El Niño officially returns, heralding hotter, drier conditions and increased fire danger for Australia

19.09.23 By

AUSTRALIANS are urged to prepare for hot, dry and potentially dangerous fire conditions, as the Bureau of Meteorology has officially declared that both an El Niño event and positive Indian Ocean Dipole are underway.

The Bureau of Meteorology’s update comes as fires burn around the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales. In Sydney, today marks the hottest three consecutive days ever recorded during September, alongside the announcement of a total fire ban, catastrophic fire conditions for the south coast, and school closures in some areas.

At the same time abnormally high sea temperatures over recent months have triggered a red alert among scientists. They warn that we’re speeding towards uncharted and dangerous territory. 

The Climate Council has reinforced the need to move away from fossil fuels and strengthen Australia’s environment laws to consider climate impacts of any new projects. Tomorrow, the Climate Council will release a report that warns of the scorching consequences of a failure to reduce our emissions this decade. 

Climate Councillor and leader of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) group, Greg Mullins said: “An El Niño event can be like putting fire weather on steroids. With the warmer and drier conditions it usually brings, we could be looking at an extended and potentially volatile fire season. Already significant fires have been raging nationwide, including in NSW, Queensland, WA and the NT. A fire near Tennant Creek has already burned hundreds of thousands of hectares, and the entire Northern Territory has been declared a fire zone until next March. Nationally, we’re warned of a hotter, drier Spring and Summer.

“Climate change just adds to what El Niño conditions can bring, by driving even higher temperatures and extreme weather including strong winds that can turn fires into infernos.

“Aussie communities are resilient, but let’s not forget that being ready, staying alert and listening to fire service warnings are our best defences when facing heightened fire danger brought on by an El Niño event, worsened by climate change.

“The Government needs to implement all 80 recommendations of the Bushfire Royal Commission without further delay, and significantly increase disaster adaptation and resilience spending as we do everything we can to drive down greenhouse gas emissions.”

Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie said: “The era of climate consequences is all around us and it is being driven by the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas. Australians are right to be concerned about what an El Niño period will mean for us. That’s why the Climate Council is calling on the Australian government to accelerate their review of Australia’s environmental law to make sure that it deals with climate change. 

“Right now, coal and gas corporations can get away with building projects that pollute our air, our waterways and the atmosphere. A strong national environment law will safeguard our health, grow the economy and protect our treasured natural places.” 

Climate Council Research Director Simon Bradshaw added: “The devastating extreme weather we’re seeing around the world is exactly what climate scientists have been warning us about for decades. That same science tells us we can still choose what our future looks like. Through stronger action now we can substantially limit future climate harms. 

“In recent months we’ve seen southern and central Europe, the US, China, North Africa, and Japan all experience extreme heatwaves. India and South Korea have suffered deadly floods. Canada has just experienced its worst wildfire season on record, with scenes eerily reminiscent of Australia’s Black Summer. This is what climate change looks like.

“Climate change – driven by the burning of coal, oil and gas – is supercharging the impacts of El Niño events, and is likely also increasing the frequency of strong El Niño events.

“The prospect of both a powerful El Niño and a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, against the backdrop of a warming planet, is another urgent call for faster action to move beyond fossil fuels and get emissions plummeting. Our very way of life, the vitality of the ecosystems that support life, and the safety of all communities are at stake.” 

Editor’s Note: Climate change is supercharging extreme weather events such as fires and floods, and threatening Australia’s way of life. The CSIRO says strong El Niño and La Niña events have become more frequent due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of coal, oil and gas, which are driving dangerous climate change. The return of El Niño is likely to see unprecedented heat extremes globally and the return of dangerous fire conditions to parts of Australia, particularly the east. El Niño largely affects eastern Australia and typically brings drier and hotter conditions. This can lead to an increased risk of more frequent and severe heatwaves, bushfires, and drought across parts of the country.

For interviews, please contact Lydia Hollister-Jones on 0448 043 015 or lydia.hollister-jones@climatecouncil.org.au or Zerene Catacutan on 0438 972 260 or zerene.catacutan@climatecouncil.org.au

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