How Climate Change Is Fanning Australia’s Flames

17:29 minutes

a satellite image taken over australia shows the smoke from the fires
An image taken by NOAA-NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite on January 1, 2020, shows the location of the fires. Credit: NOAA/NASA

All eyes have been on Australia in recent weeks as the country’s annual summer fire season has spun out of control with devastating damage to endangered wildlife, homes, farms, indigenous communities, and—as smoke drifts across unburned major metropolitan centers like Sidney and Canberra—air quality. 

Vox reporter Umair Irfan and fire scientist Crystal Kolden explain why climate scientists are pointing the finger squarely at climate change for contributing to the fires’ unique size and intensity. They also explain why wildfires are an inescapable part of the planet’s future—while Australia’s politicians are reluctant to let go of the country’s thriving, carbon-emitting coal industry

Plus, comments from Australian climate scientist Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, who explains why climate change has heightened the country’s naturally volatile weather patterns to make this the worst fire season in living memory.

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Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a staff writer for Vox, based in Washington, DC.

Crystal Kolden

Crystal Kolden is an associate professor of Forest Rangeland and Fire Sciences at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho.

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick is a senior research scientist at the Climate Change Research Centre of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Australia is burning. What is being described as a mega fire, the joining of two large wildfires to create one super blaze, is now engulfing an area three times larger than any California fire. You’ve likely seen the photos, right? These scorched koalas, the smoke hazed beaches, refugees in boats being rescued from burning coastal towns.

And maybe you’ve heard some of these statistics. More than two dozen people, more than a billion animals dead, millions of acres burned. Bushfires are a common occurrence in the Australian summer as drought and lightning intersect to burn the landscape. But this year is, as many Australians will tell you, an unprecedented year and the worst disaster in living memory in terms of how big the fires have been, how much damage they’ve caused.

Earlier this year– this week, we spoke to a climate scientist in Australia, Dr. Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, University of New South Wales in Sydney, who said that this year’s fire season was no surprise whatsoever to climate scientists, who have been predicting an intensification of fires under models of climate change.

SARAH PERKINS-KIRKPATRICK: There’s lots of reports and research saying that a longer fire season with more intense fires was going to happen under climate change, particularly. In Southeast Australia. And that’s exactly what we have seen. So this time it’s like, well, you know, guys, we kind of told you about these. We warned you as much as they possibly could.

But at the same time, it’s absolutely shocking. So many people have lost their homes, we’ve had a lot of deaths, half a billion animals have been killed. It’s horrible. No one wanted this to happen. We knew it was going to happen. But by no means did we actually want it to happen.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Perkins-Kirkpatrick also noted that the record temperature for Western Sydney was just toppled an entire degree Celsius– that’s two degrees Fahrenheit– fewer than five years after the last record was established.

SARAH PERKINS-KIRKPATRICK: A study that a colleague of mine [INAUDIBLE], he was saying that by– in a few decades in Western Sydney, they’ll see temperatures of 50ish degrees Celsius. And we were so close to that just the other day. So what we thought might happen in decades might actually happen within the next 10 years. And that’s quite scary that– these comp projections are getting better, the models are getting more accurate and precise. But even then, things are happening, at times, faster than we can predict.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Perkins-Kirkpatrick told us that while this year was an unprecedented season for fire. It’s just a matter of time now before Australia has another one just as bad. What was once unheard of could happen again in just 10 or 20 years. And she’s hoping that Australians will be ready next time. But how do we draw the line between climate change and this year’s disaster?

Are future wildfires fires preventable in a warming world? And will Australia’s politicians see this as a reason to work harder on carbon emissions? In Melbourne, 10,000 people took to the streets as others did across the country, voicing their anger at prime minister Scott Morrison’s inaction to combat climate change. Will we see more of this? Joining me to talk about all of this is Umair Ufan, a staff writer for Vox based in Washington, DC. Welcome Umair.

UMAIR UFAN: Hey, Ira. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Also Dr. Crystal Kolden, the Associate Professor of Fire Science at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. Welcome to Science Friday.

CRYSTAL KOLDEN: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Umair, what are people telling you about what it’s like to be in Australia right now?

UMAIR UFAN: I spoke to a researcher who is in Canberra and he was just saying that the main impact that they’re having is the smoke. And it’s been really devastating that this choking air quality has caused a meaningful reduction in quality of life. People are talking about getting headaches just by walking outside. There was a report of a woman who just got off of an airplane, fell ill, and then was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead.

So it’s a non-trivial amount of problems, even for people that are far away from the fire front. And that’s coming on top of a year of record drought and record heat and all the other health problems that stem from those as well. This is something that very few Australians can get away from, and that’s kind of what’s made it such an urgent issue.

IRA FLATOW: And the fires are not under control and no guess about when they might burn out or come under control?

UMAIR UFAN: That’s right and forecasts show that they’re still going to be more high winds picking up this weekend. And with those high winds, of course, that means that the flames and the flame front can continue to spread. And so even the progress that they’re making in terms of containing blazes could easily be undermined and overcome.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Kolden, as someone who researches fire, what data are you looking for when big events like this happen? What can you learn about how fires behave?

CRYSTAL KOLDEN: So we look at a lot of different things. The key thing that folks like myself are looking at right now is the timing and the intensity of these fires in order to understand how these are different from fires we’ve seen in the past, and how that difference is related to climate change. So a key thing here is that we’re not even in the peak of summer and the peak of fire season for Australia. Usually, fire season peaks in late January, early February for southeastern Australia. And we’re still weeks away from that.

So there’s a lot of hot weather yet to come. And we look at the intensity of these fires and look at what they’re actually burning. Because fires don’t necessarily burn completely across the landscape, they sort of burn in patchy areas. And a lot of times they’re unburned trees even in the middle of burned areas. And so one of the things that we look at is, oh, these fires are actually really burning completely. They’re not leaving a lot of live vegetation behind. And that’s unusual. That’s much more complete than we’ve seen in past fires.

IRA FLATOW: Is there any doubt that these fires are connected to climate change?

CRYSTAL KOLDEN: For climate scientists, no. There is no doubt and the key is that the– there’s a lot of discussion and misinformation being spread about arson, about land management, but the key here is that these fires are burning under conditions that are unprecedented. You just talked about the records that have fallen this year and are likely to continue falling. And those conditions, extremely hot, extremely dry, they’re in a long-term drought, those conditions allow fires to burn more intensely and allow new ignitions to start and grow more quickly than cooler and wetter conditions.

So climate change is really amplifying the effect of ignitions. Australia always has a lot of ignitions. There are parts of the US that are very similar, but these are conditions that are associated with climate change and are amplifying the types of intensities and speed with which these fires are moving.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Umair, scientists have said that Australia is uniquely vulnerable to climate change because it’s maybe– why is that? Is it a small landmass in a big ocean? What makes them vulnerable?

UMAIR UFAN: Well, Australia is sort of in the middle of three big ocean circulation patterns. It’s between the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Antarctic Ocean. And so there’s a lot of natural volatility there. And there aren’t a lot of natural barriers against that volatility, so they are at the mercy of the weather. And in 2019, in addition to the long-term changes in climate, there were also circulation patterns that aligned in a very unusual way to drive even more moisture away from the continent and allow more heat to accumulate.

But another big factor is, of course, that Australia has landmass is about the size of the United States and their population is less than that of Texas. And so it’s very sparsely populated and it’s difficult to manage the land and take the precautions that they may necessarily need to prevent or cutting firebreaks in, for example, in areas that could be more vulnerable. So there is a resource management problem there as well on top of the natural climactic and weather variability that they deal with.

IRA FLATOW: And you know what? I was shocked, I imagine a lot of other people were shocked to hear the extent of death. Animals– the billion animals have died, Umair. Wow.

UMAIR UFAN: Yeah. I mean, and the ecologist– I mean, that’s an estimate right now. But they’re deeply concerned because Australia has a lot of unique wildlife. It’s an isolated area that’s evolved in– without human influence for millions of years. And then once humans got there they’ve been very vulnerable to things like invasive species and other kinds of human effects.

And so there were a lot of unique animals and organisms that were already under threat who have very small you know natural habitats and biomes that they live in. And now, those have been, as Dr. Kolden noted, like destroyed in a wholesale way. The fire is burning– even the animals that are used to fire are seeing an unusual level of fire that they can’t necessarily or easily recover from.

IRA FLATOW: And Dr. Kolden, let’s talk about the damage to the people. We see on the newsreels, we get people stranded in beach towns waiting for boats to pick them up. But the real damage may be more inland?

CRYSTAL KOLDEN: Yeah. And Umair just noted that this is an area that happened without a lot of human intervention for thousands of years. But it’s important to point out that the European influence is really what has changed Australia, because Aborigines– the indigenous people of Australia, they’ve been there for Tens of thousands of years and they’ve been managing land. And their communities are rural, a lot of the rural ranchers that make their home in the bush and are cattle ranchers, or sheep ranchers, which is a key economy in Australia.

Those are the people that often are overlooked because people surviving on a beach and being carried off by boat is definitely a newsreel highlight. A lot of those folks don’t actually live in Mallacoota, they are holidaying there. And of course, this is very traumatic for them. But they will get to go home to Sydney or Melbourne or places where they’re from.

But the people that live in the rural areas are the indigenous individuals, the rural ranchers, those are the folks that are actually going to have some of the long lasting effects from these fires in terms of trying to recover from their losses. Many of them are underinsured or they’re just sort of forgotten by a lot of these fundraising types of events. And those are the folks that are the most vulnerable to begin with and are going to have the biggest struggle recovering.

IRA FLATOW: And what would a recovery be if so many acres have been burned? What does a recovery, Dr. Kolden, look like?

CRYSTAL KOLDEN: Well, the vegetation itself is fire adapted. So it is going to probably recover along a normal timeline. There may be a little bit more mortality in the forest than we may have seen in the past because it’s been so dry and so hot. But these are fire adapted forests. And so the recovery is really in the wildlife populations and the human populations.

And the wildlife populations are already fragmented by habitat loss and a lot of the changing climate issues that we’ve already noted. So those wildlife populations are going to be very vulnerable to disease, to further reductions from additional events. The human populations are also going to be really vulnerable in the post fire period.

Recovery for them is trying to rebuild their homes, trying to rebuild their operations– their ranching operations, and that is a real struggle. And we’ve seen that everywhere where there have been these large fires, that oftentimes, this these people end up being climate refugees.

IRA FLATOW: Is Australia the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the world?

CRYSTAL KOLDEN: It is. Australia is very much showing us what will happen elsewhere. And this is something that, for those of us in the US, we feel like the last few years, we’ve seen some pretty big fires in California that have been really destructive. But when we look at Australia now, for those of us in fire science, a lot of us see, this as the future for the US as well. And not just in California, but in a lot of other parts in the US too. Even places that have not necessarily seen a lot of fire, because as it gets hotter and drier and we have these types of really unique events, really hot, dry conditions or even droughts, it will facilitate fire in places that we necessarily haven’t seen a lot in the past.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Dr. Crystal Kolden from University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho and Umair Ufan from Vox in Washington. Umair, I was noticing today on the news reports there were 10,000 protesters in Melbourne today. And there were thousands all across Australia who are asking for the removal of Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister.

Do they feel he– he has been a climate denier, right? Do they feel he’s just not sympathetic to what’s going on?

UMAIR UFAN: Right. This has quickly become a political crisis in Australia, particularly for Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister. And, yeah, as you noted, they protest in Melbourne and Sydney and in Canberra, the capital as well. The issue is that a lot of people have said that he’s been kind of hands-off with respect to the fires in the preparation.

There was a group of about 20 former fire chief’s who asked for a meeting with the Prime Minister before the fires took off in August, asking to you know just brief him on the immense risk that they are worried about, that the risks they may face. And that meeting never took place. And as Morrison has toured some of the disaster areas, he’s gotten a pretty frosty reception.

A lot of locals are upset that they didn’t have the resources in advance to deal with the fires. And some of the firefighters were saying that his political rhetoric about climate change and also the environment in general has been not suited to the task at hand. Now, I don’t think it’s fair to say that he’s a denier. I mean, he’s never said that climate change isn’t happening or that greenhouse gases aren’t related, but he’s been very reluctant to sort of connect the dots between Australia’s role in climate change and the ongoing fires.

He frequently brings up that Australia’s only accountable for 1.2% of global emissions. But Australia is one of the world’s largest coal exporters. The huge chunk of their economy depends on mining. And his party, the center right liberal party, and also the center left labor opposition party have been very pro-mining, very pro-coal. And even the opposition wants to increase coal exports. And so it’s a big tent pole of their economy. And it’s really kind of hard to square with the other kinds of economic destruction and disasters that they have to deal with now.

IRA FLATOW: So this is not going to change any of those political minds? Or have some of them changed?

UMAIR UFAN: I mean, I think the fact that you’re seeing people protesting so rapidly and so fervently about this, it could potentially change it. Yeah, he is getting, like I said, a very chilly reception and voters could potentially turn against this if this lackadaisical response continues. But that remains to be seen.

I mean, coal has been a very powerful force in Australian politics. I mean, Australia was one of the only countries in the world that implemented a wholesale economy wide carbon tax, and then repealed it. So there is momentum. There is like a drive for action on climate change. And there’s also a very strong counterforce as well.

IRA FLATOW: Crystal, what do you think about this– the politics of the this?

CRYSTAL KOLDEN: The politics are fascinating. And I spent three months in Tasmania last year during a very active fire season there, and Tasmania is one of the few states where the Greens party is actually relatively active and has a fair amount of power. And there is a lot of discussion about what the– how the politics need to change and what people can do differently in terms of trying to change policies to support not just climate action, but also a lot of changes in land management and practices there to try and address future fire risk.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that people talk a lot and don’t really act enough on this kind of issue?

CRYSTAL KOLDEN: Well that is what has been said about after the 2009 Black Saturday fires. So 2009 was a year that there were major fires in Victoria outside of Melbourne, and over 170 people were killed in those fires. And this exact same type of discussion happened with regards to needing to make major policy changes to conditions that people had never seen before. And in the 10 years since that event, there hasn’t actually been a lot of implementation of some of the recommendations that were made after that.

That was a smaller event in some ways. Yes, the loss of life was huge, but in terms of the area impacted, it was much smaller. And because we’re seeing more frequently some of these types of events, and this particular year, we’re seeing a much larger area and much larger proportion of the population impacted, the hope, I think, is that this will have a more lasting impact and that some of the policies will begin to see the light of day.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Crystal Kolden, Associate Professor of Fire Science University of Idaho in Moscow, Umair Ufan, writer from the Vox based in Washington, thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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