Climate change has Australian wildfires 'running out of control,' experts say

Human-caused climate change is worsening the wildfires scorching Australia, experts say.

"Climate change is increasing bushfire risk in Australia by lengthening the fire season, decreasing precipitation and increasing temperature," according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

The unprecedented fires, which have killed at least 25 people and destroyed 2,000 homes, have been burning since September. In all, about 15 million acres have burned across the country, an area roughly the size of West Virginia.

While climate change might not ignite the fires, it is giving them the chance to turn into catastrophic blazes by creating warmer temperatures, increasing the amount of fuel (dried vegetation) available and reducing water availability because of higher evaporation, according to Climate Signals.

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"There are many drivers of wildfires, but its increasingly clear that hotter, drier conditions play a big role in making them worse," said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at Berkeley Earth, a climate research organization, in a tweet.

Massive smoke rises from wildfires burning in East Gippsland, Victoria, in this image from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning in Gippsland, Australia.
Massive smoke rises from wildfires burning in East Gippsland, Victoria, in this image from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning in Gippsland, Australia.

"Southern Australia has seen rapid warming of around 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1950, making conditions ripe for devastating fires," he said.

Recent extremely hot, dry conditions have also fueled the fires. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, 2019 was both the hottest and driest year ever measured in Australia.

"Under these conditions, it is not at all surprising that extreme wildfires have been running out of control," said Robert Rohde, a lead scientist at Berkeley Earth, in a tweet.

December was particularly harsh in Australia: It was one of the top two hottest months on record for the nation.

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"Australia has warmed by about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since records began in 1910," tweeted Columbia University climate scientist Kate Marvel. "This makes heat waves and fires more likely. It's not the sun. It's not volcanoes. It's not 'natural cycles.'"

"There is no explanation for this – none – that makes sense besides emissions of heat-trapping gases," Marvel said.

Climate change is also making droughts more likely to occur – and more severe when they do – in Australia. While Australia is no stranger to drought, climate change has exacerbated drought conditions so that when droughts occur, the conditions are in a much hotter climate and, in some cases, with lower precipitation, according to Climate Signals.

The Climate Reality Project also reports that making the connection between global temperature rise and wildfires is also pretty simple science: Droughts dry out the land, killing plant life – which then also dries out itself, becoming far easier to ignite.

Indeed, winter rainfall has been decreasing in southeastern Australia, while the country has been becoming hotter with more extreme heatwaves – ideal conditions for bushfires.

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"If anyone tells you, 'This is part of a normal cycle' or 'we’ve had fires like this before,' smile politely and walk away, because they don’t know what they’re talking about," Greg Mullins, former Fire and Rescue commissioner of New South Wales, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

"Climate change is super-charging our natural disaster risks," Mullins said. "I wish we were wrong, but we’re not."

Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe explained in a tweet that "human-induced climate change is a threat multiplier. It takes existing risks and amplifies them beyond imagining, affecting every living thing on this planet, including us."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Australia fires: How climate change is worsening the fires