Q&A: How climate change, other factors stoke Australia fires
APTOPIX Australia Wildfires
Australia’s unprecedented wildfires are supercharged thanks to climate change, the type of trees catching fire and weather, experts say.
And these fires are so extreme that they are triggering their own thunderstorms.
Here are a few questions and answers about the science behind the Australian wildfires that so far have burned about 5 million hectares (12.35 million acres), killing at least 17 people and destroying more than 1,400 homes.
“They are basically just in a horrific convergence of events,” said Stanford University environmental studies director Chris Field, who chaired an international scientific report on climate change and extreme events. He said this is one of the worst, if not the worst, climate change extreme events he’s seen.
“There is something just intrinsically terrifying about these big wildfires. They go on for so long, the sense of hopelessness that they instill,” Field said. “The wildfires are kind of the iconic representation of climate change impacts.”
Q: Is climate change really a factor?
A: Scientists, both those who study fire and those who study climate, say there’s no doubt man-made global warming has been a big part, but not the only part, of the fires.
Last year in Australia was the hottest and driest on record, with the average annual temperature 2.7 degrees (1.5 degrees Celsius) above the 1960 to 1990, average, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology. Temperatures in Australia last month hit 121.8 degrees (49.9 degrees Celsius).
“What would have been a bad fire season was made worse by the background drying/warming trend,’’ Andrew Watkins, head of long-range forecasts at Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, said in an email.
Mike Flannigan, a fire scientist at the University of Alberta in Canada, said Australia’s fires are “an example of climate change.”
A 2019 Australian government brief report on wildfires and climate change said, “Human-caused climate change has resulted in more dangerous weather conditions for bushfires in recent decades for many regions of Australia.”
Q: How does climate change make these fires worse?
A: The drier the fuel — trees and plants — the easier it is for fires to start and the hotter and nastier they get, Flannigan said.
“It means more fuel is available to burn, which means higher intensity fires, which makes it more difficult — or impossible — to put out,” Flannigan said.
The heat makes the fuel drier, so they combine for something called fire weather. And that determines “fuel moisture,” which is crucial for fire spread. The lower the moisture, the more likely Australian fires start and spread from lightning and human-caused ignition, a 2016 study found.
There’s been a 10% long-term drying trend in Australia’s southeast and 15% long-term drying trend in the country’s southwest, Watkins said. When added to a degree of warming and a generally southward shift of weather systems, that means a generally drier landscape.
Australia’s drought since late 2017 “has been at least the equal of our worst drought in 1902,” Australia’s Watkins said. “It has probably been driven by ocean temperature patterns in the Indian Ocean and the long term drying trend.”
Q: Has Australia’s fire season changed?
A: Yes. It’s about two to four months longer, starting earlier especially in the south and east, Watkins said.
“The fires over the last three months are unprecedented in their timing and severity, started earlier in spring and covered a wider area across many parts of Australia,” said David Karoly, leader of climate change hub at Australia’s National Environmental science Program. “The normal peak fire season is later in summer and we are yet to have that.”
Q: Is weather, not just long-term climate, a factor?
A: Yes. In September, Antarctica’s sudden stratospheric warming — sort of the southern equivalent of the polar vortex — changed weather conditions so that Australia’s normal weather systems are farther north than usual, Watkins said.
That means since mid-October there were persistent strong westerly winds bringing hot dry air from the interior to the coast, making the fire weather even riskier for the coasts.
“With such a dry environment, many fires were started by dry lightning events (storms that brought lightning but limited rainfall),” Watkins said.
Q: Are people starting these fires? Is it arson?
A: It’s too early to tell the precise cause of ignition because the fires are so recent and officials are spending time fighting them, Flannigan said.
While people are a big factor in causing fires in Australia, it’s usually accidental, from cars and trucks and power lines, Flannigan said. Usually discarded cigarettes don’t trigger big fires, but when conditions are so dry, they can, he said.
Q: Are these fires triggering thunderstorms?
A: Yes. It’s an explosive storm called pyrocumulonimbus and it can inject particles as high as 10 miles into the air.
During a fire, heat and moisture from the plants are released, even when the fuel is relatively dry. Warm air is less dense than cold air so it rises, releasing the moisture and forming a cloud that lifts and ends up a thunderstorm started by fire. It happens from time to time in Australia and other parts of the world, including Canada, Flannigan said.
“These can be deadly, dangerous, erratic and unpredictable,” he said.
Q: Are the Australian trees prone to burning?
A: Eucalyptus trees are especially flammable, “like gasoline on a tree,” Flannigan said. Chemicals in them make them catch fire easier, spread to the tops of trees and get more intense. Eucalyptus trees were a big factor in 2017 fires in Portugal that killed 66 people, he said.
Q: How can you fight these huge Australia fires?
A: You don’t. They’re just going to burn in many places until they hit the beach, Flannigan said.
“This level of intensity, direct attack is useless,” Flannigan said. “You just have to get out of the way… It really is spitting on a campfire. It’s not doing any good.”
Q: What’s the long-term fire future look like for Australia?
A: “The extreme fire season in Australia in 2019 was predicted,” said Australian National University climate scientist Nerilie Abram. “The question that we need to ask is how much worse are we willing to let this get? This is what global warming of just over 1 degree C looks like. Do we really want to see the impacts of 3 degrees or more are like, because that is the trajectory we are on.”
Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears .
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Situated smack dab in the middle of Tornado Alley, Oklahoma is no stranger to damaging twisters, but in 2019, more tornadoes than ever before were reported in the state.
A record number of tornadoes occurred in Oklahoma in 2019 with a total of 147 just beating the old record of 145 set in 1999, according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Jack Boston.
|This image made from video provided by KWTV-KOTV shows two funnel clouds formed in Crescent, Oklahoma, Monday, May 20, 2019. An intense storm system that weather forecasters labeled „particularly dangerous” swept through the southern Plains Monday, spawning a few tornadoes that caused some damage and a deluge of rain. (KWTV-KOTV via AP)|
AccuWeather’s 2019 forecast released in February accurately pinpointed the areas to be hit hardest this year, with a higher frequency of severe weather risks in the traditional Tornado Alley — notably Oklahoma, Kansas and parts of Texas – which is more than those areas had experienced on average the previous three years.
„The previous record in 1999 was set in part thanks to a devastating tornado outbreak on May 3 and 4 which included the famous F5 twister that pummeled Moore, Oklahoma, located just south of Oklahoma City,” Boston said.
Although the number of tornadoes in Oklahoma was a record this year, most were rated EF0, with wind speeds around 65-85 mph, and EF1, with speeds ranging from 86-110 mph, according to Boston.
There were 10 EF2 twisters and only three EF3 twisters, with no EF4 or EF5 tornadoes reported in the state in 2019.
|Emergency workers search through debris from a mobile home park in El Reno, Oklahoma, Sunday, May 26, 2019, following a tornado touchdown late Saturday night. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)|
„The most significant tornado was an EF3 twister that plowed through Bryan County bordering Texas along the Red River in the southeastern part of Oklahoma. The twister occurred on April 30 and killed four people, destroyed 19 homes and damaged 20 more,” Boston said.
„The ‘setup’ which brought Oklahoma the record tornado count in 2019 was multiple storm systems moving out of the southwestern United States northeastward right across Oklahoma combined with an abnormally persistent southeasterly low-level flow of warm and humid air originating off the Gulf of Mexico,” Boston said.
Spring and summer were usually warm and muggy in Oklahoma, helping to fuel severe weather episodes, according to Boston.
A deadly EF3 tornado hit El Reno, Oklahoma, for the second time in six years, killing two, injuring 29 and leaving an extensive trail of damage in a short amount of time.
|Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and his daughter, Piper, examine tornado damage in El Reno with first responders on May 27, 2019.|
El Reno Mayor Matt White described the scene at the mobile home park as „horrific” during a press conference after the event.
The inflation-adjusted annual tornado running total – which attempts to remove overcount by multiplying the preliminary total by 0.85 – is 1,442, according to NOAA. Tornadoes killed 41 people in 2019, which fell well below the average of 80 U.S. fatalities annually, NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center reported.
Tornado-related fatalities have been trending downward in recent years despite more people living in tornado-prone areas.
In 2018, the U.S. set a record low for the number of fatalities with just 10 people killed, the lowest number since tornado fatality record-keeping began in 1875. The previous record low total was 12 in 1910.
The reasons for this trend include advances in weather science and technology, the increasing accuracy and speed of processing warnings and the effectiveness of warning methods such as through mobile apps, as well as better cooperation between government weather services and the American weather industry that includes AccuWeather.
AccuWeather is a proud and early partner of NOAA’s WeatherReady Nation resiliency program, which helps to continue this trend, and the company is proud to get these lifesaving warnings out to the public rapidly and accurately through its apps and website.