The World Meteorological Organization warns Australians should brace for a protracted summer of catastrophic bush fires, blaming climate change for record-breaking heat waves and persistent drought.
Australia's summer fire season usually begins in late January or early February, but got off to an early and catastrophic start in September 2019 in the states of Queensland and New South Wales. The bush fires have killed more than 22 people, destroyed hundreds of homes, burned large swathes of land, and caused massive devastation to wildlife, ecosystems and the environment.
WMO spokeswoman Clare Nullis says naturally occurring climate variability is playing a role in these unprecedented events, adding that another driver is a phenomenon called the Indian Ocean dipole, which was very strong last year.
"That has the effect of making Australia drier," Nullis said. "It has the effect of making East Africa wetter, which is why we saw the floods in East Africa. So, on the one hand, you do have the natural climate variability. On the other hand, climate change is playing a role and we should be in no doubt about that."
A report by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology says climate change is causing temperatures to rise and contributing to long-term increase in extreme fire weather. It says Dec. 19, 2019, was the hottest day on record, with an average temperature of 49.9 degrees centigrade recorded at Nullarbor in South Australia.
The fires in Australia are having far-reaching consequences.
"The fires have led to hazardous air quality, which is a threat to human health in major cities in Australia, spreading to New Zealand, and sent smoke drifting thousands of kilometers across the Pacific to South America … and NOAA's (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) satellite sent out a tweet that the smoke is in the process of circumnavigating the planet," she said.
WMO scientists warn wildfires harm the global climate by emitting carbon dioxide. They say forest loss leads to the reduced uptake of CO2 from the atmosphere, further fostering climate change.