Australians warned to expect more heat waves

AFP-JIJI, Bloomberg

Firefighters battled scores of wildfires raging across Australia on Saturday as a government commission warned that climate change has raised the risk of scorching heat waves becoming more frequent.

Temperatures rose to as high as 46.8 degrees Celsius in inland parts of New South Wales on Saturday, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

The mercury in Sydney peaked at 31 degrees, lower than forecast, as a cooler weather system moved up the east coast, the bureau said, but it rose as high as 42 degrees in the city of Newcastle, situated about 170 km north of Sydney.

In the state of New South Wales, some 1,000 firefighters in the southeast were attempting to douse almost 100 wildfires, about a dozen of which were burning out of control, while fires were also raging in the states of neighboring Victoria and Queensland.

And in the southern island state of Tasmania, known for its cooler temperatures, residents were returning to their burned-out homes after fleeing a week ago when flames raced through villages on the Tasman Peninsula.

No deaths have been reported from the bush fires, which have flared during the extreme summer temperatures, but the unprecedented heat wave has prompted the government’s Climate Commission to issue a new report on the phenomenon.

The report said that climate change has contributed to making the extreme heat conditions — in which record-breaking temperatures in parts of the country have topped 45 degrees — and bush fires far worse than in previous years.

“The length, extent and severity of the current heat wave are unprecedented in the measurement record,” the report, titled “Off the Charts: Extreme Australian summer heat,” pointed out.

“Although Australia has always had heat waves, hot days and bush fires, climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and longer heat waves and more extreme hot days, as well as exacerbating bush fire conditions,” it said.

It further stated that while many factors influence the potential for bush fires, so called “fire weather” is highly sensitive to changes in climatic conditions.

And hotter temperatures, longer heat waves, high winds and drier soils and grasses can all dramatically exacerbate fire conditions.

“Thus, when fire occurs in more extreme weather conditions, there is the potential for the fire to be far more intense and difficult to control,” the report said.

David Karoly, one of the report’s authors, said there is clear evidence of an increasing trend in hot extreme temperatures in Australia, where the current heat wave has affected more than 70 percent of the vast barren continent.

Karoly last week said the heat wave, which began in December, saw the average maximum daily temperature across the entire country hit 40.3 degrees Monday, breaking the previous record of almost 40.2 degrees that had stood since 1972.

“That’s an amazing temperature,” Karoly said. “No cool areas offsetting the record heat. What we’ve been experiencing this week . . . people have been calling it a ‘dome’ of hot air.”

Karoly said there is likely to be an increased frequency of hot extremes, more hot days, more heat waves and more extreme bush fires during Australian summers in the future.

“We still will have natural climate variability, so some years will be cooler and a little bit wetter,” he said.

“But, yes, we will expect to see more frequent heat waves that are lasting longer and covering more of the country and getting more and more intense as time goes on,” he concluded.

There was some relief from the heat in sight later Saturday, with forecast cooler temperatures expected to come to the aid of firefighters battling blazes in southern New South Wales and Victoria.

But in northern inland New South Wales, the temperature soared above 40 degrees and numerous fires, fueled and accelerated by increased winds, were still burning strongly.

Wildfires are a fact of life in arid Australia, where 173 people died in the 2009 Black Saturday firestorm, the nation’s worst natural disaster in modern times.

As owners returned to their gutted homes last week in the small Tasmanian communities of Dunalley and Murdunna, they were well aware that things could have turned out much worse.

“Never mind, these things can be replaced, it’s not a problem,” one local resident told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as he surveyed his destroyed vacation home in the small town of Murdunna.