Photo Credit: Andrew Brownbill, AAP via ABC
Australia is in shock. It’s currently in the grip of the worst bushfires since white settlement, 220 years ago. 128 dead and over 750 houses destroyed in the state of Victoria. And counting. Victorian police expect numbers to double. A mind numbing tragedy.
The previous worst bushfire disaster, the Ash Wednesday fires of February 1983 claimed 75 lives—across two states, was been seared into the country’s memory. It was the gauge by which severe natural disasters were measured. Unfortunately Australia now has a devastating new benchmark.
Reports of the savage firestorm, that was Saturday 7 February 2009, mention flames soaring over four storeys high and fire fronts that leapt 25 km (16 miles) in less than 15 minutes. In one town over 500 houses were razed to the ground in just a few hours. No-one had seen anything like it before. Record Heatwave
The fires came on the back of an unprecedented period of hot weather, which we noted last week. On Saturday 7th, Melbourne, a city of 4 million people, baked under 46.4°C (116°F), its hottest day since the Bureau of Meteorology started keeping records 150 years ago. (Wikipedia lists only seven countries having ever recorded higher temperatures.)
It is not possible to prove, categorically, that a weather event is, or is not, directly connected to climate change predictions. But what Australia has been experiencing with record breaking floods, scorching heatwaves and more intense bushfire activity are precisely the effects that scientists have been forecasting will result from a changing climate.
Professor Barry Brook, Director of Climate Science at The Environment Institute, University of Adelaide said on his personal blog just prior to this tragic fire, that “obvious question is whether the current heatwave is anything remarkable, and can a climate change signal be detected in this event?
The standard scientific answer I would usually give is something like this: ‘Extreme weather has occurred in the past, and it is not possible to definitively attribute any one unusual event to climate change. That said, a higher frequency of intense heatwaves like this is consistent with the expectations of a rising global temperature‘ (see figure showing ‘more record hot weather’). But in the case of Adelaide’s 2009 heatwave, a bit of deeper investigation does indeed suggest that a climate change link is very likely.
Dr Roger Stone, a climatologist, from the University of Southern Queensland expresses similar thoughts, when questioned if Australia’s recent bout of extreme weather related to climate change. He observed that while weather patterns were not unusual, their intensity was.
"It certainly fits the climate change models but I have to add the proviso that it's very difficult - even with extreme conditions like this - to always attribute it to climate change, but it does fit the climate change models."
For but one of many heart breaking first-hand accounts of this weekend of climatic extremes, read the story of volunteer firefighter, Drew Adamson, who whilst trying to protect someone else's property observed his own home ablaze.
"I saw the flames going up the hill and I saw our own house catch on fire and I thought, 'Well, it's too late for that now'.
But is it ‘too late’ for us to rise to the challenge of climate change? In the hope that we be able might, at least, limit the degree to which extreme weather events impact our collective home. Many of those poor souls who lost their lives in Saturday’s fires were caught whist fleeing the onslaught of the inferno. For many they had no immediate warning of impeding catastrophe, it arrived on their doorsteps with a speed and scale of intensity beyond the expectation of anyone.
Fight or Flight?
Australia has had a well established emergency policy towards bushfires. It is "Stay-and-Defend or Leave-Early." As John Brumby, the Premier of Victoria, said that policy has served well for 20 years.
"But [...] there is no question that there were people there who did everything right, put in place their fire plan and it wouldn't matter, their house was just incinerated."
Humankind has, however, been alerted well in advance, to the threat of climate change. We have a small window of opportunity in which make positive changes. An opportunity worth seizing. For even if we wanted too, we have no where else to flee to. Earth is our only home. We cannot leave. We cannot relocate. We’re all in this together. Prevention is always better than a cure.
PS. Temperatures have dropped, at time of writing, but many communities remain threatened by uncontrolled bushfires.