Friday, June 24, 2011

Global warming and Victorian bushfire tragedy

Global warming and Victorian bushfire tragedy

The State of Victoria, Australia, has just suffered record-breaking heat wave temperatures and a tragic bushfire disaster (209 people dead, 500 injured, 100 in hospital with burns, over 1,834 homes destroyed, thousands of homes damaged, over 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) burned) (see Wikipedia "2009 Victorian bushfires": ). This tragedy has occurred on top of a contributory background of sustained drought, man-made global warming and global government inaction as set out below with reference to EXPERT SCIENTIFIC OPINION from before and after the Victorian bushfire tragedy.

1. According to the seminal 2006 study by Dr A.L. Westerling et al. ( Scripps Institute of Oceanography and other prestigious US institutions; published in the top science journal Science): “Western United States forest wildfire activity is widely thought to have increased in recent decades, yet neither the extent of recent changes nor the degree to which climate may be driving regional changes in wildfire has been systematically documented. Much of the public and scientific discussion of changes in western United States wildfire has focused instead on the effects of 19th- and 20th-century land-use history. We compiled a comprehensive database of large wildfires in western United States forests since 1970 and compared it with hydroclimatic and land-surface data. Here, we show that large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. The greatest increases occurred in mid-elevation, Northern Rockies forests, where land-use histories have relatively little effect on fire risks and are strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt … Increased forest wildfire activity. We found that the incidence of large wildfires in western forests increased in the mid-1980s (Fig. 1) [hereafter, "wildfires" refers to large-fire events (>400 ha) within forested areas only]. Subsequently, wildfire frequency was nearly four times the average of 1970 to 1986, and the total area burned by these fires was more than six and a half times its previous level. … Temperature affects summer drought, and thus flammability of live and dead fuels in forests through its effect on evapotranspiration and, at higher elevations, on snow. Additionally, warm spring and summer temperatures were strongly associated with reduced winter precipitation over much of the western United States”. [1]. 2. According to Professor John Holdren (Harvard University, former Chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Director of the Woods Hole Research Center, and President Obama’s chief scientific adviser) in a recent lecture entitled “The Science of Climatic Disruption”, forest fires are being exacerbated by drought and elevated temperatures in America and Europe; the annual acres burned in the Western USA have now increased from about 0.5 million (1960-1980) to 2.5- 4.5 million (21st century); and the 14 hottest years on record have been since 1990. [2]. 3. According to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) the global mean surface temperature increase since about 1970 has been about 0.6 oC (the temperature increase since about 1890 has been about 0.8 oC) . [3].

4. In response to a record heat wave in the State of Victoria, Australia, and its capital Melbourne (on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, January 28-30, 2009, the Melbourne temperature was unprecedently in excess of 43 oC), Professor David Karoly (meteorologist, University of Melbourne; chairman of the Victorian government's climate change reference group; shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with others connected with the IPCC) stated: "This week is unusual but it (the heat) will become much more like the normal experience, in the range of normal heatwaves, in 10-20 years …[Within 30 years, the number of daily temperatures above 35 oC is expected to double in Melbourne]… It is clear that the current (Victorian) public transport system is not able to cope and it is also clear that the water supply system is stretched ... The health services and the road system are also obviously stretched to their limits… The system can't cope now, and it is just going to get much worse”. [4].

5. After the subsequent record temperature for any Australian capital city of 46.4 oC in Melbourne (47.8 oC at Avalon, the location of Melbourne’s second major airport) and the coincident horrendous bushfire disaster on Black Saturday February 7, 2009 (over 180 dead, over 1,000 homes destroyed, over 300,000 hectares burnt), expert comment connecting this disaster with climate change has been limited although there has been much comment on other aspects risk management and preparedness (e.g. fight or flee, bunkers, fuel reduction, tree reduction around homes, warning sirens).

Thus according to some leading Australian bushfire researchers (psychologist Professor Douglas Paton of the University of Tasmania and the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), Bushfire CRC chief executive officer Gary Morgan, and bushfire and urban design expert Justin Leonard of the CSIRO) Australians need to be better educated about how to deal with bushfires. The current “prepare, stay and defend” or “leave early” policy may have to be modified in view of this latest tragedy and global warming. [5].

6. However Professor Will Steffen (director, Climate Change Institute, Australian National University , ANU) has commented : "Events like this, severe heatwaves and severe fires, become more likely with an underlying change in climate …People better prepare for the fact that the risk is increasing ... (for) more frequent extreme events that are related to temperature, like heatwaves, like bushfires … Our climate is getting warmer, as it is in the rest of the world, and I think there's no doubt about that”. [6].

7. Australian Greens Senator Dr Bob Brown : “Global warming is predicted to make this sort of event happen 25 per cent, 50 per cent more". [6].

8. Greenpeace climate campaigner Trish Harrup: “The scale of this catastrophe, coupled with severe floods in Queensland, should be a clarion call to politicians for the need to begin treating climate change as a national emergency”. [6].

9. Climatologist Professor David Karoly (University of Melbourne) (ABC Lateline interview): “[hot temperatures] unprecedented .... The records were broken by a large amount and you cannot explain that just by natural variability … What we are seeing now is that the chances of these sorts of extreme fire weather situations are occurring much more rapidly in the last ten years due to climate change." [7].

10. Scientist Dr Greg Holland (US National Center for Atmospheric Research): “[high levels of greenhouse gases would] be with us for decades …We definitely need to change our habits so that we can leave our children and our children's children with a better world to live in … In the meantime we are going to have to adapt, we are going to have to accept that it is not going to be six days per summer of extreme temperatures. It may be 20 days per summer of extreme temperatures. And we have to take the appropriate actions to actually live with those conditions." [7].

11. Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti & Pierre Friedlingstein, (in Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, , February 10 2009):

"The severity of damaging human-induced climate change depends not only on the magnitude of the change but also on the potential for irreversibility. This paper shows that the climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop. Following cessation of emissions, removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide decreases radiative forcing, but is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the ocean, so that atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years. Among illustrative irreversible impacts that should be expected if atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increase from current levels near 385 parts per million by volume (ppmv) to a peak of 450–600 ppmv over the coming century are irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the “dust bowl” era and inexorable sea level rise. Thermal expansion of the warming ocean provides a conservative lower limit to irreversible global average sea level rise of at least 0.4–1.0 m if 21st century CO2 concentrations exceed 600 ppmv and 0.6–1.9 m for peak CO2 concentrations exceeding ≈1,000 ppmv. Additional contributions from glaciers and ice sheet contributions to future sea level rise are uncertain but may equal or exceed several meters over the next millennium or longer... The spatial changes in precipitation as shown in Fig. 3 imply greater challenges in the distribution of food and water supplies than those with which the world has had difficulty coping in the past. Such changes occurring not just for a few decades but over centuries are expected to have a range of impacts that differ by region [SW and NE Australia badly affected] . These include, e.g., human water supplies [25], effects on dry-season wheat and maize agriculture in certain regions of rain-fed farming such as Africa [33, 34], increased fire frequency, ecosystem change, and desertification [24, 35-38].” [8]. 12. According to Dr Andrew Glikson (earth and paleo-climate scientist, Australian National University, Canberra), “The Global warming connection of SE Australia’s heat wave” (Group e-mail): “The near-18 degrees C temperature spike (relative to mean base period 1971-2000) in southern Victoria on the 7 February, 2009 (, needs to be looked at in a global as well as an Australian perspective. The concentration of large warm moist air masses over northern Australia and the Timor Sea results in: (A) North Queensland cyclones;

(B) Air currents emanating from the Timor Sea, related to the Indian Ocean Dipole (, directed toward the southeast, dry over central Australia to reach SE Australia as heat waves.

The increase in atmospheric energy (heat) by 1.6 Watt/m2 due to emission of >305 Gigaton Carbon since 1750, an increase of near-38% in atmospheric CO2 levels, enhances the heating of the cross-continental air current, reaching heavily timbered regions of SE Australia where vegetation, not acclimatized to extreme heat waves of 45 degrees C and higher and reaching tinder box conditions, as on the 7th February, 09 ( A new study by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicates the consequences of continued CO2 emissions, currently rising at 1.8-2.2 ppm/year, will persist on a time scale of about 1000 Years (” [9].

13. According to Professor Barry Brook (holds the Foundation Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change and is Director of the Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability at the University of Adelaide), “Is there a link between Adelaide’s heatwave [January-February 2009] and global warming?”: “[Yes] …So, in Adelaide we have two freakishly rare extreme events happening with a 10 month period. How likely is that? Well, if the events are totally independent, we’d expect the joint likelihood of two such heatwaves (of 0.25% probability per year [the 2009 event] and 0.033% per year [2008 event], respectively), occurring within the same 12 month period, to happen about once every 1,200,000 years. Is that unlikely enough for you? But if there is ‘autocorrelation’ (dependencies between the two events due to a linked cause — such as climate change), this calculated probability is not valid. What exactly do I mean by this? Well, the heatwave that struck Europe is 2003 provides a good way to illustrate my final point, thanks to a neat analysis published in Nature in 2004. The authors of this study estimate that warming to date has at least doubled the probability of such an extreme heatwave occurring. Moreover, under ongoing heating, climate models suggest that by 2040, this extraordinarily hot summer (in historical terms) will be just a run-of-the-mill average summer. By 2060, it will be among the coolest of summers the future residents of Europe will thereafter ever experience.” [10].

14. Professor James Hansen, leading US climate scientist and chief scientist of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Research, GISS) in a 2008 letter to Australian PM Rudd: “Global climate is near critical tipping points that could lead to loss of all summer sea ice in the Arctic with detrimental effects on wildlife, initiation of ice sheet disintegration in West Antarctica and Greenland with progressive, unstoppable global sea level rise, shifting of climatic zones with extermination of many animal and plant species, reduction of freshwater supplies for hundreds of millions of people, and a more intense hydrologic cycle with stronger droughts and forest fires, but also heavier rains and floods, and stronger storms driven by latent heat, including tropical storms, tornados and thunderstorms”. [11].

15. According to Dr Andrew Glikson in an Open Letter to Australian PM Kevin Rudd (9 February 2009): “Less than one year elapsed since Hansen’s letter was sent, and while isolated weather events are not necessarily related to climate change, a dangerous trend has developed consistent with projections of atmospheric science, relegating southern Australia to droughts and fire and the north to intense cyclones and floods. Given the gravity of the matter, I suggest you consider to urgently convene a climate summit, where your government can listen to reports of severe climate disruption around the globe and in Australia, and to what the science says regarding future generations your government was entrusted to protect.” [12].

18. According to Professor David Karoly (University of Melbourne; Victorian Government's chief climate change adviser; interviewed on ABC TV Lateline, February 9, 2009): “Look, it's really hard to tell how radical would the changes need to be in the emergency services to cope with the firestorms that were experienced on Saturday. It's quite likely that almost nothing could cope with that sort of intense fire. But it is clear that things can be done to slow down climate change, and we certainly know that climate change will bring higher frequencies of the extreme fire weather that was experienced on Saturday … There is certainly evidence that a number of things, particularly rainfall declines in the south east of Australia, other things like retreat of arctic sea ice are happening much faster than the best estimate, if you like, the mid-range estimate of climate change from the intergovernmental panel on climate change. They're probably - some of those things are happening at the highest range or at the upper limit of what the climate models would project. And even for things like arctic sea ice are happening faster than even climate models would predict. So, yes, we are seeing many changes that are occurring faster than the IPCC climate models would've projected … It's very difficult to attribute a single event to climate change or to natural variability. What we have to do is really look at the balance of probabilities or the risk or likelihood of these events. And what we can say is it is possible to get extreme events like this, like the firestorms, just due to natural variability. But what we're seeing now is that the dice have been heavily loaded so that the chances of these sorts of extreme fire weather situations are occurring much more rapidly in the last 10 years due to climate change. So climate change has loaded the dice. And what we're seeing is a much greater occurrence of this extreme fire weather. And certainly in some situations, we're seeing unprecedented extremes. The hot temperatures on Saturday in Melbourne and in many parts in south eastern Australia were unprecedented. The records were broken by large amount and you cannot explain that just by natural variability. And climate change due to increasing greenhouse gases has been a major factor in increasing the temperatures and likely contributing to the drought in south eastern Australia … Well, I'm sure that there will be expert meteorologists and fire weather experts, both from the Bureau of Meteorology, from the Country Fire Authority, who will be analysing the weather situations. As I said before, it is not possible to attribute any single event to climate change. However, climate change, as I said, has loaded the dice and has increased the probability of these sorts of events occurring. So what we're seeing is a shift in the climate that allows these sorts of severe fire weather events to occur much more commonly. And unfortunately, the changes that are in train already mean that they'll become much more common over the next 10 and 20 years in addition to what we've seen in the last 10 years… We certainly warned of increases in climate extremes, but it's not that these warnings are new. In fact more than a decade ago, climate scientists have been warning of increased occurrence of climate extremes including fire weather in south eastern Australia….Well, I'd hate to say that it requires a disaster to draw the attention - or focus the attention of ministers, but it's certainly clear that the economic disaster focused the attention of the world. And perhaps it requires disasters like Hurricane Katrina in the United States or fire disasters like we've experienced to focus the attention on issues like climate change.” [13].

19. Dr Greg Holland (US National Centre for Atmospheric Research): “I think there is no question you can't attribute to any one event climate change or indeed climate variability. But the way I would put it - I think David's [Professor David Kasroly’s] comparison with loaded dice is a very good one. I would put it in a slightly different fashion, though; that is that it's not that the last couple of days, or indeed the last two or three weeks can be directly attributed to climate change. What we have to accept is that is going to happen a lot more often. So it's not gonna be 30 years before the next one, it's going to be 15 years before the next one. And another important factor that gets left out of a lot of the meteorological discussion is that, like it or not, there are a lot more of us nowadays, and so there are a lot more people in the way of these systems, so the danger keeps getting amplified by the combination of these factors. There is no good story here, I'm afraid …" [13].

20. The following is a statement from 200 intellectual and scientist delegates to the June 2008 Manning Clark House Conference: “Imagining the Real Life on a Greenhouse Earth”, 11-12 June, Australian National University, Canberra (e.g. climate scientists
Prof Barry Brook, Prof Ian Enting, Prof Janette Lindesay, Prof Graeme Pearman, Dr Barrie Pittock, Prof Will Steffen;
Earth and prehistory scientists
Dr Geoff Davies, Dr David Denham, Dr Andrew Glikson (conference convenor), Dr Geoffrey Hope, Prof Malcolm McCulloch, Dr Bradley Opdyke;
health and population experts Prof Stephen Boyden, Dr Bryan Furnass (conference co-convenor), Prof Tony McMichael, Dr Sue Wareham) and
Mark O’Connor

Global warming is accelerating. The Arctic summer sea ice is expected to melt entirely within the next five years, - decades earlier than predicted in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 4th Assessment Report.

Scientists judge the risks to humanity of dangerous global warming to be high. The Great Barrier Reef faces devastation. Extreme weather events, such as storm surges adding to rising sea levels and threatening coastal cities, will become increasingly frequent.

There is a real danger that we have reached or will soon reach critical tipping points and the future will be taken out of our hands. The melting Arctic sea ice could be the first such tipping point.

Beyond 2ºC of warming, seemingly inevitable unless greenhouse gas reduction targets are tightened, we risk huge human and societal costs and perhaps even the effective end of industrial civilisation. We need to cease our assault on our own life support system, and that of millions of species. Global warming is only one of many symptoms of that assault.

Peak oil, global warming and long term sustainability pressures all require that we reduce energy needs and switch to alternative energy sources. Many credible studies show that Australia can quickly and cost-effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions through dramatic improvements in energy efficiency and by increasing our investment in solar, wind and other renewable sources.

The need for action is extremely urgent and our window of opportunity for avoiding severe impacts is rapidly closing. Yet the obstacles to change are not technical or economic, they are political and social.

We know democratic societies have responded successfully to dire and immediate threats, as was demonstrated in World War II. This is a last call for an effective response to global warming.” [14].

21. We can realistically expect 450 ppm atmospheric CO2 by about 2030 (i.e. in about 20 years’ time assuming 3 ppm CO2/y, or earlier due to positive feedbacks) with a change in temperature ( ΔT) 2oC above that in 1900. Above 450 ppm CO2 there is intensification of existing conditions (all Arctic summer sea ice will have gone by 2015, massive hurricanes, storm surges, droughts, mega bushfires, coastal and inland flooding, food shortages, huge mass mortality) plus increasingly major damage to coral reefs – including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef - which will be dying due to ocean warming and acidification above 450 ppm CO2 - with increasing damage to already stressed fisheries and agriculture with consequent mass starvation. [15].

22. This is inexorably happening due to inaction of governments around the world who are simply ignoring top scientific advice in the interests of short-term business profits. Yet it doesn’t have to happen if appropriate actions are urgently taken as summarized below from the 1-page Climate Emergency Facts and Required Actions statement of the Yarra Valley Climate Action Group (please send to everyone you can). [16].

Climate Emergency Actions URGENTLY Required.

1. Change of societal philosophy to one of scientific risk management and biological sustainability with complete cessation of species extinctions and zero tolerance for lying.

2. Urgent reduction of atmospheric CO2 to a safe level of about 300 ppm as recommended by leading climate and biological scientists.

3. Rapid switch to the best non-carbon and renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tide and hydro options that are currently roughly the same market price as coal burning-based power) and to energy efficiency, public transport, needs-based production, re-afforestation and return of carbon as biochar to soils coupled with correspondingly rapid cessation of fossil fuel burning, deforestation, methanogenic livestock production and population growth. [16]

23. Further articles about the connection between climate change and the Victorian bushfire tragedy will be linked as they appear. Thus see "Australian bushfire inferno. Global warming impacting humanity": .[17].

24. Professor Barry Brook (University of Adelaide) in presenting data on the extraordinary February 7, 2009 weather event, quoted a Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) colleague on the connection between man-made global warming and the Victorian bushfire tragedy: “The Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has released a detailed analysis of the 2009 southern Australian heatwave. Some of the figures presented are staggering, with numerous temperature records smashed. Indeed, a colleague at BOM pointed out just how exceptional this event was: “Given that this was the hottest day on record on top of the driest start to a year on record on top of the longest driest drought on record on top of the hottest drought on record the implications are clear. It is clear to me that climate change is now becoming such a strong contributor to these hitherto unimaginable events that the language starts to change from one of “climate change increased the chances of an event” to “without climate change this event could not have occurred.” I couldn’t have said it better. With the shifting climate we are rapidly moving into uncharted territory with unknown return times (but surely already well above what the long-term records might lead us to expect)”. [18].

25. Professor Neville Nicholls (top climate scientist, Monash University) estimated from before and after Monday and Tuesday death notices that over 100 people died in Melbourne in late January 2009, a period in which there were 3 days of over 43C heat in Melbourne (Wednesday January 28, Thursday January 29 and Friday January 30) preceding the February 7 bushfires and that over 200 had died in South East Australia (Victoria, South Australia and Northern Tasmania) in that period : "‘‘By any reckoning, the heatwave at the end of January was a human tragedy.’’ The article reporting this also stated "The heatwave began on January 28, a 43.4 degree day. The next day was 44.3 and the Friday topped 45.1. It was the first time Melbourne had endured three days in a row above 43 degrees, and temperature records were also set across South Australia and northern Tasmania. It is not so much the maximum temperature that is harmful, but the average daily temperature, a calculation of the minimum of the day and the maximum. In a paper published last year, Professor Nicholls and his Monash colleagues analysed Melbourne data and found that deaths among people aged over 65 jumped by at least 15 per cent when the average daily temperature was more than 30 degrees." [19].


[1]. A.L. Westerling, H. G. Hidalgo, D. R. Cayan, T. W. Swetnam , Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity, Science 18 August 2006: Vol. 313. no. 5789, pp. 940 - 943
(DOI: 10.1126/science.1128834; see: ).

[2]. Dr John Holdren (2008), “The Science of Climatic Disruption”: .

[3]. NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS): . See also IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Summary for Policymakers: and Chapter 5, “Projecting Australian climate change”, The Garnaut Climate Change Review (2008): .

[4]. Professor David Karoly quoted by AAP via TVNZ, New Zealand “Southeast under strain from heatwave” (2009): . [5]. Professor Douglas Paton et al, quoted by Dani Cooper, ABC, Science online (2009):

[6]. Professor Will Steffen, Dr Brown and Trish Harrup quoted by Cathy Alexander, “ Expert predicts more mega-bushfires”, Channel 9 News (2009): .

[7]. Professor David Karoly and Dr Greg Holland, interviewed by ABC Lateline, “More severe weather forecast, David Karoly warns”:,27574,25033531-421,00.html .

[8]. Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti & Pierre Friedlingstein, PNAS, Feb 10 2009, vol 106 (6) “Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions” (Published online before print January 28, 2009, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0812721106 ; see: and ).

[9]. Dr Andrew Glikson (earth and paleo-climate scientist, Australian National University, Canberra), “The Global warming connection of SE Australia’s heat wave” (Group e-mail, February 13, 2009).

[10]. Professor Barry Brook, “Is there a link between Adelaide’s heatwave [January-February 2009] and global warming?”: .

[11]. Professor James Hansen, Letter to Australian PM Rudd (2008): .

[12]. Dr Andrew Glikson, Open Letter to the Prime Minister of Australia” (February 9, 2009) : .

[13]. Professor David Karoly, Dr Greg Holland, ABC TV Lateline Interview, February 9, 2009: .

[14]. Statement of the June 2008 Manning Clark House Conference: “Imagining the Real Life on a Greenhouse Earth”, 11-12 June, Australian National University, Canberra: .

[15]. Dr Gideon Polya, “Global warming, climate emergency” course notes, U3A (2009): .

[16]. Climate Emergency Facts and Required Actions, Yarra Valley Climate Action Group (2008): .

[17]. Dr Gideon Polya "Australian bushfire inferno. Global warming impacting humanity", MWC News: .

[18]. Professor Barry Brook, “Heatwave update and [Dr Andrew Glikson’s] Open Letter to the [Australian] PM”: .

[19]. Professor Neville Nicholls, quoted in Melissa Fyfe, "Heatwave left hundreds dead ", The Age: .

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