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EXPERT REACTION: Scientists debrief after Australia's unprecedented fire season

Embargoed until: Publicly released:
A series of comment and correspondence articles addresses Australia's horrific and unprecedented bushfire season of 2019-2020. Broadly, the papers, several of which were authored by Australian experts, explore the fires' impacts and the global response to the catastrophe. Individual articles assess: the damage done to Aussie forests; whether Australia should expect such fire seasons to become the 'new normal'; the contrast between the response of individuals around the world, such as knitting mittens for injured koalas, and the action required to mitigate climate change; the weather systems that bring rain to Australia; whether the latest climate models could have predicted the NSW fires; and the impact of the fires on climate change research.

Journal/conference: Nature Climate Change

Link to research (DOI): 10.1038/s41558-020-0720-5

Organisation/s: The University of Melbourne, The University of New South Wales, ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes (CLEx), Monash University, The Australian National University, RMIT University, University of Queensland, Western Sydney University

Funder: See the Acknowledgements section in individual papers for funding details.

Media Release

From: Springer Nature

Future under fire

A series of Comments and Correspondences about the recent Australian bushfires is published this week in Nature Climate Change. These pieces, accompanied by an Editorial, explore the fires’ impacts and the associated global response.

As of mid-January 2020, the Australian bush fires have burnt over 10 million ha across the southern half of the continent. The unprecedented nature of the fires has had major consequences for human wellbeing, infrastructure and wildlife. 

In a Comment, Ben Sanderson and colleagues consider the latest climate models and whether they would have been able to predict the fires in New South Wales. In another Comment, Lauren Rickards and James Watson discuss the impacts of the fires on current climate change research and how scientists and institutions may need to rapidly adapt to these events.

In a Comment, Lesley Head explores whether the fires will lead to climate action, or if they will be considered the new normal. Further pieces discuss the damage done to the forest biome and look at the natural climate patterns that bring rain to the region. A Correspondence from Henriette Jager and Charles Coutant examines the global response to the bushfires. They contrast the actions of individuals to aid injured wildlife, such as knitting boots for koalas, with what is needed to mitigate climate change to ensure protection of species and biodiversity.

An accompanying Editorial states “Australia is certainly deserving of compassion and support in the face of the fires. At the same time, it is worthwhile to pause and acknowledge the other places at the frontlines of climate change and to include their stories in the collective motivation for climate action.”

Attachments:

  • Springer Nature
    Web page
    Line of Fire - editorial overview. The URL will go live after the embargo ends
  • Springer Nature
    Web page
    Comment article: The role of climate variability in Australian drought. The URL will go live after the embargo ends
  • Springer Nature
    Web page
    Comment article: Research is not immune to climate change. The URL will go live after the embargo ends
  • Springer Nature
    Web page
    Comment article: Transformative change requires resisting a new normal. The URL will go live after the embargo ends
  • Springer Nature
    Web page
    Comment article: A fiery wake-up call for climate science. The URL will go live after the embargo ends
  • Springer Nature
    Web page
    Correspondence article: Knitting while Australia burns.The URL will go live after the embargo ends
  • Springer Nature
    Web page
    Correspondence article: Unprecedented burn area of Australian mega forest fires. The URL will go live after the embargo ends

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Professor Rodney Keenan is from the School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences at the University of Melbourne

This recent Australian summer of severe bushfires extending from Queensland to Victoria reinforces the evidence for accelerating climate change. 2030 climate forecasts made in 2009 have come true in half the time. Today we are living through more and hotter heatwaves, longer droughts, uncontrollable fires, intense downpours and significant shifts in seasonal rainfall patterns.

Policy-makers need to focus on reducing greenhouse emissions to avoid greater long-term impacts. We need a similar focus on adaptation to maintain prosperous communities, economies and ecosystems under this rapid change. More intensive forest management is critical to prepare for future change. We need to invest an order of magnitude more in well-targeted prescribed burning and forest thinning, maintaining access tracks, better fire weather prediction, fire danger rating and public warning systems and using technology to improve fire monitoring. We need to train a new generation of forest managers in bushfire fire preparation and locate them in and near forests for more active land management and rapid response.

Community education is critical. Many Australians are new to the country or are second generation. They do not fully understand the risks in their landscapes. Many people still travel to areas of high risk during dangerous conditions. It is vital that we rebuild our adaptation research capacity and learn from our past experiences, to support the partnerships needed to make climate-smart decisions. This includes partnerships with Traditional Owners with extensive experience in adapting and surviving in the face of regular, and sometimes unwelcome, change.

Last updated: 24 Feb 2020 1:35pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Leanda is an independent researcher based in Perth, Western Australia

To further the comment on ‘Knitting while Australia’ burns, I agree that there is a mismatch between short-term actions and long-term solutions. However, I would also add that the focus and cute and cuddly animals such as koalas and kangaroos while assisting in broader public engagement, it is important to recognise that ‘animals’ includes insects, spiders and other less-charismatic animals.

As such, estimates of millions of animals dying in these fires, would actually be more like trillions when including invertebrates. Invertebrates are also those who drive many essential processes within ecosystems (including agriculture), such as nutrient cycles and pollination. Unfortunately, baseline data for such animals is lacking in many cases and difficult to measure due to their often close association with seasonal fluctuations, and so declines and overall trends and effects on these animals remain unknown.

Data deficiency could be addressed with greater acknowledgement and funding towards these animals – which somewhat ironically - are the backbone of our ecosystems. Indeed, many invertebrate species going extinct may not even have a name yet. The rise of some types of modelling (eg functional trait-based) and advancements in taxonomic resolutions may assist in future efforts. So, although I agree with the premise of this comment and whole-heartedly support the suggestions, it is yet another article which fails to even mention the importance of those animals so essential to ecosystem functioning. 

Last updated: 24 Feb 2020 1:34pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Hamish Clarke is a Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong and Western Sydney University

It is a timely reminder of the challenges involved in modelling the interplay between climate, vegetation and fire. Improving the way we represent fire and Australia’s distinct flora in these models could help us understand the likelihood of more seasons like this in the future.

Last updated: 24 Feb 2020 12:59pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
Hamish declares that he has previously co-authored papers with the following authors: Boer, Resco De Dios & Bradstock.
Dr Andrew King is Climate Extremes Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, University of Melbourne.

In Australia, we've experienced a summer that will be etched in our collective memory for a long time to come. Extreme drought, heat and bushfires have had devastating consequences that have been well documented in the media, but this collection of articles in Nature Climate Change draws on the expertise of Australian and international scientists to provide informed commentary on this summer's severe weather.
 
From our own analysis and the work of Sanderson and Fisher, it is clear that there is a lot we don't fully understand yet. While we can say with confidence that human-caused climate change has amplified the extreme heatwaves that have been observed this summer, the influence of human-caused climate change on drought and fires in Australia is much harder to disentangle and natural climate variability plays a very large role in both. The climate models that we use to make projections have deficiencies in simulating both drought and fire such that we cannot yet provide robust guidance on how these extremes of Australian climate will change as the world continues to warm.

Last updated: 24 Feb 2020 12:56pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
Andrew is an author on one of the letters.
Andrew Gissing is an emergency management expert with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and General Manager of Resilience at Risk Frontiers

Nationally the destruction of buildings this bushfire season is the worst on record. Building losses in New South Wales and Queensland are unprecedented. It is likely that insured losses will rank within the top ten most expensive natural disasters since 1967. There have been 65 bushfire related fatalities in Australia since the Black Saturday disaster.

Professional and volunteer firefighters and males over the age of sixty-five are identified as the most at-risk groups. Bushfire deaths have been tragic, however, the death rate per head of population has been much lower than previous bushfire seasons such as 2009, 1983, 1967 and 1939. There is more frequent fire weather and bushfire seasons are longer. This trend is expected to continue with climate change. 
 
This summer fits the definition of a compound event where multiple sequential or concurrent disaster events occur stretching the resources of emergency services and communities. Australia is exposed to multiple sources of risk. Risk informed disaster risk reduction is key.

Last updated: 24 Feb 2020 12:55pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr James Collett is a Lecturer in Psychology from the School of Health and Biomedical Sciences at RMIT University

Nature is the world’s leading scientific research journal. The fact that Nature Climate Change is publishing an issue framed around Australia’s catastrophic bushfire season shows just how important an impact the bushfires are having on the global consciousness.

Australia is now a striking example that is driving international climate change discourse. As discussed in the issue’s opening editorial, there is a reason that the Australian bushfires have had such an impact. It is because Australia is a wealthy, developed nation, is an industrialised nation with large greenhouse gas emissions, and has a multitude of regional communities and culturally significant animal life that have been harmed by fire.

We can only hope that the psychological impact of the bushfires contributes to the political, economic, industrial, scientific, and social changes necessary to manage climate change and create a sustainable world. To paraphrase a call for change made by Professor Lesley Head in the issue, the world doesn’t need to bounce back from these increasingly frequent climate disasters – we need to bounce forward.

Last updated: 24 Feb 2020 12:54pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
James has declared no conflicts of interest.
Professor Brendan Wintle is a researcher in Conservation Ecology at the University of Melbourne as well as Director of the National Environmental Science Program at the Threatened Species Recovery Research Hub

It is very hard to predict the precise impacts on species and ecosystems of ongoing drying and warming pattern in Australia, but if the current fire season impacts are anything to go by, we are in for severe worsening of the current extinction crisis in Australia. We will lose many of our magnificent animals and plants. Official Australian Government figures indicate that over 300 animal and plant species on our threatened species list have been severely impacted – with 114 species set to lose more than 80 per cent of their suitable habitat.

We must heed the warning of Professor Head that these changes should not be ‘normalised’, because if we allow this to become the new norm, we risk losing many of Australia’s precious animal and plant species. This fire season should be a call to action for climate mitigation and species conservation, otherwise we face a worsening of the extinction crisis.

Last updated: 24 Feb 2020 12:50pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Associate Professor Euan Ritchie is Director of the Media Working Group at the Ecological Society of Australia and an Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at Deakin University

Australia’s devastating fire season to date, that started last winter, does not represent a ‘new normal’. The social, economic and environmental damage these fires have caused is far from normal, it’s unprecedented, and regrettably such a disaster was predicted and warned about by scientists, for decades.

These fires, like the dying Great Barrier Reef, are a stark and disturbing manifestation of our failure to live sustainably.

Disturbingly, if we do not rapidly change our ways and lifestyles, and divest from fossil fuels as a matter of urgency, we are set to see more and more of such tragic events, and potentially even ones that are far worse. This means we are not in a ‘new normal’ as things are still changing, and getting worse, caused by our individual and collective inabilities to combat the major causes of climate change.

Importantly, it is not too late to act to address climate change and avoid the worst predicted scenarios, but we must act rapidly and substantially, as any further delays risk a genuinely dire future.

Last updated: 24 Feb 2020 12:49pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Noam Levin is from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Queensland

The papers were very interesting, showing that this fire season in Australia was exceptional not only for Australia, but also globally (in terms of the per cent area of the forest biome which has burnt).

While more detailed research is yet to be done on the attribution of the fires, and the causes that made them so big and too burn for such a long period, it is clear that it is related to climate, with a very dry summer season and several years with less rainfall than usual.

Last updated: 24 Feb 2020 12:48pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

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