Climate change is bringing a new world of bushfires


Dale Dominey-Howes, University of Sydney

Spring has barely arrived, and bushfires are burning across Australia’s eastern seaboard. More than 50 fires are currently burning in New South Wales, and some 15,000 hectares have burned in Queensland since late last week.

It’s the first time Australia has seen such strong fires this early in the bushfire season. While fire is a normal part of Australia’s yearly cycle and no two years are alike, what we are seeing now is absolutely not business as usual.




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And although these bushfires are not directly attributable to climate change, our rapidly warming climate, driven by human activities, is exacerbating every risk factor for more frequent and intense bushfires.

The basics of a bushfire

For some bushfire 101, a bushfire is “an uncontrolled, non-structural fire burning in grass, scrub, bush or forest”. This means the fire is in vegetation, not a building (non-structural), and raging across the landscape – hence, uncontrolled.

For a bushfire to get started, several things need to come together. You need fuel, low humidity (which also often means the fuel itself has a low moisture content and is easier to burn), and oxygen. It also helps to have an unusually high ambient temperature and winds to drive the fire forward.

In Australia, we divide bushfires into two types based on the shape and elevation of the landscape.

First are flat grassland bushfires. These are generally fast-moving, fanned by winds blowing across flattish open landscapes, and burn through an area in 5–10 seconds and may smoulder for a few minutes. They usually have low to medium intensity and can damage to crops, livestock and buildings. These fires are easy to map and fight due to relatively straightforward access.




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Second are hilly or mountainous bushfires. These fires are slower-moving but much more intense, with higher temperatures. As they usually occur in forested, mountainous areas, they also have more dead vegetation to burn and are harder to access and fight.

They burn slowly, passing through an area in 2-5 minutes and can smoulder for days. Fires in upper tree canopies move very fast. Mountainous bushfires actually speed up as they burn up a slope (since they heat and dry out the vegetation and atmosphere in front of the fire, causing a runaway process of accelerating fire movement).

Climate change and bushfire risk

To be clear, as previously reported, the current bushfires are not specifically triggered by climate change.

However, as bushfire risk is highest in warm to hot, dry conditions with low humidity, low soil and fuel load moisture (and are usually worse during El Niño situations) – all factors that climate change in Australia affects – climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and intense bushfires.

Widespread drought conditions, very low humidity, higher than average temperatures in many places, and strong westerly winds driven by a negative Southern Annular Mode (all made worse by human-induced climate change) have collided right now over large areas of the eastern seaboard, triggering extremely unusual bushfire conditions – certainly catching many communities unawares before the start of the official bushfire season.




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Different regions of Australia have traditionally experienced peak bushfire weather at different times. This has meant that individual households, communities and the emergency services have had specific periods of the year to prepare. These patterns now seem to be breaking down, and bushfires are happening outside these regular places and times.

Map of bushfire seasons.
Bureau of Meteorology

New challenges for the emergency services

While experts recently forecast a worse-than-average coming bushfire season, the current emergency has essentially exploded out of nowhere.

Many Australian communities do know how to prepare but there is always some apathy at the start of bushfire season around getting households and communities bushfire-ready. When it’s still relatively cold and feeling like the last whisps of winter are still affecting us, bushfire preparation seems very far off.

Compounding our worsening bushfire conditions, we are increasingly building in bushfire-prone areas, exposing people and homes to fire. This tips the scales of risk further in favour of catastrophic losses. Sadly too, these risks always disproportionately affect the most vulnerable.




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With such extensive fires over wide areas, the current emergency points to an extremely frightening future possibility: that emergency services become more and more stretched, responding to fires, floods, storms, tropic cyclones and a myriad other natural hazards earlier in each hazard season, increasingly overlapping.

Our emergency services do an amazing job but their resources and the energy of their staff and volunteers can only go so far.

Regularly the emergency services of one area or state are deployed to other areas to help respond to emergencies.

But inevitably, we will see large-scale disasters occurring simultaneously in multiple territories, making it impossible to share resources. Our emergency management workforce report they are already stressed and overworked, and losing the capacity to share resources will only exacerbate this.

Immediate challenges will be to continue funding emergency management agencies across the nation, ensuring the workforce has the necessary training and experience to plan and respond to a range of complex emergencies, and making sure local communities are involved in actively planning for emergencies.The Conversation

Dale Dominey-Howes, Professor of Hazards and Disaster Risk Sciences, University of Sydney

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

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The Great Barrier Reef outlook is ‘very poor’. We have one last chance to save it



Tourists snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, the outlook for which has been officially rated “very poor”.
AAP

Terry Hughes, James Cook University

It’s official. The outlook for the Great Barrier Reef has been downgraded from “poor” to “very poor” by the Australian government’s own experts.

That’s the conclusion of the latest five-yearly report from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, released on Friday. The report assessed literally hundreds of scientific studies published on the reef’s declining condition since the last report was published in 2014.

The past five years were a game-changer. Unprecedented back-to-back coral bleaching episodes in 2016 and 2017, triggered by record-breaking warm sea temperatures, severely damaged two-thirds of the reef. Recovery since then has been slow and patchy.

Fish swimming among coral on the Great Barrier Reef.
AAP

Looking to the future, the report said “the current rate of global warming will not allow the maintenance of a healthy reef for future generations […] the window of opportunity to improve the reef’s long-term future is now”.

But that window of opportunity is being squandered so long as Australia’s and the world’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

The evidence on the reef’s condition is unequivocal

A logical national response to the outlook report would be a pledge to curb activity that contributes to global warming and damages the reef. Such action would include a ban on the new extraction of fossil fuels, phasing out coal-fired electricity generation, transitioning to electrified transport, controlling land clearing and reducing local stressors on the reef such as land-based runoff from agriculture.




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But federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s response to the outlook report suggested she saw no need to take dramatic action on emissions, when she declared: “it’s the best managed reef in the world”.

Major coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 have devastated the reef.

The federal government’s lack of climate action was underscored by another dire report card on Friday. Official quarterly greenhouse gas figures showed Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have risen to the highest annual levels since the 2012-13 financial year.

But rather than meaningfully tackle Australia’s contribution to climate change, the federal government has focused its efforts on fixing the damage wrought on the reef. For example as part of a A$444 million grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the government has allocated $100 million for reef restoration and adaptation projects over the next five years or so.

Solutions being supported by the foundation include a sunscreen-like film to float on the water to prevent light penetration, and gathering and reseeding coral spawn Separately, Commonwealth funds are also being spent on projects such as giant underwater fans to bring cooler water to the surface.

But the scale of the problem is much, much larger than these tiny interventions.




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Climate change is not the only threat to the reef

The second biggest impact on the Great Barrier Reef’s health is poor water quality, due to nutrient and sediment runoff into coastal habitats. Efforts to address that problem are also going badly.

This was confirmed in a confronting annual report card on the reef’s water quality, also released by the Commonwealth and Queensland governments on Friday.

The Great Barrier Reef attained world heritage status in the 1980s.
AAP

It showed authorities have failed to reach water quality targets set under the Reef 2050 Plan – Australia’s long-term plan for improving the condition of the reef.

For example the plan sets a target that by 2025, 90% of sugarcane land in reef catchments should have adopted improved farming practices. However the report showed the adoption had occurred on just 9.8% of land, earning the sugarcane sector a grade of “E”.

So yes, the reef is definitely in danger

The 2019 outlook report and other submissions from Australia will be assessed next year when the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meets to determine if the Great Barrier Reef should be listed as “in danger” – an outcome the federal government will fight hard to avoid.

An in-danger listing would signal to the world that the reef was in peril, and put the federal government under greater pressure to urgently prevent further damage. Such a listing would be embarrassing for Australia, which presents itself as a world’s-best manager of its natural assets.

Environment activists engaged in a protest action to bring attention to the dangers facing the Great Barrier Reef.
AAP

The outlook report maintains that the attributes of the Great Barrier Reef
that led to its inscription as a world heritage area in 1981 are still intact, despite the loss of close to half of the corals in 2016 and 2017.

But by any rational assessment, the Great Barrier Reef is in danger. Most of the pressures on the reef are ongoing, and some are escalating – notably anthropogenic heating, also known as human-induced climate change.




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And current efforts to protect the reef are demonstrably failing. For example despite an ongoing “control” program, outbreaks of the damaging crown-of-thorns starfish – triggered by poor water quality – have spread throughout the reef.

The federal government has recently argued that climate change should not form the basis for an in-danger listing, because rising emissions are not the responsibility of individual countries. The argument comes despite Australia having one of the highest per capita emissions rates in the world.

But as Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise – an outcome supported by government policy – the continued downward trajectory of the Great Barrier Reef is inevitable.The Conversation

Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University

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

Nice try Mr Taylor, but Australia’s gas exports don’t help solve climate change



Energy Minister Angus Taylor has sought to downplay quarterly figures showing Australia’s emissions are still rising, attributing the result to the production of gas for export.
AAP

Tim Baxter, University of Melbourne

The latest report card on Australia’s greenhouse gas production is the same old news: emissions are up again. We’ve heard it before, but the news should never stop being confronting.

It’s 2019. The first assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which outlined the serious consequences of unmitigated climate change, was released the better part of 30 years ago. But Australia is still going backwards.

Emissions from one of the sunniest and windiest countries on the planet, blessed with every possible advantage when it comes to emissions reduction potential, are still rising. How do you justify that?




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Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor.
AAP

Energy and Emission Reduction Minister Angus Taylor tried to justify it by blaming gas. He said if you ignore the greenhouse gases released when producing gas for export, Australia is doing well because emissions in the March quarter fell by 0.3%.

It’s a bit like suggesting that if you ignore the cancer, smoking is completely fine. It’s untrue, and ignores the bigger part of the problem.

How does producing gas for export release fossil fuel emissions?

A mammoth share of the coal and gas that Australia produces goes to the international market.

The combustion of these fuels is not counted in Australia’s ledger, though.
This is because the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change counts emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels in the country where they are burned.

A protest sign at the site of a proposed liquid natural gas plant at James Price Point in Broome.
AAP

But climate change is unconcerned with our accounting rules. And Australia is the fifth largest contributor to climate change in terms of fossil fuels extracted.

But the extraction process itself also releases fossil fuels in Australia’s backyard, both through the energy used in the extraction and through leaks. These emissions are included on Australia’s ledger.

Gas is principally made up of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30-80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. When it leaks, it has an outsized impact on the climate – and these emissions are growing fast.

Putting our gas emissions in perspective

It is disingenuous to use the production of gas exports to explain away Australia’s poor performance on emissions reduction.

In the 2018 financial year, around one in seven tonnes of greenhouse gas emitted from Australia was released in the process of making even more greenhouse gas, from both gas and coal extraction.

That means that six in every seven tonnes of greenhouse gas Australia emits can largely be attributed to the the total absence of a national climate policy.

Author supplied.
Data source: DoEE, Australia’s Emissions Projections 2018
Author supplied.
Data source: DoEE, Australia’s Emissions Projections 2018

This policy failure has big implications. Article 4.1 of the Paris Agreement says the world must reach net-zero emissions over the entire period from 2050 to 2100. (And the IPCC says emissions must come down even faster than that if planetary warming is to stay below the critical 1.5℃ threshold).

Even if, disregarding export gas production, Australia cut emissions by 0.3% a year, at that rate net-zero emissions won’t be reached for another 333 years.

So while fossil fuel extraction is making things worse, our emissions elsewhere are hardly able to reach the net zero goal in the Paris agreement.




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Gas is not the silver bullet for any other nation

The minister and his department also made much of the idea that our gas is reducing emissions overseas. The quarterly report even contained a “special topic” talking up the benefits of Australia’s gas exports.

The logic is that by exporting gas, which is allegedly cleaner than coal, we are replacing a high emitting source with a relatively low emitting source. That logic does not hold and is not scientifically robust.

First, and most obviously, Australia exports massive amounts of coal as well as gas. We are responsible for one-fifth of the world’s thermal coal exports and more than one-half of the world’s metallurgical coal exports. It is talking out both sides of your mouth to suggest that we are reducing worldwide emissions because we are responsible for almost a quarter of the world’s exported gas, while we simultaneously export a massive amount of coal.

Origin Energy’s Australia Pacific liquefied natural gas facility at Curtis Island in north Queensland.
AAP

Second, the department and Mr Taylor relied heavily on a study by the CSIRO’s Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA) to talk up the relative benefits of our gas exports. That study, a life-cycle assessment of the emissions from Curtis Island’s liquified natural gas processing facilities, expressly avoided testing the assumption that our gas is in fact replacing coal overseas.

We may not know the whole story, but we do know it is not true in one of the largest purchasers of Australian gas, Japan. Since the Fukushima accident in 2011 took much of Japan’s zero-emissions nuclear energy out of the mix, it has been replaced by Australian gas, which is far worse for the climate.

Third, even if our gas is substituting coal, the benefits are very small. The same GISERA study indicated that “climate benefits of natural gas replacing coal are lost where fugitive emissions [leaking gas] … are greater than 3%”.

Readers might remember this apparent example of fugitive emissions in Australia. The video shows former New South Wales Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham setting fire to the Condamine River in 2016.

Former NSW MP Jeremy Buckingham sets the Condamine River on fire.

It burned because of methane bubbling up through it, purportedly from nearby unconventional gas extraction. These emissions, the result of leaks through natural fractures in the Earth, are difficult to predict and model. They are not accurately measured in Australia, and may make gas far worse for the climate than even coal.

Even if the results of all this uncertainty come out in favour of gas, limiting global warming requires that we urgently stop burning both coal and gas. While there are substantial proven reserves around the world, much of this will have to remain unburned if we hope to avoid the worst of climate change.

The evidence of climate change is increasingly clear, yet Australia’s emissions continue to increase. Our political leaders are spinning the data and failing to act, putting our children’s future, our economy and the natural environment at risk.The Conversation

Tim Baxter, Fellow – Melbourne Law School; Senior Researcher – Climate Council; Associate – Australian-German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne

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