More people die in winter than summer, but climate change may see this reverse


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Ivan Charles Hanigan, University of Sydney; Alistair Woodward, University of Auckland, and Keith DearClimate change not only poses enormous dangers to the planet, but also harms human health. In our study published today, we show some of the first evidence climate change has had observable impacts on Australians’ health between 1968 and 2018.

We found long-term heating is associated with changed seasonal balance of deaths in Australia, with relatively more deaths in summer months and relatively fewer deaths in winter months over recent decades.

Our findings can be explained by the gradual global warming associated with climate change. Over the 51 years of our study, annual average temperatures increased by more than 1°C in Australia. The last decade (2011 to 2020) was the hottest in the country’s recorded history.

If we continue on this trajectory, we’re likely to see many more climate-related deaths in the years to come.

What we did and found

Using the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and other sources, we gathered mortality data for people aged 55 and over between 1968 and 2018. We then looked at deaths in summer compared to winter in each year.

We found that in 1968 there were approximately 73 deaths in summer for every 100 deaths in winter. By 2018, this had risen to roughly 83 deaths in summer for every 100 deaths in winter.

The same trend, albeit of varying strength, was evident in all states of Australia, among all age groups over 55, in females and males, and in the three broad causes of death we looked at (respiratory, heart and renal diseases).

Elderly woman coughing with blanket over her
Historically, winter death rates have tended to be higher than in summer. But this is changing as our planet warms.
Shutterstock

Hot and cold weather can have a variety of direct and indirect effects on our health. Winter death rates generally exceed those in summer months because infectious diseases, like influenza, tend to circulate more in winter. Meanwhile, heat stress can exacerbate chronic health conditions including heart disease and kidney disease, particularly for older adults.

But the gap between cold-related deaths and heat-related deaths appears to be narrowing. And when we compared deaths in the hottest summers with the coldest winters, we found particularly warm years increase the likelihood of seasonal mortality ratios approaching 1 to 1 (meaning equal deaths in summer and winter).

With summers expected to become hotter, we believe this is an early indication of the effects of climate change in the future.




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Our research is unique

Globally, our study is one of very few that directly shows the health impacts of climate change. Most other studies examine the effects of past weather or climate conditions on health and extrapolate these into the future based on projected climate change scenarios, with associated uncertainties. For example, demographic characteristics of the population are likely to change over time.

Climate change occurs slowly, so typically, we need at least 30–50 years of records to accurately show how climate change is affecting health. Suitable health information is seldom available for such periods due to a variety of challenges in collecting electronic health data (especially in low- and middle-income countries).

Further, long-term health trends can be influenced by numerous non-climate related factors, such as improvements in health care.

In our study, we used Australian mortality records that have been collected with remarkable consistency of detail and quality over the last half century. And by focusing on the ratio of summer to winter deaths within each year, we avoid possible confounding associated with, say, improvements to health care.




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However, we were unable to consider some issues such as the different climate trends in small areas within each state/territory, or the effects of changing temperatures on different occupation groups, such as construction workers.

Our data also don’t allow us to account for the possible effects of people’s adaptation to warmer temperatures in the future.

Dry, cracked riverbed
Summer deaths will almost certainly increase in the years to come.
Shutterstock

Looking ahead

The changing ratio of summer to winter deaths has previously been identified as a possible warning sign of the impact of climate change on human health.

In one study on the topic, the authors found Australia may initially experience a net reduction in temperature-related deaths. That is, increased deaths from heat during summer would be offset by fewer deaths in winter, as winters become more mild.

However, they predict this pattern would reverse by mid-century under the business-as-usual emissions scenario, with increases in heat-related deaths outweighing decreases in cold-related deaths over the long term.

Our findings support these worrying predictions. If warming trends continue, it’s almost certain summer deaths will increase, and come to dominate the burden of temperature-related deaths in Australia.

We found the speed of change in the ratio of summer to winter deaths was fastest in the hottest years within each decade. This strengthens our conclusion we’re observing an effect of long-term climate change.




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Besides helping to answer the question, “does climate change affect human health?”, we believe our findings should inform planning for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The implications are considerable for the planning of hospital services and provision of health care, as well as for emergency services, housing, energy supply, holiday periods and bushfire disaster preparedness.The Conversation

Ivan Charles Hanigan, Data Scientist (Epidemiology), University of Sydney; Alistair Woodward, Professor, School of Population Health, University of Auckland, and Keith Dear, Adjunct Professor of Public Health

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

La Niña will give us a wet summer. That’s great weather for mozzies



Geoff Whalan/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Cameron Webb, University of Sydney

The return of the La Niña weather pattern will see a wetter spring and summer in many parts of Australia.

We know mosquitoes need water to complete their life cycle. So does this mean Australia can expect a bumper mozzie season? How about a rise in mosquito-borne disease?

While we’ve seen more mosquitoes during past La Niña events, and we may well see more mosquitoes this year, this doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll see more related disease.

This depends on a range of other factors, including local wildlife, essential to the life cycle of disease-transmitting mosquitoes.

What is La Niña?

La Niña is a phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, a pattern of ocean and atmospheric circulations over the Pacific Ocean.

While El Niño is generally associated with hot and dry conditions, La Niña is the opposite. La Niña brings slightly cooler but wetter conditions to many parts of Australia. During this phase, northern and eastern Australia are particularly likely to have a wetter spring and summer.

Australia’s most recent significant La Niña events were in 2010-11 and 2011-12.




Read more:
Explainer: El Niño and La Niña


Why is wet weather important for mosquitoes?

Mosquitoes lay their eggs on or around stagnant or still water. This could be water in ponds, backyard plant containers, clogged gutters, floodplains or wetlands. Mosquito larvae (or “wrigglers”) hatch and spend the next week or so in the water before emerging as adults and buzzing off to look for blood.

If the water dries up, they die. But the more rain we get, the more opportunities for mosquitoes to multiply.

Mosquito biting a person's hand
Mosquito populations often increase after wet weather.
Cameron Webb/Author provided

Mosquitoes are more than just a nuisance. When they bite, they can transmit viruses or bacteria into our blood to make us sick.

While Australia is free of major outbreaks of internationally significant diseases such as dengue or malaria, every year mosquitoes still cause debilitating diseases.

These include transmission of Ross River virus, Barmah Forest virus and the potentially fatal Murray Valley encephalitis virus.




Read more:
Explainer: what is Murray Valley encephalitis virus?


What happens when we get more rain?

We’ve know for a long time floods provide plenty of water to boost the abundance of mosquitoes. With more mosquitoes about, there is a higher risk of mosquito-borne disease.

The amount of rainfall each summer is also a key predictor for seasonal outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease, especially Ross River virus.




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Explainer: what is Ross River virus and how is it treated?


Inland regions of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, especially within the Murray Darling Basin, are particularly prone to “boom and bust” cycles of mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease.

In these regions, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation is thought to play an important role in driving the risks of mosquito-borne disease.

The hot and dry conditions of El Niño aren’t typically ideal for mosquitoes.

But historically, major outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease have been associated with extensive inland flooding. This flooding is typically associated with prevailing La Niña conditions.

For instance, outbreaks of Murray Valley encephalitis in the 1950s and 1970s had significant impacts on human health and occurred at a time of moderate-to-strong La Niña events.




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Over the past decade, when La Niña has brought above average rainfall and flooding, there have also been outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease.

These have included:

  • Victoria’s record breaking epidemic of Ross River virus in 2016-17 after extensive inland flooding

  • southeast Queensland’s outbreak of Ross River virus in 2014-15, partly attributed to an increase in mosquitoes associated with freshwater habitats after seasonal rainfall

  • eastern Australia’s major outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease associated with extensive flooding during two record breaking La Niñas between 2010 and 2012. These included Murray Valley encaphalitis and mosquito-borne illness in horses caused by the closely related West Nile virus (Kunjin strain).

We can’t say for certain there will be more disease

History and our understanding of mosquito biology means that with the prospect of more rain, we should expect more mosquitoes. But even when there are floods, predicting outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease isn’t always simple.

This is because of the role wildlife plays in the transmission cycles of Ross River virus and Murray Valley encephalitis virus.




Read more:
After the floods come the mosquitoes – but the disease risk is more difficult to predict


In these cases, mosquitoes don’t hatch out of the floodwaters carrying viruses, ready to bite humans. These mosquitoes first have to bite wildlife, which is where they pick up the virus. Then, they bite humans.

So how local animals, such as kangaroos, wallabies and water birds, respond to rainfall and flooding will play a role in determining the risk of mosquito-borne disease. In some cases, flooding of inland wetlands can see an explosion in local water bird populations.

How can we reduce the risks?

There isn’t much we can do to change the weather but we can take steps to reduce the impacts of mosquitoes.

Wearing insect repellent when outdoors will help reduce your chance of mosquito bites. But it’s also important to tip out, cover up, or throw away any water-holding containers in our backyard, at least once a week.

Local authorities in many parts of Australia also undertake surveillance of mosquitoes and mosquito-borne pathogens. This provides an early warning of the risk of mosquito-borne disease.




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The worst year for mosquitoes ever? Here’s how we find out


The Conversation


Cameron Webb, Clinical Associate Professor and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney

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

Entire hillsides of trees turned brown this summer. Is it the start of ecosystem collapse?



Rachael Nolan, CC BY-NC

Rachael Helene Nolan, Western Sydney University; Belinda Medlyn, Western Sydney University; Brendan Choat, Western Sydney University, and Rhiannon Smith, University of New England

The drought in eastern Australia was a significant driver of this season’s unprecedented bushfires. But it also caused another, less well known environmental calamity this summer: entire hillsides of trees turned from green to brown.

We’ve observed extensive canopy dieback from southeast Queensland down to Canberra. Reports of more dead and dying trees from other regions across Australia are flowing in through the citizen science project, the Dead Tree Detective.




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A few dead trees are not an unusual sight during a drought. But in some places, it is the first time in living memory so much canopy has died off.

Ecologists are now pondering the implications. There are warnings that some Australian tree species could disappear from large parts of their ranges as the climate changes. Could we be witnessing the start of ecosystem collapse?

Extensive canopy dieback in Kains Flat, NSW, January 2020.
Matt Herbert

Why are canopies dying now?

Much of eastern Australia has been in drought since the start of 2017. While this drought is not yet as long as the Millennium Drought, it appears to be more intense. Many areas have received the lowest rainfall on record, including long periods of time with no rainfall. This has been coupled with above-average temperatures and extreme heatwaves.

The higher the temperature, the greater the moisture loss from leaves. This is usually good for a tree because it cools the canopy. But if there is not enough water in the soil, the increased water loss can push trees over a threshold, causing extensive leaf “scorching”, or browning. The extensive canopy dieback we have observed this summer suggests that the soil had finally become too dry for many trees.

Widespread rainfall deciciencies and higher temperatures across many parts of Australia.
Bureau of Meteorology

Are the trees dead?

Brown or bare trees are not necessarily dead. Many eucalypts can lose all their leaves but resprout after rain.

Many parts of eastern Australia are now flushed with green after rain. In these areas, it will be important to assess the extent of tree recovery. If trees are not showing signs of recovery after significant rainfall, they’re unlikely to survive. In some cases carbohydrate reserves – which trees need to resprout new leaves – may be too depleted for trees to recover.

Snowgums in the New England area resprouting in March 2020, following heavy rain. The trees lost most of their canopy during drought in 2019.
Trevor Stace, University of New England

The drought may also hinder post-fire recovery. Most eucalypt forests eventually recover from bushfires by resprouting new leaves. Some forests also recover when fire triggers seedlings to germinate.

But it’s likely that some forests now recovering from fire were already struggling with canopy dieback. So these two disturbances will test how resilient our forests are to back-to-back drought and bushfire.

Trees recovering from drought and/or fire may also enter the “dieback spiral”. The new flush of leaves following rain can make a particularly tasty meal for insects. Trees will then attempt to grow more foliage in response, but their ability to keep producing new leaves gradually declines as they deplete their carbohydrate reserves, and they can die.

Dieback spiral has led to extensive tree loss in the past, including in the New England area of NSW.

Should we be worried?

The capacity of eucalypts to resprout makes them naturally resilient to extended drought. There are some records of canopy dieback from severe droughts in the past, such as the Federation Drought. We assume (although we don’t know for sure) the forests recovered after these events. So they may bounce back after the current drought.

However, it’s hard not to be concerned. Climate change will bring increased drought, heatwaves and fires that could, over time, see extensive losses of trees across the landscape – as happened on the Monaro High Plain after the Millennium Drought.




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Australian research in 2016 warned that due to climate change, the habitat of 90% of eucalypt species could decline and 16 species were expected to lose their home environments within 60 years.

Such a change would have huge consequences for how ecosystems function – reducing the capacity for ecosystem services such as carbon storage, altering catchment water resources and reducing habitat for native animals.

Some trees resprouted new leaves after losing their canopy. But in some cases these leaves are now dying, like on these scribbly gums in the NSW Pilliga in August 2019.
Rachael Nolan

Where to from here?

Records of dead and dying trees on the Dead Tree Detective map.
Dead Tree Detective

Landholders can help bush on their property recover after drought, by protecting germinating seedlings from livestock and collecting local seed for later revegetation. Trees that appear dead should not be cut down as they may recover, and even if dead can provide valuable animal habitat.

Most importantly, however, we need to monitor trees carefully to see where they’ve died, and where they are recovering. A citizen science project, the Dead Tree Detective, is helping map the extent of tree die-off across Australia.

People send in photos of dead and dying trees – to date, over 267 records have been uploaded. These records can be used to target where to monitor forests during drought, including on-ground assessments of tree health and quantifying the physiological responses of trees to drought stress.

There is no ongoing forest health monitoring program in Australia, so this dataset is invaluable in helping us determine exactly how vulnerable Australia’s forests are to the double whammy of severe drought and bushfires.The Conversation

Rachael Helene Nolan, Postdoctoral research fellow, Western Sydney University; Belinda Medlyn, Professor, Western Sydney University; Brendan Choat, Associate Professor, Western Sydney University, and Rhiannon Smith, Research Fellow, University of New England

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

Antarctica now has more than 65,000 ‘meltwater lakes’ as summer ice melts



Meltwater on the ice shelf near the McMurdo research station, Antarctica.
Nicholas Bayou / UNAVCO, Author provided

Jennifer Arthur, Durham University

During the Antarctic summer, thousands of mesmerising blue lakes form around the edges of the continent’s ice sheet, as warmer temperatures cause snow and ice to melt and collect into depressions on the surface. Colleagues of mine at Durham University have recently used satellites to record more than 65,000 of these lakes.

Though seasonal meltwater lakes have formed on the continent for decades, lakes had not been recorded before in such great numbers across coastal areas of East Antarctica. This means parts of the world’s largest ice sheet may be more vulnerable to a warming climate than previously thought.

Lakes affect ice shelves

Much of Antarctica is surrounded by floating platforms of ice, often as tall as a skyscraper. These are “ice shelves”. And when some of these ice shelves have collapsed in the past, satellites have recorded networks of lakes growing and then abruptly disappearing shortly beforehand. For instance, several hundred lakes disappeared in the weeks before the the catastrophic disintegration of the Larsen B Ice Shelf – when 3,250 km² of ice broke up in just two months in 2002.

Blue meltwater ponds cover the surface of Larsen B Ice Shelf in January 2002 (left) before its abrupt collapse two months later (right). Open ocean appears as black in both images.
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

The collapse may have depended on water from these lakes filling crevasses and then acting like a wedge as the weight of the water expanded the crevasses, triggering a network of fractures. The weight of lakes can also cause the ice shelf surface to flex, leading to further fracturing, which is thought to have helped the shelf become unstable and collapse.

Ice shelves act as door stops, supporting the huge mass of ice further inland. Their removal means the glaciers feeding the ice shelf are no longer held back and flow faster into the ocean, contributing to sea-level rise.

Melting the ice sheet surface

Scientists already knew that lakes form on the Antarctic ice sheet. But the latest study, published in Scientific Reports, shows that many more lakes are forming than previously thought, including in new parts of the ice sheet and much further inland and at higher elevations.

Since the cold and remoteness makes it logistically challenging to measure and monitor Antarctica’s lakes in the field, we largely know all this thanks to satellite imagery. In this case, one of the satellites used was the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 which provides global coverage of the Earth’s surface every five days and can detect features as small as ten metres.

Meltwater lakes on Sørsdal Glacier, Antarctica (red dot on larger map).
Google Maps

My colleagues analysed satellite images of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet taken in January 2017. In total, the images covered 5,000,000 km² (that’s more than 20 times the area of the United Kingdom).

Because water reflects certain wavelengths very strongly compared to ice, lakes can be detected in these images by classifying pixels in the image as “water” or “non-water”. From these images we can pinpoint when lakes form, their growth and drainage, and how their extent and depth change over time. The largest lake detected so far was nearly 30 km long and estimated to hold enough water to fill 40,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Cause for concern?

In a warming world, scientists are particularly interested in these lakes because they may contribute to destabilising the ice shelves and ice sheet in future.

Like a sponge, the more that ice shelves become saturated with meltwater, the less they are able to absorb, meaning more water pools on their surfaces as lakes. More surface lakes mean a greater likelihood that water will drain out, fill crevasses and potentially trigger flexing and fracturing. If this were to occur, other ice shelves around Antarctica may start to disintegrate like Larsen B. Glaciers with floating ice tongues protruding into the ocean may also be vulnerable.

Meltwater drains away through a
Sanne Bosteels

Meanwhile in Greenland, scientists have observed entire lakes draining away within a matter of days, as meltwater plunges through vertical shafts in the ice sheet known as “moulins”. A warm, wet base lubricated by meltwater allows the ice to slide quicker and flow faster into the ocean.

Could something similar be happening in Antarctica? Lakes disappearing in satellite imagery suggests they could be draining in this way, but scientists have yet to observe this directly. If we are to understand how much ice the continent could lose, and how much it could contribute to global sea-level rise, we must understand how these surface meltwater lakes behave. Though captivating, they are potentially a warning sign of future instability in Antarctica.


Click here to subscribe to our climate action newsletter. Climate change is inevitable. Our response to it isn’t.The Conversation

Jennifer Arthur, PhD student, Cryospheric Remote Sensing, Durham University

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

The summer bushfires you didn’t hear about, and the invasive species fuelling them



File 20190311 86707 1ji5xqu.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Fire has burned through a swathe of the Tjoritja National Park.
Author provided

Christine Schlesinger, Charles Darwin University and Barry Judd, Charles Darwin University

In January 2019, fires burned across a 100-kilometre length of the iconic Tjoritja National Park in the West MacDonnell Ranges, from Ormiston Gorge nearly to the edge of Alice Springs.

These fires affected an area comparable to the recent Tasmanian fires, but attracted relatively little national attention. This is partly because the fires in Tasmania were so unusual – but we believe the fires in central Australia were just as unexpected.




Read more:
Dry lightning has set Tasmania ablaze, and climate change makes it more likely to happen again


In the past, fires of this magnitude have tended to come after heavy rain that powers the growth of native grasses, providing fuel for intense and widespread fires. But our research highlights the new danger posed by buffel grass, a highly invasive foreigner sweeping across inland Australia and able to grow fast without much water.

Far from being pristine, Tjoritja and the Western MacDonnell Ranges are now an invaded landscape under serious threat. Our changing climate and this tenacious invader have transformed fire risk in central Australia, meaning once-rare fires may occur far more often.

Buffel grass in Australia

Buffel grass is tough and fast-growing. First introduced to Australia in the 1870s by Afghan cameleers, the grass was extensively planted in central Australia in the 1960s during a prolonged drought.

Introductions of the drought-resistant plant for cattle feed and dust suppression have continued, and in recent decades buffel grass has become a ubiquitous feature of central Australian landscapes, including Tjoritja.

Buffel grass has now invaded extensive areas in the Northern Territory, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia and is spreading into New South Wales and Victoria. It was legally recognised as a key threat in 2014, but so far only South Australia has prohibited its sale and created statewide zoning to enforce control or destruction.

Buffel grass crowds out other plants, creating effective “monocultures” – landscapes dominated by a single species. In central Australia, where Aboriginal groups retain direct, active and enduring links to Country, buffel grass makes it hard or impossible to carry out important cultural activities like hunt game species, harvest native plant materials or visit significant sites.

Buffel grass impacts on Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara communities in central Australia.

But buffel grass isn’t only a threat to biodiversity and Indigenous cultural practices. In January the Tjoritja fires spread along dry river beds choked with buffel, incinerating many large old-growth trees. Much like the alpine forests of Tasmania, the flora of inland river systems has not adapted to frequent and intense fires.

We believe the ability of the fires to spread through these systems, and their increased intensity and size, can be directly attributed to buffel grass.

Fire and buffel grass

Because of the low average rainfall, widespread fires in central Australia have been rare in the recorded past, only following unusual and exceptionally high rainfall.

This extreme rain promoted significant growth of native grasses, which then provided fuel for large fires. There could be decades between these flood and fire cycles. However, since the Tjoritja (previously West MacDonnell Ranges) National Park was established in the 1990s, there have been three large-scale fires in 2001, 2011 and 2019.

What has changed? The 2001-02 and 2011-12 fires both came after heavy rainfall years. In fact, 2011 saw one of the biggest La Niña events on record.

Climate change predictions suggest that central Australia will experience longer and more frequent heatwaves. And although total annual rainfall may stay the same, it’s predicted to fall in fewer days. In other words, we’ll see heavy storms and rainfall followed by long heatwaves: perfect conditions for grass to grow and then dry, creating abundant fuel for intense fires.

The remains of a corkwood tree after an unplanned bushfire in an area heavily invaded by buffel grass near Simpsons Gap. Very few large old corkwood trees now remain in this area.
Author provided

If central Australia, and Tjoritja National Park in particular, were still dominated by a wide variety of native grasses and plants, this might not be such a problem. But buffel grass was introduced because it grows quickly, even without heavy rain.

The fires this year were extraordinary because there was no unusually high rainfall in the preceding months. They are a portent of the new future of fire in these ecosystems, as native desert plant communities are being transformed into dense near-monocultures of introduced grass.

The fuel that buffel grass creates is far more than native plant communities, and after the fire buffel grass can regenerate more quickly than many native species.

So we now have a situation in which fuel loads can accumulate over much shorter times. This makes the risk of fire in invaded areas so high that bushfire might now be considered a perpetual threat.

Changing fire threat

In spinifex grasslands, traditional Aboriginal burning regimes have been used for millennia to renew the landscape and promote growth while effectively breaking up the landscape so old growth areas are protected and large fires are prevented. Current fire management within Tjoritja “combines traditional and scientific practices”.

However, these fire management regimes do not easily translate to river environments invaded by buffel grass. These environments have, to our knowledge, never been targeted for burning by Aboriginal peoples. Since the arrival of buffel grass, there is now an extremely high risk that control burns can spread and become out-of-control bushfires.

Even when control burns are successful, the rapid regrowth of buffel grass means firebreaks may only be effective for a short time before risky follow-up burning is required. And there may no longer be a good time of year to burn.




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How invasive weeds can make wildfires hotter and more frequent


Our research suggests that in areas invaded by buffel grass, slow cool winter burns – typical for control burning – can be just as, or more, damaging for trees than fires in hot, windy conditions that often cause fires to spread.

Without more effective management plans and strategies to manage the changing fire threat in central Australia, we face the prospect of a future Tjoritja in which no old-growth trees will remain. This will have a devastating impact on the unique desert mountain ranges.

We need to acknowledge that invasive buffel grass and a changing climate have changed the face of fire risk in central Australia. We need a coordinated response from Australia’s federal and state governments, or it will be too late to stop the ecological catastrophe unfolding before us.


The authors acknowledge the contribution of Shane Muldoon, Sarah White, Erin Westerhuis, CDU Environmental Science and Management students, and NT Parks and Wildlife staff to the research at experimental sites and ongoing tree monitoring in central Australia.The Conversation

Christine Schlesinger, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science and Ecology, Charles Darwin University and Barry Judd, Professor, Indigenous Social Research, Charles Darwin University

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

2018-19 was Australia’s hottest summer on record, with a warm autumn likely too


File 20190228 150702 1t8sa4f.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Dirty water from Queensland’s historic flooding, triggered by weeks of exceptional monsoon rains earlier in the year.
NASA Worldview/EPA

David Jones, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Lynette Bettio, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Skie Tobin, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Australian summers are getting hotter. Today marks the end of our warmest summer on record, setting new national temperature records. Worsening drought, locally significant flooding, damaging bushfires, and heatwaves capped a summer of extremes.

As we look to autumn, warmer temperatures overall and below average rainfall – especially in eastern parts of the country – are likely.

Australian summer mean temperature anomalies against the 1961–1990 average.
Bureau of Meteorology



Read more:
The stubborn high-pressure system behind Australia’s record heatwaves


Very hot…

The starkest feature of this summer was the record warmth. The national average temperature is expected to be about 2.1℃ above average, and will easily beat the previous record high set in summer 2012-13 (which was 1.28℃ warmer than average).

Very low rainfall accompanied the record heat of summer. At the national scale, each month was notably dry, and total summer rainfall was around 30% below average; the lowest for summer since 1982–83. The monsoon onset was delayed in Darwin until the 23rd of January (the latest since 1972–73) and typical monsoonal weather was absent for most of summer.

Preliminary summer 2018–19 mean temperature deciles.
Bureau of Meteorology

In December 2018 Australia saw its highest mean, maximum and minimum temperatures on record (monthly averages, compared to all other Decembers). Notable heatwaves affected the north of Australia at the start of the month, spreading to the west and south during the second half of December. Temperatures peaked at 49.3℃ at Marble Bar in Western Australia on the 27th, with mid-to-high 40s extending over larger areas.

The heat continued into January, which set a national monthly mean temperature record at 2.91℃ above the 1961–1990 average. Heatwave conditions which had emerged in December persisted, with a prolonged warm spell and numerous records set. Eight of the ten hottest days for the nation occurred during the month, while a minimum temperature of 36.6℃ at Wanaaring (Borrona Downs) in western New South Wales on the 26th set a new national minimum temperature record.

Temperatures moderated a little in the east of the country for February, partly in response to flooding rainfall in tropical Queensland. Even so, the national mean temperature will come in around 1.4℃ above average, making this February likely to be the fourth or fifth warmest on record.

…and very dry

Australia has seen dry summers before and many of these have been notably hot. The summers of 1972–73 and 1982–83 – which featured mean temperatures 0.90℃ and 0.92℃ above average, respectively – both came during the latter stages of significant droughts, and were both records at the time.

As the State of the Climate 2018 report outlines, Australia has warmed by just over 1℃ since 1910, with most warming occurring since 1950. This warming means global and Australian climate variability sits on top of a higher average temperature, which explains why 2018-19 was warmer again.

A major rain event affected tropical Queensland during late January to early February, associated with a slow-moving monsoonal low. Some sites had a year’s worth of rain in a two-week period, including Townsville Airport which had 1,257mm in ten days. Many Queenslanders affected by this monsoonal low went from drought conditions to floods in a matter of days. Flooding was severe and continues to affect rivers near the Gulf of Carpentaria, as well as some inland rivers which flow towards Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre.

Preliminary summer 2018–19 rainfall deciles.
Bureau of Meteorology

The outlook for autumn

Spring 2018 saw a positive Indian Ocean Dipole which faded in early summer. At the start of summer sea surface temperature anomalies in the central Pacific exceeded 0.8℃, which is the typical threshold for El Niño affecting the oceans, but these declined as summer progressed. Combined with a lack of coupling between the atmosphere and ocean, the El Niño–Southern Oscillation remained neutral, though normal rainfall patterns shifted to oceans to the north and east, leaving Australia drier as a result.

As we move into autumn, the El Niño–Southern Oscillation and Indian Ocean Dipole tend to have less influence at this time of year. The onset of new Indian Ocean Dipole or El Niño/La Niña events typically happens in late autumn or winter/spring.

Over recent years, autumn rainfall has also become less reliable, with declines in cool season rainfall in the southeast and southwest. Temperatures are also rising, in a local expression of the global warming trend.




Read more:
Explainer: El Niño and La Niña


The Bureau’s outlook for autumn shows high probabilities that day and night-time temperatures will remain above average for most of the country. We expect to see continued below-average rainfall in much of the east, where drought is currently widespread.

Looking to the winter, the Bureau’s ENSO Wrap-Up suggests the Pacific Ocean is likely to remain warmer than average. The potential for an El Niño remains, with approximately a 50% chance of El Niño developing during the southern hemisphere autumn or winter, twice the normal likelihood.

Rainfall outlook for autumn 2019.
Bureau of Meteorology


For more information watch BOM’s March–May 2019 Climate and Water Outlook video and subscribe to receive Climate Information emails.The Conversation

David Jones, Climate Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Lynette Bettio, Senior Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Skie Tobin, Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

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

Summer forecast: scorching heat and heightened bushfire risk


Catherine Ganter, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Large parts of Australia are facing a hotter and drier summer than average, according to the Bureau of Meteorology’s summer outlook.

Drier than average conditions are likely for much of northern Australia. Most of the country has at least an 80% chance of experiencing warmer than average day and night-time temperatures.

The threat of bushfire will remain high, with few signs of the sustained rain needed to reduce fire risk or make a significant dent in the ongoing drought.

Expect extreme heat

Large parts of Western Australia, most of Queensland and the Top End of the Northern Territory are expected to be drier than usual. Further south, the rest of the country shows no strong push towards a wetter or drier than average summer, which is a change for parts of the southeast compared to recent months.


Bureau of Meteorology

Queensland has already seen some extraordinary record-breaking heat in recent days, with summer yet to truly begin. With the summer outlook predicting warmer days and nights, combined with recent dry conditions and our long-term trend of increasing temperatures, some extreme highs are likely this summer.


Bureau of Meteorology

All of this means above-normal bushfire potential in eastern Australia, across New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. The bushfire outlook, also released today, notes that rain in areas of eastern Australia during spring, while welcome, was not enough to recover from the long-term dry conditions. The current wet conditions across parts of coastal New South Wales will help, but it will not take long once hot and dry conditions return for vegetation to dry out.




Read more:
Sydney storms could be making the Queensland fires worse


What about El Niño?

The Bureau is currently at El Niño ALERT, which means a roughly 70% chance of El Niño developing this season.




Read more:
Australia moves to El Niño alert and the drought is likely to continue


However, not all the ducks are lined up. While ocean temperatures have already warmed to El Niño levels, to declare a proper “event” there must also be a corresponding response in the atmosphere to reinforce the ocean – this hasn’t happened yet.

That said, climate models expect this event to arrive in the coming months. The outlook has factored in that chance, and the conditions predicted are largely consistent with what we would expect during El Niño. In summer, this includes drier weather in parts of northern Australia, and warmer summer days.

Once an El Niño is in place, weather systems across southern Australia tend to be more mobile. This can mean shorter but more intense heatwaves in Victoria and southern South Australia. However, in New South Wales and Queensland, El Niño is associated with both longer and more intense heat waves.

The exact reason why the states are affected differently is complicated, but relates to the fast-moving cold fronts and troughs that sweep through Victoria and South Australia in the summertime, creating cool changes. These weather systems don’t influence areas further north so when hot air arrives, it takes longer to clear.




Read more:
Drought, wind and heat: when fire seasons start earlier and last longer


The heavy rains seen in parts of eastern Australia in October and November have provided some welcome short-term relief to drought-stricken farmers, but longer-term rainfall relief has not arrived yet. If El Niño arrives, this widespread relief may only be on the cards in autumn.The Conversation

Catherine Ganter, Senior Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

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

Will the arrival of El Niño mean fewer mosquitoes this summer?



File 20181105 74787 xceqwb.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A hot summer will mean wetlands dry out faster than ever, so how will pest mosquitoes respond?
Cameron Webb (NSW Health Pathology), Author provided

Cameron Webb, University of Sydney

Once the warm weather arrives, you know mosquitoes won’t be far behind. Spring heatwaves associated with the impending arrival of El Niño to the east coast of Australia may mean we’ll get an early taste of summer, but what about mosquitoes? Does a long, hot summer mean fewer annoying buzzing and biting beasts bothering us whenever we spend time outdoors?

Where do mosquitoes come from?

Mosquitoes are complex animals. Like all insects, they thrive in warm weather, but they need more than just heat, they need water.

Mosquitoes lay their eggs on or around water. Without it, they cannot complete their life cycle. Mosquito “wrigglers” hatch out from eggs and spend a week or so swimming about before emerging and flying off in search of blood. Depending on where the water is, whether it is wetlands, puddles or water-filled containers, different kinds of mosquitoes will be present.

There are hundreds of different mosquitoes in Australia. Some like salty water, some like fresh. Some need pristine conditions while some will tolerate filthy water trapped at the bottom of a septic tank.

Because mosquitoes rely on water, rainfall plays a critical role in determining how many mosquitoes will be buzzing about this summer.




Read more:
Health Check: why mosquitoes seem to bite some people more


A hot, dry summer must mean fewer mosquitoes?

The likelihood that an El Niño will bring drier and warmer conditions to eastern Australia this summer is increasing. The latest predictions from the Bureau of Meteorology are that there is a 70% chance an El Nino will occur this year, about three times more than usual.

At first, this may seem like good news for those averse to mosquito bites, but don’t pack away the repellent just yet.

While floods bring mosquitoes, and often outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease, drought will knock out almost all mosquitoes. It is true that the ongoing dry conditions across inland areas of Australia will ensure mosquito populations remain low, but that doesn’t mean mosquitoes will disappear completely.




Read more:
The worst year for mosquitoes ever? Here’s how we find out


Water doesn’t just come from rain

While a lack of rain will keep many wetlands dry, that isn’t the case for our coastal wetlands. Some of the worst pest mosquitoes in Australia are found in our mangroves, saltmarshes and sedgelands.

Mosquitoes, like the saltmarsh mosquito, Aedes vigilax, love wetlands regularly flooded by high tides. The eggs of this mosquito, laid in moist wetland mud, survive long periods of dry conditions. Once covered by tides, these hatch, complete development within a week, and emerge in extraordinary numbers to fly kilometres away into nearby communities to bite and spread disease-causing pathogens such as Ross River virus.

Not only have these mosquitoes found a way to survive without rain, they thrive in hot and dry conditions. Without substantial rainfall, the pools and ponds in the wetlands dry completely, killing off any fish or other aquatic predators, ensuring perfect conditions once the next series of tides comes flooding in. The arrival of El Niño may be bad news for lots of wetland wildlife, but it isn’t all bad news for mosquitoes.

The saltmarsh mosquito, Aedes vigilax, is one of the most important pest mosquitoes in coastal regions of Australia and has adapted to thrive in hot and dry conditions.
Stephen Doggett (NSW Health Pathology)

Bringing mosquitoes home

Much has been made of the impact of heatwaves on human health. It may also inadvertently increase health risks in metropolitan regions of Australia. A shortage of water increases the need to conserve and store water around the backyard. Unfortunately, that also means creating a home for mosquitoes.

One of the most widespread mosquitoes in the country, a mosquito that has probably bitten almost every Australian, is the backyard mosquito Aedes notoscriptus. This mosquito is found in water-filled containers around the backyard, from drains and roof gutters to rainwater tanks and bird baths. While you’d think hot and dry conditions will impact this mosquito, think about the extra effort we’re taking to store water around the home. If your rainwater tank isn’t properly screened or you’re keeping uncovered bins and buckets around the backyard filled with water, you’ll be providing a home for mosquitoes.

The debate about the impact of a changing climate on mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease often focuses on the spread of tropical diseases into warming temperate regions. The truth is it may be the way humans respond to a changing climate through water-saving measures around the home that could increase mosquito impacts in urban areas. This also may bring a risk of exotic mosquitoes to our suburbs, which could transmit more serious mosquito-borne pathogens such as dengue, chikungunya and Zika viruses.

While some parts of Australia will have fewer annoying mozzies this summer, don’t be complacent about taking steps to avoid mosquito bites. Choose and use the right insect repellents and reduce opportunities for mosquitoes to move into your backyard by covering up water-holding containers.The Conversation

Cameron Webb, Clinical Lecturer and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney

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

It’s a savage summer in the Northern Hemisphere – and climate change is slashing the odds of more heatwaves


Andrew King, University of Melbourne and Ben Henley, University of Melbourne

In Australia we know about sweltering summer heat. We all remember the images of burned koala paws, collapsing tennis players and, far more seriously, the tragic events of Black Saturday.

Aussies may scoff at Britain’s idea of a heatwave, but this time it’s the real deal and it’s no laughing matter.

Extreme heat has hit locations throughout the Northern Hemisphere, in places as far apart as Montreal, Glasgow, Tokyo and Lapland. In the past few weeks heat records have tumbled in a wide range of places, most notably:




Read more:
Why hot weather records continue to tumble worldwide


Heat has not been the only problem. Much of northern Europe is experiencing a very persistent drought, with little to no measurable rainfall in months. This has caused the normally lush green fields of England and other European countries to turn brown and even reveal previously hidden archaeological monuments.

There have also been major wildfires in northern England, Sweden and, most recently and devastatingly, Greece. The Greek wildfires came off the back of a very dry winter and spring.

What’s behind the widespread extreme heat?

The jet stream, a high-altitude band of air that pushes weather systems around at lower altitudes, has been weaker than normal. It has also been positioned unusually far to the north, particularly over Europe. This has kept the low-pressure systems that often drive wind and rain over northern Europe at bay.

The jet stream has remained locked in roughly the same position over the Atlantic Ocean and northern Europe for the past couple of months. This has meant that the same weather types have remained over the same locations most of the time.

Weather is typically more transient than it has been recently. Even when we do have blocking high-pressure systems associated with high temperatures in northern Europe, they don’t normally linger as long as this.

Is it driven by climate change?

Although climatologists have made great strides in recent years in the field of event attribution – identifying the human climate fingerprint on particular extreme weather events – it is hard to quantify the role of climate change in an event that is still unfolding.

Until the final numbers are in we won’t be able to tell just how much climate change has altered the likelihood or intensity of these particular heat extremes.

Having said that, we can use past analyses of extreme heat events, together with future climate change projections, to infer whether climate change is playing a role in these events.

We also know that increasing numbers of hot temperature records are being set, and that the increased probability of hot temperature records can indeed be attributed to the human influence on the climate.

In Europe especially, there is already a large body of literature that has looked at the role of human-caused climate change in heat extremes. In fact, the very first event attribution study, led by Peter Stott from the UK Met Office, found that human-caused climate change had at least doubled the likelihood of the infamous European heatwave of 2003.

For all manner of heat extremes in Europe and elsewhere, including in Japan, a clear and discernible link with climate change has been made.

Research has also shown that heat extremes similar to those witnessed over the past month or two are expected to become more common as global temperatures continue to climb. The world has so far had around 1℃ of global warming above pre-industrial levels, but at the global warming limits proposed in the Paris climate agreement, hot summers like that of 2003 in central Europe would be a common occurrence.

At 2℃ of global warming, the higher of the two Paris targets, 2003-like hot summers would very likely happen in most years.

Similarly, we know that heat exposure and heat-induced deaths in Europe will increase with global warming, even if we can limit this warming to the levels agreed in Paris.




Read more:
Yes, the Arctic’s freakishly warm winter is due to humans’ climate influence


But summers have always been hot, haven’t they?

For most parts of the world summers have got warmer, and the hottest summer on record is relatively recent – such as 2003 in parts of central Europe and 2010 in much of eastern Europe. One exception is central England, where the hottest summer remains 1976, although it may be challenged this year.

While extreme hot summers and heatwaves did happen in the past, they were less common. One big difference as far as England is concerned is that its extreme 1976 heatwave was a global outlier, whereas this year’s isn’t.

In 1976 northwestern Europe had higher temperature anomalies than almost anywhere else on the globe. In June 2018 the same region was unusually warm, but so was most of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.

The ConversationSo while the persistent weather patterns are driving much of the extreme heat we’re seeing across the Northern Hemisphere, we know that human-caused climate change is nudging the temperatures up and increasing the odds of new heat extremes.

Andrew King, ARC DECRA fellow, University of Melbourne and Ben Henley, Research Fellow in Climate and Water Resources, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Five reasons not to spray the bugs in your garden this summer



File 20171103 26444 1qfv62d.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

play4smee/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Lizzy Lowe, Macquarie University; Cameron Webb, University of Sydney, and Kate Umbers, Western Sydney University

The weather is getting warmer, and gardens are coming alive with bees, flies, butterflies, dragonflies, praying mantises, beetles, millipedes, centipedes, and spiders.

For some of us it is exciting to see these strange and wonderful creatures return. For others, it’s a sign to contact the local pest control company or go to the supermarket to stock up on sprays.

But while some bugs do us very few favours – like mozzies, snails and cockroaches – killing all insects and bugs isn’t always necessary or effective. It can also damage ecosystems and our own health.


Read more: The hidden secrets of insect poop


There are times when insecticides are needed (especially when pest populations are surging or the risk of disease is high) but you don’t have to reach for the spray every time. Here are five good reasons to avoid pesticides wherever possible, and live and let live.

1. Encourage the bees and butterflies, enjoy more fruits and flowers

Hover fly.
dakluza/flickr

Flowers and fruits are the focal points of even the smallest gardens, and many of our favourites rely on visits from insect pollinators. We all know about the benefits of European honey bees (Apis mellifera), but how about our “home grown” pollinators – our native bees, hover flies, beetles, moths and butterflies. All these species contribute to the pollination of our native plants and fruits and veggies.


Read more: The common herb that could bring bees buzzing to your garden


You can encourage these helpful pollinators by growing plants that flower at different times of the year (especially natives) and looking into sugar-water feeders or insect hotels.

2. Delight your decomposers, they’re like mini bulldozers

Slaters improve your soil quality.
Alan Kwok

To break down leaf litter and other organic waste you need decomposers. Worms, beetles and slaters will munch through decaying vegetation, releasing nutrients into the soil that can be used by plants.

The problem is that urban soils are frequently disturbed and can contain high levels of heavy metals that affects decomposer communities. If there are fewer “bugs” in the soil, decomposition is slower – so we need to conserve our underground allies.

You can help them out with compost heaps and worm farms that can be dug into the ground. It’s also good to keep some areas of your lawn un-mowed, and to create areas of leaf litter. Keeping your garden well-watered will also help your underground ecosystems, but be mindful of water restrictions and encouraging mosquitoes.

3. An army of beneficial bugs can eat your pests

Mantises and dragonflies are just some of the hundreds of fascinating and beautiful bugs we are lucky to see around our homes. Many of these wonderful creatures are predators of mozzies, house flies and cockroaches, yet people are using broad-spectrum insecticides which kill these beneficial bugs alongside the pests.

It may sound counterproductive to stop using pesticides in order to control pests around the home, but that’s exactly what organic farmers do. By reducing pesticides you allow populations of natural enemies to thrive.


Read more: Even ‘environmentally protective’ levels of pesticide devastate insect biodiversity


Many farmers grow specific plants to encourage beneficial insects, which has been shown to reduce the damage to their crops.

This form of pest control in growing in popularity because spraying can result in insecticide resistance. Fortunately, it’s easy to encourage these bugs: they go where their prey is. If you have a good range of insects in your yard, these helpful predators are probably also present.

Jumping spiders are great at eating flies and other pests.
Craig Franke

4. Your garden will support more wildlife, both big and small

Spraying with broad-spectrum pesticides will kill off more than just insects and spiders – you’re also going after the animals that eat them. The more insects are around, the more birds, mammals, reptiles and frogs will thrive in your backyard.


Read more: Four unusual Australian animals to spot in your garden before summer is out


Baiting for snails, for example, will deter the blue-tongue lizards that eat them, so cage your vegetables to protect them instead. Keeping your garden well-watered, and including waterbaths, will also encourage a balanced ecosystem (but change the waterbaths regularly).

5. You and your family be happier and healthier

Engaging with nature increases well-being and stimulates learning in children. Insects are a fantastic way to engage with nature, and where better to do this than in your own back yard! Observing and experimenting on insects is a wonderful teaching tool for everything from life cycles to the scientific method. It will also teach your kids to value nature and live sustainably.

It’s also a hard truth that domestic pesticides present a significant risk of poisoning, especially for small children.

In reality, the risk of exposing your children to the pesticides far outweighs the nuisance of having a few bugs around. Instead, integrated pest management, which combines non-chemical techniques like cleaning of food residues, removal of potential nutrients, and sealing cracks and crevices, is safer for your family and your garden ecosystems.

Think globally, act locally

Your backyard has a surprising impact on the broader health of your neighbourhood, and gardens can make significant contributions to local biodiversity. Insects are an important part of ecosystem conservation, and encouraging them will improve the health of your local environment (and probably your health and well-being too).


Read more: Conservation efforts must include small animals. After all, they run the world


The ConversationIn the end, insects and spiders are not out to get you. For the sake of our kids and our environment, you should give them a chance.

Lizzy Lowe, Postdoctoral researcher, Macquarie University; Cameron Webb, Clinical Lecturer and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney, and Kate Umbers, Lecturer in Zoology, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.