Bushfire research #ST4 [fr]
Australia has experienced an exceptional hot season for several months last summer, fueling devastating fires.
What are the climatic factors to take into account for this unprecedented episode?
What are the Australian research strengths in this field, and how to foster collaborations?
The impacts of the Australian Bushfires
Australia has experienced an exceptional hot season for several months last summer, fueling devastating fires. More than 8 million hectares were burned, including 1.2 million in Victoria, 155,000 on Kangaroo Island in Southern Australia, significantly degrading air quality on the east coast major cities. 1 billion animals have been killed or have been affected by fires (habitat destruction, lack of water or food). 2.3 million cattle and 8.6 million sheep have been be in the areas affected by the fires, or respectively 9% and 12% of the national livestock.
According to analysis by Météo France and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the extreme conditions that Australia experienced this summer (temperatures particularly high and very low precipitations) are due to large-scale atmospheric circulation anomalies, added to global warming conditions. Australia especially suffered the effects of the highly positive phase of the oscillation called Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), to which was also added a negative phase of the Antarctic Oscillation (AAO) which settled during the southern spring:
- The Indian Ocean Dipole, also called Indian El Nino, is an interaction phenomenon between the ocean and the atmosphere characterized by an oscillation of the ocean’s surface temperatures between its East and West sides. It is positive when the water surface temperature is above normal in the West and below normal in the East. The latter was in a positive phase of a magnitude rarely observed in the second half of 2019, reaching a peak in October and November, promoting downward atmospheric movements and chronic drought on Australia.
- The Antarctic oscillation, a pressure variation phenomenon between Antarctica and southern Oceania, was in a negative phase, favoring the supply of warm, dry air from the Australian desert to the south-east coastal fringe, and a more windy atmosphere, increasing the risk and spread of fires.
Climate studies suggest that these two phenomena are accentuated by the high concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, bringing forward the date of the beginning of the fire season with increases in extreme temperatures, and more intense and lasting droughts. The trend is therefore towards a multiplication of the frequency and intensity of such episodes, thus increasing the risks and violence of fires.
While the Australian government is questioned on its analysis and action to address this crisis, the academic sector plays an important role in developing research and implementing fire prevention and firefighting measures.
- Climatology studies are conducted mainly by the Bureau of Meteorology and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). The Climate Extreme Centre of Excellence (2017-2024) brings together five Australian universities as well as national and international organizations of excellence.
- Regarding the more specific research on bushfires, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Collaborative Research Centre (CRC, 2013-2021) brings together all stakeholders (government emergency and territorial management services, federal research agencies, defence, protection associations and academic organisations) to develop research guided by the needs of end-users (communities, firefighters, owners...), and aimed at the establishment of tools for prediction, management and fight against bushfires and natural disasters, but also for decision support for better prevention, taking into account values not included in our economies and yet precious, such as biodiversity preservation or breathable air conservation.
- In the state of New South Wales, particularly vulnerable to fire, a Bush Fire Risk Management Research Hub (2018-2021) works on the management of risk areas and studies strategies to reduce fire vulnerability.
- Finally, following the episodes and violence of this year’s fires, Australia’s Minister of Education, Dan Tehan, announced on January 12, 2020, amongst the winners of the ARC’s Linkage projects, a grant of $524,000 for the development of an early fire warning system, through the creation of a model to predict the moisture content of forest fuels. This project will be integrated into the New South Wales Bush Fire Risk Management Research Hub, and will work in collaboration with the Collaborative Research Centre on Bush Fires and Natural Hazards.
The landscape of Australian bushfire research is particularly rich, and international collaborations in this area offer great opportunities. Europe-wide, as part of Horizon 2020 investments, the Geospatial based Environment for Optimisation Systems Addressing Fire Emergencies project (GEO-SAFE, 2016-2020) coordinated with Australia, works on models to improve fire forecasting, prevention, management and response. We hope this kind of collaboration will continue and grow beyond 2020.
Sébastien Lahaye explains us more about the fire-in projects and futur collaborations between France and Australia