"Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria. It's an appalling tragedy for the nation." -Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, 2/7/2009
Scientists warned us this was going to happen
IT IS only a couple of years since scientists first told us we could expect a new order of fires in south-eastern Australia, fires of such ferocity they would engulf the towns in their path.
And here they are. The fires of Saturday were not "once in 1000 years" or even "once in 100 years" events, as our political leaders keep repeating. They were the face of climate change.
--Sydney Morning Herald
Our turn may come, too, probably starting in California or the mountain West. It may not be long now.
The awful fires in Victoria, Australia have been covered by two of our most informed and best writers, Australia Burning Up and Drowning at the Same Time (JohnnyRook) and Australia Fires kill 128 (FishOutOfWater). I would like to add to their coverage, and try to explain as clearly as possible why these fires should be regarded as the face of climate change, and why we can expect similar events to happen here.
Nearly 600 patients have presented to emergency departments in Victoria, said a spokesman for the state's Health Minister, Daniel Andrews. Of these 120 were admitted, 55 of them children...
many of the victims had watched others perish in the fires and had run or crawled through fire to escape... "The classic burns patterns that we are seeing is mostly due to people who have been forced to run through flames or have been exposed to extremely high radiant heat temperatures,"
Briefly, Victoria (in Southeastern Australia) has been facing a severe drought for years. There's also recently been a heat-wave, with the temperature briefly hitting 115 degrees F last week. Extraordinarily dry conditions and heat led to massive fires, which as of this writing have killed at least 135 people and possibly over 200. The latter figure is almost exactly the same fraction of the population as were killed in the US on September 11th, 2001. And it all happened because southern Australia is very dry.
Why was Southern Australia So Dry?
Look at the world's deserts on a map. Notice something? They're all at about the same latitude, 25 (north or south), plus or minus 10 degrees. All the deserts (Sahara, Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter, Mojave, Attacama, and all the others fit this pattern.
This is not a coincidence.
Basically, the equator is hot. So hot air near the equator grabs lots of moisture, rises, cools and loosing moisture (which falls as rain on the tropics, creating rainforests), spreads out about 30 degrees towards the poles, and then (stripped of its moisture) descends. (This is called the "Walker circulation".) Throw in a rainshadow or similar geographic feature, and you have a desert.
Simplifying a bit, as Global Warming intensifies, the tropics expand. As the tropics expand, the Walker circulation is expected to expand a bit too, and that dry area where all the world's deserts are located moves a bit closer to the poles. Lots of other changes in precipitation happen, too.
FishOutOfWater has described how these "changes in precipitation" (such a mild-mannered phrase) lead to, well, firestorms.
Our turn is coming
Across the American west, trees are dying due to climate change. A few weeks ago, a study found
Old-growth forests once studded with pine, hemlock and fir trees are dying across the western U.S. and Canada at double the rate of a half-century ago in what scientists are blaming on climate change... So far it’s only been a slight thinning of the forests," van Mantgem wrote. "The main concern is that thinning could become much more rapid.
This same part of the country is supposed to dry out due to climate change, and is indeed already in the midst of a multi-year drought according to the US Drought Monitor.
Meanwhile, California is experiencing an unusually severe drought
State water officials on Thursday announced that California's snowpack is 61 percent of normal for this time of year, prompting widespread concerns that after two previous dry years, the state... could face the first widespread mandatory water rationing since the early 1990s.
"We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history,'' said Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources.
Looking down the road several decades, as incoming Secretary of Energy (and longtime Californian) Steven Chu noted last week (my emphasis)
"I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen," he said. "We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California." And, he added, "I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going" either.
Again, Steven Chu is not some nut. He is a Nobel Laureate and the Secretary of Energy.
Droughts, warming and dead trees- these are the necessary ingredients for massive fires.
How many canaries do we need?
When the Arctic Ice cap started melting much faster than predicted, the climate deniers implied it was caused by undersea volcanoes (without ever explaining why these undersea volcanoes warmed the air as well as the water, or how they melted ice thousands of miles away, etc.)
When Australia was hit by the largest fires in its history-- just as predicted by climate models-- the NY Times runs a front page article focussing on the role of arson.
The evidence is overwhelming, even if not yet a certainty. The first hints of Global Warming are here; far worse is yet to come. The risk is not only that it may wipe out half the species on earth or threaten the lives of hundreds of millions in the developing world. It will hit developed countries, too.
How many more warnings do we need?