Satellites find cool lower troposphere over SE Australia when fires started in December 2006. We are waiting for updated surface data. You read it first here.
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Last Update: Saturday, January 20, 2007. 2:10pm (AEDT)ABC Online
Experts warn of rising ‘megafire’ threat
Experts in Australia are warning of a global increase in “megafires”, like those seen in the south-east of the country over the past two months.
The Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre says these fires can not be controlled by resources currently available and burn until there is a break in the weather or they hit a coastline.
Chief executive Kevin O’Loughlin claims the main problems are global warming and the laws that protect national parks and is asking governments worldwide to take action.
“We need to particularly look at ways of reducing the fuel if that’s possible but also generally changing land management practices to try and cope with the increased risk,” he said.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
TV PROGRAM TRANSCRIPT
New global warming warning issued
Reporter: Kerry O’Brien
KERRY O’BRIEN: Political Editor Michael Brissenden. The Federal Government, speaking of crises, has today received its grimmest warning yet of the threat global warming poses to Australia. The warning came in a briefing to Trade Minister Warren Truss and various backbenchers from a range of Government advisory bodies, including the National Climate Centre and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. That message sounds an ominous note for the bush and cities alike, as underscored by serious bushfires in Tasmania and Victoria today. Firefighters in Hobart say they haven’t seen such conditions for 40 years. I’m joined now from Canberra by the head of the National Climate Centre, Michael Coghlan.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Michael Coughlan, what were the key points at the centre of your briefing today?
MICHAEL COUGHLAN: Kerry, there were three points to be made. First of all, this year we are going into what many people are aware of now as another El Nino event. That’s the short term. But there is also a slightly longer-term story there – the fact that this El Nino has come on the back of another one out of which we never really pulled, the one back in 2002, 2003. And, in fact, even the 1997 98 El Nino, we never really pulled out of that so that if you look at the long term rainfall over many areas of south eastern Australia, in fact even eastern Australia over the last five years, it’s one of rainfall deficits. This has, of course, serious implications for our long term water storages.
KERRY O’BRIEN: This, of course, is combined with consistently higher temperatures?
MICHAEL COUGHLAN: That’s the second story, the fact that the temperatures over those same periods, that last five or ten years, the daytime temperatures in particular, have been above average. In fact, if you look at the last five years and the last ten years, much of southern Australia is recording record high temperatures during the daytime, which of course means greater demand from evaporation which means less water, of course, in the soil for crops.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Is this the worst picture you’ve done a number of these briefings is this the worst picture you’ve had to present to the Government in these briefings?
MICHAEL COUGHLAN: Certainly in terms of the El Ninos, the fact again I go back to that point that we never really pulled out of the last El Nino, not fully dry land agriculture did to some extent simply because they just need rain to get those crops going. But you need really good heavy rainfall after an El Nino event to start to fill the major water storages. We saw those major rainfalls come in ’82, ’83, ’86, ’87 and even earlier El Nino events, but we haven’t seen it in the last two El Nino events.
KERRY O’BRIEN: And in that context, these heightened temperatures, these are consistent, are they not, with what’s happening around the rest of the world and are clearly linked to global warming?
MICHAEL COUGHLAN: Certainly Australia’s temperatures are increasing along with the rest of the world and yes, that’s Australia’s contribution to global warming, the fact that we are seeing temperatures rise is consistent with that global picture.
KERRY O’BRIEN: And so the Murray Darling Commission was also there today in these briefings and there’s another potentially grim story to tell there, is there not?
MICHAEL COUGHLAN: Yes. The situation is certainly serious this year, but the real crux will come with the next Autumn break. There is water in the system to see at least some people through this current dry period. But if we don’t have a major turnaround in the water situation with the next Autumn break, March, April, May which is when we normally see the El Nino fade and historically we have seen good rainfall come in, with the exception of the last two events, if we don’t see those two major rainfalls come in, then the situation will indeed be grim.
KERRY O’BRIEN: When you pull all of the facts together there is cause, as I understand it, for serious concern that those rains may well not come?
MICHAEL COUGHLAN: We have to be we have to maintain a little optimism there. El Nino, the climate system has the capability of throwing up many surprises to us and so we do have that optimism that there will be at least some turnaround in the March April timeframe.
KERRY O’BRIEN: But looking at this year by year and then extrapolating that ahead, the picture does not look good, does it?
MICHAEL COUGHLAN: Well, if we were to extrapolate the last five years and say we were going to continue that for the next five years, absolutely that would be quite devastating. Unfortunately, even with our current understanding of the climate system we’re not able to do that. All we can do is go back into our past records and look at previous El Nino events. They do tend to end around the March April timeframe. There is some form of a break. The story is just how big the break will be in March April, 2007.
KERRY O’BRIEN: We’re seeing blistering conditions in Tasmania at the moment, serious bushfires there. We’ve already seen bushfires in Sydney this spring, premature by historic standards. We’re seeing them in Victoria today all these things would seem to add up to an ominous sign for the cities as well, would they not?
MICHAEL COUGHLAN: Certainly, that is the case. The bushfire situation is quite dire in many areas of south eastern Australia and the point there is that it’s the forest areas that just haven’t had those deep rainfalls that are needed to stave off those really serious bushfire conditions and we just haven’t had the good rains to turn things around.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Michael Coughlan, thank you very much for talking with us.
MICHAEL COGHLAN: Thank you, Kerry.
Wind: time for a deep breath
January 2004: It’s time to take a deep breath in the wind power debate.
With the release of the Victorian Wind Atlas, the debate has been brought into focus following months of controversy. In particular, the atlas’ launch has come in a week when energy and global warming issues have hit the headlines, on the back of the Howard Government’s intransigence on greenhouse policy and startling new international research.
By taking a deep breath we can examine the bigger energy picture from a state and national perspective.
The big picture: Australia is the worst greenhouse polluter, per person, in the developed world. Victoria is the country’s worst greenhouse performing state, per person, because of our reliance on brown coal, the grottiest fossil fuel.
This situation is not sustainable. But what are our governments doing about it?
The Victorian Government has set a target for wind power of 1000 megawatts by 2006 – the equivalent of between 450 and 600 turbines. In doing so it is aiming to achieve the country’s most ambitious targets for renewable energy. Likewise by committing to a target of 10 per cent renewable energy by 2010 in the last election, the Government created a benchmark above any other state.
Through these policies the Bracks Government is rightly working to combat the dangers of global warming.
In contrast vocal critics of wind power, including the State Opposition, have been demonstrating blatant self-interest and political point scoring, and in so doing are undermining vital greenhouse policies.
Some criticism against the Government has been correct. It has handled the emerging wind industry in a clunky fashion: consultation has not always been thorough, and the state could have benefited from the earlier release of the atlas.
But we should avoid muddying the issue and tarring wind power with these shortcomings. Just because the process has not been smooth, wind power should not be sullied.
In contrast to the State Government’s action, there is an almighty vacuum of leadership on energy issues from the Howard Government.
This week the Federal Government abandoned a major international measure aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
On Friday, a Federal Government committee released a recommendation on the future of Australia’s renewable energy targets, which will form the basis of the Federal policy on renewable energy. Unless the Howard Government significantly increases the federal target, the renewable energy industry will die a slow death.
The poignancy of this greenhouse and renewable energy debate is that it’s taking place at a time when scientific studies are flooding the news with global warming warnings.
A study published in Nature this month revealed climate change may threaten more than a million species with extinction – or a quarter of the world’s land animals and plants.
This was followed by a CSIRO study warning that the number of summer days over 35 degrees in Australia could double by 2030 because of global warming, with higher temperatures leading to greater fire risks. For Victoria global warming translates to more bushfires, less water, further drought and a diminishing snow line.
In December United Nations scientists agreed there was no doubt global warming was real and was being caused by people. Even Prime Minister John Howard admits that “humans are having a discernible influence on global climate”.
Such research brings the wind debate into focus and points to the crux of the matter: Compared to the greater risk created from our existing energy sources, wind farms may not be perfect but they are essential.
A wind turbine could kill between one and two birds a year, research has shown. But global warming could kill up to one million species. A wind turbine might blight a landscape, but global warming threatens to damage our whole world. In other words not having wind turbines carries inherent risks to animal, plants and humanity.
Opponents who dismiss wind power as “green tokenism” ignore the fact that it is one of the world’s fastest growing industries, creating rural jobs and drought-proofing farms. It is clean, non-polluting, safe, affordable and available right now.
The big picture: we need to be looking at more sustainable energy sources and ways to be less wasteful with energy. We need to be supporting governments in their efforts to curb our greenhouse-loving ways and opposing all efforts to block progress.
Wind power may not be the panacea to our global warming problems, but it is an essential piece of the big picture solution.
Severe bushfires linked to global warming PRINT FRIENDLY EMAIL STORY
PM – Tuesday, 9 December , 2003 18:30:00
Reporter: Rafael Epstein
MARK COLVIN: The Federal Government’s new Bushfire Research Centre was only opened today, but it’s already produced some sobering predictions. One of the fire ecology experts at the new centre says global warming has already started to produce more severe bushfires over recent Australian summers.
Dr Kevin Tolhurst from Melbourne says much of the east coast and the southern states can look forward to more frequent and more intense bushfires. The dimensions of climate change are the subject of intense debate among scientists. But those who take a close look at exactly how climate change is measured say Dr Tolhurst’s predictions appear valid.
Rafael Epstein reports.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: The Federal Government is providing $25 million of the $100 million needed for the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre. It brings together experts from state-based fire authorities, the CSIRO, universities, the Bureau of Meteorology and several other organisations around the world, including some in New Zealand.
Dr Kevin Tolhurst is a fire ecology expert from the University of Melbourne, and he’s convinced global climate change will produce more periods of ever-more intense bushfires across a wide area from the south of Queensland through NSW, Victoria, South Australia and into West Australia.
KEVIN TOLHURST: More frequent, severe conditions. So the occurrence of drought is likely to be more frequent, and then within those drought conditions we can expect more extreme conditions to occur as well.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Does that mean you would be predicting more of those batches of serious bushfires as well as those actual bushfires being more intense?
KEVIN TOLHURST: That’s right. The intensity side of it comes from the fact that with an increased carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, that forests generally are going to produce more fuel, if you like.
Combine that with a greater frequency of drought and more severe weather conditions, we would expect fires to not only be more intense because of the greater fuel amounts, but the likelihood of having severe fire weather conditions is likely to increase as well. And instead of talking about a one in a hundred year event, we’d be talking more likely one in fifty or one in thirty year events becoming much more the par for the course.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: How much of the recent experiences we’ve had with severe bushfire seasons do you think are attributable to climate change? Do you think we’re beginning to see the result of climate change in bushfires?
KEVIN TOLHURST: The seasons we’ve seen are part of a natural cycle of variability, but we’re just seeing it more often. So what I’m suggesting, I guess, is the seasons like we had last year are likely to become more common. To say it’s attributable just to climate change, we can’t say that. But it’s the sort of thing we can expect more of in the future.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: There’s intense discussions in some sections of the scientific community about whether climate change is even occurring. But Dr Tolhurst says the evidence is clear, from increases in sea levels and the amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He says the climate change models and the fire behaviour models, tracked in previous decades, show a statistical correlation, and they’ll do so in future.
The CSIRO’s Bushfire Research Centre says Dr Tolhurst’s work rests on the validity of his predictions for climate change. Dr Matthew England from the University of New South Wales is an expert on the mathematical models used to try and predict climate change, and he backs the model used by Dr Tolhurst.
MATTHEW ENGLAND: Yes, it’s an excellent model. It would be the best climate change simulation system that’s available internationally, the reason being that the climate model has focussed a lot of its details over the Australian continent.
The world’s best climate models don’t tend to do this because they’re interested in the global scale system, or say, the climate over America or Europe. The Australian climate model itself is focussed on the Australian region.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: What does it actually predict is going to happen over the next couple of decades?
MATTHEW ENGLAND: Over the next couple of decades what they do is feed in the best guess at how carbon dioxide will change in the atmosphere, and it generates a forecast, if you like, of the temperature and rainfall over Australia.
And what the model is predicting is a gradual warming, as we seem to have seen in the last hundred years. And on top of that, the rainfall events will be more extreme, so droughts will be more extreme and more persistent and equally, flooding events will be more extreme. So that makes sense with this idea that bushfire threats are going to increase over the next few decades.
MARK COLVIN: Dr Matthew England, an expert on the models used to predict climate change, with Rafael Epstein.