February 9, 2009

Australia’s Deadly Wildfires Attributed To Climate Change

The latest series of wildfires to hit Australia appeared to be intensified due to climate change, scientists reported on Monday.

Australia is prone to massive wildfires due to its dry climate and naturally combustible vegetation, including oil-rich eucalyptus forests, according to the nation's Bureau of Meteorology.

However, the wildfires that struck Victoria over the weekend were the nation's deadliest on record, and scientists believe climate change is to blame.

"Climate change, weather and drought are altering the nature, ferocity and duration of bushfires," Gary Morgan, head of the government-backed Bushfire Cooperative Research Center, told the AFP.

"This weekend's fires highlight the importance of scientific research in order to improve our understanding of the multiple impacts of bushfires."

University of Sydney bushfire expert Mark Adams said evidence shows that wildfires in Australia are likely to become worse over time.

"I have never seen weather and other conditions as extreme as they were on Saturday, the fire weather was unprecedented," Adams said.

"We don't have all the evidence yet to fully explain this day in terms of climate change, however all the science to date shows that we can expect more extreme weather in the years to come.

"That includes hotter days and drier landscapes across southern Australia."

In late January, temperatures in southeast Australia soared to nearly 115 degrees Fahrenheit during the worst heatwave in a century.

The heat even caused Australian Open officials to utilize the rare heat rule and close the entire center court roof during a match between Serena Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Climate Change Minister Penny Wong said the record heat is yet another sign of global climate change scientists have forecasted.

"Eleven of the hottest years in history have been in the last 12, and we also note, particularly in the southern part of Australia, we're seeing less rainfall," said Wong.

"All of this is consistent with climate change, and all of this is consistent with what scientists told us would happen."

Australia's larger cities are among the most burdened regions, Melbourne, for instance recorded its hottest day in 70 years at 111 in January. Robert Doyle, the city's mayor called for an increase in water due to a 40 percent drop in soil moisture.

"The signs are there that our precious trees are struggling in this brutal weather," Doyle told Reuters.

"Our parks staff have indicated a number of trees are defoliating and canopies are thinning. Once defoliation takes place it is very hard to save the tree," he said.

The Bureau of Meteorology and the government science organization CSIRO predict the number of days when bushfires pose an extreme risk in southeastern Australia could almost double by 2050 under a worst-case climate change scenario.

"As climate change continues to gather pace, Australia is at risk of more frequent drought, higher temperatures, more frequent and intense bushfires, as well as increased severity of cyclones and flooding," Greenpeace campaigner leader John Hepburn said.

"The scale of this tragedy should be a clarion call to politicians for the need to begin treating climate change as an emergency."


Image Caption: This image provided by NASA shows a large plume of smoke spreading southward from a fire (outlined in red) that appears to be burning in a small area of forest west of Churchill in Victoria's Gippsland region. The forest is dark green in contrast to the surrounding grass or cropland. Raging wildfires swept through southeastern Australia on Saturday Feb. 7, 2009 as gale force winds and scorching temperatures combined into a deadly inferno that killed at least 14 people, officials said. This image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite was captured on Jan. 30, 2009. (NASA)


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