A range of climate change factors combined to create the tinderbox conditions that led to devastating fires destroying ancient forests in Tasmania, our new briefing paper has found.
More than 72,000 hectares of western Tasmania have been burned by a cluster of bushfires ignited by lightning strikes on January 13. Experts say much of the burnt areas of alpine flora is unlikely to ever fully recover.
Our briefing paper, issued today in response to many media and public enquiries about the effect of climate change on the fires, found that a long-term drying trend, record-breaking dry spring and a dry, hot summer – driven in large part by climate change – played a significant role in increasing the susceptibility of the forests to fire.
You can download the briefing paper here, or read on below:
What’s happening in
Tassie and why is it so destructive?
More than 72,000 hectares of western Tasmania have been burned
by a cluster of bushfires ignited by lightning strikes on 13 January. Of
course, Tasmania is no stranger to bushfires, especially after the arrival of
European settlers, but this year’s fires are particularly destructive because:
- They are threatening vegetation that is unique to Tasmania, including
iconic alpine species such as the Pencil Pine, cushion plants and temperate
- The fires are burning up vast tracts of organic soils
which the unique Tasmanian vegetation depends on. It is extremely unlikely that
burnt areas with alpine flora will ever fully recover because of the slow
growth of these species and the increased risk of subsequent fires given the
change to more flammable vegetation and the slow accumulation of peat soils,
which takes thousands of years.
So what made the landscape so prone to such devastating bushfires
Dry, hot summer and long-term drying trend fuelling the fire
A record-breaking dry spring and a dry, warm summer has left
fuels and peat soils bone dry.
Unusual warmth marked the last quarter of 2015. October was
the warmest on record for Australia for both maximum and minimum temperatures,
with the monthly mean temperature anomaly the largest on record for any month
of the year. November mean temperatures were the equal second-warmest on record
and spring as a whole was the second-warmest on record for Australia.
October–December was also the warmest on record for both maximum and minimum
temperatures. Numerous December records were broken in Tasmania for daily
maximum temperature. Exceptionally high minimum temperatures on the night of
19–20 December were even more significant, with record-high minimum
temperatures for December observed over large parts of Tasmania.
Below average winter–spring rainfall and a very warm start
to October created conditions conducive to dangerous spring fire weather across
the southeast. Extreme fire danger was declared over much of Tasmania during
the early October heatwave; Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) values at a number
of sites were near record-high for so early in the season. Furthermore, annual
rainfall was below average for Tasmania, indicative of a two-decade drying
trend likely influenced by climate change.
drying trend in southeast Australia and more high fire danger weather
Southern Australia has experienced a drying trend over the
past few decades, characterised by a 10-20 percent reduction in cool-season
(April-September) rainfall. The reduction is most pronounced in Tasmania and
other parts of southeast Australia from the mid-1990s. Climate change is likely
a contributing factor to the observed rainfall declines via its influence on
the southward shift of the rain bearing fronts from the Southern Ocean, which
normally account for much of the cool-season rainfall in southern Australia.
In Australia’s southeast, it is very likely that an
increased incidence of drought – coupled with consecutive hot and dry days –
will result in longer fire seasons and an even larger number of days of extreme
Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of
many extreme weather events, including extreme bushfire conditions. Over the last 30 years extreme fire weather has increased in
Tasmania and other parts of southeast Australia. The Forest Fire Danger Index
(FFDI), an indicator of fire danger weather, increased significantly over the
period 1973 to 2010 at 16 out of 38 measuring stations around Australia, with
no stations showing decreases; stations showing significant increases in FFDI
are concentrated in the southeast.
Climate change is also having an impact on the length of the
Australian fire season which now extends beyond summer, into October and March,
in many regions. Analysis of global climate data has shown
that the frequency of long fire weather seasons has increased in eastern
Australia. Longer fire seasons will reduce opportunities
for controlled burning and increase pressure on firefighting resources. The east of the country, including Tasmania,
is most likely to be affected by changes to the bushfire season length in
Tackle climate change
to protect Australians and natural heritage
Changes in extreme weather events are critically important
in terms of risks to our health, communities, infrastructure, economy,
livelihoods, and natural ecosystems. We must therefore cut our greenhouse gas
emissions rapidly and deeply to stabilise the world’s climate. Most of the
known fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas) reserves must remain in the ground. In
addition, carbon stored in
land systems is vulnerable to being returned to atmosphere (from, for example,
bushfires), undoing the earlier uptake of carbon from the atmosphere. It is very
risky, and scientifically flawed, to use land carbon to “offset”
emissions from fossil fuel combustion – yet another reason why we need to keep
fossil fuels in the ground. Investments
in and installations of renewable energy (e.g. solar and wind) must therefore
Australia is on the front line of climate change. We must
strive to cut our emissions rapidly and deeply to join global efforts to
stabilise the world’s climate if we are to reduce the risk of even more extreme
events, such as the bushfires that are currently ravaging our World Heritage
areas in Tasmania and ecosystems in other parts of the country.
You can download a PDF version of the briefing paper here, and read our latest report ‘The Burning Issue: Climate Change and the Australian Bushfire Threat’ here.
Preview image credit: Tasmania’s Central Plateau as captured by wilderness photographer Dan Broun via ABC News.