Catastrophic level fire conditions and drought in Australia as climate change bites down-under. Fire expert Greg Mullins. Plus new science: A cleanup to save your health could quicken Arctic ice changes and heating around the world, with guest Ran Feng.
PARTS OF AUSTRALIA AT “CATASTROPHIC” FIRE DANGER – GREG MULLINS
Massive wild fires have appeared on every Continent except Antarctica. Now it is hitting Australia even at the end of winter there. With temperatures about 10 degrees C – over 20 degrees Fahrenheit above normal – over 130 bush fires were crackling over Australia in early September. A veteran Australian fire expert warns climate change makes the risk much worse, and it may break down the country’s fire defense system. And now strangely, a change high above Antarctica makes this year’s fire season even more ominous.
We have reached Greg Mullins, former commissioner of Fire and Rescue for New South Wales for 13 years until his retirement in 2017. Greg has represented Australia for groups of Asian Fire Chiefs and the United Nations. He currently sits on the Climate Council, the publicly-funded climate watchdog.
Australia has a history of fires going back to aboriginal times. I’m thinking of the Ash Wednesday fires in February 1983 that killed 47, and the Black Saturday Bushfires that killed 173 people in Victoria in 2008. What is changing now? Every year has become super dangerous for wildfires. Climate has changed the game.
Fire expert Greg Mullins, Australia
Greg also warns that Australia’s method of sharing fire-fighters and equipment could break down. There used to be a succession of fire seasons across that large continent, so each state could share equipment and fire fighters. Now there can be concurrent fires, meaning there is less to share.
I see that danger becoming international. We had firefighters from Australia and New Zealand come here to British Columbia to help fight our massive wildfires. It was out of season for Australian men and women who battle these beasts. But now places like California say “fire season” is all year long. Maybe as the season extends even in Australia, the international sharing will end too and everybody will be on their own?
Greg says that is already happening. Australia has very few large fire fighting aircraft, like 737 size planes. They were always able to get more from California during winter in the Northern Hemisphere. But now fire season can last all year in California, those planes are no longer always available. Australia just bought a 737 to fight fires, but still doesn’t have enough if a super fire season erupts in several parts of the country.
THE “BIG DRY” IN AUSTRALIA
There are so many climate factors involved. Australia is in yet another drought. Some dams in new South Wales have almost run dry this year. Winter rainfall was dismally low. Towns may run out of water. Mullins tells us water is in such short supply, in some areas fire fighters have to stand by and let a home burn because that town cannot spare that much water, and still have drinking water.
I recall when the Murray Darling river system was hit with low water. It became a question of either water for the City of Adelaide, or farmers upstream. Some farmers quit. The change in rainfall, which keeps popping up year after year now, is likely due to changes over Antarctica. In the last decade or so, the Polar Vortex winds have tightened around Antarctica, meaning less rain for Australia.
SUDDEN STRATOSPHERIC WARMING OVER ANTARCTICA HEATS UP FIRE SEASON IN AUSTRALIA
Also, and this is a weird one, a “sudden stratospheric warming” just popped up over Antarctica. Although I am not a scientist, my basic understanding is this means the very cold stratosphere rapidly warms up a few degrees. That happens now and then over the North Pole, but rarely over the South Pole. The only other instance scientists can confirm happened over Antarctica in 2002. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology is predicting this will be the strongest warming of Antarctica on record. Greg discusses the impact that change in the polar stratosphere can have over Australian weather.
You can learn more about the recent sudden warming of the stratosphere from this You tube video by Radio Ecoshock guest Paul Beckwith.
In fact, a “triple-whammy” is hurting Australia right now. Added to changes in Polar winds, and the stratosphere, there is another cycle over the Indian Ocean that is also in a phase which tends to reduce rain-bearing winds over Australia. So it all adds up to a very dry bush ready to burn big time.
But as we learned recent Radio Ecoshock guest Mark Parrington, even ideal burning conditions don’t necessarily add up to a catastrophic fire year. An ignition source is needed. Yes there are cases of arson in Australia torching the bush, as there are in Canada and most countries. But farmers are also to blame, being slow to adapt to a changed climate. Where it was fine for their forefathers to burn off fields or scrub bush at certain times of year, that is no longer safe because the fire season has extended. Some agricultural fires get away into the bush with terrible results.
Greg Mullins also tells us that the amount of lightning has increased as well. That is what set ancient rainforests in the Australian island of Tasmania ablaze in recent years. Those forests had not burned for more than thousand years. Those trees are not adapted to fire as some forests are in other parts of Australia. When they burn they are gone for a long time. Even fire-adapted tree species can be wiped out if the fires keep coming back too soon – as they are!
I was moved by Greg Mullins. His father was a fire-fighter before him, and Greg has fought fires personally since 1978. He then directed fire fighting in New South Wales, the most populous state in Australia. Greg has literally seen the climate change during his life-time. He is worried about the new fire dangers, as are many, many Australians. Having gone through two years of fire emergencies here in British Columbia, hunkering down inside from the smoke, housing fire victims in our home, I sympathize with Australians as the new age of super fires emerges.
Hundreds of millions of years ago when trees first developed on Earth, they expanded rapidly into a forest empire. Trees were so successful at storing carbon in their trunks and roots – they lowered the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and brought on an ice age. I wonder: are we at the start of another great atmospheric event, when so many forests burn, releasing all their carbon – that forest fires alone may trigger a much greater warming that we expected!
I don’t think we are any where near a global decarbonization of the forests event yet. But I fear it could happen. Our recent French Senior Scientist guest Olivier Boucher told us 7 degrees C of warming by 2100 is the worst possible case – but possible. Global forests could start burning and not coming back if we reach high levels of warming.
RAN FENG BRINGS NEW LIGHT TO GLOBAL DIMMING
Last week I asked French scientist Olivier Boucher about the climate impacts of aerosols, the smog particles we launch into the atmosphere as we burn fossil fuels. He said that is hard to model. But new science finds another way by comparing the atmosphere now to a period around 3 million years ago when the continents were the same – and so were the CO2 levels. The results are astounding. This is hard science. If you listen to the Ran Feng interview, I promise climate news you have not heard before, and another kick to get us all going into rapid climate action.
The Arctic has become incredibly hot. In 2019, Alaska roasted. Wildfires were rampant in Siberia, and Greenland shed vast amounts of meltwater. Of course our carbon burning is the driving force. But scientists are studying another surprising source behind Arctic warming: our need for cleaner air to breathe. All this leads to a key question about our common future: how much heating has been masked, hidden and delayed by smog shading out incoming sunlight? What happens if pollution is reduced as politicians promise? Are we in for a rude surprise warming?
Underlying that are more questions, like what is “clean air” really? and why did the Arctic Sea become ice-free in an earlier age, even when conditions are like ours now? Is a Blue Ocean event in the Arctic possible as air pollution regulations kick in?
Ran Feng is an assistant professor with the University of Connecticut. Her new paper studies a period about 3 million years ago – when a climate shift created the savannas where our first ancestors evolved. That climate past may be our future.
Dr. Ran Feng, University of Connecticut
Aerosol pollution is not caused by climate change, but as your hear in this interview pollution and climate change influence each other, especially through the role of cloud formation.
DID EUROPE’S AIR CLEANUP ADD TO ARCTIC WARMING?
In 2016 and 2017, scientists at Stockholm University – led by Juan C. Acosta Navarro – showed that a significant fraction of Arctic warming has developed since sulfur emissions peaked back in the 1980’s. I ask Ran Feng to explain the relationship between smog reduction in the Northern Hemisphere and a hotter Arctic. See the Navarro-led paper “Amplification of Arctic warming by past air pollution reductions in Europe“, published in March 2016. In the Abstract, the authors say:
“Here we present simulations with an Earth system model with comprehensive aerosol physics and chemistry that show that the sulfate aerosol reductions in Europe since 1980 can potentially explain a significant fraction of Arctic warming over that period.”
Navarro and his team also showed global mean temperature would go up if current promises to reduce air pollution are kept. Slashing air pollution could raise Earth’s mean temperature anywhere from 1/3 of a degree to almost 1 degree C, they say. That suggests Earth would already be much hotter without smog shielding out some of the sun.
Talking about new science, Ran Feng says (while acknowledging this is still controversial) “it seems like in the intermediate scenario, the radiative cooling effect due to the effect on clouds could be around -.5 or a little bit more than -.5 watts per meter squared which is something around 30 ppm CO2 equivalent“. And if that is the “intermediate scenario” is there a worse case scenario than that?
According to her team’s research into the climate around 3 million years ago, not with models but with biochemical proxies and other data, it looks like increased clouds from modern aerosols could be masking more than half the heating we have really created with our greenhouse gases! If true, clearing up the air (to end the premature death of millions of humans) could lead to an unexpected climate catastrophe.
In addition, I know of a paper in progress which makes the case that a reduction in Asian pollution (due mainly to government action against smog) – may be a direct cause of the recent burst of heating in the last three years, including this year with the hottest July ever. Other scientists disagree with that estimate, so we will see.
Feng’s latest paper, accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, investigates a time around 3 million years ago. It is called – and this will be a new word for many of our listeners – “the mid-Piacenzian period“. A co-author is Radio Ecoshock guest Yangyang Xu. The titled of their paper is: “Contributions of aerosol-cloud interactions to mid-Piacenzian seasonally sea ice-free Arctic“.
So the Swedish team led by Navarro found that Europe’s reduction of air pollution may have warmed the Arctic by half a degree. That is because, as Ran Feng’s research shows, we were looking at pollution the wrong way. It is true smog, especially sulfates from burning coal, oil and gas, bounces a fraction of solar radiation back into space, cooling the planet perhaps half a degree, although the exact amount is uncertain. But the real cooling arrives because aerosol particles trigger more clouds that cool the Earth even more. The masking effect of global dimming is much greater than we thought, hiding perhaps half of the true warming that will be revealed as various countries clean up the air to save millions of people from premature deaths. That is the awful position we are in.
I hope some people will download Ran Feng’s interview from my web site at ecoshock.org and listen again. We need climate watchers to take this apart and communicate key points to a wider public. Help get new climate science out there.
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