Surfer at Beach

How Climate Change is Affecting the Australian Summer

The Australian summer is something that many around the world long to experience. Who would not want to spend the long warm days on the beach, surfing some of the world’s greatest waves while soaking up some sun? Or maybe staying at home and lounging around the pool in the backyard, inviting friends and family over for a barbecue. Such thoughts bring feelings of happiness and relaxation.

But the summer of the last few years has brought another feeling to the mix: fear. Due to the increasing number of bushfires – many close to homes, businesses, retailers and schools – residents, and therefore vacationers and tourists, are increasingly worrying about the threat of damage to their properties and lives.

2019 has seen higher numbers of bush fires than in previous years, with much of the country now living with a haze of smoke even if they are not directly affected by the fires. This last week has seen the town of Batemans Bay in New South Wales having to evacuate to the beach while the fires rip through their homes while many campgrounds around the continent have closed for the summer due to the “code red” conditions.

Australia – as well as many other countries across the world – has seen its summers increase in temperatures over the years, however the link between the current conditions as well as anthropogenic climate change is immense.

So far over 5 million hectares of land have been lost. Compare this to the estimated 906,000 hectares that were lost in the Amazon Rainforest earlier in the year. It is staggering that there has not been more coverage – or more help provided from the rest of the world.

And it is not just land that has been devastated. So far there have been eighteen deaths, including firefighters, as well as the enormous amount of wildlife that has been lost. Figures currently estimate there have been around 500 million animals that have died with 30 percent of the koala population wiped out.

Australia sees higher temperatures in January and February, so these statistics are only going to get worse causing many to call on the government for more support.

However, while Australia sees bushfires every year making it the continent most likely to burn, what has made this year so bad? As with all fires, bushfires need specific resources to grow – dry fuel, weather conditions and ignition. And thanks to the effects climate change is having on the weather and fuel, the fires are becoming bigger and occur more often and for longer.

Scientists have been warning us that the world is getting warmer each year, with Australia increasing in temperature by one degree Celsius throughout the last 100 years, and this has caused a change in the intensity, as well as the frequency, of their heat waves.

The increase in the temperatures has caused an increase in evaporation, drying the fuel and soil load. Over ten years ago the IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – came to the conclusion that the continuing anthropogenic climate change would increase how often Australia would experience fires. They also predicted that these fires would increase in intensity.

With the rising temperatures continuing to dry out the environment, they can be reduced by precipitation or by increasing the vegetation, which can improve humidity.

However Australia’s southern states have seen a considerable decrease in rainfall, with the southwest seeing a decrease of nearly twenty per cent in the last forty years. The southeast has also seen a decrease of eleven percent of rainfall since the 1990s.

While there are many factors contributing to the drop in rainfall the positive trend in the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) is one of the biggest. The change has seen the westerly winds across the Southern Ocean to move south towards Antarctica, meaning the rain-bearing cold fronts are bypassing southern Australia.

Scientists have also blamed the trend of anthropogenic climate change for increasing the trend in the SAM.

These changes have played a significant role in why the 2019-2020 summer has been so intense, however southeast Australia has been suffering from a drought for the last three years having not seen any winter rain since 2017, which has not happened in Australia’s history before – not even when they experienced their ten year droughts including the Millennium Drought.

And with large areas of vegetation unable to survive the wet rain forests are drying out, meaning areas that would not normally see fires are starting to burn.

This year also saw one of the most severe positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) events which saw the cold sea-surface temperatures putting a halt to one of the biggest resources of moisture for Australia. When these events happen Australia usually experiences a longer fire season and the positive IOD events are another aspect of global warming as they are occurring more often.

With many Australians accusing their government of not doing enough to stop climate change – and many not even acknowledging that it is an issue – it is hard to see that these fires will start to reduce. And that is not good for anyone anywhere.