NewsJanuary 10, 2013

Aussie Heatwave Nears 122°F; Severe Fire Threat Declared

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By Alison Rourke, The Guardian

Australia is bracing for more potentially dangerous fires, with temperatures on Friday predicted to soar close to 50°C, or 122°F, in the center of the continent and up to 46°C (115°F) in parts of heavily populated New South Wales.

The return of the scorching heat follows two days of relative cool, during which fire crews tackled more than 100 blazes still burning in New South Wales and Victoria, and built containment lines for more outbreaks.

The red dots represent fires spotted by satellite on January 9, 2013. 
Click the image to enlarge.
Click here for the interactive version.
Credit: The Guardian

“We are entering a very challenging fire weather period over the next three days,” said Brydie O'Connor, of the New South Wales rural fire service. “We'll have 40 degree-plus days in many parts, with a number of fires from Tuesday still burning. Add that to some very strong north-westerly winds and we've got a very bad situation.”

A severe fire danger rating has been declared in a number of areas, indicating that blazes could be uncontrollable and fast moving, and threaten properties with little warning. The rating is two stages below the “catastrophic level” warning given on Tuesday, the country's third hottest day on record, when 741,00 acres of land burned and many livestock were lost.

About 100 fires that began on Tuesday are still burning. One of them is at Deans Gap, three hours' drive south of Sydney, where 6,000 acres have been destroyed. Part of the blaze is within two miles of a former military bombing range, unused since the 1970s, containing unexploded ordnance.

“Firefighters are treating the range like they would a home, something that needs to be protected, and are clearing a fire break,” O'Connor said.

On Monday the average high temperature across Australia was 104.5°F, surpassing the previous hottest day on record, at 104.1°F, set in 1972. Tuesday then became Australia's third hottest recorded day. Eight of the country's top 20 hottest days by average high temperature have been recorded this year.

It is the first time the average high temperature across Australia has surpassed 102°F on seven consecutive days. Daytime minimum temperatures have also set records. Sydney experienced its hottest night on record on Tuesday, when it was still 93°C at midnight.

The heatwave is mainly due to a late monsoon. Typically, by January, the monsoon trough will have migrated south over north Australia, increasing cloud and rain and therefore lowering the temperature.

The monsoon delay has led to a three-week spell of sunny weather across the interior, which has allowed a mass of very hot, dry, air to expand, a phenomenon the country is predicted to experience more often in coming years.

According to the Australian climate commission the number of record hot days has more than doubled in the past 50 years. It projects that the number of 95°F-plus days in Sydney each year will increase more than fourfold by the end of the century, and in Darwin from nine to more than 300 a year.

In a recent report the commission said heatwaves were likely to be hotter and longer lasting, causing bigger risks of health related issues. It cited a study in Melbourne between 1999 and 2004 which found that hospital admissions for heart attacks rose by almost 40 percent during heatwaves in which the three-day average temperature exceeded 80.6°F.

Despite warnings about the potential impact of climate change, large sections of Australian society remain sceptical about the science behind it, including the main conservative opposition party, whose leader, Tony Abbott, once described the science of climate change as “absolute crap”.

He opposed the introduction of a carbon tax last year by the Labour government, saying it would smash like a wrecking ball through the economy, and promised to overturn it if he was elected this year.

On Wednesday Abbott's deputy, Warren Truss, said it was too simplistic to blame climate change for the current heatwave and fires.

Frank Jotzo, director of the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, at Australian National University, said that Australia, if grouped with developing nations, was by far the most vulnerable to climate change, so it was “vitally important for the world to limit the extent of the problem”. He said: “Despite this in Australia we still have this fundamental debate about whether climate change is real and whether it's important — something that for all intents and purposes is settled in the scientific community.”

Australians generate more carbon pollution per head than any other developed country, largely because of a heavy reliance on coal-fired power stations to produce electricity. The country is also the world's second largest exporter of coal.

Australia, which has a population of 22 million, is responsible for 1.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Britain, by comparison, with nearly three times the population, is responsible for 1.7 percent.

Reprinted with permission from The Guardian.