El Nino fans bushfire risk

28 Nov, 2015 01:00 AM
The Esperance fires are a tragic warning sign for the fire season ahead

FOR some fortunate regions, one of the strongest El Nino events on record has had some of its fangs drawn by record temperatures in the Indian Ocean.

The 2015 El Nino is still growing, and some American analysts think it will be the strongest recorded.

But the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s (BoM) three month outlook for December to February has average conditions returning across large swathes of Australia, because the Indian Ocean is countering the effects of events in the Pacific.

“For October, the sub-tropical Indian Ocean has been the warmest on record - and the most above average for any month on record,” said BoM climatologist Andrew Watkins.

“A very warm Indian Ocean tends to push a bit more moisture our way, and also brings air up from the south that can act as a trigger, if there is more moisture about, to produce a bit more rain.”

That’s what occurred last month through NSW and parts of Queensland, when storm fronts brought good rainfall to large areas.

The rain was welcomed by those with pastures, but was less enthusiastically received by farmers trying to harvest winter crops.

BoM’s last three-monthly outlook, which forecast drier than normal conditions for most agricultural regions outside southern Western Australia, was influenced by conditions in the Indian Ocean that reinforced the drying effect of the El Nino in the Pacific.

Those conditions in the Indian Ocean have now begun to break down, swept away by the emerging monsoon pattern. For the next three months, BoM expects average conditions to prevail over much of Australia.

However, El Nino usually means that monsoon rains arrive late in the north. Across southern Australia, the hot Pacific has produced typically dry conditions on top of record warm temperatures, setting the scene for a prolonged dangerous fire season.

“The Esperance fires are a tragic warning sign for the fire season ahead,” Dr Watkins said.

In a new report, the Climate Council warns that bushfire seasons are generally lengthening and strengthening as the climate warms.

“Globally, the length of the fire weather season increased by nearly 19 per cent between 1979 and 2013,” says the Council’s new report, The Burning Issue: Climate Change And The Australian Bushfire Threat.

The Fire Brigade Employees' Union agrees that fires are starting earlier, burning hotter and moving faster.

“This report’s revelation that fire seasons have indeed grown markedly, that they are now overlapping between the northern and southern hemispheres, and that climate change will only make that worse, highlight the need for urgent action,” said Union secretary Jim Casey.

“Over the long term, only a global response to the human causes of climate change can solve this problem, but in the short term we also need to see urgent investment in additional professional firefighters, specialist equipment, and improved technology, if we want to save lives and property.”

This year is easily on track to be the hottest in recorded history.

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Matthew Cawood

Matthew Cawood

is the national science and environment writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media


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