Zero Hour in Oz: THIS IS CLIMATE CHANGE

The bushfire season in Australia has been horrific. More horrific than any before. Axios offers a glimpse of what people are going through, while Metro reports that it has affected wildlife too — wildfires killing almost half a billion animals. Yes, I said billion.


This year brought Australians their least average rainfall:

It certainly has made the bushfire problem worse. But Australia has had dry years before, and will again. Although 2019 was the driest on record, there’s no trend detectable in rainfall amounts, at least not yet; it looks like an unfortunate but random occurrence. This isn’t climate change, it’s bad luck.

This year was the hottest on record for Australia, especially their daily high temperatures:

This too has made the bushfire problem worse — much worse. Australia has had hot years before, but nothing even close to this year. Without climate change this would have been impossible. THIS IS CLIMATE CHANGE.

Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, is one of the worst climate denier politicians in the world. What a pity that he’s not the one who has to pay for the mess he’s helped make oh so much worse.

Australians: if you think this season is bad, just wait …


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37 responses to “Zero Hour in Oz: THIS IS CLIMATE CHANGE

  1. The Very Reverend Jebediah Hypotenuse

    I suggest that “half a billion animals” is already a vastly obsolete estimate.
    For many species, this “zero hour” will be the tipping point to extinction.

    This is the future for Australia.

    And the Canadian boreal forest. And the Russian boreal forest. Etc…

    And some folks are still completely unaware of the vast scale of the current and soon-to-be catastrophes. One video that’s making the rounds, recorded by people trapped on an Australian beach and surrounded by fire, includes someone complaining about the lack of fire-suppression services – as though the problem might be fixed by merely getting a few more water-bombers.

    • A week and a half ago (before the past horror weekend) I read a report that the total length of fire front (the leading edge of the fires where they must be fought) was 20,000 kilometres. We are still in early summer. These fires will only stop when nothing remains to burn. NSW has already had half it’s forests burn. Victoria must be at similar extent. Vast areas of the ancient Gondwanan temperate and subtropical wet forests (which are remnants from when the continent was connected to Antarctica and are thought to have never before burnt) are now toast.

  2. Concerning the precipitation plot: eyeballing, it seems to me that there is a greater number of outliers towards the end, while the in-liers (so to say) seem to be grouped more in the middle. While the Gaussian distribution parameters do not change, may be the distribution may not be adequately described as Gaussian any more. I do not know, whether there is any sense in this.
    Anyway it is good to characterize the precipitation minimum as “bad luck” in a clear cut way.
    Also on http://www.bom.gov.au/water/landscape/#/sm/Actual/year/-28.4/130.4/3/Point////2017/12/31/ we can find soil moisture data (which currently cannot interpret, as I cannot yet handle Net CDF files properly). But eyeballing again while beeing in “year”-mode clicking through the different years, reduction in soil moisture seem perceivable.

  3. Susan Anderson

    I’m hoping you’ll do a followup on Michael Ventrice’s dishonest post about the IOD. Not that the Indian Dipole isn’t a part of it, but the distracionalist stuff is so typically phony and misleading. I know scientists are capable of holding different ideas, but the general population is all too eager to seize on excuses to do nothing.

    @MJVentrice
    I get Climate Change is a very important topic in Politics. But there’s a natural ocean cycle (top 3 strongest Indian Ocean Dipole event) that played a role in drought in Australia over the past 6 months. By leaving out the natural process, CC is being used as a political crutch.

    • Susan Anderson

      Sorry about the repetition, didn’t get that the Twitter link would post in full. I wanted to highlight the IOD image accompanied by the italicized text without the rest, which is a distraction from the misleading claim that “politics” is on top and the IOD is enough to explain, without the – to me – obvious influence of a warming climate.

    • Looks like this is up to 2014. Things got much hotter over the next 5 or 6 years

    • “And yet, Oz doesn’t even stand out as a GW hotspot…”

      One thing about that is that it’s not only the change in temperature, it’s the change in relation to mean temps. Per the BOM, the Australian climatological average temp is 21.8 C:

      http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/change/#tabs=Tracker&tracker=timeseries

      (The baseline is 1961-1990.)

      By comparison, per GIS, the global average is ~14 C. So–big surprise, I know–Australia’s climate is pretty warm by global standards. And that means that the warming starts from a higher baseline than a great many other places.

      Another thing about that is that the Australian climate is probably more variable in some ways than many places are. Per Wikipedia:

      “The climate is variable, with frequent droughts lasting several seasons, thought to be caused in part by the El Niño-Southern Oscillation.”

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_of_Australia

      Prolonged drought is, well, problematic, partly because there’s a positive feedback associated with it: warmth causes more drying, which decreases evapotranspiration, which in turn causes more warming. (Until, of course, the soil is pretty much dessicated and all the plants are dead.)

    • The anomaly map pictured in Keith’s post comes from a study on economic inequality and CC. It represents:

      “The ensemble-mean difference in annual temperature between the CMIP5 Historical and Natural forcing experiments during the IPCC’s historical baseline period (1986–2005).”

      covering the period 1961 to 2010.

      https://www.pnas.org/content/116/20/9808

      As has been pointed out in recent articles here, it’s not just temperature that influences the threat of bush fire, though it is an important factor. Some of the fastest warming places on Earth are much colder, in absolute terms, and/or wetter than Australia.

  4. This Bureau of Meteorology study details the situation and underlying factors in Spring:

    Click to access scs72.pdf


    so it’s little wonder, in absence of rain, that Summer fireweather in the SE is bad.
    Rainfall trends under climate change are regional not national, as a certain WUWT contributor should now understand…in this case it’s continental SE versus NW:
    http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/change/index.shtml#tabs=Tracker&tracker=trend-maps&tQ=map%3Drain%26area%3Daus%26season%3D0112%26period%3D1970

    • The BoM report linked has plenty of useful information about weather conditions contributing to this extraordinary fire season. Curious about what BoM had said about conditions before Summer, I checked their Special Statement on Fire Conditions from September:

      Click to access scs71.pdf

      Which led me to a bush fire hazard outlook published in August:

      https://www.bnhcrc.com.au/hazardnotes/63

      My search was motivated by news throughout this national disaster that the fire services repeatedly tried to warn the Federal government of catastrophic fire danger, and that the Federal government shut out a delegation of former fire chiefs because the group wanted to talk about addressing climate change as well. That linkage is also in the reports linked above. Not only is the current government disinterested in mitigating future disasters, it is also too blind or rigid to adapt to arising conditions quickly enough.

      As I commented in the last article, this appalling fire season will be a litmus test for CC policy (also for the current government’s durability): if reality on the ground could change things, we’re looking at the direst example this country has ever seen.

  5. Thanks. Slight typo: you mentioned “this year” a couple of times but meant “last year”. Always a difficult transition to make, between years!

  6. The locals seem to be treating Morrison in the way he deserves.

    Locals confront PM in town where father and son perished in bushfire
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-02/scott-morrison-urges-patience-and-calm-to-deal-with-bushfires/11837358

  7. Australia is a big country (continent) Tamino. Looking at rainfall patterns for southeastern Australia would be more relevant to the current fires. 2019 was not the driest ever in the regions that are now burning. And the long term rainfall trend for SE Aus looks quite different to the national trend – with evidence of a drying trend over the past few decades…
    http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/change/#tabs=Tracker&tracker=timeseries&tQ=graph%3Drranom%26area%3Dseaus%26season%3D0112%26ave_yr%3D5

    • @jimt,

      Surely, while I agree, these comparisons need to be done properly. In the question of extremes, it is not proper to consider them as excursions from some kind of Gaussian baseline. I have not looked at these trends in particular, but people who look at such excursions, in a lot of geophysical contexts, tend to do that, and it’s not only wrong, it tends to underestimate the recurring probability of them. That’s not a geophysical observation, it’s a mathematical one.

      The basic problem is that if one restricts the set of data to those on a Gaussian tail, those are not Gaussian. The only way they seem to be is if their variability on an otherwise big population seems too insignificant to consider.

      But, on the other hand, if these are weighted by a loss function, this means they really ought to be considered as a subpopulation unto themselves and if that is done, they are seen as not outliers of a Gaussian or other standard distribution but, rather, a shocking burp in a multimodal distribution, for which the sufficient statistics of the overall distribution are really quite uninformative.

      So, yeah, while there continues to be a “normal” baseline, there’s stuff developing at the far tails which is, presumably, activated by non-standard geophysics. The experience of the normal baseline doesn’t really help to inform or understand that extreme.

  8. Hi Tamino Australia is a big place so to have average rainfall for the whole coun is not so useful. In the same way your previous post looked at the entire Us (it’s a similar size) Check out the Southern Australia rainfall. That would have a clear downward trend.

    Our Bureau of Meteorology had a special climate statement in December that outlined the current situation. Maybe also look at FFDI, forest fire danger index. Has a clear climate signal.

    • Nathan, BoM’s Special Statemnt in September also analysed the FFDI (Forest Fire Danger Index).

      Click to access scs71.pdf

      Our national weather bureau and the fire services correctly predicted the fire danger for this season – basically unprecedented for much of the country.

      • Thanks Barry,

        yeah I read that…
        So sad. amazing to think the Gospers Mountain fire has been burning since the 26th Oct… that’s about 10 weeks ago.

  9. A lot of the places burning are wet schlerophyl forest. Almost temperature rain forest and are normally too damp to burn. But has been exceptionally dry, and with the heat and strong wind, they have exploded.
    The fires started in early October. Three whole months of continuous fires along the east coast. This is not anything like what we’ve experienced.

    • Worse than that, Nathan, the fires started in mid-August on the North Coast and Tablelands of NSW. I was under the Long Gully and Tenterfield fire plumes from that time on for a month. The Bees Nest fire near Armidale left freehold land [an escaped farm burn-off, I suspect] and entered the Guy Fawkes River gorges in late August, to lurk in inaccessible country…its ‘offspring’ are still not all extinguished.
      This disaster has been rolling southwards with the change of seasons, as expected.

      • Just astounding and still February to come… Hard to imagine what Victoria will be like in late Feb if this is what late Dec looks like.

  10. As an Aussie that survived, our village of 300 houses had 83 burnt to the ground along, with 100’s of outbuildings and other infrastructure, and we were one of only 2 houses to survive on our street, a couple comments.

    I lived there to reduce my envioronmental footprint, which I was good at doing for over a decade, I’d estimate my CO2 emissions were Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, is one of the worst climate denier politicians in the world.

    While I agree 100%, we knew this going in, remember he worked for New Zealand Tourism and was fired for incompetence. 90% of our voters in a recent national election voted for climate deniers of one sort or another, science deniers like the LNP and action deniers like the ALP.

    I 100% blame my fellow voters, I have no interest in my partner dying to protect the very people they elect to put her in harms way with NO recompense, limited resources and deliberate denial of what’s happening. I expect the idiot in charge will be rolled, and we’ll end up with another idiot, my worst fear being Peter Dutton. At least with ScoMo we have a buffoon, Dutton is evil incarnate.

  11. Phil Tomkinson

    Is there a zero missing? Precipitation for Aus is usually around 400mm/yr

    [Response: I believe these figures are the average *monthly* precip throughout the year.]

  12. Lawrence McLean

    I have noticed that among a particular clique, they are repeating the lie (in the hope that it becomes true) that the fires are the “Greenies” fault. Among climate change denialists it is loudly and aggressively proclaimed.

    The controlled burn issue, that is he foundation of the reasoning that it is “Greenies” fault is a bit of a myth. The Aborigines practiced “Fire stick farming” in many areas in order to create a landscape more suitable to Kangaroos, not to directly reduce major fires. The overall reduction in the fire hazard was due to grazing by Kangaroos and related species. For example: in Africa, bushfires were not a significant issue due to the presence of large Herbivores. Bush fires are becoming an issue now due to the massive loss of the large Herbivores

    Kangaroo populations of the size required to consume the vegetation resulting from those burns would not be tolerated, as a result, they can actually make the fire danger greater as regular burning results in species that favor fire to become more prevalent.

    The Major Forests and Rain forests, which are now burning, were never subject to Fire-stick farming. The escalation of bushfires in Australia is the result of Ecological disturbance and more significantly, lately, to Climate change.

    I have never experienced a Summer in Australia like this, it is absolutely dreadful.

  13. Henry Herbert

    Just curious about Australian rainfall. No apparent trend. Australia is similar to US in size. You discuss the different experiences in parts of the US re rainfall. Does this apply to Australia? Southeast Australia is the current fire capital. Does the rainfall data for NSW or Victoria differ from northern or Western Australia?
    Thank you for discussing it – but coal (money) is important to Australia. I hope, but don’t expect them to change their behavior (from NZ with our own climate issues)
    Thanks for your work. Your stats competence is amazing.

      • and if you go to that link and flip to the Australia wide map, you will see the areas where rainfall went up (NW Aus) while other areas went down (SE and SW Aus) and thus tended to reduce visibility of any Australia wide trend. Variability is also very high in Australia which also makes it hard to detect the trends. A more sensitive test would be to test whether or not the Hadley cell is getting wider world wide. That it is not so much making Australia “drier” but moving hot dry inland climate out to the coasts. (due to a wider hadley cell) The rain/weather that used to fall on the coasts has now moved out to the southern ocean.

    • @Henry Herbert,

      … [B]ut coal (money) is important to Australia.

      I understand it is not easy. Setting aside the damage to climate, to the degree those monies are important to Australia and to the degree a transition will take time, it is prudent to begin looking for a replacement. This isn’t because coal is going to be outlawed or anything — although that’s conceivable — but, rather, because coal and other fossil fueled energy assets will be eclipsed by more cost effective energy sources.

      I know this sounds implausible now, but adoption curves for superior technologies follow a Bass diffusion model, essentially a logistic curve:

      The implausibility is because zero Carbon energy sources are still in the lower left in terms of market penetration, at least judged in terms of primary energy consumed. But once they grow, nothing’s going to stop them. Indeed, if as the other line shows, they are rated by final energy consumption, they are already on their way.

      Again, set aside the climate change implications. Most of the energy which is consumed by fossil-fuel driven sources is fully wasted, going up smokestacks or lost in conversion to steam or mechanical action in turbines. Add to that the need to centralize this generation, whether for electricity or other reasons, and there is additional loss in transmission, whether from generator to consumer, or wellhead to refinery to generator.

      The new technologies can be located near consumption, haven’t these losses (they aren’t Carnot engines), can be switched on and off digitally, and will be smoothed out in available through various kinds of storage, not merely batteries.

      Ultimately, per unit of end energy usage, this energy will be tenfold cheaper than the nearest fossil fuel competitor, combined cycle natural gas.

      I reckon much of the resistance to their adoption in the energy business is because people make money from selling inefficient energy, since per unit use consumers need a lot. In the end, however, just like passive investments are condemning active managers to redundancy because of the expense of their practice.

      Even if storage is not yet built out, the low cost of these energy sources sometimes makes adapting to them worth it, such as a manufacturer which has opted to simply not operate on the days when both wind and solar are not available, a rare event in their case.

  14. I’m Australian, live in Melbourne Victoria. Today was hideous, the smoke haze in Melbourne was probably worse than I’ve ever seen. Ash Wednesday in 1982 had dust storms but not the smoke haze like this.
    One aspect I dreaded this year was that I remember we did get a fair bit of rain in spring (which is the rainy time for Melbourne). The trouble with this, and bear in mind I lived in the hills outside Melbourne (where fires often happen) for a few years (but many years ago) was that good spring rain followed by a dry summer was the perfect conditions for fire. The bush grows then dries out.
    As a Victorian I know the worst time of year for my state is February. We are barely into January and I’m seeing things I have never seen before: people having to be evacuated from Mallacoota by boat as there is no way out (roads likely to be closed for at least 2 more weeks) and there were 4,000 people on the beach avoiding the fires. Feb is yet to come, no substantial rain expected for at least a month and the fires will not be put out until there is substantial rain. Good rain after a heat spell used to be common, now we seem to get small amounts of rain when the weather cools after a few hot days.
    Climate change has been known about for decades. But to be very specific, the CSIRO delivered a report to parliament specifically detailing the increased risks of fires as a result of climate change, in 2009. That’s 10 years ago. No excuse for not taking action on climate change and no surprise at what we are now seeing.
    There is a lot of talk about how our PM, Scott from Marketing, is getting unfairly criticised for the fires and much squealing that there is little he can do about this. But Scott from Marketing can only blame himself for the crap he is getting. This is the guy who brought a lump of coal into parliament to extol the virtues of coal. We also have a government which actively blocked moves to take action at the recent conference (COP25?). This government has to wear a fair bit of the blame for this – we knew what was coming in terms of fires if climate change is not addressed and they actively work against addressing climate change. It is a disgrace.

    • “…good spring rain followed by a dry summer was the perfect conditions for fire. The bush grows then dries out.”

      Yes, that’s the pattern that was so deadly in California in 2018.

  15. It’s not just the current Fool in Charge, Scott Morrison. As Australia burns and the death toll rises former Prime Minister Tony Abbott insisted in an interview with the Israeli public broadcaster that the world is ‘in the grip of a climate cult’ :
    https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jan/03/tony-abbott-former-australian-pm-tells-israeli-radio-the-world-is-in-the-grip-of-a-climate-cult?CMP=share_btn_link

    He’s right, of course, but not in the way that he thinks, as it’s the cult of fossil fuel interests and ideological AGW denial that has the world in its grip. It’s time to stop using the far too lenient term “denier” to describe their ilk and start using the more accurate term “climate criminal.”

  16. I’m currently in Australia for two months working on a project and blogging about the situation. My latest post may be of interest: https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2020/01/04/how-are-the-australian-bushfires-affecting-biodiversity-australia-reflections-part-4/

  17. Even if one remembers the desolation caused by the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and many other terrifying events, this becomes to really get out of control:

    https://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2020/01/04/incendies-des-dizaines-de-milliers-d-australiens-evacuent_6024764_3244.html

  18. Just a small point — it’s easy for people to underestimate what it means to have ice melting where it usually doesn’t. https://petersironwood.com/2019/09/04/essays-on-america-ice/

  19. It is illuminating to see how the mind can negotiate difficulties caused by climate change denial, thus to provide those convincing and comforting arguments as to why AGW is not the villain and actually is nice and cuddly. As an example, consider Roy Spencer’s take on the Australian bushfires. Apparently the high temperatures are not caused by AGW because the temperatures are too high. And low rainfall isn’t the result of AGW either – it’s too low for that. And anyway, all these fires don’t correlate with high-temperature & low-rainfall – just look at the cold, wet and flaming 1974-75 bushfire season. Indeed, any trend in the fires is likely down to more people reporting fires, more people starting fires and more people objecting to sensible fire-breaks & dead-leaf clearing.

    “So, to automatically blame the Australian bushfires on human-caused climate change is mostly alarmist nonsense, with virtually no basis in fact.”