Australia’s 20% and more of forests that burned during the summer’s bushfire catastrophe is presumed to be a proportion unprecedented globally, new research disclosed.
The research primarily focused on the bushfire crisis published in a special edition of Nature Climate Change. Around 21% of the total area covered by Australian forests excluding Tasmania has burnt so far in the 2019-20 bushfire season.
The forest area that burnt on each continent as a proportion of total forest cover in each bushfire season over the last 20 years examined in this analysis.
In Australia, the 21% figure contrasts dramatically with the proportion of forest burnt on any other continent over such a period in any season. For most continents and forest types, the figure was 4-5%.
In the case of tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests in Asia and Africa, there was one exception for which the analysis found medians of 8–9% that had been recorded in those 20 years.
However, according to the paper, 21% is likely to be an underestimate because the data excluded Tasmania fires, and Australia’s fire season is continuing.
“The data point for this year’s fires show it stands out completely from all other years for Australia or other countries,” the study’s lead author, Matthias Boer, said. “There is just nothing like it out there and we felt confident to call it unprecedented.
“The word unprecedented has been used a lot the last two months. [Our analysis] is the first in the peer-reviewed literature that puts some data behind that.”
The edition of Nature Climate Change features analysis and commentary from some of the most respected scientists in the world.
Scientists Benjamin Sanderson and Rosie Fisher examine in another paper other factors that have influenced the current fire season and how to prepare society better for more potentially extreme events in the future.
According to the paper in the case of recent events in Australia, “there is no doubt that the record temperatures of the past year would not be possible without anthropogenic influence.” It adds that “under a scenario where emissions continue to grow, such a year would be average by 2040 and exceptionally cool by 2060”.
As per Andrew King, a lecturer in climate science at the University of Melbourne who co-authored another piece studying the role of climate variability and drought, the effects of extreme drought, heat and bushfires had been well-documented, but the articles collection in Nature Climate Change was intended to “provide informed commentary on this summer’s severe weather.”
There was a lot, “we don’t fully understand yet,” King said. “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.”
He said the climate models used to make projections had “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.”
James Collett, a lecturer in psychology at the School of Health and Biomedical Sciences at RMIT University, said the fact that the journal had published on disastrous bushfire season of Australia “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,” he said. “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.”