First came the bush fires. Now comes the withering heat.
Or rather, first came the bush fires and rounds of withering heat, now comes even more scorching temperatures. Such is the situation facing virtually all of Australia this week, in the wake of an unusually hot spring so far.
A scorching heat wave is progressing from west to east across the continent, breaking numerous all-time records as it does so. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the record for the country’s hottest-ever day, when averaged across all maximum temperatures recorded across the country, could fall this week.
The current record stands at 105 degrees (40.3 Celsius), set on January 7, 2013, the BOM’s Adam Morgan reported. Perth, a city of about 2 million on the continent’s west coast, had three straight days with a high temperature at or above 104 degrees (40 Celsius), breaking the previous monthly record for December of two days, which was last reached in 2007.
The heat wave is forecast to shift to South Australia during the next few days, before moving into New South Wales, Victoria, the and Queensland. Temperatures are predicted to be as much as 36 degrees (20 Celsius) above average this year, with some areas potentially reaching or exceeding 122 degrees (50 Celsius), particularly sparsely populated inland areas.
A large expanse of Australia, from Western Australia to Victoria, is predicted to see high temperatures at or above 113 degrees (45 Celsius) on Wednesday, according to the BOM.
On Monday, Brisbane tied its record for the hottest December day, at 106.2 degrees (41.2 Celsius)
The heat may peak in Melbourne on Friday, with a high temperature above 104 degrees (40 Celsius). More than 100 bush fires are burning in New South Wales and Queensland, and the heat is likely to make the situation worse for firefighters who have spent months trying to keep flames from destroying property.
Penrith, located west of Sydney near the Blue Mountains, is forecast to see a high temperature of 115 degrees (46 Celsius) on Saturday.
Extreme heat is the biggest weather-related killer in Australia, according to the BOM. Heat waves like the ongoing event are also clearly connected to long-term, human-caused global warming. So, too, are bush fire outbreaks, as both these extremes are worsening with increasing global average surface temperatures.
Global warming is causing heat waves to be hotter, drier, more likely to occur and longer-lasting, and fires are becoming more likely to grow into large blazes and exhibit extreme behavior that makes them difficult to control.
A combination of climate change and natural variability, particularly an air circulation pattern across the Indian Ocean, has led to an unusually dry and mild stretch in Australia that sparked an early and fierce start to the fire season. The seasonal fire outlook for this upcoming summer is grim from Queensland south to Victoria, as bone dry conditions combine with extreme heat to make for ideal fire conditions.
Right now, the massive Gospers Mountain blaze, is raging across nearly one million acres to the northwest of Sydney. This blaze claimed 20 homes in the past two days, and threatens many more. Smoke from this fire and other blazes has periodically shrouded the country’s largest city in noxious smoke, posing serious health risks.
As it has merged with several other nearby fires, the Gospers Mountain blaze is being called a mega-fire. “It’s a very dangerous mix,” RFS firefighter Brian Williams told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“It’s such an enormously big fire, it’s beyond human ability to control.”
Months of rainfall deficits have left Australia parched; January through October 2019 was the second-warmest and second-driest such period on record. Long-term climate trends in Australia show sharp warming and an increase in extreme heat events.
Last summer was the country’s hottest on record, and the BOM found climate change exacerbated extreme heat events as well as droughts during the year. Overall, Australia’s average annual temperature has increased by 1.8 degrees since 1910, the BOM found, and a 2018 report by the agency said: “There has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather, and in the length of the fire season, across large parts of Australia.”
According to a comprehensive 2015 federal climate report, the ongoing bush fires are burning in areas of Australia that are likely to see an uptick in the average forest fire danger index and days with severe fire danger. The study pinned these trends on human-caused climate change, in large part because a warming climate dries out vegetation faster, making it more flammable.
The relentless heat and bush fires have become a flash point in Australian politics, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s pro-coal policies criticized by those connecting the dots between the heat, fires and climate change. At the most recent international climate talks in Madrid, Australia joined the U.S. and other countries in blocking language from the agreement that would have called for more ambitious cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.
Australia also advocated for emissions trading rules that critics said contained large loopholes.