Things are heating up Down Under, as Sky News reports today:
Australia’s largest city has sweltered through its hottest November night on record.
Sydney’s overnight low was 25.3C [77.4F], recorded just after 1am on Sunday, smashing a record that had stood since 1967, before it shot up to 30C [86F] by 4.30am.
This followed two consecutive days of temperatures climbing above 40C [104F], which were also record-breaking for November.
Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said the weekend also saw 47.5C [117F] in Marree [South Australia], 47.4C [117F] in Roxby Downs [South Australia], and 46.4C [116F] in Birdsville [Queensland].
In New South Wales [NSW], the Rural Fire Service [RFS] issued a total fire ban for most of the east and northeast of the state, saying there was a “very high to severe fire danger”, with hot, gusty winds and dry conditions.
It’s that extreme fire danger warning that really terrifies Australians.
Fears of another Black Summer
They called it Black summer because of a massive wave of fires that darkened the sky and caused billions of dollars in damages.
The 2019–20 Australian bushfire season, colloquially known as the Black Summer, was a period of unusually intense bushfires in many parts of Australia.
In June 2019, the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service acting director warned of the potential for an early start to the bushfire season which normally starts in August. The warning was based on the Northern Australia bushfire seasonal outlook noting exceptional dry conditions and a lack of soil moisture, combined with early fires in central Queensland. Throughout the summer, hundreds of fires burnt, mainly in the southeast of the country. The major fires peaked during December–January.
As of 9 March 2020, the fires burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares [46 million acres; 186,000 square kilometres; 72,000 square miles], destroyed over 5,900 buildings [including 2,779 homes] and killed at least 34 people.
Economists estimated that the Australian bushfires may cost over A$103 billion in property damage and economic losses, making the bushfires Australia’s costliest natural disaster to date. Nearly 80 percent of Australians were affected either directly or indirectly by the bushfires. By 7 January 2020, the smoke had moved approximately 11,000 kilometres [6,800 mi] across the South Pacific Ocean to Chile and Argentina. As of 2 January 2020, NASA estimated that 306 million tonnes [337 million short tons] of CO2 had been emitted.
Assessing readiness for another Black Summer
On 20 February, while the fires were still burning, the Australian government created the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements to assess the country’s ability to handle similar disasters in the future.
Their exhaustive report, issued at the end of October, predicts the worst is yet to come.
This chart from the document gives the major reason:
The report places Black Summer in context:
The 2019-2020 bushfires started in Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Much of the country was in drought, and the first bushfire started in the middle of winter. Over the following months, fires burnt across tens of millions of hectares of land, threatening and displacing hundreds of communities. Many thousands of volunteers and professional emergency responders worked tirelessly and made great sacrifices to save lives, homes and precious natural landscapes.
Thirty-three people died, including six Australian firefighters and three American aerial firefighters. Thousands of homes were destroyed or damaged. Smoke blanketed much of Australia, including capital cities, and contributed to hundreds of deaths. Nearly three billion animals were killed or displaced, and the fires harmed many threatened species and ecological communities. Overall, the fires caused billions of dollars of damage.
For many communities, the bushfires were not the only disaster they faced that summer. After the drought and the fires came storms and floods, and before the last fire was extinguished, Australia announced its first case of COVID-19. Australia’s ability to coordinate nationally, learn and adapt, in the face of deep uncertainties and rising risks, had been tested.
Looking to Australia’s original inhabitants
Both California and Australia had neglected the wisdom of the wisdom of their respective land’s original inhabitants. But the U.S. is now looking at Native American traditions and discovering that the “primeval forest” of North America were, in fact, a landscape sculpted by intentionally set fires.
From a 2000 report for the U.S. Forest Service:
Prior to European discovery of the New World, aboriginal use of fire was widespread in both western and eastern forests. In fact, the Americas, as first seen by Europeans, had largely been crafted by native people, not created by nature. Thus, the only way to preserve original vegetation conditions in parks and other natural areas is for modern land managers to reinstitute historical burning regimes. A hands-off or “natural-regulation” approach by today’s land managers will not duplicate the ecological conditions under which eastern deciduous forests developed. Instead, letting-nature-take-its-course creates highly unnatural conditions that have never before existed in eastern or western forests. Unless the importance of aboriginal burning is recognized, and modern management practices changed accordingly, our ecosystems will continue to lose the biological diversity and ecological integrity they once had even in parks and other protected areas
The report includes a photo showing how forests once looked:
It’s ironic that the very beauty American colonists discovered had been profoundly shaped by the people they saw as uncivilized savages.
And now Australia is turning to the original inhabitants for lessons learned.
From the Royal Commission report:
Indigenous land management is an example of how local knowledge has successfully informed land management, and it has done so for tens of thousands of years. Indigenous land management draws on a deep knowledge of Australia’s landscapes. It is based on cultural understandings of Country, is tailored to specific places, and engages local people in development and implementation. Partly for these reasons, Indigenous land management differs widely across Australia.
There is a growing recognition of the value of Indigenous land and fire management practices as a way to mitigate the effects of bushfires and improve disaster resilience. Governments should continue to engage with Traditional Owners to explore the relationship between Indigenous land management and disaster resilience.
The reasons for urgency
More Black Summers are just part of what the commission sees coming as global temperatures rise:
Extreme weather has already become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable. Globally, temperatures will continue to rise, and Australia will have more hot days and fewer cool days. Sea levels are also projected to continue to rise. Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity. Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense. Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.
Natural disasters are expected to become more complex, more unpredictable, and more difficult to manage. We are likely to see more compounding disasters on a national scale with far-reaching consequences. Compounding disasters may be caused by multiple disasters happening simultaneously, or one after another. Some may involve multiple hazards – fires, floods and storms. Some have cascading effects – threatening not only lives and homes, but also the nation’s economy, critical infrastructure and essential services, such as our electricity, telecommunications and water supply, and our roads, railways and airports.