NewsJanuary 9, 2013

Epic Heat, Wildfires Are Scorching Australian Landscape

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Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

An exceptional heat wave and associated spate of wildfires have scorched the Australian landscape during the past two weeks, with Monday ranking as Australia’s hottest day on record. According to the Associated Press and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), the national average temperature on Monday was a sizzling 104.6°F. That eclipsed the previous mark of 104.3°F set in 1972.

Temperature forecast for Jan. 14, 2013 showing temperatures exceeding 52 degrees C in some areas.
Click to enlarge the image. Credit: Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

Temperatures were so hot this week that BOM meteorologists had to add two new colors to their weather maps, with deep purple now showing temperatures in excess of 50°C, or 122°F. The scale now extends up to 129 °F, according to the New York Times

According to the Associated Press, four of Australia’s hottest 10 days on record have occurred in 2013, with a record seven straight days of temperatures exceeding 102°F. Tuesday was the country's third-hottest day, with a national average temperature of 104.2°F. Although temperatures cooled a bit for Wednesday, forecasts call for more heat and dangerous fire weather conditions late in the week and into the weekend, particularly for the northeastern portion of the country, including in Brisbane, Australia’s third-largest city.

While the heat has been most intense during January, temperatures in Australia have been running above average since September.

Wildfires have burned more than 300,000 acres since Tuesday, with the most intense fires taking place in Tasmania, where more than 100 homes have been destroyed. Wildfires also broke out in heavily populated New South Wales.

The fires have been so intense that they’ve been spotted by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Fortunately, no deaths have been confirmed, which is a huge change from the “Black Saturday” brushfires of 2009, which killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in the state of Victoria.

Wildfires in Australia as seen from space on Jan. 8, 2013.
Click to enlarge the image. Credit:

The heat is also proving to be a formidable obstacle for elite tennis players who are preparing for next week’s Australian Open, according to Sports Illustrated.

Australia is no stranger to heat and wildfires, as most of the country consists of dry, desert landscapes. However, this heat wave is of an unprecedented severity, geographical scope, and duration for the land Down Under, and scientists have been quick to note that manmade global warming is likely playing a key role.

David Jones, manager of climate monitoring prediction at the BOM, told the Times that this heat event exceeds all others in recorded history. “This event is turning out to be hotter, more spatially expansive and the duration is quite remarkable,” he told the paper. “And that suggests climate change.”

Climate studies have shown that heat waves around the world are already becoming more likely to occur and more severe due to manmade global warming. Wildfire seasons are also changing in response to the warming climate and other factors, such as increased development near wildlands.

In the U.S. in 2012, for example, a hot summer combined with a massive drought to fuel massive wildfires that burned 9.2 million acres, the third-highest on record.

Global temperature departures from average for January so far. Australia (circled) has been one of the warmest places on Earth during this period.
Click to enlarge the image. Credit: Weather Bell Analytics.

Recent research from NASA shows that warmer and drier conditions in coming decades will likely cause the burned area from wildfires in the U.S. to double in size by 2050.

What is happening in Australia is quite similar to what took place in Texas in 2011, when an intense and unrelenting heat wave contributed to devastating wildfires, including the Bastrop wildfire near Austin. That wildfire burned more than 34,000 acres, killed two people and destroyed more than 1,600 homes, breaking the state record for the most homes lost in a single wildfire. It was also the most expensive wildfire in Texas history.

A 2012 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by NASA scientist James Hansen found that extreme heat events are now far more common as a result of manmade global warming. 

According to the study, during the period from 1951-1980, extremely hot summers covered just 1 percent of Earth’s land area. This had risen to 10 percent of the Earth’s land area by the period from 1981-2010, and even higher during the 2006-2010 period.

The study found that the odds of such extreme summers were about 1-in-300 during the 1951-1980 timeframe, but that had increased to nearly 1-in-10 by 1981-2010.

The study found that manmade global warming caused the Texas heat wave of 2011 and the deadly Russian heat wave of 2010 by dramatically altering the frequency of extremely hot summers.

“ . . . We can say with high confidence that such extreme anomalies would not have occurred in the absence of global warming,” the study said.

Other research has shown that the deadly European heat wave of 2003 and the Russian heat wave and wildfires of 2010 were likely influenced by global warming.

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