Bushfires a wake-up call for the future, say ANU scientists

Michael Weaver 29 January 2021 58
Pialligo fire January 2020

Remember this? A kangaroo rubs its eyes during the Pialligo fire that started near Canberra on 23 January last year. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

A new study from a group of ANU scientists has painted a clear picture of future bushfire events, with a stark warning that more Black Summers are on the way because of climate change.

The study, released earlier this month and led by Professor Nerilie Abram from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences, shows that predictions made more than 10 years ago of an increase in climate-driven fire risk would be directly observable by 2020 appear to have come true.

Professor Abram said last season’s bushfires were a clear demonstration of what the future looks like.

“In the lead up to the summer of 2019/2020 many parts of south-east Australia were three years into a severe drought,” Professor Abram said.

“2019 was our hottest and driest year on record. This climate set-up created exceptionally dry fuel loads that primed the landscape to burn and dangerous fire weather that allowed fires to escalate quickly.

“Our new work highlights the strong evidence that south-east Australia’s climate has shifted, and that this type of fire weather is becoming more frequent, prolonged and severe.”

Bushfires at Moruya

Bushfires at Moruya on 31 December 2019. Photo: File.

The study concludes that improving the methods to adapt to the now inevitable increase in fire risk, while also pursuing urgent global climate change mitigation efforts, is the best strategy for limiting further increases in fire risk.

Professor Abram said more research is needed to combat the combined impact of climate change and severe bushfires.

“During the Black Summer fire disaster, it became clear that there was an urgent need for a clear assessment of what we know – and what we don’t yet fully know – about how climate change will alter Australia’s fire risk in the future,” Professor Abram said.

“When we look to the future, we see south-east Australia continuing to become even hotter because of human-caused climate change. On top of that, climate change is altering our patterns of year-to-year climate variability so that we expect extremely hot and dry years to occur more often.”

Professor Abram said while the current La Niña weather pattern of a wet winter followed by increased rainfall during summer is an indication that not every summer will be like 2019/20, their study showed a clear risk of more severe bushfires if the human-made effects of climate change are not addressed.

The Bureau of Meteorology has also warned that the La Niña weather pattern is already beginning to weaken.

“We don’t expect every summer to be like 2019/2020 – and this La Niña year is a good example of that. But we can’t look at climate change as something in our future or something that we can simply adapt to. It’s here now, and we need to make choices now that put us on a lower risk pathway.

“We saw during our Black Summer how severe bushfires in Australia can be. It’s a trend we can expect to continue to worsen unless we rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Professor Abram said.

READ ALSO: 2020 was warm and wet after fiery start, says BOM

The team involved in the study included climate experts from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes and bushfire experts from the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub. Their work was supported by the NSW Bushfire Inquiry and the Federal Government Royal Commission in the wake of the Black Summer disaster.

“Bushfire risk is complex and driven by many factors operating at multiple scales, but this study is a timely reminder of how critical climate and weather extremes are,” Dr Hamish Clarke, of the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub, said.

This new work 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.

Professor Abram said climate change indicators point towards a rapidly increasing risk of catastrophic bushfires beyond anything we have experienced in the past.

“There are also indications that south-east Australia could continue to become drier in winter and experience more frequent weather fronts in summer that cause dangerous fire weather, but more research is needed to fully understand how these fire-relevant impacts of climate change might develop,” she said.

The research has been published in Communications Earth & Environment.

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58 Responses to Bushfires a wake-up call for the future, say ANU scientists
Capital Retro Capital Retro 6:44 pm 24 Feb 21

I’ve already pointed out the folly of people building in the forests which are known bushfire areas.

It seems some academics now agree with me:


Murray Webster Murray Webster 2:50 pm 03 Feb 21

I'd like to see a wake-up call from ANU scientists acknowledging that they have been willfully ignoring 50 000 + years of culture; the longest surviving culture on earth; a culture that became extremely knowledgeable and skillful, applying fire in native ecosystems. This ignorance is severely effecting our native plants and animals, but is yet to be even on the radar for most researchers and environmental activist groups.

    Peter Marshall Peter Marshall 3:00 pm 17 Feb 21

    A culture that didn't build cities or towns, or clear native vegetation for broadscale agriculture.

IrishPete IrishPete 11:21 am 03 Feb 21

Why are some people so ill-educated that they cannot distinguish between local weather and global climate?

    jwinston jwinston 3:07 pm 03 Feb 21

    Please enlighten us.

    IrishPete IrishPete 1:44 pm 08 Feb 21

    People who say daft things like “it rained here last night therefore anthropogenic climate change isn’t real” or “it’s cold here at the moment therefore anthropogenic climate change isn’t real”.

    Local – near you. Global – the whole planet.

    Weather – short-term conditions of the atmosphere. Climate – the average daily weather for an extended period of time at a certain location.

    You’re welcome.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 2:27 pm 08 Feb 21

    It’s been a very cold winter in Europe and North America – I was watching the heavy snow on UK TV this morning. But I am sure the people are happy in knowing that it will get hotter and hotter soon. Maybe that’s cold comfort for them.

    IrishPete IrishPete 1:09 pm 09 Feb 21

    A very cold winter that is entirely consistent with and in fact predicted by anthropogenic climate change.

    And yes, it will get hotter and hotter soon in the Northern hemisphere as Spring arrives and then Summer. We call those “seasons”. They relate to the Earth’s journey around the Sun and its tilt on its axis. I learned this stuff in primary school nearly 50 years ago.

    It’s really not very complicated. But if it is too complex for you to understand, just listen to the climate scientists.

Katy Did Katy Did 4:24 pm 01 Feb 21

How about for the past 70 years of my life!

    Katy Did Katy Did 3:03 pm 02 Feb 21

    Christine Lawrey That’s how lovely ng bushfires have been around for me!

    IrishPete IrishPete 1:34 pm 02 Feb 21

    That’s local weather, not global climate.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 4:22 pm 02 Feb 21

    Oh, I saw reference to Canberra’s weather in the report but I didn’t see anything about China, the biggest greenhouse emitter on earth mentioned anywhere. Perhaps you should berate them too.

    If we could reduce our emissions to zero tomorrow we will still have the same bushfires.

    By the way, what would have happened if the 40mm of rain we received last night had fallen this time last year? Some places near Nimmitabel received over 100mm. It wouldn’t have been the first time a rain front had extinguished a bushfire. It’s more about when and where the rain falls that climate change.

    Once again, it’s all recorded in the history books.

    IrishPete IrishPete 2:32 pm 04 Feb 21

    Still confusing local weather with global climate.

Robert Honeybone Snr Robert Honeybone Snr 4:11 pm 01 Feb 21

I have yet to here someone mention control Burns this would cut back the possibility of of last year reoccurring

    Les Jordan Les Jordan 4:19 pm 01 Feb 21

    Robert Honeybone Snr not really. It is physically impossible to do hazard reduction burns everywhere. Also, the window for safe controlled burns has diminished dramatically due to climate change. There needs to be multiple strategies to reduce the risk, not just burning.

    Robert Honeybone Snr Robert Honeybone Snr 4:26 pm 01 Feb 21

    Les Jordan the trees are greening up very quickly without control Burns even if done from the air makes this possible also one has to take into account the areas left that did not Burn

    Les Jordan Les Jordan 8:11 pm 01 Feb 21

    Robert Honeybone Snr controlled burns, as you call it, or hazard reduction as we call it, does absolutely nothing to reduce the foliage in the trees. It is one of many tools used to clear undergrowth and grass growth.

    Elizabeth Ann Thurbon Elizabeth Ann Thurbon 12:59 pm 02 Feb 21

    Robert Honeybone Snr spelling

Anura Samara Anura Samara 1:49 pm 01 Feb 21

Not only will there increasing risks of fires, but as we are increasingly discovering climate change is also making fires harder to tackle. In the past, nights were used for the important work of building containment lines but across the last two years we've seen elevated fire activity overnight with resources just focussed on fighting fires not preparing for the next day.

Ray Ez Ray Ez 9:16 pm 31 Jan 21

How come this study didn’t come out in winter? Wasn’t the climate suitable...

    Sean Bishop Sean Bishop 2:11 am 01 Feb 21

    Ray Ez you sir obviously haven't experienced a Canberra and surrounds winter I take it?

    Ray Ez Ray Ez 2:13 am 01 Feb 21

    Sean Bishop just saying the “climate change” studies about summer come out in summer...but I guess climate change doesn’t happen in winter....funny thing that is. 🤔🤔

    Ian Wheeler Ian Wheeler 4:32 am 01 Feb 21

    It doesn't invalidate the point of what they are saying.

    In case you didn't notice, huge areas of the country were bloody incinerated. I think a repeat is worth looking out for.

    Anura Samara Anura Samara 1:46 pm 01 Feb 21

    Ray Ez Weather <> climate. Everyone knows that.

    Elizabeth Ann Thurbon Elizabeth Ann Thurbon 12:58 pm 02 Feb 21

    Ray Ez whether you read and understand the science matters not. Laughing at the science won’t make you immune from what is ahead.

    Ray Ez Ray Ez 6:37 pm 02 Feb 21

    Elizabeth Ann Thurbon I know, and I apologize... when winter hits I’m sure all the climate changers will rue the cold, until we get the hottest day of the year since last summer! 😏😏🐽🥳

    Ray Ez Ray Ez 6:40 pm 02 Feb 21

    Elizabeth Ann Thurbon oh the science ‘that is settled’ mob.... the most scientific statement made since 1543! 😂🤣😅🥲🥲🥲🥲

    Peter Marshall Peter Marshall 2:58 pm 17 Feb 21

    Publication dates of studies are not influenced by seasons, weather or climate.

    Peter Marshall Peter Marshall 2:59 pm 17 Feb 21


    Ray Ez Ray Ez 8:34 pm 17 Feb 21

    Peter Marshall The consensus among research scientists on anthropogenic global warming has grown to 100%, based on a review of 11,602 peer-reviewed articles on “climate change” and “global warming” published in the first 7 months of 2019.

    Ray Ez Ray Ez 8:38 pm 17 Feb 21

    Peter Marshall and yet when do articles on global warming always come out? Summer? Climate change, winter?

    Peter Marshall Peter Marshall 8:38 pm 17 Feb 21

    Publication dates of studies are not influenced by seasons, weather or climate.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 5:22 pm 31 Jan 21

“Professor Abram said climate change indicators point towards a rapidly increasing risk of catastrophic bushfires beyond anything we have experienced in the past.”

They are the same bushfires that have been happening approximately every 50 years. The difference is that makes them catastrophic is that regulators are allowing more people to live in known bushfire areas so lives will continue to be lost and property destroyed. The areas that were devastated by the Canberra bushfires in 2003 were previously burnt out twice in the last 100 years and it will happen again. It’s all on record.

I wish these scientists would research some history books to temper their alarm about the future. Whoever funded their findings isn’t getting value for their money.

    ubu ubu 4:19 pm 01 Feb 21

    Capital Retro: You should read the published research article. Link is above. “Catastrophic” as used in the article refers to the consequences of “extreme pyroconvective (pyroCb) events”, whose frequency is increasing and likely to increase further. Historical records of such events are noted and used in reaching the authors’ conclusions.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 8:52 am 02 Feb 21

    I started to read that link before I sent my initial post but abruptly stopped after the first heading “There is no strong, resilient Australia without deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions” which clearly highlights the bias in research.

    I have now read the section you specifically refer to and note that they have only researched pyroCb events since 1990 and they refer to the Black Saturday and Canberra 2003 fires specifically. The CSIRO researched this phenomena 50 years ago – it’s nothing new and because pre-1990 fires were not included the claims that the intensities are increasing catastrophically simply isn’t credible.

    ubu ubu 9:02 pm 03 Feb 21

    Well, what to say? If you won’t read the entire paper you cannot say you understand it or are in any valid position to assess its methods, data, or conclusions. So, there is really nothing to discuss until you do so.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:27 am 04 Feb 21

    You referred to the researchers linking the word “catastrophic” to pyroCb events only and as I explained, their “history” for these events starts only in 1990 which only covers recent times which distorts the findings.

    You are correct in saying there is nothing more to discuss.

    IrishPete IrishPete 1:13 pm 02 Feb 21

    No, it tells you the conclusions at the start. Following science is not biased. It’s the opposite.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 4:12 pm 02 Feb 21

    “Professor Abram said more research is needed……….”

    That’s science? Sounds more like a call for more funding.

    IrishPete IrishPete 11:17 am 03 Feb 21

    Yes, more funding for science.

    keek keek 5:46 pm 09 Feb 21

    Which science would you like to follow? I can link you dozens of recent studies that conclude the modelling we have been using is orders of magnitude incorrect if you like.

    Imagine actually trying to use “science” as your argument while ignoring dozens and dozens of more recent science that concludes the previous forecasting was wrong, just because it doesn’t suit your agenda.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 7:54 pm 03 Feb 21

    Have you noticed that the homes being destroyed in the WA bushfires are mostly surrounded by eucalypt trees, forest actually?

    This is what happens when regulators allow people to build in these places.

    IrishPete IrishPete 2:35 pm 04 Feb 21

    Sure, and it’s also what happens when regulators (i.e. governments) fail to heed the warnings of anthropogenic climate change.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 2:29 pm 08 Feb 21

    Nothing that hasn’t already happened before.

    IrishPete IrishPete 1:11 pm 09 Feb 21

    The word “unprecedented” means it hasn’t happened before. So when all those experts tell you that something is unprecedented, the smart thing to do is to believe them. Because they are experts.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 5:09 pm 09 Feb 21

    Unprecedented used to mean “never done or known before”. In this case the “experts” haven’t heard about the bushfires before because they haven’t researched the history books and CSIRO records.

    I have.

    keek keek 5:42 pm 09 Feb 21

    But they aren’t unprecedented. You are absolutely wrong, and carrying on like a clown while being wrong. There have been far worse fire seasons.
    Last years fires, in total, burned 18,626,000 hectares of land.
    The 2002 NT bushfires burned 38 million hectares.
    The 1974-1975 fire season burned 117 million hectares.
    The 1969-1970 fires burned 45 million hectares.
    The 1968-1969 fires burned 40 million hectares.

    Maybe you should try a cursory look into the history of Australian bushfires before you make yourself look like a fool again?

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 7:26 am 10 Feb 21

    Thanks for confirming what I have been saying for a long time namely the details of previous bushfires are documented and prove that the most recent ones are not unprecedented.

    IrishPete IrishPete 1:17 pm 15 Feb 21

    The arrogance of someone (or two people) who thinks that every bushfire expert, a Royal Commission and a NSW Government inquiry all forgot some bushfires they found on Wikipedia.

    Unprecedented. Fuelled by climate change. Not up for debate. The debate is over.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 4:01 pm 15 Feb 21

    There never was a “debate’.

    Climate change (AKA global warming) has become a religion and the self appointed experts and scientists have become the high priests. They are paid to create the stuff they put out while at the same time ignore historical records on previous fires – why let facts get in the way of a good story?.

    Of course normal, future fires will have more devastation and loss of life but only because people have been allowed to settle in the middle of incendiary native forests.

    Can’t you see that?

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 6:18 pm 15 Feb 21

    I refer to publications on bushfires written mainly by the CSIRO, not Wikipedia by the way.

    IrishPete IrishPete 1:11 pm 16 Feb 21

    Of course there was a debate, between scientists in the relevant field. But not any more. The debate is over. You wouldn’t know from the screeching of The Coal Cult, and their glovepuppets in the LNP and ALP, falling over themselves to please Emperor Rupert, but it’s over.

    The only people ignoring the historical record of bushfires are the propagandists claiming the 2019-20 season wasn’t unprecedented. It’s not stupidity, it’s evil. The same people who lied about the fires being caused by arson. They should be locked up. They’re the arsonists.

    keek keek 1:33 pm 16 Feb 21

    No, again, you are wrong. A cursory google search will show you both that the debate between Scientists continues, as does research into all areas of climate science, and that these fires are not unprecedented.

    Screeching “IM RIGHT NO MATTER HOW MUCH EVIDENCE YOU PROVIDE TO THE CONTRARY!!!” and having a rant, while being completely ignorant of both history and current happenings in the fields of climate science , while refusing to educate yourself with a basic google search to the slew of recent research, really tells us all we need to know.

    IrishPete IrishPete 2:43 pm 17 Feb 21

    Google isn’t a scientific source. Here’s some actual research.


    You know there are actually people who think the Earth is flat? They’re wrong too.

    keek keek 3:24 pm 17 Feb 21

    Google will lead you to actual scientific institutes publishing actual peer reviewed research papers, genius.

    IrishPete IrishPete 3:14 pm 22 Feb 21

    Google will only lead you to scientific studies if you can tell the difference between cat videos and reputable science. Climate change deniers can’t.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 3:47 pm 17 Feb 21

    My spirit level says otherwise.

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