Bushfire and Homophobia

One of the things making wildfire/bushfire worse, contributing to the current conflagration in Australia, is the increase of daily high temperatures. It increases the Vapor Pressure Deficit (VPD), the difference between how much water vapor the air can hold and how much it does hold. When VPD is high, it can suck the moisture right out of potential fuels big and small, which increases the frequency and severity of fire dramatically.

The data are clear, that for daily high temperature last year (2019) was the hottest on record for Australia:

It started with the summer of 2018/2019, hottest in Australia’s history (summer being December-January-February):

The new summer is off to a roaring start, December 2019 bringing another of the all-too-common record breakers, this time a giant:

Australia has been hot, hotter than ever before in history.

Jennifer Marohasy disagrees, saying that “It has been hotter, fires have burnt larger areas”. She blogged about it last March, claiming “Hottest Summer in Australia was 1938/1939”. Her evidence? This:

Retrieving data for Rutherglen (near the border between the states of Victoria and New South Wales) and computing its average high temperature each summer, I got this:

That’s definitely not the same as Jennifer Marohasy’s graph, and the hottest summer is definitely last summer (2018/2019).

The data I used are the ACORN-SAT data for Rutherglen from Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BoM). The BoM has, in my opinion, assembled the best national temperature data in the world because they use the most advanced methods to correct for known problems, like moving a recording station to another location or installing a new instrument. The process is called “homogenization” because its goal is to create a temperature record which reveals what happened other than those things irrelevant to climate (like moving the station or changing the instrument). They also use advanced methods to detect such discontinuities; the BoM really does an impressive job. Australians should be proud.

Some people hate homogenized data. They loathe it, maybe even fear it, often slander it; you might even think they’re homophobic. Jennifer Marohasy despises the homogenized temperature data from Australia’s BoM, and often criticizes it. She also implies that the whole process is some underhanded scheme by the BoM. My opinion: the reason she so hates the homogenized data, is that it so clearly shows the heating overtaking Australia. Just my opinion.

Anyway, she insists on using the original raw data, even when we can prove that it’s tainted by non-climate factors and the homogenized data are better. So let’s use the unadorned, unimproved raw data instead and get this:

Well, that’s embarrassing for Jennifer Marohasy. Even using the raw, unhomogenized data, the hottest summer on record is still last summer, 2018/2019.

Now a most fascinating plot twist: to make the 1938/1939 summer Rutherglen’s hottest on record, Jennifer Marohasy killed everything after the 1997/1998 summer. If last summer was too hot — just get rid of it. Fugettaboutit.

She removed it on the pretense that after the 1997/1998 summer, they changed the instrument, no longer using a mercury thermometer. My opinion: that is one of the most lame excuses for deleting the data you don’t like, that I’ve ever heard. And I’ve heard a lot. Just my opinion.

Anyway, I can make a graph very similar to hers, but it’s revealing how many hoops I have to jump through.

First, I have to limit myself to only one location. The subject (according to Jennifer Marohasy) was the hottest summer in Australia. Obviously it’s better to use a composite based on a large number of stations which cover most of the continent, like the BoM has done. But if you want to say the hottest summer in Australia wasn’t last summer you might prefer to look for a single location.

Second, I can’t use the best data. The homogenized data, from ACORN-SAT, really is the best we have. It’s not perfect, nobody claims it is, but the raw data have some obvious problems that we can improve. If you want the wrong impression, use the wrong data.

Third, I can’t show the data up to the present, or even after 1998, because even the unimproved raw stuff shows how wrong Jennifer Marohasy is. It has to be 1998 because that’s timed with the excuse Marohasy uses to whack that data, and lame though it may be, it’s the best she could come up with.

Final result: a lot like her graph:

Rutherglen makes an interesting case for the homogenization of temperature data. Let’s look at the original, raw data and see how Rutherglen compares to its neighbors.

I retrieved daily high temperature (NOT homogenized) for Rutherglen and for 25 nearby locations, which I used to form a composite average for the region. Then I computed the difference between the value at Rutherglen, and the composite regional average. Here’s what I got:

Since it’s daily data, there’s a lot of it. I looked for sudden “jump discontinuities” using changepoint analysis (it’s what changepoint analysis was designed for). I was able to identify four “change points” with such strong statistical significance that they aren’t really in doubt. Furthermore, the data show a distinctly different average in each interval between changepoints. Here they are, with changepoint times shown as dashed vertical lines, averages shown as horizontal lines, and for the data I’ve plotted monthly averages rather than daily just so the graph won’t be so crowded:

The result is that right off the bat, by the most basic and reliable of methods (compare station data to that of its neighbors), I’ve identified four times at which we really should change the data baseline to remove non-climate factors. Assuming, of course, that we want the data to be better.

What did the BoM do with the Rutherglen data? Here are yearly averages of the difference between the original raw data, and the homogenized data for Rutherglen:

Notice the vertical dashed lines?

In cases like Rutherglen, the non-climate factors introduced a false cooling trend. It should be cancelled — assuming, of course, you want the data to be better.

Few people appreciate just how advanced are the methods that the BoM uses to homogenize data, or how many tests and critiques it has withstood. When I say that in my opinion theirs is the most advanced in the world, I base that on years of experience as a scientist and statistician, and on close examination of the methods used by many organizations. The insulting, accusatory rhetoric of far too many climate deniers might not be a crime, but it is a sin.

And I really meant it when I said that when it comes to their Bureau of Meteorology, Australians should be proud.

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63 responses to “Bushfire and Homophobia

  1. Just another example of why Jennifer Marohasy should be called a climate criminal.

  2. Jesus, plain dumb. Like always.
    BTW, off topic: a friend of mine is going to fly to east africa with his wife, 3. something metric tonnes of CO2 worth. I tried to persuade him to at least give some compensation to an emission-offsetting-organization (atmosfair.de in this case), hope it worked. I could never be successful to make him drop the flight. Offsetting means, that at least s o m e good will be done.

    • @kinimod,

      Yes, offsetting can work. I try to minimize flights, but, then, when I can’t, I make generous estimates of emissions — including radiative forcing effects — and purchase offsetting WREC (wind energy credits) which take out 383 kg CO2 each, and they are obtained from a local wind farm network.

      I like to know and control where the monies are spent.

  3. The third Viscount of Brenchley did it at least as good as did Dr Marohasy!

    Steven Mosher and Nick Stokes are really courageous guys. But I really know how hopeless their job is…

  4. I just finish reading an article in the French newspaper Le Monde about Aussie bush fires :


    The article is about the pic made by Anthony Hearsey:

    Below this main point I saw this:


    The article explains that this year, there were in NSW five times as many fire starts as on average for the period 2001-now.

    Wild animal death for this fire period is estimated at about half a billion.

  5. At the Australian Statistical Conference in 2016 we had a couple of people from the BOM asking statisticians for improvements in ways of handling this data.
    A group, led by Noel Cressie, went away and came back witth some suggestions. One was to, rather than create a homogenized data set to but the adjustments into the models. A latent variable approach if I recall correctly.

  6. Hi,

    I discovered this blog recently. I cannot state enough how important the work you do is, along with others like skepticalscience.

    It’s frustrating how the denialism arguments have become more and more elaborate, to the point that the layperson cannot really trust anything anymore – I have seen this even with good friends of mine who are smart but got completely muddled by all the denial pseudo-science. Sad but understandable, those folks really hit the jackpot with their strategies.

    Anyhow, I have downloaded similar temperature data from NOAA webpage for the region where I live (Colorado) to go over a similar exercise. This may be off topic so I apologize before hand, but I would be very thankful if you could recommend 2-3 books/resources where I could deep dive in time series processing and analysis. I am an engineer with decent math background.

  7. Excellent analysis, well worth a small donation. That post by Marohasy annoyed me so much because it was so transparently wrong. The deniers are doubling-down when the evidence is undeniable.

  8. A good article informing us about the limits of bushfire prevention, posted by commenter MikeR on Roy Spencer’s blog:


  9. Absolutely fantastic post!

  10. Wonderful post, Tamino.

    Some people may recall how Jennifer Marohasy has a bee in her bonnet about Rutherglen. Some years ago she falsely accused BOM of wrongly homogenising the data because she refused to accept the very clear evidence the station had moved. (I wonder if she’s ever been to Rutherglen. I have – grew up near there, still live not far from there, and for a while worked for the department that runs it.)

    Hope you don’t mind my linking to my own blog. Graham Readfearn and I were the main ones writing about it at the time, AFAIK.

    BTW – it’s been very hot here recently and I’m sure at Rutherglen. Not far from there the thermometer registered 46.1C the other day. I don’t know if it beat the highest maximum reached in 1939 or not, but it would have come close.

    [Response: Thanks for linking to your excellent blog.]

  11. While being fully supportive of climate science, I have to point out that Marohasy was correct to say that larger areas have burned before – up to 5 times as much…

    Here’s a list of the largest recorded bush fires in acres, although there are many others lower than the 5 million acres I chose as the ‘lower limit’
    NSW – New South Wales, NT – Northern Territories, QL – Queensland, SA – South Australia, WA – West Australia
    Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bushfires_in_Australia

    2019 26,000,000

    1851 12,000,000
    1938 5,000,000
    1951/2 9,900,000
    1974 (NSW) 11,000,000
    1974 (NT) 110,000,000
    1975 (QL) 19,000,000
    1974 (SA) 42,000,000
    1974 (WA) 72,000,000
    1984 (NSW) 8,600,000
    2002 (NT) 37,000,000

    25 people have died in these so far but 173 died in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, which were ‘only’ 1.1 million acres

    [Response: You should read the articles I linked to in a comment response above. Marohasy’s statement about “larger fires” is another case of “literally true but irrelevant and misleading.”

    That’s what she does. Don’t fool yourself into believing she has any other motive than FUD, and don’t fool yourself into thinking that your comment isn’t helping that misinformation campaign.]

    • Wikipedia states”11,000,000″ acres burnt in NT – not 110,000,000!

      • ‘110,000,000’ is correct. Later version of the Wikipedia page (…page was last edited on 12 January 2020, at 06:44 (UTC) shows that correction.

      • Re Wikipedia entry. Fake new. Look again! You probably were looking at the NSW entry just above it, which is 11 million…

      • Nick Palmer -my correction refers to two different versions of the WIkipedia page; the correct data are in the UTC 06.44 version, but the version 3 hours earlier had those numbers divided by 10 for 1974/75 it might not be your custom to check data before putting items onto the web, but it is mine.

  12. I’ve taken on Marohasy before, so I am under no illusions about her FUD’ing , but it cannot be irrelevant that fires that are being portrayed in the media as unprecedented have in fact burned considerably less acreage (so far) than much larger fires in the past.
    When denialists use accurate information it is still informative unless they twist it to make the reader jump to false conclusions – and in this case that part of what she said was relevant. I did not see the rest of her piece but, based on past experience with her and Abbot, it is probably highly twisted and distorted rhetoric. I think our ‘side’ must also call out inaccurate media reports and speculation or we will lose credibility by giving the denialists potential ammunition for future attacks.

    • @Nick Palmer,

      It’s interesting to contrast these tragedies with gun tragedies in the United States which, for whatever reason, and the availability of public data, are just not addressed by public media. Similar arguments are raised there, claiming that raising issues with respect to gun violence and regulation in some window around an incident is disrespectful. Yet, they know, if they wait long enough, public numbness to information about a tragedy sets in, and any willingness to engage in policy proposals, debates, and analysis dissipates. The result is inaction.

      I’m pretty sure this “obfuscation first” approach is being applied in Australia, as it is in the aftermath of hurricanes and typhoons about the world.

      This is a real problem: Action on mitigation of climate disruption is a choice which has a payoff in the long future, and democratic attention spans really do not care about that. So I wonder if this kind of governance simply cannot manage this kind and scale of problem. I do not have a recommendation for an alternative governance structure. But it’s possible that all we really have to work with is minimizing impacts, and adapting to them when they happen.

    • Fires in the northern Savanna of Australia are common. Every year an area larger than these bushfires burns. It is not an apples to apples comparison. See Nick Stokes Moyhu blog

      • I’ve now read Nick’s blog. I think his main reason for dismissing the vastly larger historical Northern Territories fires was that they are not comparable to the current fires because “temperate forest fires and the fires of the savanna” are ‘different’. I think that is a rather weak argument and is exactly the sort of detail that should be clarified and explained as to why it is ‘different’ when people come out with the current ‘unprecedented’ clams in the media. The confidence of the great mass of the undecided public is a very fragile thing and can easily be swayed the wrong way by a few unguarded and hyperbolic remarks by authorities that are later proved to be based on sand by sceptics. We, and those we advise/influence. must be extremely careful about ‘over-egging the pudding’.

  13. Yep I am proud of the work our BOM does. An in general of the work Australian scientists do on climate and other things. And then mortified by the ilfounded baseless slurs a variety of people throw at them. Its flat out disgraceful and embarrassing.

  14. I’m still not sure it’s wrong to criticise the claims of ‘unprecedented’ in the media. I’m sure Marohasy’s claims that it was hotter before would just dissolve into the usual pseudo-sceptic hand waving and self-deception when examined but any claims of larger areas in the past are much harder to debunk. I couldn’t do it…

    I already pointed out that the Northern Territories burned 110million acres in 1974 – about five times more than the current total across 6 states of 26 million acres. ‘Nathan’ above pointed out that Nick Stokes’ excellent ‘Moyhu’ blog reckoned that comparing the NT with the current fires was ‘comparing apples and oranges’ but I don’t think this is a strong criticism.

    Looking at this source – The table in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bushfires_in_Australia

    The current fires are currently totalled at 26 million acres across New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia so, if we look at the table, it seems Victoria and Tasmania were OK back then, but if we look at the 1974 figures for the States currently burning we get:
    WNSW 2.76m
    NSW 3.7
    NSW 0.84
    NSW 11m
    QL 19m
    SA 42m
    WA 72m

    Which totals 151.3 million acres or about 5.8 times the current area in the same States. Maybe it is the fact that Victoria is Australia’s smallest mainland state yet its second-most populous state (after New South Wales), making it the most densely populated state that is influencing peoples’ perceptions?

    [Response: Perhaps incomplete, questionable data and lack of proper perspective is influencing your perception?]

    • This is a typical example of the “merchant of doubt” tactic being used in a perfect way (check out the book or film).

      The tactic of the right wing anti-climate force is better than our s by at least a factor of 100 or 1000 (we influence one person, they 1000).

      There are several reasons for this: They have more money, their message (doubt) is easier and they accept false messages more easily. Apart from wanting to be more extreme in their positions, they do not disagree with each other, while we constantly fact check our own side, criticizing even minor problems/differences with each others approach/texts.

      They also use better and faster media (the typical right wing dominance on youtube, facebook and even parts of twitter). And their replies are also much faster than ours also most likely by a factor of 10 or 100.

      So how does it work? Papers and other media report, that these fires are the biggest/worst. They do not simply invent this, but it is what they are being told by specialists/scientists. And it also is something, that the majority of specialists/scientists could agree with (some with some minor adjustments, like in forest, in that region, …). Everything is fine (at least on the level of accuracy of any normal reporting).

      The right wing spin machinery starts immediately. It is reacting within seconds. It starts with anecdotal claims of personal experience (fires in my part where much bigger in the past) and by quoting random, invented or false numbers from the internet. None of these false claims is checked by their own side, none of these false claims and lies will have any negative consequence for the liar.

      Then they hid a random piece of data on any random obscure source (lie a single data point in a single unadjusted dataset, when used over a strange time period) that really could be interpreted to sort of show their point. Then this gets multiplied million fold all over the internet.
      Newspapers and other Media sources after a time (balanced information) feel compelled to also mention the denialists talking point in even “left wing”

      Debunking from our side is slow. Tamino needs time, to look at the real data and to write a post that is accurate and based on good data. His post is a thousand times better, that the one that started the false information, but that does not help. The false information is everywhere.

      The denialst have a simple message, based on the merchants of doubt principle: this is not the worst/biggest fire,. there was a bigger one in 74.

      Our message is complicated (you can t compare those fires and there are problems with the data from 74) and will not even reach a fraction of the people that the denialist message influences.

      • If you look at the wiki links, you will find that those figures come from credible government sources. Your seem too eager to believe that “you can t compare those fires and there are problems with the data from 74” because that conflicts with the ‘unprecedented’ message some of the media have been flogging. How is that different from Marohas and a the others like her trying to cast doubt on government figures about past temperatures?

        [Response: You seem WAY too eager to accept the one number that will make the bushfires unprecedented, while ignoring the testimony from so many experts (including firefighters and scientists who specifically study bushfire) and from people who lived through both times in Australia. You seem WAY too eager to accept one number making bushfires unprecedented, without the slightest bit of context (see some of the comments above if you want some). If you want to make the case, pony up some more evidence because you’re not going to do it by insulting us, which is exactly what your snide remark likening it to Marohasy’s hijinx comes to — or can’t you tell the difference between genuine skepticism and Marohasy’s fake variety?]

      • @SOD,

        Debunking from our side is slow. Tamino needs time, to look at the real data and to write a post that is accurate and based on good data. His post is a thousand times better, that the one that started the false information, but that does not help. The false information is everywhere.

        Well, the audience has some responsibility, too. They are impatient. And they are more willing to listen to messages which paint a future and set of actions which cause them less perceived discomfort and economic pain. People should be grown up enough to realize that is not always possible, and there are circumstances in which spending more to achieve a good future or outcome is necessary.

    • Nick

      It’s more that there was nothing particularly special about 1974. The amount of burning in Northern Australia is always high. It’s just that it is one year with a detailed breakdown that has been published. The lack of data for other years makes it look like that year was special.

      These fires were largely in wet temperate forest that doesn’t historically burn very much. They are very unusual..

  15. Philippe Chantreau

    If the Northern fires are savannah and the current ones Mediterranean type brush (I’m no expert on Australian geography) then they really are quite different. Acreage becomes much less useful a metric than tonnage. I have seen savannah fires in Africa, I’ve seen them intentionally set and seen how they behave. They are usually self limiting. It is entirely possible to drive through the edge of a savannah fire with a car and experience no major adverse consequence except a little smoke. They are an integral part of the landscape and even necessary for many savannah plants to thrive. It is a very different thing than what happened in California 2 years ago or what is seen in Southern Australia now. The amount of material burned, the amount of smoke generated, the propensity to spread, the heat generated, size of flames, these fires have very little in common besides the fact that the affected can be estimated. I am not really familiar with the Northern Australia fires so I could be wrong, but nonetheless, landscape matters.

    • Philippe – you wrote “It is a very different thing than what happened in California 2 years ago or what is seen in Southern Australia now”

      May I draw your attention to the figures given for the 1974 fires in South Australia? You can check the Wiki figures –
      1974–1975 South Australia bushfires
      South Australia 17,000,000 ha 42,000,000 acres 1974–1975 season – with the original source – https://ro.uow.edu.au.cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=scipapers
      P377 D1 Appendix D
      Paper details:
      University of Wollongong Research Online Faculty of Science – Papers (Archive)Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health2004National Inquiry on Bushfire Mitigation and Management S.Ellis P.Kanowski Australian National University R. J. Whelan University of Wollongong, rob@uow.edu.au

      Now it may be possible to nitpick ‘differences’ but that is irrelevant to my main point that some of the media and many activists are plugging the ‘Apocalypse now’ line without any significant clarification or mention of any scientific distinction between past (much larger) fires and the current ones and why ‘this time it’s different’. ..

      In order to counter the denier-storm fed, or about to be fed, by such historical acreage figures, scientifically credible people need to shout out from the rooftops exactly why these current fires are so different. They need to explain why, although the areas burnt in States like QL, NSW and SA are considerably less in size than in several previous historical season that the new fires are burning areas which were (if they were), mostly immune before -or any such clear difference.

      Frankly, I think the scientific voices are being a bit irresponsible by letting the worst of the hyperbolic shock horror nonsense we see in the media get a free pass without apparent criticism or setting the record straighter. This is not the way for the science to conduct itself in the spotlight and it really needs to brush up its public relations skills to counter any further potential damage to the reputation of climate science. It’s no good moaning about the Murdoch media, the denialosphere or the fossil fuel industry’s lobbyists while allowing the Tony Heller’s/ Steve Goddard’s and all the other ‘forensic nit pickers’ of the world such significant amounts of ammunition for their propaganda.

      [Response: When the co-director of Australia’s institute for the study of bushfire and arson, and people who actually lived through the 1974 fire season and are living in Australia now, both tell me “unprecedented” — I believe them.

      It’s not “nitpicking differences.” There are differences. You refuse to acknowledge that, apparently because you’re pissed off at people who exaggerate. This is not one of those cases. I haven’t heard anybody say “largest area burned in history continentwide.” I hear “unprecedented” — and by all the evidence I’ve see (including what you provide) IT IS.

      The deniers are going to cry foul, whether what we say is true or not. So I’m not going to nit-pick (you are the one doing that, not us) justification for what really is true. That’s just you playing the deniers’ game when you think you’re undermining them. If you want to fight against exaggeration by advocates, pick a case where it’s really happening. This isn’t one, this is a case of deniers claiming so, and even though their evidence is flimsy as hell, you bought it.

      If you want to convince me otherwise, and all you’ve got is the evidence you’ve given so far, you’re wasting your time. If you really think this is one of those “exaggerations” that has to be called out, you’re wasting everybody’s time.

      Just my opinion. You must do what you think is right.]

  16. Tamino wrote: “You seem WAY too eager to accept the one number that will make the bushfires unprecedented”

    The point is that it isn’t just one number. There are multiple examples to see. See my reply to Philippe which includes the paper from which the data came: Appendix D P377 onwards

    • There are 4 fires with around 40 million ha burnt, all 4 are in the northern territory, none of them caused deaths or losses of structures, none of them got a special “name”.

      You must be horrible at data analysis, if you can not spot the difference and insist to compare the to the much smaller and much more destructive fires.

      • Look again. It’s not just the Northern Territories!. Perhaps I should have written p377- p344 but I assumed people would read all of the table!

    • No, you *should* have written 339-344. But I found it anyway. :-)

      • Doc Snow. Re 377-344. I should have written 377-382! I was referring to the page numbers when one searches a pdf, not actual page numbers on the pdf image. Doing it that way saves people from a lot of scrolling

      • Looking at the numbers from the paper Nick Palmer linked, it’s true that the total area burnt has been higher in the past (and that’s ignoring the Northern Territories, which are a whole ‘nother topic, as well as Tasmania, whose fire season is really just starting). I made a table, which I’ll try pasting in here:

        Largest burns (state with current ha burnt), years, hectares burnt, locations):

        South Australia (274,000 ha)
        16,000,000 (no other year saw more than 1,000,000);
        North-west of state (arid and semi-arid zones).

        Western Australia (1,700,000 ha)
        29,000,000 (in 2003, over 15,000,000);
        East and north-east of Kalgoorlie.

        Victoria (1,200,000 ha)
        1851 (!);
        5,000,000 (est’d, presumably), with 1,100,000 in 2003. “Quarter of Victoria”;
        Wimmera, Portland, Gippsland, Plenty Ranges, Westernport, Dandenong district, Heidelberg.

        New South Wales (4,900,000 ha)
        4,500,000 (7 other years over 1,000,000 ha);
        Bourke to Balranald, Cobar Shire, Moolah–Corinya—most of the Western Division.

        Queensland (2,500,00 ha)
        1974 October to 1975 February;
        7,300,000 (3 other years over 1,000,000 ha);
        Thargomindah, Bulloo Shire, Boulia Urandangie, McKinlay Shire.

        Good data seems to be hard to come by–doesn’t Australia have an equivalent to the US NIFC? The best source I’ve found so far is Wikipedia, which is now claiming 10.3 million ha, partly on the basis of this Reuters report quoted in the Japan Times:


        The ‘hectares burnt’ figures given in the headers above come from the Wikipedia article, but it’s not clear how they came by them. Maybe a deeper dive into the footnotes would let you figure it out. But it’s quite clear that while the national scene is a bit ambiguous, for reasons I’ll discuss below, it’s pretty unequivocal that this bushfire season is thoroughly unprecedented for NSW–which, since that state is home to about 32% of the Australian population, means that it’s probably also a bushfire season unprecedented in its human impact. And even in the other states, except South Australia, the season so far counts as “remarkable”, qualifying in the top five or better. (Victoria is already the second-highest acreage ever, highest in the modern era, and rapidly padding its lead over modern-second-place 2003.)

        But the biggest snag in the simplistic comparison of acres burnt appears to me to be time frames. In all cases except Victoria (where the record appears to be surely a very mushy number from 1851!), the state records span something like the entire 1974-75 fire season. So we’re clearly *not* comparing apples to apples here. I’m told that the worst months of the season are typically January and February, but it really varies by state, as described here:


        Basically, the farther south, the later the season starts and ends. For those who are like me a bit weak on Australian geography, here’s a map:

        Anyway, we should expect to see the area burnt continue to expand for a couple of months yet–which means that several of the states still have a real shot to break into the “clearly unprecedented area” category.

        However, I don’t accept the ‘area burnt’ metric as sole criterion for ‘unprecedented’–however ‘convenient’ that would be for denialati. I’d like to see better characterizations, preferably based on good data, as to just what is unprecedented about this season. Like Tamino, I must assume that the experienced folks who use that word have something in mind, and I’d like to hear more clearly just what that is. Concentrating too much on one metric–as I’ve done above!–doesn’t accomplish that.

      • Dang, wrote 10.3 million ha, when I meant 10.7.

        But it’s more than that now anyway–plus, ‘the framing thing’…

      • One last thought on this subthread: one clear dimension by which this crisis is “unprecedented” would seem to be exposure. What I mean by that is that in general, the states experiencing the worst fire extents relative to historical norms are also those that are most populous. Another table (or list rather) to illustrate:

        New South Wales
        Worst fire extent ever; 32% of the Australian national population.

        Worst fire extent since 1851; 24% of national population.

        Third-worst extent ever, and worst since 1974; 20% of national population.

        To do the math, that’s 76% of the population experiencing ‘top 3’ worst wildfire extents in their home state, with an absolute majority experiencing the worst extents in living memory.

  17. I don’t know if the system is rejecting my last post because of the link to skepsci.com so I apologise if there are multiple versions for moderation!

  18. I’ll try again!

    “Tamino wrote:”Just my opinion. You must do what you think is right”
    Let me state here that I consider Grant’s opinion very highly, indeed I have used his statistical expertise in the past as part of my denialist fighting arsenal, so it upsets me to see “That’s just you playing the deniers’ game when you think you’re undermining them”.

    I am a long-term (~30 years) denialist fighter in the sort of media that the public see, which is where I think the ‘battles’ to influence the great mass of the voting public are won or lost. Perhaps you might like to see this recent comment thread on Skepticalscience.com, which ends up with me expressing, hopefully better than here, my views…”

    Search skepticalscience.com for the post
    “The never-ending RCP8.5 debate
    Posted on 27 December 2019 by ATTP”

    Please scroll down to comment 61

    • Sorry, but that comment is utterly horrible. Any “both sides” approach on this subject is total garbage.

      The denialist side is hyping a totally garbage graph:

      on the other hand, the media reports were absolutely fine (on a normal media report scale) and so was everything that tamino wrote on this subject or nick stockes.

      If you want to attack “both sides”, 99.9% of your attack should be against denialists. But that is not what you do.

      You are helping the denialist side. They are free to spread lies, while you nitpick climate science. And you are totally falling into the “merchants of doubt” and the 1998 trap.
      For nearly two decades the denialists would start every trend line in 1998 and would always point out, that this year was not extreme, because it was warmer in the past (1998). You are giving them easy victories.

      Your idea is totally false: when one side is being 5% accurate and proudly spreading lies, it is a totally false approach for the other side to increase their accuracy from 150% to 190%. It would simply make the fewer errors worse and at the same time destroy messaging (the others have a simple lie, we have a horribly complicated explanation and constantly admit all inaccuracies and uncertainties in our views and positions).

      • sod wrote “If you want to attack “both sides”, 99.9% of your attack should be against denialists. But that is not what you do”

        It’s not black and white as you seem to believe – everything said by the ‘climate side’ is not perfectly true, nor is everything said by the denialist side perfectly false. To believe that would be very silly.

        I’m just advocating for the ‘climate’ side to be as truthful as possible. I am not disputing that the denialist side are waay more dishonest or untruthful and that is because the reality is that most are not stupid science deniers, as some characterise them, but are actually political types spreading propaganda because they are what Katherine Hayhoe calls ‘solutions averse’. They don’t like many of the solutions offered up, so they lobby to spread doubt about the solidity of the science in the minds of the voting public.
        If you think I’m too hard on ‘our side’ you ought to see me when I’m attacking them!

        BTW, you asserted in https://tamino.wordpress.com/2020/01/06/bushfire-and-homophobia/#comment-106294 that I was ‘horrible at data analysis’ because you only found “There are 4 fires with around 40 million ha burnt, all 4 are in the northern territory, none of them caused deaths or losses of structures, none of them got a special “name””

        I then pointed out that if you looked at the whole table, which covers 5 pages, that “it’s not just the Northern Territories”. It wasn’t just the one year either, which is clearly visible to anyone who reads the whole table which includes all the figures for QL, NSW, WA and SA too.
        If I was you and somebody identified what an incorrect remark I had made, as I did to you, I would admit it and apologise to the person I hadinsulted…How about it it, sod?

      • It’s a “garbage graph” in that it stems from a misleading framing, but the numbers are apparently correct. (See my comment above.)

        IMO, the best response is to improve the communication around why it is misleading. Is it geographical–is what has burnt this year unusual, or more valuable, than in 1974-5? Or is it in part, as I argued above temporal–an artifact of comparing a season still (probably) not at its height to completed seasons of the past? Or is it just poor statistical practice–comparing an extreme outlier (by the chosen metric) with more ‘normal’ data points by looking only at amplitude, not frequency? (In other words, would it be better to note on that ‘garbage graph’ that since 1975 we’ve had 3 seasons with the amplitude of the current season–accepting their plot of ‘the current season’ which is already perceptibly too small–whereas there were none from 1920 to 1974? Should we be working more in the frequency domain?)

      • Actually, let me take back what I said about the graph not being “garbage”.

        If you look at the data from the 2004 report Nick P. cited and I discussed above, you find that the Northern Territories racked up large totals in several years, not just ’74-5. (And the only way to get to the graph’s claimed ~110 million ha is to include the NT!)


        1968–1969: 40,000,000 ha
        1969–1970: 45,000,000 ha
        1974–1975: 45,000,000 ha
        2002: 38,000,000 ha

        (Haven’t found any data on NT fire in 2019, by the way, other than a note that 5 homes were confirmed destroyed. I’m assuming the NT season was pretty unremarkable.)

        It’s clearly a bad mistake to conflate NT fire with that elsewhere in Australia–the sizes are huge, with little suppression effort most of the time, and the season is much earlier, ending just about the time more southerly areas are getting underway. So the graph shouldn’t have used NT data; if it hadn’t, the ’74-5 season value would have been reduced by ~40%.

        Of course, that still would have made that season an annus horribilus. But perhaps more significantly for the denialati constructing the graph, it would have forced them to include comparably big spikes for 68-9, 69-70, and 2002, which might have begged the question of fire frequency.

        Either that, or whoever concocted it was awfully careless.

      • Again. The denialists want people to have doubts. Your approach? Let us always point out the doubts in our positions (like with terrorists trying to spread fear and someone would advocate for being really afraid of terrorists).

        Your terminology (alarmists, “comparable to (or possibly greater, these days) problem than out and out denialism”, about Greta, “a colossal mother of all global economic crashes.”) puts you pretty far into a sceptic camp.


        The strange data for the northern territory is putting the whole source in doubt. It is also pointing to a huge problem in any attempt to compare fire sizes. Denialist love such situations!

        PS: Yeah, i can really see denialist stopping their propaganda, because we get more accurate. makes a lot of sense!

      • Yet more characterization–also from November last–of how the current season is “unprecedented”. It bears out several comments here.


      • @Doc Snow, and all,

        I’m sure someone and perhaps several will do a formal attribution assessment of these fires. I would hazard a guess that even the American Meteorological Association might have a special issue of BAMS about them.

        One thing that could end this cycling of recriminations is to make a wager with the denialists/luck warmers on the outcome of the attribution study, and to wait for it. In the Bayesian world, priors are often evoked from experts by assessing how much they are willing to wager on one position versus alternatives, and these are often actual wagers.

        Accordingly, one way to flush out whether the people giving y’all a hard time is to have them put money up for their opinion, and put theirs and yours into some kind of escrow account until the attribution study is done.

        And if they are reluctant to do this, well, you then know how much they values their own opinion.

      • I fear that this discussion is a perfect example of what i wrote in the beginning: While the denialists are out, moving the opinion of many people, we are having a discussion inside a small group and each of us has a slightly different idea about how to proceed. This is a losing tactic.

        The guardian article linked by Doc Snow is another perfect example of the “truth” tactic being bad for our cause. It is giving the typical “No fire can be linked…” line, which everyone feels to be necessary to be included in any discussion/article on this topic. Instead of the “truthfulness” helping our cause, what happens is, that a majority of people simply only read/understand/remember the “no” part of that answer. This phrase should absolutely NEVER be used at the beginning of a statement. NEVER EVER.

        The guardian has a good data analysis up as well:


        But again, i think making our statements more complicated (trend of rain is down in the parts of Australia that really matter) will also not help our cause.
        I am not advocating to assimilate the liar strategy of the right. But we should not attack each other over minor simplifications in our message, because nothing else will swing majorities.

      • Sod, I think for me the main outcome of discussion here is learning. Today I have a much better understanding of what is going on in Australia than I did at this time yesterday. I hope that sharing the process in dialog here helps others as well.

        But it’s not, IMO, going to move the political needle much one way or another. True, it’s worth rebutting nonsense, as John Kerry found out in the infamous “Swiftboating” episode. But what we say here is not going to result in putting masses of people on the street to demand action, nor move them to vote for better candidates–not by itself, anyway. It may illuminate things for some; it may nudge some; it may confirm for some that yes, climate change is real and urgently needs to be addressed, despite denialist FUD. In short, it can help.

        But what moves people is ongoing engagement with other humans–relationship, in fact. So if action is our goal, what we need is to organize. That’s what I try to do these days. Temperamentally, I’d far rather sit behind a keyboard, dig up fascinating information, organize and share it, as I tried to do yesterday. But that, IMO at least, just doesn’t cut it. So today, I’ll be writing a committee report, conferring with other organizers, and disseminating some educational stuff, etc., etc. It’s boring and even sounds sort of pointless when you put it like that, but the result is in fact the creation, maintenance and (we hope) growth of a group of folks who pay attention on a regular basis and who are more than ready to act in concrete ways. That in turn means that our next climate demo in the state capital will not consist of 40 or 50 diehards chanting slogans and covered only by the college newspaper–consequently, it will not give legislators the message that they can continue to ignore the issue.

        [Response: Those who do the hard work, the unrewarding logistics that sometimes require sacrifices (especially of precious time), who actually work face-to-face with people, deserve far more praise. Never doubt that your efforts bear fruit. It’s what I’d be doing myself, if my health allowed it.]

      • Tamino, thanks for the encouragement.

  19. Just to further point something out – the variance is clearly way higher on the data in early years than later years at Rutherglen. We shouldn’t be surprised to find the maximum value in the dataset from that period, with or without a systematic change in the mean. That being said, do you have some more data to show that the nearby average is good and not being disturbed by one garbage reading? (How do the extreme values on the differences come about? Are there zeroes or empty entries in the dataset etc?)

  20. Glad to see the thoughtful, and data laden, posts from Doc Snow and latterly some more reasonable less aggressive posts from sod. We’re all on the same side… On our TV news last night, there was an ecologist who made perhaps the best point I’ve seen in this whole confused area and it related to what actually is ‘unprecedented’ – if his data was accurate. Whilst acknowledging that the total area wasn’t exceptional (which was my point) he did say that areas that shouldn’t burn such as wetlands etc (he listed three ecosystems) were burning – from another source (The Guardian in an otherwise misleading article about acreages etc) this was “rainforests, wet eucalypt forests, dried-out swamps and banana plantations that do not usually burn because they are too wet”

    That is exactly the sort of details that media articles, and those interviewed, should be putting front and centre when talking about ‘unprecedented’. That is exactly the sort of information I wanted to see to judge the situation objectively and is a powerful argument. As we have seen, much of the misleading nature of media reports is just because they kind of imply that the unprecedented nature of the fires is down to the scale of the acreages burned.

    Other things I would have liked to see in media reports about ‘unprecedented’ is the scale and longevity of the drought that has dried out areas that were too wet previously and how rainfall patterns may have shifted because of global warming to cause this. Positive phases of ‘The Indian Ocean Dipole’ seem to be altering and this paper from a few years ago suggests that the IOD has been influenced to change its behaviour by ongoing global warming and that modelling shows that it will be even more changed as the 21st century continues.


    “we project that the frequency of extreme pIOD events will increase by almost a factor of three, from one event every 17.3 years over the twentieth century to one event every 6.3 years over the twenty-first century”

    I not sure how any media reports on such science would go down with the public, but this is surely an example where modelling of future consequences is being validated by Nature itself in real time and so is another very powerful argument that should trump insinuations about acreage which, as I and others have shown, are too easily countered by historical records.

    • Let us see:

      fires are exceptional: unusual; not typical. CHECK.

      fires are unprecedented: never done or known before. CHECK.

      Your claim was false. There is a tiny subset of claims being made about the area burnt being unprecedented, which is false, but not false in any unusual way for mainstream media reports or blog/forum posts. Just normal simplification.

      The “wetlands” will also not cut it. The other side is posting the totally misleading graph with the 74 fire and your wetlands argument looks horrible.

      The same is true for the Dipole. The very moment you mention a cyclical effect you lost the discussion. You should NEVER use it, unless you are in a situation where you can point out, that current maxima is NOT aligned with a cyclical high (and that for the cyclical effect does not explain the maximum but will make future maxima even more extreme).

      Both the Dipole and the wetland explanations might work to harden the position of people who are already in the pro climate camp. In all other circumstances i would avoid them.

      PS: Other situations in which i would advice you to use a total truth approach: 1. your next wedding proposal. Start by giving a list of all other girls/women you like or liked. 2. Job interview. Focus all your personal deficits first. 3. when giving a presentation in your professional field: Also totally focus all uncertainties and the risks involved when people follow your professional advice.

      • I am afraid, sod, that it really looks like you are arguing for deception, cherry picking etc, which is EXACTLY what enables the denialosphere to attack any exaggeration, partial truth etc etc. I know, because I argue with denialists/’sceptics’/contrarians all the time and your irresponsible and counter productive methodology gets instantly and ruthlessly exploited. Most denialists are not stupid – if there’s a hint of dissembling in pro-climate science proclamations they will zero in on it and then use it against the science.

      • Come to think of it, sod’s ‘partial truth’ methodology looks to be arguing for what the denialist fraternity falsely accuse/accused Stephen Schneider of doing – except sod is actually arguing for it…

        Stephen Schneider was famously quote mined (and continues to be) in this denialist meme which often crops up near the top of their lists of stuff that they assert ‘proves’ that climate scientists are making it all up or exaggerating it – usually, they say, to keep the grant monies and funds rolling in.
        Excerpt from Gosselin’s Notrickszone. “How Climatologists Suddenly Turned On A Dime, “Shooed Away” Uncertainty To Promote “Scary Scenarios””

        On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.””

        The full ‘un-mined’ quote is nowhere near as apparently incriminating as that appears – in context it shows Schneider to have been the thoughtful careful objective scientist and person that he was.

      • the difference is the message. Please choose:

        a) These fires are unprecedented. we need action now.

        b) No single event can be directly linked to climate. These were neither the biggest, nor the deadliest, nor the most destructive fires. The fires were also possibly influenced by a cyclical Dipole event. It might have been the biggest forest fire in wet lands, but we need to wait for more information, before we can really say so.

      • I think your two choices are too black or white. As written, I would choose no 1. If they were written differently, I would choose no 2. because I partially believe in the precautionary principle.

        Perhaps It might help you understand my position, which I am fairly sure is the best way to keep the public onside without risking a negative backlash if any exaggeration is ‘outed’ by denialist’s laser like focus on errors, if I told you that friends of mine were emigrating to Western Australia (Bunbury) about 20 years ago and I warned them to consider changing their minds because my understanding of the science, incomplete as it was back then was that Australia, of the inhabited world, was most likely going to suffer first from heat and drought.

        Let’s all hope that whether these current events are wholly or partially linked to ongoing climate change that the world hurries up and starts putting all the plans and policies into action ASAP

      • Nick, I don’t know if the following will reflect your experience or not, but as I’ve been engaged with skeptics/denialati over the years, I find I tend to be influenced by their messaging–not shaken in what I believe to be true based on the evidence, but still I find myself reflexively assessing information in view of their anticipated responses. (I developed a pretty good ability to anticipate those responses, I think.) Not conversion, but a certain tendency to self-censor (putting it in the worst light for a moment.) At the very worst, it could devolve to a normalizing of unreasonable doubts.

        That’s why I try to challenge myself not to accept denialist framings. WRT sod’s two choices, I might opt for something like:

        “These fires are certainly unprecedented in some ways, though of course it’s true that fires have always happened. But we’re pretty much guaranteed to see increasingly more and more such fires, if we don’t take aggressive action right away.”

        It does, of course, depend on context. If you are in one prioritizing the pithy, I think sod’s #1 is pretty hard to beat.

      • Doc Snow. The problem with official sources saying stuff like “a) These fires are unprecedented. we need action now” is that without those sources defining exactly what is unprecedented, in a way that Joe Public can easily understand it, is that it just takes a whole bunch of media reports about what spokespeople may be saying which gloss over the details of what has changed to set up a situation ripe for exploitation by the nay-sayers.

        Joe P may accept the media hype, which, to him just looks like these are being presented as the biggest, worst, most damaging, deadly etc etc fires ever – right up until the denialati say hold on there’s nothing really special or unprecedented here – fires have been bigger, many more people were killed etc. Joe P will not readily understand fine details like a rainforest or a swamp burned or that the temperatures are hotter – to him it’s the walls of flame he sees nightly on the media that influence his judgement.

        I think it fair to say that such a member of the public who finds out that they (think they have) been fooled by governmental and media sources misrepresenting or even lying about something so huge will get his hackles raised big time. There’s no one so suspicious of any source as someone who thinks they have bee misled before.

        In my own denialist fighting, I heavily favour arguments that would appeal to and be easily comprehensible by, the aforementioned Joe Public. I find too may other denialism debunkers tend to go for spouting reams of esoteric scientific arguments and appeals to scientific papers. I don’t think that tactic works very well at all to persuade the voting public about ‘who’s right?’

        It is my observation that the denialist messages in the media are not usually pitched at changing the minds of those familiar with the science, but at changing the minds of the largest percentage of the viewing/listening /reading public that they can.

  21. Susan Anderson

    Another cultural side effect of electing greedy selfish destructive people who promote more wealth and power for the wealthy and powerful without regard to the truth or planetary imperatives:

    Jair Bolsonaro is perfectly happy to get rid of indigenous people who won’t vote for him. We have a fair amount of this in the good ole US of A with things like the school to prison pipeline, and war training and armaments for police. Remove voters who might vote against said wealth and power. Kill ’em or disenfranchise them, they don’t care!

    • Yes, a dominant feature of Republican policy (including lawmaking) has been voter suppression via exaggerated purging of voter lists, shuttering of polling places, the permanent disenfranchisement of convicted felons, and unnecessarily heightened requirements for ID, among other things.