The Australian bushfires were a fiery wake-up call

  Last updated March 2, 2020 at 12:35 pm


The Australian bushfires caught the attention of the world. Local and international scientists have looked back at why they were so fierce, and what can be done in the future.

Australian bushfires firefighters on standby as fire approaches Queensland

Fire crews wait at a property along Putty road as the fire front approaches on November 15, 2019. Credit: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

Why This Matters: After an unprecedented season, how do we prepare for the next one?

As Australians begin to rebuild following the unprecedented devastation of this season’s bushfires, experts from around the world have joined the discussion about why this season was so fierce, and how we can prepare for a future in which longer and more intense fire seasons may become the norm.

A series of comment articles tackling these issues was published in a special edition of Nature Climate Change this week, focusing on the impact of the Australian bushfires and the global response.

“The fact that Nature Climate Change is publishing an issue framed around Australia’s catastrophic bushfire season shows just how important an impact the bushfires are having on the global consciousness,” says RMIT University’s Dr James Collett.

Deeper: If now is not the time to talk about climate change, when is?

The University of Melbourne’s Dr Andrew King, who was an author of one of the comment articles, agrees that the recent summer will be etched into our collective memory for a long time.

And while there is a lot that experts still need to understand, King says “we can say with confidence that human-caused climate change has amplified the extreme heatwaves that have been observed this summer”.

He notes, however, that the influence of human behaviour on drought and fires is “much harder to disentangle and natural climate variability plays a very large role in both”.

Australian bushfires match climate forecasts

So how do we move forward?

Professor Rodney Keenan from the University of Melbourne says policy-makers must focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid greater long-term impacts.

“2030 climate forecasts made in 2009 have come true in half the time,” he said. “Today we are living through more and hotter heatwaves, longer droughts, uncontrollable fires, intense downpours and significant shifts in seasonal rainfall patterns.”

There is also a need for more intensive forest management, according to Keenan, who said investment is needed for more prescribed burning and forest thinning, maintaining access tracks, better fire weather prediction, fire danger rating and public warning systems.

Deeper: Some say we’ve seen bushfires worse than this – but they’re ignoring a few key facts

And while many of these recommendations are policy-based, community education is also critical, says Keenan.

“Many Australians are new to the country or are second generation. They do not fully understand the risks in their landscapes. Many people still travel to areas of high risk during dangerous conditions. It is vital that we rebuild our adaptation research capacity and learn from our past experiences, to support the partnerships needed to make climate-smart decisions.”

Next step: Want to help with bushfire recovery? It’s as easy as snapping a picture

“This includes partnerships with traditional owners with extensive experience in adapting and surviving in the face of regular, and sometimes unwelcome, change.”

It seems that as the climate changes, so must we – and Collett hopes the psychological impact of the recent bushfires will contribute to the political, economic, industrial, scientific and social changes necessary to build a sustainable world.

“The world doesn’t need to bounce back from these increasingly frequent climate disasters – we need to bounce forward.”

Read more comments from experts at the AusSMC

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About the Author

Olivia Henry
Olivia Henry is Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days nerding out about the latest research in the hopes that journalists will nerd out too. Olivia has Bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Science and Media (Journalism), and has studied in Japan and Spain. Before joining the AusSMC in 2018, Olivia worked at Fairfax Media, SciWorld, Channel 44 Adelaide and interned at Australia's Science Channel. If you like this super-funky-science-machine, you can catch her talking science on 2CC Canberra or hosting the Night Shift on Radio Adelaide.

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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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