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Why all signs point to an Australian summer of heat and fire


It’s only the start of spring in Australia and the country is already grappling with heat and fires, raising fears of a potentially devastating summer.

Last weekend, more than 20 runners in the Sydney Marathon were hospitalized due to a heatwave. Ski resorts including Perisher, the country’s largest, closed prematurely due to lack of snow following Australia’s warmest winter since records began in 1910.

Then, last week, dozens of bushfires broke out across the country, including more than 60 in the densely populated state of New South Wales.

These are worrying signals about what much of the country can expect when it comes to spring rolls. in summer. The confluence of natural climatic phenomena, notably El Niño, which are added to global warming of human origin, leads scientists to sound the alarm.

“We are in a serious situation,” said David Bowman, professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania, Australia. “The climate change monster has woken up and El Niño means it’s angry,” he told CNN.

Last week, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) announced the official arrival of El Niño, a natural weather phenomenon originating in the Pacific Ocean that tends to bring hot and dry conditions to Australia, particularly in areas oriental.

In addition to El Niño, there is another climate fluctuation that increases the likelihood of heat and drought. The Indian Ocean positive dipole is a climate model similar to El Niño, but originates in the Indian Ocean and can have an equally significant influence on Australian weather.

This “double punch” is “very unfortunate,” Bowman said. And the underlying trend of global warming, as the world continues to burn planet-warming fossil fuels, further increases the risks of extreme weather.

“We are already seeing extreme weather conditions in parts of the continent, particularly in terms of duration of heat,” as well as “catastrophic” fires, Karl Braganza, head of climate monitoring at the BOM, said Tuesday during a call to journalists.

He called on Australians “to prepare for a summer marked by heat and fire risks”.

Fears are particularly acute as memories of the 2019 to 2020 Black Summer fire season – the worst the country has seen in decades – remain seared in the minds of Australians. The fires have destroyed 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres), contributed to the deaths of hundreds of people and killed more than a billion animals.

But conditions are different this year. While the period leading up to the Black Summer fires was characterized by a three-year dry spell — “entire, vast landscapes were primed to burn for months,” Bowman said — recent years have been rainy in Australia due to the influence of El Niño’s colder counterpart, La Niña.

A fire rages in Bobin, 350 km north of Sydney, on November 9, 2019, during Australia's catastrophic Black Summer fire season.

But experts told CNN there is no room for complacency. Although a bushfire season as extensive as Black Summer is unlikely, Robb Webb, CEO of the National Fire and Emergency Services Council (NFAC), told CNN: “We know that it doesn’t have to be a “black summer” to be a “black summer.” dangerous fire season.

NWAC fire forecasts released last month warned of increased fire risk in large parts of the country as plants that grew during the wettest years quickly dry out.

“Prolonged heat waves can destroy dry landscapes, so all that lush vegetation can become tinder in a matter of days,” Bowman said. A combination of extreme heat and wind would likely fuel very intense fires “that would seem to come out of nowhere,” he added.

In addition to fire, Australians can expect heat. “This summer will be warmer than average and certainly warmer than the last three years,” Braganza said.

Temperatures are already breaking local records. The temperature at Sydney Airport reached 35.9 degrees Celsius (97 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, according to BOM, breaking September heat records. The average temperature in Sydney in September is around 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit).

It remains uncertain whether the summer heat will be unprecedented.

“Every El Niño is different,” said Andrea Taschetto, associate professor of climate at the University of New South Wales, making it difficult to predict exactly how hot things will get.

But signs indicate “there’s a good chance this summer will be the hottest on record,” she said.

Others are more cautious. Jason Evans, also a professor of climate at the University of New South Wales, said that while the abnormally warm winter “raises concerns about extreme heat this summer”, he thinks recent wet years make it less record temperatures likely. But everything depends on the drought in the coming months, he added.

What is clear, he told CNN, is that climate change is making many extreme weather events more intense. “Increased extreme heat is the clearest example,” he said, but it also worsens the impacts of drought and extreme rain.

“Climate change is now taking center stage,” Bowman said. “The past is an increasingly unreliable guide to the future. Expect the unexpected.


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