Might the bushfire crisis be the turning point on climate politics Australian needs?



The bushfire crisis is big enough to change the government’s emissions policy, but it swill need more.
Shutterstock

John Daley, Grattan Institute and Emily Millane, Grattan Institute

Countries have long periods in which policies change little, and only by increments.

Occasionally there are turning points, when previously intractable policy problems are suddenly resolved, recasting policy for the long term.

Many are asking whether this summer’s environmental catastrophe might be such a turning point – a Port Arthur moment or Australia’s Sandy Hook, Chernobyl or Pearl Harbour.

The short answer is: it is too soon to tell, but the early signals from the federal government are not good.

Crises can provide a window for big policy changes. In such times, the normal political constraints are relaxed, although not for long.

Crisis can beget change

The need for revenue during World War I opened the way for the federal government to levy a national income tax. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 stimulated many changes concerned with national security.

Typically, a crisis only leads to substantial policy changes if there is also a broader understanding about the need to act, and the shape of the change needed.

The economic theories of John Maynard Keynes provided the basis for policies that ensured full employment during and after World War II.

The monetarist theories of Milton Friedman provided the means to limit inflation in the 1970s and 1980s.

A library of pre-existing publications on national security directed policy in the wake of 9/11.

Theory is needed as well

Crisis and economic theory were essential to some of the big reforms under the Hawke and Keating governments, including a new approach to Australian retirement incomes.

Superannuation had been a patchwork of individual employer arrangements since before federation.

The stagflation crisis of simultaneous unemployment and inflation in the 1970s created the conditions for a new approach. Inflation rose to 15%, unemployment to 6%. It led to government-union Accords and deferred wage increases that were the basis for Australia’s universal employee superannuation scheme.




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Many see the 1986 Chernobyl disaster as a turning point in ending the cold war and dismantling the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev acted decisively in the midst of a disaster that created a groundswell of support for change bringing in an system (capitalism) which had deep theoretical underpinnings.

Not every crisis leads to change

US President Obama hugs Mark Barden, whose seven year old son Daniel was shot and killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack in 2012.
MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA

For decades, gun control has been contentious in the United States, where gun-related homicides are ten times the rates elsewhere. 26 people, including 20 children aged 6 and 7, in a gun massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

President Obama was personally committed to, and moved fast after the crisis to call for, tighter gun control. But change was stymied by powerful stakeholders.

By contrast, John Howard was successful in moving quickly after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre to tighten gun controls.

The Australian gun lobby lacked the political sophistication of America’s National Rifle Association, and Australia’s political system has fewer veto points than in the US.

The attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 brought World War II to America, mobilising huge levels of public support for American involvement. Within days, Roosevelt declared war on Japan.

The nation might not be ready

There are high levels of public support for action climate change in Australia, but can we say it is the same as “war fever”?

Australia’s emissions policy has been stuck for a long time. Australia was recently ranked as having the worst climate policy in the world, and some of the worst outcomes.

Australia’s annual emissions are not expected to change much between 2020 and 2030 – which doesn’t give Australia much chance of getting to near zero emissions by 2050, which is generally regarded as what’s needed to avoid runaway climate change.

Many in public policy have spent years developing credible policy responses to climate change. But Australia has repealed or failed to implement five versions of climate policy since 2007.




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There are reasons to believe the summer bushfire crisis won’t be any different.

No-one has accused the Prime Minister of moving too fast or too far in responding to the fires. In his interview with ABC at the weekend, he did not commit to tightening, or even reviewing, Australia’s carbon emissions targets in light of the fires.

Powerful stakeholders continue to deny the need for significant policy change: last month the federal resources minister, Matt Canavan, referred to the “bogeyman of climate change” as a distraction from “shortcomings in managing our land.”

Fake news on social media and in some sections of the mainstream media about an arson emergency has blunted the chance of a broad-based popular groundswell.

There’s hope, but not much

The proposed royal commission might be a means to find a way forward on climate change. But by the time it reports, the fires will be out, and the moment of crisis will have passed.

For now, the fires smoulder on. It’s not too late for the federal government to seize the opportunity for substantial change. State governments may well use the aftermath of the fires to coordinate their responses to climate change – possibly without the Commonwealth. For the moment, they are understandably preoccupied with responding to an ongoing emergency.




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There is a real possibility that Australia will have to wait for another crisis – with different leadership, and more public consensus – before there is significant change on emissions policy.

The bushfire smoke that chokes 10 million people in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and elsewhere will no doubt contribute to changing attitudes, and it might even shift the media’s coverage of climate change, but there’s no guarantee that it will be the policy turning point we need.The Conversation

John Daley, Chief Executive Officer, Grattan Institute and Emily Millane, Senior Associate, Grattan Institute

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

Tales of wombat ‘heroes’ have gone viral. Unfortunately, they’re not true



Wombats may not usher other animals into their burrows, but their warrens still protect other species in bushfires.
Liv Falvey/Shutterstock

Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University

If you’ve been following the bushfire crisis on social media and elsewhere, you may have seen reports of benevolent wombats herding other animals to shelter into their fire-proof burrows.

These stories went quickly viral – probably reflecting the appetite for good news after the horrors of the bushfire crisis. However the accounts are not entirely accurate.

Wombats do not heroically round up helpless animals during a bushfire and lead them to safety. But wombats do help other animals in a different way – even if it’s not their intention.

Accidental heroes

Wombats can emerge as accidental heroes during a bushfire, by providing a safe refuge underground for other wildlife.

Wombat warrens – networks of interconnecting burrows – are large and complex, and considerably shielded from the above-ground environment. Small mammals are known to use wombat burrows to survive an inferno.

One study of the southern hairy-nosed wombat, for instance, found warrens with 28 entrances and nearly 90 metres of tunnels.

Wombats aren’t benevolent. They’re accidental heroes.

What’s more, temperatures deep within burrows are very stable compared to surface temperatures, with daily temperature fluctuations of less than 1℃, compared to 24℃ on the surface.

This thermal buffering would help a great deal during intense fires, and you can understand why other species would want access to these safe havens.

The wombat sharehouse

By placing camera traps outside 34 wombat burrows, a 2015 study showed a surprising variety of animals using southern hairy-nosed wombat burrows. Researchers observed ten other species, six of which used them on multiple occasions.




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The intruders ranged from rock wallabies and bettongs to skinks and birds. Little penguins were recorded using burrows 27 times, while the black-footed rock wallaby was observed using wombat burrows more often than wombats – nearly 2,000 visits in eight weeks! They were even observed using the burrows to specifically avoid birds of prey.

But wombats aren’t alone in providing real estate for other species. Hopping mice, echidnas, sand swimming skinks, barking geckoes and numerous invertebrates were found using the warrens of bettongs and bilbies in arid Australia.

Anybody home?

It’s also important to recognise wombats don’t have “a burrow”.
Rather, they have multiple burrows within their home range. In fact, a 2012 study tracked one wombat to 14 different burrows.

While wombats are often regarded as quite sedentary, another study found the average home range size of common wombats is 172 hectares.




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A season in hell: bushfires push at least 20 threatened species closer to extinction


They spend a few nights sleeping in one burrow, before moving onto another.

Since each wombat has multiple burrows, many can be vacant within a home range, and abandoned burrows are common in some areas. A 2007 study showed that even among “active” burrows (those with signs of recent use), only one in three are actually occupied by a wombat at any given time.

Australian black-footed rock wallabies often use wombat burrows as makeshift lodges.
Ken Griffiths/Shutterstock

This means, at times, other species may not need to share burrows with wombats at all. It’s vacant real estate.

So how might a wombat react to an uninvited guest? This is difficult to know, and likely depends on who’s visiting. Wombats prefer not to share burrows with other wombats, although burrow sharing can be common when wombat populations are very high in one place.

In her book Wombats, Barbara Triggs recalls a fox being chased from a burrow by an angry wombat. Meanwhile, the crushed skulls of foxes and dogs in wombat burrows suggest not all intruders are welcome.

That a suite of species use wombat burrows suggests wombats may not notice or care about squatters – so long as they don’t pose a threat. But more research is needed on the fascinating interactions that take place in wombat burrows, particularly during fire.

The battle is not over

While empirical studies are needed, the available evidence suggests wombats may well provide an important refuge for other wildlife during fire.

In any case, it’s important to recognise that surviving fire is only half the battle.

Wombats and their house guests face a medley of challenges post-fire – not least avoiding predators in a barren landscape and eking out a living in a landscape with scarce food.




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The Conversation


Dale Nimmo, Associate professor/ARC DECRA fellow, Charles Sturt University

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

Some say we’ve seen bushfires worse than this before. But they’re ignoring a few key facts



Australia is a bushfire-prone nation. But several factors make this fire season worse than those past.
Victorian Government

Joelle Gergis, Australian National University and Geoff Cary, Australian National University

Every time a weather extreme occurs, some people quickly jump in to say we’ve been through it all before: that worse events have happened in the past, or it’s just part of natural climate variability.

The recent bushfire crisis is a case in point. Writing in The Australian recently, columnist Gerard Henderson said:

In Victoria, there were further huge fires in 1983 and 2009. But until now, there was no suggestion that the state’s future would be one of continuing apocalypse.

Of course, Australia has a long history of bushfires. But several factors make eastern Australia’s recent crisis different to infamous bushfires in the past.

First is the enormous geographic spread of this season’s fires, and second, the absence of El Niño conditions typically associated with previous severe fires.

Thirdly and most important, these fires were preceded by the hottest and driest conditions in Australian history.

Record-breaking hot and dry conditions preceded this fire season.
David Mariuz/AAP

Understanding Australia’s climate

As Australia’s climate has warmed since the 1970s, fire weather conditions have become more extreme, and the length of the fire season has increased across large parts of the nation.

Human-induced warming has been evident in Australian temperatures since 1950. This has contributed to a clear long-term trend toward more dangerous fire weather conditions in many areas.




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As the planet continues to warm, natural climate variability in the Pacific, Indian and Southern oceans will continue to drive variations in Australian climate.

These natural climate drivers are complex. But taking the time to understand them, and how they interact with human climate influences, is critically important.

Natural climate variability refers to processes such as El Niño and its opposite, La Niña in the Pacific Ocean. Together these are known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. Other such processes include phases of the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) in the Indian Ocean and fluctuations in the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) across the Southern Ocean.

Australia’s natural climate influences.
Bureau of Meteorology

Right now, ENSO is not active, and a very strong positive IOD event – the strongest since 1997 – has just ended. Positive IOD events typically result in below average winter-spring rainfall over southern and central Australia, and are often associated with more severe bushfire conditions.

There has also been a marked warming of the atmosphere over Antarctica, known as sudden stratospheric warming. This has led to a weakening of the polar vortex, resulting in more negative conditions in the Southern Annular Mode – essentially the north-south movement of the westerly wind belt that loops around Antarctica.

New Australian research has found weakening and warming of the stratospheric polar vortex over Antarctica significantly increases the chances of hot and dry extremes, including more severe fire weather conditions across subtropical eastern Australia than is normal for spring-early summer.




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This combination of unusual natural variability in the Indian and Southern Oceans, the unprecedented lack of winter rains in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and Australia’s hottest summer on record, have contributed to the extreme drought currently affecting 100% of New South Wales and 67.4% of Queensland.

These factors have combined to bake the landscape dry, even transforming usually wet sub-tropical rainforests into available fuel for this season’s catastrophic bushfire conditions.

Winter rainfall in eastern Australia, 1900–2019.
Bureau of Meteorology

How climate influenced past Australian bushfires

Historically, the most severe Australian bushfire seasons and droughts occurred when the Indian Ocean Dipole combined with El Niño to reinforce dry conditions. Both these climate drivers influence Australian rainfall and soil moisture, with the driest conditions over the southeast, but more broadly across most of the country (with the notable exception of coastal NSW).

As Australia’s climate continues to warm, a range of scientific sources suggest some established relationships between the historical drivers of Australian climate and their impact on rainfall and temperature may be breaking down.




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For example, Australia’s hottest years on record were historically associated with El Niño events, in line with global temperature trends. However, global warming means even traditionally cooler La Niña years are now warmer than many El Niño years of the past. This suggests natural variability may be increasingly swamped by human influences on the climate.

Following Australia’s hottest summer on record, and a record-breaking year of heat and drought, the 2019-2020 bushfire season started as early as winter 2019.

Mount Macedon in Victoria, after the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983.
Wikimedia

In September, barely a week into spring, catastrophic bushfires wrought havoc in many areas of southern Queensland and northern NSW.

Even the usually moss-covered rainforests of the World Heritage-listed Gondwana Rainforests of Australia burned.

Similarly in Tasmania, the 2016 fires destroyed large areas of ancient Gondwanan forest, triggering a cascade of changes through the entire ecosystem.

Strikingly, the current catastrophic bushfires are occurring in the absence of El Niño conditions typically associated with severe bushfires in the past.

The notorious Ash Wednesday fires that devastated parts of south-eastern Australia in February 1983 occurred during one of the most intense El Niño events on record. Some 75 people were killed across the country’s south-east, and more than 2,000 homes were lost.

Ash Wednesday was also preceded by a positive Indian Ocean Dipole event. Together with the El Niño, this created a “double whammy” of drought conditions which provided the climatic backdrop for the fires.

Average rainfall deciles for total winter-spring rainfall for six positive IOD events that have occurred with El Niño event since 1960.
Bureau of Meteorology

Similarly, the 1994 Sydney fires were also influenced by a combination of El Niño and positive IOD conditions.

However the current drought is affecting areas such as coastal NSW which have not historically been influenced by positive IOD and El Niño events. This suggests other drivers are at play.

Rainfall deficits experienced from 1 July 2018 until 31 December 2019.
Bureau of Meteorology

Perhaps most alarmingly, this summer’s bushfire crisis also differs from the past in the spread and extent of landscape burned. More so than during Victoria’s Ash Wednesday or Black Saturday, this season’s fires have burned large swathes of the country. In some cases, fires merged to form unprecedented “mega fires”. It is sobering to consider what might happen to the Australian landscape the next time an El Niño hits.

Of course it will take time before researchers can pinpoint the full extent to which climate change influenced the current drought and associated bushfires.

But it is already clear to experts that natural variability and human influences on the climate system are now interacting to generate extremes that may have no parallel in Australian history.

Firefighters recover after battling blazes at Kangaroo Island on 10 January 2019.
David Mariuz/AAP

What this means for bushfire danger

As with land and sea temperatures, Australia has seen rising trends in fire danger indices in recent decades.

In particular, the annual accumulated Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) – which takes into account drought, recent rain, air temperature, relative humidity and wind speed – has increased in eastern and southern Australia.




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The bushfire season has become longer and more intense. In fact, the extraordinary conditions experienced during Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in February 2009 later prompted the creation of a new “catastrophic” fire rating, represented by a FFDI of 100 or greater.

On September 6 last year – less than a week out from winter – severe bushfires burned across Queensland and NSW. In most affected areas, daily FFDI values that day (pictured in the bottom right of the graphic below) were higher than anything observed so early in the season since records began in 1950. Astoundingly, a FDDI of 174 was recorded at Murrurundi Gap in the Hunter region of NSW.

Comparison of historical bushfires using the Forest Fire Danger Index for February 16, 1983 (Ash Wednesday, top left), January 6, 1994 (Sydney fires, top right), February 7, 2009 (Black Saturday, bottom left), and September 6, 2019 (bottom right).
Dr Andrew Dowdy, Bureau of Meteorology

Rewriting history

In the past, Australia only had to contend with natural climate variability. Now, our entire weather and climate systems are being altered and amplified by human activity. Climate change is making extreme events even more severe, resulting in unprecedented conditions that are rewriting our nation’s history.

The CSIRO’s most recent climate projections reconfirmed their projections released in 2015 which clearly showed Australia faces more dangerous fire weather conditions in future.

It will take time to understand the exact contribution of each climatic factor in the bushfire season of 2019–2020. However one thing is certain: unless there are global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures will continue to rise, increasing the risk that catastrophic bushfire conditions become Australia’s “new normal”.The Conversation

Joelle Gergis, Senior Lecturer in Climate Science, Australian National University and Geoff Cary, Associate Professor, Bushfire Science, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

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

Australia’s bushfires could drive more than 700 animal species to extinction. Check the numbers for yourself



Invertebrates out greatly outnumber mammals everywhere, including in bushfire zones.
Michael Lee, CC BY-NC-ND

Mike Lee, Flinders University

The scale and speed of the current bushfire crisis has caught many people off-guard, including biodiversity scientists. People are scrambling to estimate the long-term effects. It is certain that many animal species will be pushed to the brink of extinction, but how many?

One recent article suggested 20 to 100, but this estimate mostly considers large, well-known species (especially mammals and birds).

A far greater number of smaller creatures such as insects, snails and worms will also be imperilled. They make up the bulk of biodiversity and are the little rivets holding ecosystems together.




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But we have scant data on how many species of small creatures have been wiped out in the fires, and detailed surveys comparing populations before and after the fires will not be forthcoming. So how can we come to grips with this silent catastrophe?

This native bee (Amphylaeus morosus) has been devastated by the bushfires across much of its range. It plays important roles in pollinating plants and as part of the food web, but has no common name, and its plight is so far unheralded.
Reiner Richter https://www.ala.org.au/

Using the information that is available, I calculate that at least 700 animal species have had their populations decimated – and that’s only counting the insects.

This may sound like an implausibly large figure, but the calculation is a simple one. I’ll explain it below, and show you how to make your own extinction estimate with only a few clicks of a calculator.

Using insects to estimate true extinction numbers

More than three-quarters of the known animal species on Earth are insects. To get a handle on the true extent of animal extinctions, insects are a good place to start.

My estimate that 700 insect species are at critical risk involves extrapolating from the information we have about the catastrophic effect of the fires on mammals.

We can work this out using only two numbers: A, how many mammal species are being pushed towards extinction, and B, how many insect species there are for each mammal species.

To get a “best case” estimate, I use the most conservative estimates for A and B below, but jot down your own numbers.

How many mammals are critically affected?

A recent Time article lists four mammal species that will be severely impacted: the long-footed potoroo, the greater glider, the Kangaroo Island dunnart, and the black-tailed dusky antechinus. The eventual number could be much greater (e.g the Hastings River mouse, the silver-headed antechinus), but let’s use this most optimistic (lowest) figure (A = 4).

Make your own estimate of this number A. How many mammal species do you think would be pushed close to extinction by these bushfires?

We can expect that for every mammal species that is severely affected there will be a huge number of insect species that suffer a similar fate. To estimate exactly how many, we need an idea of insect biodiversity, relative to mammals.

How many insect species are out there, for each mammal species?

The world has around 1 million named insect species, and around 5,400 species of land mammals.

So there are at least 185 insect species for every single land mammal species (B = 185). If the current bushfires have burnt enough habitat to devastate 4 mammal species, they have probably taken out around 185 × 4 = 740 insect species in total. Along with many species of other invertebrates such as spiders, snails, and worms.

There are hundreds of insect species for every mammal species.
https://imgbin.com/

For your own value for B, use your preferred estimate for the number of insect species on earth and divide it by 5,400 (the number of land mammal species).

One recent study suggests there are at least 5.5 million species of insects, giving a value of B of around 1,000. But there is reason to suspect the real number could be much greater.




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How do our estimates compare?

My “best case” values of A = 4 and B = 185 indicate at least 740 insect species alone are being imperilled by the bushfires. The total number of animal species impacted is obviously much bigger than insects alone.

Feel free to perform your own calculations. Derive your values for A and B as above. Your estimate for the number of insect species at grave risk of extinction is simply A × B.

Post your estimate and your values for A and B please (and how you got those numbers if you wish) in the Comments section and compare with others. We can then see what the wisdom of the crowd tells us about the likely number of affected species.




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Why simplistic models can still be very useful

The above calculations are a hasty estimate of the magnitude of the current biodiversity crisis, done on the fly (figuratively and literally). Technically speaking, we are using mammals as surrogates or proxies for insects.

To improve these estimates in the near future, we can try to get more exact and realistic estimates of A and B.

Additionally, the model itself is very simplistic and can be refined. For example, if the average insect is more susceptible to fire than the average mammal, our extinction estimates need to be revised upwards.

Also, there might be an unusually high (or low) ratio of insect species compared to mammal species in fire-affected regions. Our model assumes these areas have the global average – whatever that value is!

And most obviously, we need to consider terrestrial life apart from insects – land snails, spiders, worms, and plants too – and add their numbers in our extinction tally.

Nevertheless, even though we know this model gives a huge underestimate, we can still use it to get an absolute lower limit on the magnitude of the unfolding biodiversity crisis.

This “best case” is still very sad. There is a strong argument that these unprecedented bushfires could cause one of biggest extinction events in the modern era. And these infernos will burn for a while longer yet.The Conversation

Mike Lee, Professor in Evolutionary Biology (jointly appointed with South Australian Museum), Flinders University

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

The sweet relief of rain after bushfires threatens disaster for our rivers



After heavy rainfall, debris could wash into our waterways and threaten fish, water bugs, and other aquatic species.
Jarod Lyon, Author provided

Paul McInerney, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, CSIRO, and Klaus Joehnk, CSIRO

When heavy rainfall eventually extinguishes the flames ravaging south-east Australia, another ecological threat will arise. Sediment, ash and debris washing into our waterways, particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin, may decimate aquatic life.

We’ve seen this before. Following 2003 bushfires in Victoria’s alpine region, water filled with sediment and debris (known as sediment slugs) flowed into rivers and lakes, heavily reducing fish populations. We’ll likely see it again after this season’s bushfire emergency.




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Large areas of northeast Victoria have been burnt. While this region accounts only for 2% of Murray-Darling Basin’s entire land area, water flowing in from northeast Victorian streams (also known as in-flow) contributes 38% of overall in-flows into the Murray-Darling Basin.

Fire debris flowing into Murray-Darling Basin will exacerbate the risk of fish and other aquatic life dying en masse as witnessed in previous years..

What will flow into waterways?

Generally, bushfire ash comprises organic carbon and inorganic elements such as nitrogen, phosphorous and metals such as copper, mercury and zinc.

Sediment rushing into waterways can also contain large amounts of soil, since fire has consumed the vegetation that once bound the soil together and prevented erosion.

And carcinogenic chemicals – found in soil and ash in higher amounts following bushfires – can contaminate streams and reservoirs over the first year after the fire.

A 2014 post-fire flood in a Californian stream.

How they harm aquatic life

Immediately following the bushfires, we expect to see an increase in streamflow when it rains, because burnt soil repels, not absorbs, water.

When vast amounts of carbon are present in a waterway, such as when carbon-loaded sediments and debris wash in, bacteria rapidly consumes the water’s oxygen. The remaining oxygen levels can fall below what most invertebrates and fish can tolerate.

These high sediment loads can also suffocate aquatic animals with a fine layer of silt which coats their gills and other breathing structures.

Habitats are also at risk. When sediment is suspended in the river and light can’t penetrate, suitable fish habitat is diminished. The murkier water also means there’s less opportunity for aquatic plants and algae to photosynthesise (turn sunshine to energy).




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What’s more, many of Australia’s waterbugs, the keystone of river food webs, need pools with litter and debris for cover. They rely on slime on the surface of rocks and snags that contain algae, fungi and bacteria for food.

But heavy rain following fire can lead to pools and the spaces between cobbles to fill with silt, causing the waterbugs to starve and lose their homes.

This is bad news for fish too. Any bug-eating fish that manage to avoid dying from a lack of oxygen can be faced with an immediate food shortage.

Many fish were killed in Ovens River after the 2003 bushfires from sediment slugs.
Arthur Rylah Institute, Author provided

We saw this in 2003 after the sediment slug penetrated the Ovens River in the north east Murray catchment. Researchers observed dead fish, stressed fish gulping at the water surface and freshwater crayfish walking out of the stream.

Long-term damage

Bushfires can increase the amount of nutrients in streams 100 fold. The effects can persist for several years before nutrient levels return to pre-fire conditions.

More nutrients in the water might sound like a good thing, but when there’s too much (especially nitrogen and phosphorous), coupled with warm temperatures, they can lead to excessive growth of blue-green algae. This algae can be toxic to both people and animals and often closes down recreational waters.




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Large parts of the upper Murray River catchment above Lake Hume has burnt, risking increases to nutrient loads within the lake and causing blue-green algae blooms which may flow downstream. This can impact communities from Albury all the way to the mouth of the Murray River in South Australia.

Some aquatic species are already teetering on the edge of their preferred temperature as stream temperatures rise from climate change. In places where bushfires have burnt all the way to the stream edge, decimating vegetation that provided shade, there’ll be less resistance to temperature changes, and fewer cold places for aquatic life to hide.

Cooler hide-outs are particularly important for popular angling species such as trout, which are highly sensitive to increased water temperature.

Ash blanketing the forest floor can end up in waterways when it rains.
Tarmo Raadik

But while we can expect an increase in stream flow from water-repellent burnt soil, we know from previous bushfires that, in the long-term, stream flow will drop.

This is because in the upper catchments, regenerating younger forests use more water than the older forests they replace from evapotranspiration (when plants release water vapour into the surrounding atmosphere, and evaporation from the surrounding land surface).

It’s particularly troubling for the Murray-Darling Basin, where large areas are already enduring ongoing drought. Bushfires may exacerbate existing dry conditions.

So what can we do?

We need to act as soon as possible. Understandably, priorities lie in removing the immediate and ongoing bushfire threat. But following that, we must improve sediment and erosion control to prevent debris being washed into water bodies in fire-affected areas.




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In fact, there’s plenty we can do to make future fires less likely


One of the first things we can do is to restore areas used for bushfire control lines and minimise the movement of soil along access tracks used for bushfire suppression. This can be achieved using sediment barriers and other erosion control measures in high risk areas.

Longer-term, we can re-establish vegetation along waterways to help buffer temperature extremes and sediment loads entering streams.

It’s also important to introduce strategic water quality monitoring programs that incorporate real-time sensing technology, providing an early warning system for poor water quality. This can help guide the management of our rivers and reservoirs in the years to come.

While our current focus is on putting the fires out, as it should be, it’s important to start thinking about the future and how to protect our waterways. Because inevitably, it will rain again.The Conversation

Paul McInerney, Research scientist, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, , CSIRO, and Klaus Joehnk, Senior research scientist, CSIRO

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

Bushfires won’t change climate policy overnight. But Morrison can shift the Coalition without losing face



When polling resumes after the summer, Scott Morrison may be surprised by the public’s assessment of his government’s handling of the bushfires.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Chris Wallace, Australian National University

The hope of many people enduring this summer’s firestorms is that better climate policy will arise phoenix-like from the ashes.

It is expressed loudly, fervently, sometimes abusively by people directly affected and those feeling solidarity with them.

It is also expressed secretly, whispered to like-minded confidants, by others who are part of or allied with the Liberal-National (LNP) coalition government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

On Sunday, Morrison indicated that he would take a proposal to establish a royal commission into the bushfires to his Cabinet.

But when it comes to climate policy, there are three possible scenarios in the aftermath of the crisis: everything magically changes for the better, everything stays the same or something different happens.

What these three scenarios look like

Everything magically changes for the better would look like this: Morrison announces the crisis has transformed his previous token admission of a link between bushfires and climate change into a revelation of the reality of global warming, with consequential policy change.

As logical and desirable as this seems, it is unlikely, not least because of Morrison’s character and personal beliefs.

Everything stays the same has a powerful impetus behind it. Morrison does not want policy change any more than his likely successor in the event of leadership change, Peter Dutton.




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Government-friendly journalists and commentators at News Corp and 2GB show no sign of changing tack either, so even if the government wanted to shift its policy, the media environment makes it difficult to do so. The forces of inertia are powerful.

Then there is the slim hope that something different happens. This scenario relies on all three of Australia’s main political groupings – the LNP, Labor and the Greens – realising they each face their own distinct climate policy challenge and rising to it.

As Australian burns, its politicians squabble over who’s to blame and how to prevent future disasters.
David Mariuz/AAP

Avoiding the appearance of a backflip

Opinion polls are not done over the summer holiday period, meaning the LNP has yet to see the impact of the bushfires on their public standing.

When polling resumes, Liberal and National MPs will understand the impact, and they won’t like it. Morrison and others will likely urge party members to hold their course since the next election is years away and a dozen other issues could distract attention from climate policy between now and then.

This tactic can prevail for some time but is not strategically sustainable: firestorms like those in the summer of 2020 will not be the last.




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The emerging LNP argument that inadequate hazard reduction burns are to blame for the current crisis is risible. The Australian who has emerged with the most credibility from the bushfires – NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons – rejects it out of hand.

The LNP’s challenge, then, is to realise its current position won’t hold strategically and to transition to better policy ahead of that becoming obvious, managing the optics to avoid the appearance of a backflip.

The challenge for Labor and the Greens

Labor is benefiting from leader Anthony Albanese’s call for “an adult conversation” in Australia about climate policy. He is astutely citing British Tories like the late Margaret Thatcher and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who long ago accepted and acted upon the climate science the Morrison government viscerally rejects.

Labor’s homework now is to reconcile the views and interests of members and supporters prioritising climate policy over mining jobs, and vice versa.

This can and must be done if Labor is to build a coalition of support big enough to win office and then enact the climate and other policies the current firestorms make so urgent.




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The Greens, meanwhile, need to have an internal conversation about whether they want to continue making perfect policy the enemy of the good – leaving Australia with no emissions trading system (ETS) at all, for example, because they would not vote for one that did not meet their every demand – or join in efforts to begin on the path to better policy.

Central to that conversation must be a realisation their current strategy isn’t working – the LNP keeps returning to power.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale has said the bushfires should be a
David Crosling/AAP

A possible way forward

There is an obvious point the LNP, Labor and Greens might momentarily agree upon to move policy forward. It is the ETS proposed by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard in 2007.

Howard saw climate change coming. In late 2006, he established a prime ministerial task group on emissions trading chaired by the secretary of his Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold.

The Shergold Report, released in May 2007, said “emissions trading should be preferred to a carbon tax” and among the various kinds possible, a national “cap and trade” ETS was best.

In an address to the Liberal Party Federal Council in October 2007, Howard promised to establish a national ETS starting no later than 2012.

This will be a world-class emissions trading system more comprehensive, more rigorously grounded in economics and with better governance than anything in Europe.

Implementing an emissions trading scheme and setting a long-term goal for reducing emissions will be the most momentous economic decisions Australia will take in the next decade.

This emissions trading system must be built to last. It needs to last not five or 10 years, it needs to last the whole of the 21st century if Australia is to meet our global responsibilities and further build our economic prosperity.

Howard positioned the LNP as the party Australians could trust to implement an ETS in a way that gives “firms and families” the ability to “plan for the future with confidence”.

His authorship – and his framing of his ETS as an act of economic responsibility –provides a fig leaf Morrison can now use to move the LNP to a credible, sustainable and politically viable climate policy position.

“Something different” has to start somewhere. If Morrison can deploy the cunning he showed winning the 2019 election by drawing on Howard’s deep well of credibility within the LNP to implement the plan himself and then inviting – daring – Labor and the Greens to back him, it would be a signal political achievement.

And if Morrison doesn’t want to, Labor, the Greens, independent MPs and conscientious LNP MPs should vote together to turn Howard’s ETS into law right away. With political will, “something different” can start now.


Updates to add that the latest Newspoll, released late Sunday, shows Morrison’s standing has taken a massive hit over the bushfires, dropping nine percentage points as preferred prime minister from 48% to 39% since the last poll in early December. Opposition leader Anthony Albanese stood at 43% – a massive reversal of Morrison’s 14 percentage point lead over the Labor leader in early December.The Conversation

Chris Wallace, ARC DECRA Fellow, Australian National University

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

Even for an air pollution historian like me, these past weeks have been a shock



Throughout history, Australian bushfires have spread smoke over our cities. But this time it’s different.
David Mariuz/AAP

Nancy Cushing, University of Newcastle

Smoke from this season’s bushfires has turned the sun red, the moon orange and the sky an insipid grey. It has obscured iconic views tourists flock to see. Far more than an aesthetic problem, it has forced business shutdowns, triggered health problems and kept children indoors for weeks.

City dwellers in southeast Australia have been forced to take a crash course in the finer points of air pollution. We’ve learned about the dangers of inhaling tiny PM2.5 particles (those 2.5 microns or fewer in diameter). We’ve learned that only a close-fitting P2 mask will do much to protect us.

Still, we wear disposable paper masks and hold handkerchiefs to our faces, hoping any amount of filtering is helpful.

A police officer wears a mask while on duty at Parliament House in Canberra.
NARENDRA SHRESTHA/AAP

Even for an historian of air pollution like me, this situation is a shock. It is not the first time Australia’s major cities have been shrouded in bushfire smoke. But the terrible air quality is unmatched in terms of severity, duration and extent.

Historically, air pollution from smoke was considered outside human control and not subject to regulation. But these bushfires are clearly linked to global warming, for which government, corporations and individuals are responsible. It’s time to rethink the way we protect air quality.

The history of smoke

In recent weeks, apps such as AirVisual have confirmed what we city dwellers can already see and smell: since the fires on the north coast of NSW began in late October, our air quality has plummeted.

The New South Wales government’s Air Quality Index data has shown that since late October, days when the index was higher than 100 – signalling exposure is unhealthy – have outnumbered clear days in Sydney, Newcastle and the Illawarra.

Smoke emissions from the Australian bushfires from 1 December 2019 to 4 January 2020.

Index readings above 2,550 have been recorded in Sydney, while the Monash monitoring site in Canberra reached a choking 5,185 at 8pm on New Year’s Day.

Bushfire smoke has affected the cities of NSW and the Australian Capital Territory in the past. In late January 1926, when Canberra was just emerging as a city, a thick haze of smoke sat over the site. Fires came within metres of Yarralumla, the residence which, the following year, would become home to the Governor-General.

In several years in the mid 1930s, bushfires burning to the north of Sydney left the city air thick with smoke. In October 1936, bushfire smoke forced a motor liner arriving from Hong Kong to warily enter the harbour sounding its siren, because it was invisible to signallers on South Head.

A New Zealand pilot, flying into Sydney from Longreach the following month, had to fly blind in “great clouds of dense smoke” covering much of NSW. In 1939, Canberra was covered by what visiting writer HG Wells described as a “streaming smoke curtain”.




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In the summer of 1944, Sydney was again enveloped in a smoke haze, this time from fires in the Blue Mountains and (later Royal) National Park in November. Photographs published at the time show the Sydney Harbour Bridge barely visible through dust and smoke at midday. The ongoing fires were blamed for an increase in diseases of the ears, nose and throat, and for cases of influenza and pneumonia, leading to a shortage of hospital beds.

A satellite image showing fires burning on Australia’s east coast.
NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY

In November 1951, all of NSW was said to be blacked out by bushfire smoke. In Sydney on the worst days, records show all four of the city’s airfields were closed because of “smoke-fog”.

A hazy legal framework

In each of these episodes, bushfire smoke disrupted transport, commerce, health and the enjoyment of the urban environment. But even as other forms of air pollution began to be regulated, smoke from bushfires escaped legislative attention.

What was understood as air pollution were the unwanted byproducts of industrial processes, whereas bushfire smoke was viewed as natural.




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In NSW in 1866, an act based on British legislation restricted smoke from mills, distilleries and gas works. Further limitations on smoke production in built-up areas were included in later acts governing public health (1902), motor traffic (1909) and local government (1919).

After World War II Newcastle, the site of the country’s largest concentration of coal-burning heavy industry, began to pay closer attention to managing air quality. This pioneering work was given added urgency after 4,000 people died in heavy London smog in 1952.

A woman seen wearing a face mask as smoke haze from bushfires blankets Sydney.
JOEL CARRETT/AAP

In 1958, a NSW parliamentary committee delivered a report into smoke abatement. It did not mention recent issues with bushfire smoke, and also dismissed the impact of domestically produced smoke. The subsequent 1961 Clean Air Act focused on air pollution from industry, transport and power generation.

Air pollution legislation continued to evolve in following decades, targeting motor vehicle emissions in the 1970s, backyard burning of waste in the 1980s, and wood fires used to heat homes in the 1990s.

These measures have been successful. A 2006 study found that between 1998 and 2003, on the limited occasions when standards for PM10 in six Australian cities were exceeded, the main sources were not industry or transport, but dust storms and bushfires (with the exception of Launceston, where heating fires were the main contributor).

A young man jumps from a rock in Sydney during smoke haze.
Steven Saphore/AAP

Looking ahead

Today, bushfire smoke is excluded from air quality regulations, despite its obvious role in pollution. It is still considered natural, and beyond human control.

However the link between the current fires and human-caused climate change, long predicted by climate scientists, suggests this exemption is no longer valid.




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As the Australian National University’s Tom Griffiths has written, the current fires in some ways repeat patterns of the past. But “the smoke is worse, more widespread and more enduring”.

When Australia begins the recovery from these fires, our business-as-usual approach requires a rethink. Measures to protect air quality should be a major part of this.

It is time that corporations, governments and societies which contribute to global heating be held to account for more frequent, intense and widespread bushfires, and the smoke which billows from them.The Conversation

Nancy Cushing, Associate professor, University of Newcastle

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