As Australians continue to assess the damage from bushfires across the country, attention has now turned to the ongoing debate about climate change and future climate extremes.
Climate scientist and ACT 2019 Scientist of the Year, Dr Sophie Lewis, a senior lecturer at UNSW Canberra, said increasing temperatures globally from climate change means temperature extremes have become more frequent and severe, and will continue to do so, including for Australians.
“We have also seen an increase in fire danger in Australia, including longer fire seasons and more severe fires. What we are experiencing in Australia right now is part of this trend and a sign of future climate extremes we will experience,” Dr Lewis said.
“This trend in increasing fire dangers is quite clear in the observational record. Scientists haven’t yet had a chance to look at the specific drivers of this event but this is what we expect from the overall trend from climate change. We are seeing that climate change kick in the events this last summer.”
Dr Lewis said Australians should be expecting bushfires to worsen in the future, and should be planning for “more severe fires and longer seasons”.
“We need to be doing more to mitigate these events – we should be reducing greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible and adapting and planning for more severe seasons … we need to be paying attention and learning as much as we can from these events. The risks and health impacts are considerable and will affect Canberra and the region.”
As the fires continue to burn, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has released its annual climate statement, which showed 2019 as Australia’s warmest and driest year on record since consistent national records began in 1910 and 1900 respectively.
In the ACT, rainfall was “well below” average, particularly for winter and spring, with the Canberra Airport experiencing its driest year since 1982. The annual mean maximum temperature at Canberra Airport was the warmest on record, with every month above average.
BOM’s head of climate monitoring, Karl Braganza, said the warm and dry conditions in 2019 are “one of the key factors influencing recent and current fire conditions in large parts of the country”.
“January last year was the warmest month Australia has ever recorded, while just a few weeks ago in December, we saw the Australia-wide record hottest daily average maximum temperature broken multiple days in a row,”
Dr Braganza said.
“At the same time, rainfall deficiencies across large parts of eastern Australia have continued to increase, unfortunately exacerbating both drought conditions and the current bushfires.