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Issue #1716      January 27, 2016

Waroona fire

Australia and global warming

In 1994, Professor Tim Flannery released his seminal book, Future Eaters. In it he predicted what lay ahead for Australia’s climate and the impact it would have on the country and its people.

Among the predictions Flannery made in the book is the prescient warning that the south west of Australia would become a desert and Perth would become the first ghost metropolis of the 21st Century.

In 2007 he was interviewed while visiting Perth and said, “The problem for Perth … and the south west was the state was growing on the back of a booming economy, at a time when the area was limping through 30 years of dwindling rainfall.”

Today, in January 2016, the world watched as a large part of the south west went up in flames – an area larger than the Perth metropolitan area between Waroona and Harvey and out to the coast at Lake Clifton – Flannery’s prediction for the climate of the south west is gradually taking shape.

The Lower South West which includes the town of Waroona has been becoming dryer since the mid 1970s, with reductions in mean annual rainfall for most of this area totalling more than 30 percent. The decreasing rainfall caused not only falling water levels in the dams but a drying out of the bush and farmland between the Darling Range escarpment and the coast turning it into a tinderbox.

On the evening of Wednesday January 6, 2016, a lightning strike ignited the bush at the Lane Pool Reserve, 50 kilometres north east of Waroona and 100 kilometres south of Perth near Dwellingup, itself the site of one of the state’s fiercest fires which burned for two weeks in 1961. The following morning the plume of smoke from the then out of control bushfire could be seen as far away as Perth to the north and Bunbury to the south.

By January 11, 2016, the fire had claimed the lives of two elderly men trapped in their homes in the historic timber milling town of Yarloop, where over half the town’s 300 homes were destroyed by the blaze which swept through the town in seven minutes.

The region around Harvey, Waroona, Yarloop and out to the coast at Lake Clifton is also a vital part of the state’s food bowl, supplying milk and other dairy produce to the city folk in Perth and the rest of the state as well as pasture and dry feed for livestock. As the fire raged south, east and westwards it also destroyed critical power infrastructure including over 1,000 power poles and cut electricity not only to thousands of homes but also in the dairies.

Farmers who need to continue milking their cows or lose the milk supply from the animals were told to dump their milk as it could not be stored or transported.

In late January 2015, in five days, a fire had destroyed over 71,000 hectares affecting 414 farms and 3,300 hectares of pine plantation. In another fire 100,000 hectares were burnt out near Northcliffe fire on the state’s south coast.

Government agencies such as the Department of Fire and Emergency Services and the Department of Parks and Wildlife worked together with volunteer fire crews to try to control the most recent blaze. Mostly there was little they could do except get out of the way and warn others in the path of the fire storm to do likewise.

Will inquiry look at global warming?

The state government has since announced an “independent” inquiry to be headed by Euan Ferguson, a respected former Country Fire Authority chief in Victoria and South Australia. The inquiry bill will investigate the effectiveness of the response to the fire, as well as the causes of the fire and why it became so massive.

Premier Colin Barnett visited and addressed a meeting of 100 Yarloop locals on January 20, and while acknowledging “The scale of the devastation to be quite shocking”, also asserted that the Yarloop/Waroona fire was unstoppable with its severity worsened by a drying climate in WA’s South West.

However, does this now mean Premier Barnett will stop endorsing coal mines, fracking and uranium mining and start plugging renewable energy?

There have been other reports into recent fires at Margaret River and Northcliffe but it would appear little change has occurred as a result. There are also calls for the enquiry into the Waroona fire to examine the fierce November 2015 fire in Esperance which killed four people and caused considerable crop and property damage.

Most Western Australians have worked out that the land has become much drier and the countryside has become loaded with fuel, which the government has tried to address through a program of prescribed burns. But often the conditions are not suitable to carry out burns that can be controlled.

It has been so dry at times that prescribed burns have taken place in June and July which are normally considered wet months in WA. If fuel loads cannot be lessened at a fast enough rate, strategies need to be developed to cope with the inevitability of increased fire risks in summer and a lengthening of the fire season.

Part of this unpredictable weather has its origins in anthropogenic climate change (change brought about by human activity). We can therefore improve or worsen the situation depending on what we do or what we fail to do about global warming. The Bureau of Meteorology’s “Western Australia in 2015 Weather Summary” is instructive on this.

The past year was the second-warmest on record for WA and the warmest for the south/west land division, the mean maximum temperatures were the highest for the south/west and the eighth driest for the south/west with most of the drier years being in the past 11 years.

To underscore the impact of global warming on a drying climate in WA’s south west, a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found, “During 2015, the average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 0.90 Celsius above the 20th century average”.

This was not only the warmest worldwide since records began in 1880; it shattered the previous record held in 2014 by the widest margin ever observed.

The US space agency NASA, which monitors global climate, said that the temperature changes are largely driven by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions in the atmosphere. To also highlight the increased unpredictability of a rapidly changing climate, in the week following the fire the countryside to the immediate south and south east of the Waroona fire was subject of some of the heaviest flooding in decades, with some centres recording daily rainfalls of between 100-200mm, damaging roads and crops.

The climate patterns experienced in Western Australia have been reproduced in other parts of Australia, most notably in Queensland and South Australia, which are experiencing prolonged periods of warmer and drier weather conditions – and intense storms bringing massive flooding.

Other parts of the planet from Russia to California, China, Africa, Europe, Middle East and Latin America, are all experiencing prolonged periods of warmer or drier conditions from melting glaciers, desertification, melting permafrost and drying rivers and lakes.

The Communist Party of Australia calls for our state, national and international leaders to act on the causes of human-made climate change and respond locally and come to a consensus on the necessary reductions in emissions.

If humans could restrict average global warming to less than 1.5 C and 350 ppm of carbon we might be able preserve life as we know it and control and lessen massive fire events like the one just experienced at Waroona.

Next article – Hanged warriors are not forgotten

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