Australian bushfires wake-up call for extreme effects climate change

The Australian Black Summer bushfires are a “wake up call” demonstrating the extreme effects of climate change. This is according to a group of experts on climate change and forest fires, including VU earth and climate scientist Tanya Lippmann, who’ve conducted a study examining the factors that caused the disaster.

01/13/2021 | 1:09 PM

In the summer season of 2019/2020, Australia experienced extreme drought and as a result large parts of the country suffered severe forest and wildfires. This summer is therefore called the Black Summer by Australians. The study, recently published in the scientific journal Nature Communications Earth and Environment, concludes that improving the methods used to adapt to the increase in fire risk in Australia, while also pursuing urgent global climate change mitigation efforts is the best strategy for limiting further increases in fire risk.

Impact of climate change on bushfires
This study follows an open letter, released during the height of Australia’s Black Summer fire crisis and signed by more than 400 climate and fire experts from across the world, warning of the ways climate change is increasing bushfire risk in Australia. Together with 7 other scientists, Tanya Lippmann (PhD student, Department of Earth Sciences, VU Amsterdam) wrote this open letter.

“As fires burnt just outside of my home city of Sydney during a trip back home in December 2019, I was frustrated by national campaigns and political discourse pointing towards arson and downplaying the scale of the fires. In our open letter we pointed to concrete evidence that human-caused climate change increased fire risk and made a call for action to limit climate change. This letter led to the huge collaborative effort, involving 17 fire and climate experts, to publish the recent study.”, says Lippmann.

The authors warn fire disasters like the Black Summer are made worse by human-caused climate change in multiple ways. “The extreme fire season of 2019/2020 suggests that fire risk in South East Australia may increase more rapidly than previously anticipated from some climate model projections. Human-caused climate warming is virtually certain to increase the duration, frequency and intensity of forest fires in South East Australia. Continued increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are unavoidable in the coming decades.”, says Lippmann.

Black Summer bushfires
The study points out that predications made more than 10 years ago that an increase in climate-driven fire risk would be directly observable by 2020 appear to have come true. Lead author Professor Nerilie Abram from The Australian National University (ANU) said the Black Summer fires were unprecedented in their scale and power, as well as the number of fires that transitioned into extreme pyrocumulonimbus events - extremely dangerous fires that generate their own thunderstorms.

The team involved in this study includes climate experts from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes and bushfire experts from the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub and scientists from universities in Australia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands (VU Amsterdam).