Australia Wildfires

A fire burns near Cessnock, Australia, Friday. Pic: AP.

The first weeks of 2013 have seen Australia deal with record-breaking temperatures and a spate of associated bush fires. Are bush fires and heat waves just part of living Down Under? Is there anything to be done besides having better fire prevention and fire fighting?

A gradual increase in average temperatures is coinciding with more instances of extreme heat (5 times more likely compared with 50 years ago) which means more fires. What’s different about the recent heatwave isn’t that there are extreme temperatures in certain hotspots, but that they are so widespread and lasting for so long.

(READ MORE: The silent victims of Australia’s bushfires)

So says a piece in the Conversation written by members of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. Though the current weather is linked to a delayed monsoon season and slow moving weather systems, scientists see a connection between the heatwave and climate change:

So, while the “cause” of an individual weather event, including heat waves, is always proximally linked to antecedent weather conditions — it is possible to determine the influence of climate change on the frequency of occurrence of such an event. This is expressed by the increased likelihood that these extreme events will occur in comparison with the past, or in comparison with climate modelling scenarios of an unchanging climate.

Pic: Omer Ziv (Flickr CC)

Some may argue that with China, the US, India and Russia, etc. continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with reckless abandon, Australia’s role is insignificant, no matter what the effects of climate change are on the southern continent. But despite being the 52nd most populated country in the world, Australia is 17th in overall CO2 emissions according to 2010 data and 11th in per capita CO2 emissions. All those countries with more emissions per person are rich Gulf states and small island nations, as well as Luxembourg. Australia also has an influential and important voice in global and regional politics.

A very different piece in the conservative American Thinker, attributes the bush fires to protecting forest land:

Misguided tree lovers and green politicians have locked the gates on ever-increasing areas of land for trees, parks, heritage, wilderness, habitat, weekend retreats, carbon sequestration etc. Never before on this ancient continent has anyone tried to ban land use or limit bush fires on certain land. The short-sighted policy of surrounding their massive land-banks with fences, locked gates and fire bans has created a new alien environment in Australia. They have created tinder boxes where the growth of woody weeds and the accumulation of dead vegetation in eucalypt re-growth create the perfect environment for fierce fires. Once ignited by lightning, carelessness or arson, the inevitable fire-storms incinerate the park trees and wildlife, and then invade the unfortunate neighbouring properties.

Ironically, another extreme weather event said to be increasing due to climate change may bring relief from Australia’s heat and fires to parts of the country. But of course there is also the danger of flash floods. Read about Cyclone Oswald in The Australian.

Koala cools off, pic: Sunrise on Seven (Flickr CC)