Ten years ago, climate adaptation research was gaining steam. Today, it’s gutted


Rod Keenan, University of Melbourne

Ten years ago, on February 7, 2009, I sat down in my apartment in central Melbourne to write a job application. All of the blinds were down, and the windows tightly closed. Outside it was 47℃. We had no air conditioning. The heat seeped through the walls.

When I stepped outside, the air ripped at my nose and throat, like a fan-forced sauna. It felt ominous. With my forestry training, and some previous experience of bad fire weather in Tasmania, I knew any fires that day would be catastrophic. They were. Black Saturday became Australia’s worst-ever bushfire disaster.

I was applying for the position of Director of the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research (VCCCAR). I was successful and started the job later that year.




Read more:
We can build homes to survive bushfires, so why don’t we?


The climate in Victoria over the previous 12 years had been harsh. Between 1997 and 2009 the state suffered its worst drought on record, and major bushfires in 2003 and 2006-07 burned more than 2 million hectares of forest. Then came Black Saturday, and the year after that saw the start of Australia’s wettest two-year period on record, bringing major floods to the state’s north, as well as to vast swathes of the rest of the country.

In Victoria alone, hundreds of millions of dollars a year were being spent on response and recovery from climate-related events. In government, the view was that things couldn’t go on that way. As climate change accelerated, these costs would only rise.

We had to get better at preparing for, and avoiding, the future impacts of rapid climate change. This is what is what we mean by the term “climate adaptation”.

Facing up to disasters

A decade after Black Saturday, with record floods in Queensland, severe bushfires in Tasmania and Victoria, widespread heatwaves and drought, and a crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin, it is timely to reflect on the state of adaptation policy and practice in Australia.

In 2009 the Rudd Labor government had taken up the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. With Malcolm Turnbull as opposition leader, we seemed headed for a bipartisan national solution ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit in December. Governments, meanwhile, agreed that adaptation was more a state and local responsibility. Different parts of Australia faced different climate risks. Communities and industries in those regions had different vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities and needed locally driven initiatives.

Led by the Brumby government in Victoria, state governments developed an adaptation policy framework and sought federal financial support to implement it. This included research on climate adaptation. The federal government put A$50 million into a new National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, based in Queensland, alongside the CSIRO Adaptation Flagship which was set up in 2007.

The Victorian Government invested A$5 million in VCCCAR. The state faced local risks: more heatwaves, floods, storms, bushfires and rising sea levels, and my colleagues and I found there was plenty of information on climate impacts. The question was: what can policy-makers, communities, businesses and individuals do in practical terms to plan and prepare?

Getting to work

From 2009 until June 2014, researchers from across disciplines in four universities collaborated with state and local governments, industry and the community to lay the groundwork for better decisions in a changing climate.

We held 20 regional and metropolitan consultation events and hosted visiting international experts on urban design, flood, drought, and community planning. Annual forums brought together researchers, practitioners, consultants and industry to share knowledge and engage in collective discussion on adaptation options. We worked with eight government departments, driving the message that adapting to climate change wasn’t just an “environmental” problem and needed responses across government.

All involved considered the VCCCAR a success. It improved knowledge about climate adaptation options and confidence in making climate decisions. The results fed into Victoria’s 2013 Climate Change Adaptation Plan, as well as policies for urban design and natural resource management, and practices in the local government and community sectors. I hoped the centre would continue to provide a foundation for future adaptation policy and practice.

Funding cuts

In the 2014 state budget the Napthine government chose not to continue funding the VCCCAR. Soon after, the Abbott federal government reduced the funding and scope of its national counterpart, and funding ended last year.

Meanwhile, CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall argued that climate science was less important than the need for innovation and turning inventions into benefits for society. Along with other areas of climate science, the Adaptation Flagship was cut, its staff let go or redirected. From a strong presence in 2014, climate adaptation has become almost invisible in the national research landscape.

In the current chaos of climate policy, adaptation has been downgraded. There is a national strategy but little high-level policy attention. State governments have shifted their focus to energy, investing in renewables and energy security. Climate change was largely ignored in developing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Despite this lack of policy leadership, many organisations are adapting. Local governments with the resources are addressing their particular challenges, and building resilience. Our public transport now functions better in heatwaves, and climate change is being considered in new transport infrastructure. The public is more aware of heatwave risks, and there is investment in emergency management research, but this is primarily focused on disaster response.

Large companies making long-term investments, such as Brisbane Airport, have improved their capacity to consider future climate risks. There are better planning tools and systems for business, and the finance and insurance sectors are seriously considering these risks in investment decisions. Smart rural producers are diversifying, using their resources differently, or shifting to different growing environments.

Struggling to cope

But much more is needed. Old buildings and cooling systems are not built to cope with our current temperatures. Small businesses are suffering, but few have capacity to analyse their vulnerabilities or assess responses. The power generation system is under increasing pressure. Warning systems have improved but there is still much to do to design warnings in a way that ensures an appropriate public reaction. Too many people still adopt a “she’ll be right” attitude and ignore warnings, or leave it until the last minute to evacuate.

In an internal submission to government in 2014 we proposed a Victorian Climate Resilience Program to provide information and tools for small businesses. Other parts of the program included frameworks for managing risks for local governments, urban greening, building community leadership for resilience, and new conservation approaches in landscapes undergoing rapid change.




Read more:
The 2017 budget has axed research to help Australia adapt to climate change


Investment in climate adaptation pays off. Small investments now can generate payoffs of 3-5:1 in reduced future impacts. A recent business round table report indicates that carefully targeted research and information provision could save state and federal governments A$12.2 billion and reduce the overall economic costs of natural disasters (which are projected to rise to A$23 billion a year by 2050) by more than 50%.

Ten years on from Black Saturday, climate change is accelerating. The 2030 climate forecasts made in 2009 have come true in half the time. Today we are living through more and hotter heatwaves, longer droughts, uncontrollable fires, intense downpours and significant shifts in seasonal rainfall patterns.

Yes, policy-makers need to focus on reducing greenhouse emissions, but we also need a similar focus on adaptation to maintain functioning and prosperous communities, economies and ecosystems under this rapid change. It is vital that we rebuild our research capacity and learn from our past experiences, to support the partnerships needed to make climate-smart decisions.The Conversation

Rod Keenan, Professor, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Advertisements

Climate change is poised to deliver more Black Saturdays in decades to come


Scott Hamilton, University of Melbourne

Ten years ago, on February 7, 2009, the Black Saturday bushfires killed 173 people. More than 2,000 houses were destroyed in Victoria, including at Kilmore, Kinglake, Vectis (Horsham), Narbethong, Marysville, Strathewan, Beechworth, Labertouche (Bunyip), Coleraine, Weerite, Redesdale, Harkaway, Upper Ferntree Gully, Maiden Gully, Bendigo, Eaglehawk, Lynbrook, St Andrews, Flowerdale, Narre Warren, Callignee, and my home town of Churchill, where my mother and father still lived. Their home wasn’t burned, but many of their neighbours were badly affected by the worst bushfire day in Australia’s history.

A week before, my uncle and aunt had to seek refuge at Mum and Dad’s place when a fire ember landed in their front yard during the Boolarra bushfires. Mum has since passed and Dad still lives in Churchill.

The climate is changing due to human induced greenhouse gas emissions, and this means more bushfire danger days in what is already one of the most fire-prone countries in the world. Unfortunately, we have not done enough to curb climate change and the situation is getting worse.

Climate change means more days of extreme heat, longer heatwaves and more frequent droughts. Droughts now occur further south than in the past and have been increasing in Australia’s southeast, including Tasmania. The records continue to tumble, and the evidence of dangerous climate change continues to mount.




Read more:
Fires are increasing in warming world, but a new model could help us predict them


Back in 2008, John Brumby was Premier of Victoria and Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister. I was working on climate change for the Victorian government, developing projections for increased risk of bushfires. A 2005 study had already predicted an increase in fire weather risk throughout most of southeastern Australia over the coming decades, with “very high” and “extreme” fire danger ratings likely to increase in frequency by 4-25% by 2020 and 15-70% by 2050.

There has been more research in this area, although certainly not enough, given the huge stakes. A 2007 report for the Climate Institute of Australia predicted increases in annual average fire danger of up to 30% by 2050, and a potential trebling in the number of days per year where the uppermost values of the index are exceeded. The largest changes are predicted for the arid and semi-arid interior of New South Wales and northern Victoria.

Projected increases in the number of days with very high or extreme fire weather for selected years. This study was based on scenarios producing 0.4℃, 1.0℃ and 2.9℃ temperature rises, which will respectively be reached by the years indicated, without emissions reduction.
Lucas et al. 2007, Author provided

The 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review also warned that fire seasons will begin earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense. “This effect increases over time but should be directly observable by 2020,” it said.

In 2015, a further study by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology concluded that:

Projections of warming and drying in southern and eastern Australia will lead to increases in [forest fire danger index] and a greater number of days with severe fire danger. In a business as usual scenario (worst case, driest scenario), severe fire days increase by up to 160-190% by 2090.

By combining all of this research, I created the graph below.

Projected annual number of days of very high or extreme bushfire danger.
CSIRO/BoM/Bushfire CRC

This shows that while there is some uncertainty as to the extent of increase in the number of bushfire danger days in southeastern Australia, the situation is undoubtedly getting worse, and it’s time for action.

In 2017, the independent Climate Council published a report on Victoria’s growing bushfire threat, which made several stark findings and recommendations:

  1. Climate change is increasing the risk of bushfires in Victoria and lengthening fire seasons.

  2. Victoria is the state most affected by bushfires, and is on the front line of increasing bushfire risk.

  3. The economic cost of bushfires in Victoria is an estimated A$180 million a year, and this is predicted to more than double by 2050.

  4. Bushfires will continue to adversely affect human and environmental health.

  5. In the future, Victoria is very likely to experience an increased number of days with extreme fire danger. Communities and emergency services across Victoria must be prepared.

  6. Reducing greenhouse emissions is vital for protecting Australians.

Risk to water supplies

Our grandfathers and grandmothers had the wisdom to build amazing water infrastructure, protected by the “closed catchments” that give Melbourne and Victoria some of the best water in the world. Bushfires are a major risk to these water supplies – particularly in the catchments of major dams such as the Thomson.

A bushfire followed by a downpour that washes ash into the dam could potentially force the closure of the trillion-litre capacity Thomson reservoir, making it unusable for months. Firefighters have been battling exactly this kind of blaze at Mount Baw Baw in recent days and at the time of writing the situation has improved.

Major bushfires often occur in time of severe drought. Black Saturday itself happened towards the end of the 15-year Millennium Drought, when Victoria’s water supplies were already strained. I remember vividly the then chief executive of the Melbourne Water Corporation urging the government to deal with any fire in the Thomson Dam catchment immediately, given the threat to Melbourne’s water.

Fortunately, amid the devastation of Black Saturday we avoided major disruption to our water supplies. But this risk poses a huge challenge to both firefighters and policy-makers. The rule is that protection of human life is ranked above assets and infrastructure, and rightly so. But when there is a clear and present danger of towns and cities going without water, it’s also true that safeguarding water means saving human lives in the ensuing days.




Read more:
The bitter lesson of the Californian fires


Any way you look at it, these are hard questions. On our current trajectory, we are heading for terrible trade-offs.

In 2050 my daughter Astrid and my son Atticus – Mum and Dad’s grandchildren – will be 45 and 43, respectively. I hope it is not too late for our leaders in Canberra, Davos and throughout the world to wake up and take urgent action to limit global warming 1.5℃. That would mean that the most fearful predictions of our bushfire future never come to pass.The Conversation

Scott Hamilton, Strategic Advisory Panel Member, Australian-German Energy Transition Hub, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How a bushfire can destroy a home


Douglas Brown, Western Sydney University

Ten years after the devastation of Black Saturday, building design has largely been unrecognised as an area worthy of research. We have advanced our knowledge of the materials used in the construction of homes in bushfire-prone areas but we continue to use the design model of the suburban home.

This needs to change. An initial starting point is to consider the way previous bushfires have damaged and destroyed buildings.




Read more:
Where to take refuge in your home during a bushfire


Elements of a bushfire

A bushfire has five different elements: smoke, wind, embers, flames, and radiant heat (the latter two are collectively called the “fire front”).

Smoke and wind are usually present throughout a fire, but are particularly high when the fire burns at its most intense levels. Depending on the type of vegetation burning, isolated flying embers may arrive hours before a fire front. Intense ember attacks usually occur 15-30 minutes before a fire front arrives, and may persist for up to 8 hours after the fire front moves on.

Radiant heat at a level that makes it impossible to survive outside will persist during the passage of the fire front, which may last anywhere between 2 and 15 minutes. However, if consequential fires are ignited by the main fire front, the radiant heat may remain at non-survivable levels for much longer.

The smoke of a bushfire reduces visibility and can turn a bright day into night. A change in wind direction can renew a threat residents thought had already passed them.

How will a bushfire attack your home?

Most people would expect that the most destructive element of a bushfire is the fire front, but rather surprisingly that’s not the case. Ember entry and associated spot fires, rather than direct flame contact, accounts for 75-80% of homes destroyed by bushfires.

Embers can be large strips of burning bark, or a tiny spark as small as a pinhead, and depending on wind speed these can travel up to 10 kilometres ahead of the fire front.

Australian research over the past 75 years has revealed more than 20 different parts of a house and its surrounding area that are vulnerable to bushfire attack. Much of this knowledge has now been incorporated into a recently updated Australian Standard: Construction of buildings in bushfire-prone areas.

These guidelines aim to reduce the vulnerability of each part of a house, and thus make the structure as a whole more resistant to bushfire damage. The Standard applies across Australia for new homes and renovations.

The known building ignition points

The known weak parts of a building are referred to as the “building ignition points”. Several are considered below:

Roof cavity

In domestic homes the roof cavity is the large open space under the roof and above the ceiling. Embers in this space can cause fire to spread rapidly, making the whole building vulnerable to ceiling collapse.

Any gap in the roof, such as a poorly secured tile, can allow flying embers to enter. The burning crown of a nearby tree, pushed onto a roof by high-speed winds, can also ignite the house.

When people choose to shelter in their bathrooms they often forget the ceiling is particularly vulnerable there. It’s difficult to access a roof cavity with a fire hose, and extinguishing embers and fire invariably damages electrical wiring, plasterwork, and home contents.

Regular inspection and maintenance of roof elements can help reduce ember entry. Avoiding trees close to your house, and removing any overhanging branches, can also help reduce this bushfire risk.

Gutters

Overhanging trees can cause compacted leaf litter to build up in gutters. During a bushfire flying embers land in this material, catch alight and spread flames to combustible parts of the roof structure such as wooden facia boards, rafters, roof battens, and eaves.

It’s a good idea to clear out your gutters each year as part of seasonal bushfire preparation. Some people choose to wait until a bushfire is approaching to do this, but going onto your roof for the first time in semi-darknes while embers are flying at you can put you at risk, and endanger your life.

If you’re building a new structure you can consider extending the roof line and having a water collection system on the ground to remove the need for gutters.

Vents and weep holes

Together vents and weep holes allow for fresh air to pass through a building and for excess moisture to leave, reduce condensation and mould. They are necessary for our comfort and health, and maintaining the integrity of a building.

However in a bushfire these types of external openings can allow flying embers to enter the building and start spot fires. Having steel or other non-combustible mesh with small holes in front or behind vents and weep holes can reduce the bushfire risk while still allowing air and moisture to pass through.

Subfloors

Often houses constructed in bushfire-prone areas are built on a sloping block of land. The area under the building (the subfloor) is left open rather than being enclosed, and combustible materials are often stored there. The danger is similar in scale to embers in the roof cavity. When embers or flames take hold in this subfloor area they can spread under the entire building and allow the fire to move up.

Plants and mulched garden beds next to the home

Garden beds and timber steps near a house are a potential danger during a bushfire. Plants with dense foliage can burn intensely and cause radiant heat damage, cracking and imploding nearby windows and glass doors.

Garden beds which have been recently mulched can trap flying embers and spread fire to timber subfloors. It’s much better to have a non-combustible paved area next to your home, with pots containing either succulents or plants with thin foliage.




Read more:
How can we build houses that better withstand bushfires?


Deciding whether to stay and defend a home or leave early is a difficult and contentious choice. Hopefully, knowing more about some parts of your house which are most vulnerable to bushfire attack will make that decision easier.The Conversation

Douglas Brown, Casual Academic, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.