In Aus­tralia,

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY AN­DREW FREED­MAN AND SARAH KA­PLAN an­drew.freed­[email protected]­post.com sarah.ka­[email protected]­post.com

cli­mat­e­change-re­lated weather pat­terns have fu­eled the re­lent­less bush fires — along with scary phe­nom­ena such as fire tor­na­does.

Vir­ginia Young knew the fires were com­ing. As an Aus­tralian for­est ex­pert, she had con­trib­uted to re­search pre­dict­ing longer and more-se­vere bush-fire sea­sons as the world warms.

But even she was taken aback by the sheer scale of the blazes that have im­per­iled much of the coun­try — in­clud­ing her own home.

Now she wor­ries Aus­tralia is on the brink of a “ma­jor eco­log­i­cal shift.” Cli­mate change has pushed nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena, such as wild­fires, to mu­tate into more dis­as­trous and deadly ver­sions of them­selves.

Tem­per­a­tures are soar­ing to heights sci­en­tists did not ex­pect to see for decades. Land­scapes that are usu­ally re­sis­tant to fire — in­clud­ing rain­forests home to rare, vul­ner­a­ble species — are go­ing up in flames.

The blazes are so big they gen­er­ate their own hel­lish weather.

Fire tor­na­does, formed when spin­ning winds gen­er­ate a mas­sive ro­tat­ing col­umn of fire, ash, va­por and de­bris, are im­pos­si­ble to con­trol. A vol­un­teer fire­fighter in New South Wales was killed on Dec. 30 when one of these twisters over­turned his truck.

“Em­ber at­tacks” oc­cur when vi­o­lent winds around wild­fires pick up burn­ing pieces of de­bris and carry them aloft, drop­ping them in a flammable spot where they start an­other blaze.

Fire whirls — short-lived swirling vor­tices of ash, dust and flame that are gen­er­ated when up­drafts of hot air be­come twisted as they rise along the lead­ing edge of a for­est fire, have been re­ported by wit­nesses. These whirls be­have un­pre­dictably — so much so they are some­times called “devils” — and they can con­trib­ute to em­ber at­tacks, said Janice Coen, a project sci­en­tist at the Na­tional Cen­ter for At­mo­spheric Re­search in Colorado.

The heat from Aus­tralia’s blazes has fu­eled fire-gen­er­ated thun­der­storms from what are known as py­rocu­mu­lonim­bus clouds. These mush­room-shaped clouds act as chim­neys, vent­ing heat and suck­ing in sur­round­ing air to in­ten­sify fires, mak­ing their be­hav­ior more un­pre­dictable and un­stop­pable.

Neil Lareau, a me­te­o­rol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Ne­vada at Reno, said he has never seen py­rocu­mu­lonim­bus clouds on such a large scale.

A weather sta­tion in New South Wales recorded an air tem­per­a­ture of 158 de­grees Fahren­heit as py­rocu­mu­lonim­bus clouds ad­vanced. That is roughly as hot as most saunas, though the num­ber can­not be ver­i­fied, be­cause the in­stru­ments were not de­signed to work at such high tem­per­a­tures.

In some spots, fires have restarted in ar­eas that have al­ready burned, said Wil­liam Moomaw, a cli­mate sci­en­tist at Tufts Uni­ver­sity in Mas­sachusetts. “Ba­si­cally, you’ve cre­ated a lot of char­coal” in burned forests, he said.

Megafires, where two wild­fires con­verge into one mas­sive in­ferno, have also been re­ported.

And they are nowhere close to dy­ing out.

“This is a real wake-up call,” not just for Aus­tralia, but for the world, said Ner­ilie Abram, a cli­mate sci­en­tist at Aus­tralia Na­tional Uni­ver­sity in Can­berra. “We need to be look­ing at this and say­ing, ‘How much worse do we want to let this get?’ ”

The scale of this fire sea­son is un­prece­dented, Aus­tralia’s Bureau of Me­te­o­rol­ogy said last week. Across the con­ti­nent, 15 mil­lion acres of for­est and farm­land have been scorched. At least 25 peo­ple have been killed and a bil­lion an­i­mals harmed.

The fires in New South Wales are the largest in state his­tory and have burned more area than has been ever been doc­u­mented in east­ern Aus­tralia.

The dis­as­ter is the re­sult of cli­mate change com­bined with an un­lucky con­flu­ence of weather ex­tremes. Aus­tralia has never been as hot and dry at the same time as it has been dur­ing the spring and sum­mer of 2019 and 2020.

In De­cem­ber, Aus­tralia broke its high-tem­per­a­ture record twice in two days. A weather sta­tion in the Nullar­bor, a desert re­gion along the south­east coast, re­ported a high of 49.9 de­grees Cel­sius, or 121.8 Fahren­heit, a na­tional record for that month.

The coun­try’s scale for mea­sur­ing fire dan­ger, known as the ac­cu­mu­lated for­est-fire dan­ger in­dex, was the high­est on record in De­cem­ber. That means most of the coun­try had turned into a tin­der­box.

With­out cli­mate change, these scorch­ing highs would not have been pos­si­ble, ac­cord­ing to An­drew King, a cli­mate sci­en­tist at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne spe­cial­iz­ing in ex­treme events. Even with global warm­ing, he was “as­ton­ished” to wit­ness them.

“The tem­per­a­tures we’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing this sum­mer I think many sci­en­tists didn’t ex­pect to see for sev­eral decades yet,” he said.

By the end of De­cem­ber, the av­er­age tem­per­a­ture across the con­ti­nent was 5.8 de­grees Fahren­heit above the norm.

Aus­tralia’s record-set­ting heat and drought were caused by sev­eral fac­tors.

From the west, a see­saw cir­cu­la­tion pat­tern known as the In­dian Ocean Dipole caused air to sink over Aus­tralia, heat­ing and dry­ing the con­ti­nent.

Mean­while, thou­sands of miles away and about 10 miles up, in the thin, frigid slice of the at­mos­phere on top of the South

Pole, some­thing shifted.

In an event that is un­prece­dented in 40 years of record­keep­ing, tem­per­a­tures over Antarc­tica rose rapidly, caus­ing the po­lar vor­tex over the South­ern Hemi­sphere to break down and even re­verse di­rec­tion. This had cas­cad­ing ef­fects on weather pat­terns: The west­erly winds that blow across the South­ern Ocean shifted north­ward. Cold fronts moved across Aus­tralia, bring­ing in­tense wind but lit­tle rain.

These fac­tors “all came to­gether to cre­ate a re­ally bad sit­u­a­tion,” said Amy But­ler, a re­searcher at the Co­op­er­a­tive In­sti­tute for Re­search in En­vi­ron­men­tal Sciences in Colorado.

Sci­en­tists say the dra­matic events un­fold­ing in Aus­tralia il­lus­trate the kinds of dis­as­ters that will soon con­front the rest of the world.

“Aus­tralia: you have just ex­pe­ri­enced the fu­ture,” tweeted Ed Hawkins, a cli­mate sci­en­tist at the Uni­ver­sity of Read­ing in Eng­land.

The is­land con­ti­nent is the hottest in­hab­ited con­ti­nent, and its unique ge­og­ra­phy means it is “highly ex­posed” to cli­mate change’s in­flu­ence, said Bren­dan Mackey, a cli­mate sci­en­tist at Grif­fith Uni­ver­sity in Queens­land. It will not take much warm­ing to push life there from a com­fort­able ex­is­tence to the edge of ex­tinc­tion, he said, mak­ing it some­thing of a bell­wether for the warm­ing world.

Though the planet has ex­pe­ri­enced, on av­er­age, 1.8 de­grees Fahren­heit of warm­ing since prein­dus­trial times, Aus­tralia in 2019 was 2.7 de­grees warmer than av­er­age.

And those are just av­er­ages, Aus­tralia Na­tional Uni­ver­sity’s Abram pointed out.

“We tend to have this idea that our cli­mate is grad­u­ally warm­ing and these types of im­pacts will be grad­ual . . . but the Earth sys­tem doesn’t work like that,” Abram said. “There’s no rea­son to ex­pect that a grad­ual in­crease in tem­per­a­ture will con­trib­ute to a grad­ual in­crease in the types of fires we’re hav­ing to fight.” “It’s quite scary,” she added. By turn­ing forests that once ab­sorbed car­bon into flam­ing car­bon sources, the wild­fires are con­tribut­ing to the very prob­lem that makes them more likely. Satel­lite ob­ser­va­tions sug­gest that emis­sions from the fires may be on par with what Aus­tralia pro­duces an­nu­ally by burn­ing fos­sil fu­els.

The weeks of liv­ing un­der fire’s un­re­lent­ing threat has ex­hausted Young, the for­est ex­pert. Like her neigh­bors in her coastal vil­lage of South Dur­ras in New South Wales, she keeps an emer­gency kit packed and has picked out a spot on the beach, tucked un­der a cliff, where she and her hus­band might hide if the in­ferno over­takes them.

In early Jan­uary, af­ter fore­cast­ers pre­dicted par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous fire weather, the cou­ple evac­u­ated. The fires have been ad­vanc­ing so quickly — of­ten as fast as 40 mph — that wait­ing to see flames was not an op­tion.

When they re­turned two days later, “my house was still stand­ing,” said Young, the head of the cli­mate pro­gram at the Aus­tralian Rain­for­est Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety. “The luck of three wind changes, quite lit­er­ally.”

But bet­ter than most peo­ple, Young knows the dan­ger is far from over. In the past, Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary have been the hottest months in south­east Aus­tralia. As cli­mate change ad­vances, the fu­ture will prob­a­bly be even worse.

“We are head­ing off into com­pletely un­known ter­ri­tory,” Young said. “Many more ex­treme or cat­a­strophic days lie ahead.”

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