CATASTROPHIC HEAT, WILD FIRES IN AUSTRALIA

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9 january 2013

[4C tip: The Real News Service is circulating a video of Amy Goodman's report on the Australian heat wave in her "Democracy Now" news show. ]

Australia warns of ‘catastrophic’ fires

By Pilita Clark, Environment Correspondent Financial Times, January 8, 2013

A fire danger sign on the Hume Highway outside of Marulan indicates a ‘catastrophic’ warning on January 8 2013 in Marulan, Australia

Australia was braced for another day of ferocious heat as authorities warned that many people in New South Wales, the country’s most populous state, were still at risk of “catastrophic” fires.

In a reminder of the heatwave that afflicted swaths of the US last year , records have been broken in at least 20 places across Australia since December 30, in what weather bureau officials say is a “significant climatic event” affecting an unusually large number of states.

The new year marked the first time six consecutive days of national average temperatures above 39C had been recorded, while a record of 40.3C was set for the highest national average.

A total fire ban was still in place across New South Wales, on the eastern side of the country, on Tuesday night where firefighters were scrambling to put out scores of wildfires. Further south, residents in Tasmania were counting the cost of fires that tore through thousands of acres of bushland and razed dozens of homes in the small town of Dunalley, east of Hobart.

Though conditions later eased in some parts of the country, forecasts of more fierce heat elsewhere prompted speculation that the record for the hottest day could be broken.

That record, 50.7C, was set in 1960 in the small town of Oodnadatta in the country’s centre, where residents have been sweltering through temperatures above 45C over the past week.

“It’s like a ghost town,” said Sue Chester, publican at the town’s Transcontinental Hotel, in a telephone interview. “Everyone is inside in the air conditioning. You can’t walk anywhere outside.”

Australia’s experience follows a year of extreme weather events around the world, including unprecedented melting of Arctic summer sea ice and the warmest July in the contiguous US since records began in 1895.

Scientists have generally been reluctant to attribute single extreme weather events to global warming but this is starting to change as researchers at the UK government forecaster, the Met Office, and others in the US work on the emerging field of “climate attribution” studies.

This research will be applied to the Australian heatwave to see what can be said about any potential link to global warming, Julia Slingo, Met Office chief scientist, told the Financial Times.

The Met Office’s own recent annual climate modelling data have led to some confusion about the state of global temperatures, however.

Its latest five-year prediction for 2013 to 2017 forecasts the global average temperature will be between 0.28C and 0.59C higher – and most likely about 0.43C – than the long-term average for 1971-2000.

This is about 20 per cent less than the 0.54C mid-range figure predicted when the Met Office released its last forecast a year ago, prompting some commentators to question whether global warming was stalling or had even stopped completely.

Prof Slingo said this was an incorrect interpretation of the data. “Global warming is not at a standstill,” she said. “There is a very significant probability from the spread of forecasts that we could have new record global temperatures in the next five years.”

Though there had been an “apparent slight slowdown” in the rate of warming since the turn of the century, Prof Slingo said such fluctuations were to be expected in the overall warming trend. ”Nothing we’ve said in the forecasts for this coming five years undermines the fact that the planet is significantly warmer than it was 50 years ago, and that’s a really key message.”

Other climate experts said the Met Office data should be treated cautiously.

“Such forecasts are at the frontiers of the subject and form part of a research programme in this area in the Met Office and elsewhere, but should not be considered to be predictions,” said Sir Brian Hoskins, of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London.

“The forecast results also suggest that half the years in the period to 2017 would be expected to give new record global temperatures.”

Chris Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London, said he despaired at the way such data were used to suggest the global warming had stopped.

“Even if the global mean temperature were to remain unchanged, if the geographic patterns of temperature and rainfall change, the consequences will still be potentially severe,” he said. “We only need to look at what is going on in Australia at this very moment.”

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[4C note: We were alerted to this commentary on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company) website by an Australian mailing on the Climate Action Network list]

Weather on steroids: climate change in action

Tony Mohr ABC Drum, January 7, 2013

"Australia is in the midst of a heat wave. In and of itself, that's nothing special, but it is getting hotter. What we do today will dictate how hot we are tomorrow", writes Tony Mohr.

Chances are that as you read this, if you're not in Sydney, you're either sweating uncomfortably or sitting in an air-conditioned office.

It's probably somewhere between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius outside. More if you're in one of Australia's hotter regional areas. You probably had a fitful night's sleep.

We all know the symptoms; Australia is in the midst of a heat wave.

In and of itself, that's nothing special. We have heatwaves all the time. But it is getting hotter. Climate change is making things worse. What Australia - and the world - is seeing is weather on steroids.

No-one can point to any given hot day and say categorically that 'it is hot because of climate change'. No-one is trying to. But we know very well that as the climate heats up, it makes the chances of a day being hot greater, and it makes the likely maximum temperature even hotter.

We can't look at Lance Armstrong's career and say "that stage win on Alpe d'Huez was because of doping". But we can say "doping was absolutely a factor in him winning seven straight Tours de France". Likewise, we know climate change is a factor in the increasing number of hot days and nights we are experiencing in Australia, even if the cause of any given hot day is ambiguous.

According to the National Climate Data Centre, nine of the 10 hottest years on record have been since 2000 (the other is 1998), and of the hottest 20 years on record - that is, since 1880 - the earliest is 1987, which comes in at 20.

Last year in the US, heat records were broken with distressing regularity. In an ordinary year, the ratio of hot-weather records to cold-weather records is roughly equal. In 2012, for every cold-weather record, there were 3.5 record hot days.

The CSIRO has found Australian annual average daily maximum temperatures have steadily increased in the last hundred years, with most of the warming trend occurring since 1970. There has been an increase in the number of hot days and a decrease in the number of cold days. 2012 has been announced the ninth-hottest year on record.

This is a trend that shows no sign of reversing. According to the Climate Commission, Sydney experienced three days over 35C, but present warming trends mean that it will be 14 by 2100. In Melbourne, that number will triple from nine to 27. In Perth and Adelaide, it will go from 27 to 72 and 17 to 44 respectively. And Darwin? Nine to 312. That's 85 per cent of the year sweltering through 35C-plus temperatures.

More hot days and hotter hot days. Weather on steroids.

This is about more than simply sweltering on public transport and sleepless nights, though. Heatwaves are dangerous. The Climate Institute says (PDF):

Heatwaves are among the most under recognised natural hazard in Australia. Between 1803 and 1992 heatwaves caused more fatalities than either tropical cyclones or floods. Recent assessments suggest extreme temperatures currently contribute to the deaths of more than 1,000 people aged over 65 each year in Australia every year.

More hot weather can easily lead to a vicious cycle that creates even more hot weather and higher electricity prices. Hot days lead to massive increases in the use of air conditioners around Australia and homes and offices fight off the heat. This kind of intensive energy adds to the problem of climate change and, not incidentally, is the reason power companies are 'gold-plating' their infrastructure.

The poles and wires that carry electricity are set up to cope on the hottest of hot days (heaven help the power company that drops your A/C in 40-degree heat), but they are unused for much of the year, and consumers foot the bill. More hot days, more gold plating, higher electricity prices.

This is what scientists have been predicting since the 1980s, and it's becoming a reality. Climate change is juicing the weather. If it's 39C when you're reading this, there's no way we can tell whether it's because of climate change. But because of climate change, we know that the odds of it being over 40 tomorrow are that much higher. This is not inevitable, however. The Climate Commission's forecasts are based on business as usual for the next 87 years. What we do today, and how much we emit today, will dictate just how hot we are tomorrow.

Tony Mohr is the climate change program manager at the Australian Conservation Foundation. He tweets at @ACFTonyMohr. View his full profile here.


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