, a new report says. 

Though past studies have offered grim projections of a warming planet, the report released Thursday by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment took an inventory of three dozen shifts that are already happening. 

“The nature of these changes is that they’re occurring gradually, but the impacts are significant and growing,” said Sam Delson, a spokesman for the health hazard assessment office, a branch of the California Environmental Protection Agency. 

Among the effects detailed in the report: The number of acres burned by wildfires in California has been increasing since 1950, with the three worst fire seasons occurring in the last decade. Sea surface temperatures at La Jolla have risen by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit over the last century, twice as much as the global average. Glaciers in the Sierra Nevada are shrinking, and water in lakes, including Lake Tahoe and Mono Lake, has warmed over the last few decades. 

The changes associated with global warming can be irregular. Sea level rise in California, for instance, has bucked the global pattern and leveled off over the last two decades, the report notes. 

But the overall trend is overwhelming, scientists say.

Welcome to the new normal.

Image source: No Caption Needed

Uncertainty is not our friend: leaked IPCC report confirms climate change still dangerous


There has been a rash of articles of late claiming the next IPCC report (AR5) will revise the temperature response to increased levels of atmospheric CO2 downwards. Turns out this is not the case, but more on that soon.

This is what I like to call “The Great Climate Sensitivity Debate of 2013” in which we all rushed out to understand what this once obscure branch of science was about.

The message from the deniers and some sections of the media was that the silly scientists had gotten it wrong, and that the consensus was shifting towards “Things aren’t as bad as we once thought.”

Perhaps the most notorious example of this “bright siding” was this article from the The Economist

Silly, silly scientists!

Panicking us for 30 years only to say “Oops sorry guys we waz wrong! So sorry – our bad!”

Seems this whole flap over climate sensitivity was a pointless distraction, as New Scientist notes:

Can we all stop worrying about global warming? According to a recent rash of stories in the media, the “climate sensitivity” – the extent to which temperatures respond to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – is lower than expected, and thus that the world won’t get as hot as predicted. One story, in The Economist, based on leaked information from a draft of the next assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, claims the IPCC will revise its sensitivity estimate downwards when they release their official report this September.

Turns out climate change is still dangerous and something we may wish to prevent:

The bottom line is that there is no new consensus that climate sensitivity is lower than previously thought, says Knutti. The observed trend points to lower values because of the recent slowdown, but other evidence continues to support higher values.

The last IPCC report stated that equilibrium climate sensitivity was between 2 and 4.5 °C, mostly likely 3 °C. The Economist claims the IPCC’s next report will give a figure between 1.5 and 4.5 °C, with no most likely value. The IPCC won’t confirm or deny it, but it’s not a huge change if it is true.

“What matters for avoiding dangerous climate change is the upper end, and that hasn’t changed,” says Knutti. Ward makes the same point. “We can’t afford to gamble on sensitivity definitely being low,” he says.

But will it all be a huge waste if sensitivity does turn out to be low? Far from it. If we don’t cut emissions, Knutti points out, all low sensitivity means is that it will take a decade or two longer for the planet to warm as much as it would if sensitivity was high. “It doesn’t get away from the fact that emissions have to be reduced,” he says.

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Melbourne’s warmest July on record: 10c above the average, follows Angry Summer and Autumn heatwave

Melbournians are used to experiencing “Four seasons in one day” – when the weather swings from brilliant clear skies, to storms and back again. But yesterday was unusual in that we recorded our highest July temperature on record:

It’s official – Melbourne has experienced its warmest-ever July day – but the summery burst was shortlived with storms hitting the city.

Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster Scott Williams said it was an extraordinary day in Melbourne.

“It was our hottest ever July day at 23.3 degrees (at 2.02pm) – 10 degrees above the July average.”

Everyone was talking about the “early summer” and “how unusual” the heat was.

This comes the same year of the Angry Summer, when the entire continent experienced a record breaking heat heatwave.

Unknown to many, and less dramatic, was the prolonged Autumn heatwave that covered most of Southern Australia. The Bureau of Meteorology Special Climate Statement No.45 details these exceptional conditions:

A prolonged heatwave affected southeast Australia between 2 and 13 March 2013, breaking numerous records, especially for the duration of persistent hot days and nights. The event followed Australia’s hottest month on record in January, and warmest summer on record from December 2012 to February 2013 (see Special Climate Statement 43).

The oceans surrounding Australia were similarly exceptionally warm, with sea surface temperatures also posting their hottest month on record in February, and warmest summer on record. The six months from September 2012 have been characterised by significant heatwaves and record temperatures for the entire Australian region. This heat has continued into March over a very large area of the country. 

Hottest summer; an Autumn heatwave and the a winter’s day that felt like early summer.

Welcome to the new normal.

Tipping point: the Arctic is a slowly boiling jug of ice water

Summer is the period when sea-ice reaches it’s minimum extent in the Arctic, but thanks to climate change this extent has been declining rapidly.

There are signs the Arctic is approaching a death spiral, when the Arctic will be ice-free during the summer months. 

This will have profound effects on the planet’s climate.

As Robert Scribbler notes in his blog the past few weeks have been concerning:

Over the past month, warmth and energy have been building in the Arctic. All around, from Siberia to Scandinavia to Alaska, heatwaves have flared beneath anomalous long-wave patterns in the Jet Stream. Patterns, that in many cases have persisted for months. The Alaskan heat dome sent temperatures there to 98 degrees (Fahrenheit). Temperatures in Siberia flared to the low 90s. And heat built and flared again in Scandinavia and Northeastern Europe, sending Arctic temperatures first into the 80s and then to 92. 

This building and highly anomalous heat was coupled by another unusual event — a long duration series of Arctic storms that have thinned and weakened large sections of sea ice near the North Pole. This Persistent Arctic Cyclone has flared and faded, remaining in the Arctic since late May. 

Now, with central sea ice weakened and with heat circling in from all around, the Arctic appears to be bracing for a period of rapid sea ice loss.

Last year we saw a record decline in sea ice. This year’s decline did not seem as precipitous, tracking slightly below the 1981-2012 average extent and within standard deviation.

As the above graph from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center indicates, the trend of the past few weeks looks worrisome.

A sharp decline is obvious, pushing it closer to the 2012 record minimum – though I hasten to add within the standard deviations.

Noise or signal?

Hard to say at this point, but I’ll be watching the trend over August. What ever the outcome, low and declining sea-ice extent during the summer months can be considered “the new normal”.

Tipping point cometh?

The oceans cover 70% of the planet’s surface, and are a crucial component of the climate system itself.

But at some point the oceans will stop soaking up the extra heat/energy we’re adding to the climate system.

Like a slowly boiling jug of ice water, we’ll reach a tipping point.

At first the temperature rise is imperceptible.

Slowly the heat builds – slowly the ice begins to melt.

Linear – manageable.

To preserve the ice, one merely has to remove the source of the heat. 

But what if you don’t?

What if you continue to expose the contents of the jug to the same – or increased – levels of heat?

Slowly the heat builds – slowly the ice melts.

But there comes a point when the ice is gone.

A tipping point is reached and passed.

Within moments, the water reaches boiling point.

This simple brute fact of physics is now playing out in the Arctic.

Global warming is winning: new evidence of Australia’s shifting climate

Australia’s climate is shifting to a new state

Via The Age, recent evidence of climate change’s impact on Southern Australia:

Southern Australia is in the midst of a climate tug-of-war that’s giving Melbourne weather previously experienced in NSW Riverina towns such as Deniliquin, according to new CSIRO research.

Warming global temperatures tend to push westerly winds south while El Nino weather patterns tend to push them north.

The atmospheric tussle of the past 50 years is becoming one-sided as global warming wins out, as inland dry zones shift about 250 kilometres south, said Wenju Cai, a principal research scientist and climate modeller at the CSIRO.

I’ll post a link to the report once I’ve tracked it down.

However, at this point it is Global Warming 3 – Humanity 0.

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