As other researchers who contributed to the Nature Climate Change series point out, the unprecedented scale of this season’s bushfires, and the drier and warmer conditions that exacerbated them, are beyond normal parameters anyway. “The widespread and prolonged drought conditions over the last two years have caused the entire eastern Australian forest area to dry out to extreme levels, such that all ‘natural fire breaks’ (e.g. moist gullies, south facing slopes, swamps) have been eliminated and the entire landscape becomes one connected fuel array,” wrote Western Sydney University fire scientist Matthias Boer, who penned one of the articles published today, in an email to WIRED.
A study by researchers at the University of New South Wales is currently underway to decipher precisely how climate change affected these recent fires. But this climate and fire scientists can say for sure: Climate change is making droughts more intense and more frequent, and—on smaller time scales—turning Australia’s landscapes into tinder. Simply put, drier, hotter, windier weather makes wildfires worse, and dry, hot winds can desiccate a landscape, turning it into pure bushfire fuel.
These altogether crispier conditions lead to an even more destructive fire, which was exactly the case this year. Australia’s landscape is dominated by “temperate broadleaf and mixed” forests, themselves dominated by eucalyptus trees. Looking at the last 20 years of satellite data, the median annual percentage of these forests that burned during past fires was 1 percent. This fire season, that figure was 21 percent.
All of that is adding up to another problem for scientists: Studying climate change in general, or its effect on bushfires specifically, is becoming increasingly difficult. University of Queensland conservation scientist James Watson, for instance, studies birds in Western Queensland. “Right now, it’s just accepted that we can’t do fieldwork in summer anymore out there,” he says. “It’s too hot, it’s too dangerous, you just can’t physically do it. Fifteen years ago, we could have done it quite easily.”
Watson and Lauren Rickards, who co-leads the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s Climate Change and Resilience research program, wrote in Nature Climate Change about how Australian scientists are grappling with both climate change and the attendant superfires. Ecosystems under long-term observation have burned to the ground, and bushfires have destroyed facilities and vehicles critical to research. Other extreme weather has brought the assault from above, Watson and Rickards note: Last month, a “cataclysmic hailstorm” damaged 65 greenhouses in Canberra, destroying years’ worth of experiments. Some of those, devastatingly enough, were testing crops’ resilience to climate change.
“As we think about how climate change impacts are ricocheting through society, we’re starting to realize that these impacts are ricocheting through research projects and through research institutions,” says Rickards. And, she adds, there is “this urgent need for researchers to stop pretending that we’re distant witnesses of climate change, that were somehow isolated or immunized observers, and recognize that we are being affected.”
Modern science has spent centuries exhaustively cataloging a world that we thought we knew to be fairly consistent—seasons come and go, species migrate, a particular Australian forest burns once every few decades. But scientists now work in a world that is both more perilous and more chaotic. “Your research is going to be severely disrupted if you don’t actually recognize the risks posed by extreme climate events, by long term shifts in your research sites, by the pressures that your research participants are under,” says Rickards.
We’ve turned this world into a hothouse, one that’s overwhelming the predictive powers of both human and computer. And Australia’s conflagrations are but a taste of disasters to come.
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