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10/29/2013

Why Australian bushfires have come early this year

Fire

Firefighters prepare to battle approaching flames from a bushfire near Faulconbridge in the Blue Mountains on October 24. Thousands of firefighters have been battling infernos for more than a week across the state of New South Wales that have destroyed over 200 homes. (AFP photo)

The Australian bushfire season has come too early this year.

Firefighters battled blazes that tore through Blue Mountains, the western suburbs of Sydney, last week. The Associated Press reported that a combination of high winds and temperatures helped the bush fires burn across a 1,000-mile stretch of New South Wales. The area was declared under emergency as hundreds of firefighters fought to contain it.

(Parts of it is still burning, firefighters are still battling it.)  

Bushfires aren’t new to Australia but this year, the fires have come unusually early after unseasonably hot weather.

Some experts say it is in line with predictions that climate change will lead to greater frequency of bushfires and a higher average intensity of bushfires.

Consider this:

* The Australian Academy of Science has said that “there is a clear observed association between extreme heat and catastrophic bushfires.”

* The Bureau of Meteorology has said that “projected rising temperatures and likely decreases in winter and spring rainfall across southern Australia. That will also contribute to an increased bushfire threat.”

* The CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s national science agency) has projected “that warmer and drier conditions are expected in future over southern and eastern Australia, and that consequently, an increase in fire weather risk is likely, with more days of extreme risk and a longer fire season”.  

So yes, more bushfires, more intense bushfires were predicted. But why are they so early this year? It’s only spring in Australia and the smouldering days of summer are still away.

Al Gore, the former U.S. president and environmentalist, has been quoted as saying that there is a direct link between climate change and last week’s bushfires in that country.

But Australia’s new prime minister, Tony Abbott, who once said that the science behind human-induced climate change was “absolute crap” says that is not true. The media there quoted him as saying that fires have always been part of the Australian experience.

So there is that.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, have always said Australia is the petri dish of climate change, a country where the global warming as an “experiment” is actually playing out in reality.

Raveena Aulakh is the Toronto Star’s environment reporter. She is intrigued by climate change and its impact, now and long-term. Follow her on Twitter @raveenaaulakh

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