Australian bush fires: "What is happening in the southeast of Australia right now is breaking all records"

10/01/2020 - Australia is burning. In a statement, Kirsten Thonicke, expert for fire ecology and forests at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), explains the causes and how the devastating fires are related to man-made climate change.
Australian bush fires: "What is happening in the southeast of Australia right now is breaking all records"
Extinguishing attempts with helicopters during the current forest fires in Australia. Photo: Ninian Reid

"Fire is part of Australia's nature: Eucalyptus trees sprout anew after forest fires, and some plants only bloom after fires," says Thonicke, vice Chair of Earth System Analyses at PIK. "But what is happening in southeast Australia right now is breaking all records. It is the result of major droughts and ever new heat records there - currently up to 49 degrees Celsius in some places. As a result, more forest areas have been lost in the affected regions in recent weeks than in the past 14 years as a whole, i.e. if you add up all the fires of these years. Normally there are much fewer fires in this region in most years. The intensity of the fires this Australian summer is unprecedented and the fire season there is far from over. The current figures from south-east Australia may also continue to rise. The forests will take decades to recover from this - provided that no further climate extremes occur. If they fail to do so, the forests would be lost as carbon sinks and as habitats in the affected region for countless animal and plant species."

"What we definitely know: Extreme drought, extreme temperatures and extreme winds are signs of man-made global warming," Thonicke said. "Not every single event, but the increase in their number and severity. “When burning coal and oil, we increase the risk of fire in our forests. This is because the greenhouse gases from fossil fuels heat up our planet, increasing the risk of extreme events. And this is already happening with only one degree of global warming so far - extreme heat waves in southeast Australia, which would otherwise only occur every 500 years, can now occur every 50 years, according to current studies by the Australian Meteorological Bureau. That is a tenfold increase. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has just announced new records for regional warming, precipitation deficits and heat records for 2019. And the world is currently on track for possibly 4 degrees global warming by the end of this century. In 2019, we saw devastating fires in the Arctic, Alaska and Siberia, but also in Brandenburg in northern Germany. Australia is joining that sad chain. If we want to stop this development, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly. It's still possible."

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