How Greenhouse Gases Drive Australia's Bushfires

How Greenhouse Gases Drive Australia's Bushfires

What remains of much of Australia’s breadbasket, November 2019. Image: Courtesy of Andrew Burgess

Australia’s bushfires are feeding on heat from the climate change happening in the tropics, but its government doesn’t want to know.

Australia has earned a formidable reputation for being the driest and most agriculturally disappointing continent on Earth. Droughts and floods have followed each other like day and night, spawning a laconic and resilient breed of agriculturalists known for taking climatic adversity and variability in their stride.

Everyone in the industry believes both good and bad times are cyclical, each replacing the other. The continent is surrounded by three oceans which, depending on their temperature fluxes, deliver or deny precious rainfall, as moisture-bearing ocean winds blow either toward the continent or away.

A knowledge of the state of each ocean can help farmers to understand how long it will be before the situation changes. Preparation for the next drought in good times is a no-brainer and is supported with Government policy. Water supply augmentation systems, fodder storage and stockpiling money are modern tricks used by graziers to abate the ravages of drought.

That’s been the traditional pattern. This year, though, after three consecutive failed springs in eastern Australia, there’s a level of despair which is taking an enormous toll on families, businesses and ecosystems. Farming communities are suffering mental anguish as they run out of options.

We haven’t seen the usual cyclical return to wetter seasons. No-one has ever seen the likes of this drought and no-one knows when it will end. We are out of tricks, out of water and out of feed.

Livestock breeding herds  and flocks that have taken generations to build are now depleted because the only option is to send them to slaughter. It’s unclear anyway whether there’ll be sufficient fodder-grade grain to keep them alive.

Breadbasket on fire

Modern cropping systems are designed to store soil moisture until the next crop can be planted. But in the bread basket of the nation, soil moisture is now at record lows, and severe bush fires ravage the landscape.

As I write this in the second week of November, we’re in the third day of gale-force winds, high temperatures and low humidity. The sky is full of dust, smoke and fire-fighting aircraft, when we should be planning what to do with excess stock feed.

Yesterday the government announced further assistance to farmers, in the billions. But the problem is that the federal government will not acknowledge there is a climate problem at all, let alone a catastrophe.

Deputy prime minister Michael McCormack aroused anger when he dismissed the possibility of climate change causing the crisis as the ravings of “pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies” who were ignoring the needs of rural Australians. “We’ve had fires in Australia since time began”, he said.

Our understanding of the climatic drivers of this drought has been severely challenged. The Pacific Ocean is in a neutral phase, so ENSO is not a major issue. The Southern Ocean is in a negative mode, which should bring rain-bearing westerlies at least to southern Australia. But the Indian Ocean is in a phase which prevents tropical moisture inflow.

“The only way the climate models can simulate the depleted rainfall observations is to include the effects of greenhouse gases”

None of these by itself is enough to produce a drought as long and intense as this. In some places it is in its eighth year, and mostly at least the third. On our farm less than half of the annual rainfall of the previous worst year so far has been recorded. Apart from an intense La Niña in 2010-2011 there have been no significantly wet or average years this century.

In 2010 a report was released by a government agency, the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, which showed conclusively that there has been a serious and persistent decline in rainfall in southwestern and more recently southeastern Australia. It is clearly visible, it is anthropogenic in nature, and its mechanism can be easily understood by non-scientists. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology published an update on this year’s drought in September.

Superimposed on the oceans’ tableau is a natural phenomenon known as the Sub-Tropical Ridge (STR). This is a belt of high atmospheric pressure which encircles the planet at about 35 degrees of latitude in both hemispheres, where many of the world’s deserts occur. This high pressure is caused by the descent of cool dry air at these latitudes.

This air originated in the tropics, rose, rained out and then descended, depleted of moisture. Meteorologists call this cycle the Hadley Circulation.

The trouble is that the dry high pressure cells are becoming more frequent and more intense because of growing heating in the sub-tropics, which are increasing in aridity.

Heat blocks rains

Until now, though, it was happening slowly enough for no-one to notice. However, recent analysis can now detect the signature as far back as the World War Two drought.

The STR is like a string of pearls under high pressure, with the gaps allowing rain-bearing systems to penetrate from either the tropics or the poles. But now the extra heat caused by climate change in the tropics is making the highs more frequent and more intense.

It is now a regular feature of Australian weather that rain-bearing fronts are pushed to the south and rarely penetrate the persistent highs. Similar changes have been seen in the northern hemisphere in southern Europe and California.

There is a direct linear relationship between these changes and the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The only way the climate models can simulate the depleted rainfall observations is to include the effects of greenhouse gases.

This should have been front-page news at least in the agricultural press, but instead the news is about government handouts to needy farmers.

Worse in store

So it looks as if the plight of Australian agriculture is set to worsen because of the tropical oceanic heating. The strengthening STR is not an oceanic phenomenon, but an atmospheric one, so its effects are not as apparent to the casual observer. Nevertheless, it seems to be putting the already nasty changes of the oceans on steroids.

Somehow we need to persuade the government that as well as providing welfare, and mitigation strategies, we have to stop venting novel carbon dioxide and avoid exposing Australian agriculture to the ravages of an angry atmosphere.

Yet there are now two strong reasons why governments in Australia will not acknowledge that the drought is attributable to climate change. Firstly, at the last election, there was an enormous voter backlash against proponents of the closure of coal mining.

Secondly, there is political mileage to be grafted out of massive welfare payments to the agricultural community. There is no doubt that there is enormous hardship in the sector, but you need to wonder whether they can see a connection between budgetary pain and carbon policy, or whether any government has sought briefing on the matter.

Clearly courage and leadership matching that required in warfare is needed to address this dreadful situation. Instead we have cowardice and schizophrenia. − Climate News Network

About The Author

Andrew Burgess is a sheep farmer in New South Wales whose family has raised animals in the same area for more than a century. He has now sold his farm because he finds the drought has made his work and survival there impossible

This Article Originally Appeared On Climate News Network

Related Books

Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities

by Peter Plastrik , John Cleveland
1610918495The future of our cities is not what it used to be. The modern-city model that took hold globally in the twentieth century has outlived its usefulness. It cannot solve the problems it helped to create—especially global warming. Fortunately, a new model for urban development is emerging in cities to aggressively tackle the realities of climate change. It transforms the way cities design and use physical space, generate economic wealth, consume and dispose of resources, exploit and sustain the natural ecosystems, and prepare for the future. Available On Amazon

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

by Elizabeth Kolbert
1250062187Over the last half-billion years, there have been Five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines, descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost, and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human. Available On Amazon

Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats

by Gwynne Dyer
1851687181Waves of climate refugees. Dozens of failed states. All-out war. From one of the world’s great geopolitical analysts comes a terrifying glimpse of the strategic realities of the near future, when climate change drives the world’s powers towards the cut-throat politics of survival. Prescient and unflinching, Climate Wars will be one of the most important books of the coming years. Read it and find out what we’re heading for. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you,, and at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.



follow InnerSelf on


 Get The Latest By Email



Fossil Fuel Production Plans Could Push Earth off a Climate Cliff
by The Real News Network
The United Nations is beginning its climate summit in Madrid.
Big Rail Spends More on Denying Climate Change than Big Oil
by The Real News Network
A new study concludes that rail is the industry that's injected the most money into climate change denial propaganda…
Did Scientists Get Climate Change Wrong?
by Sabine Hossenfelder
Interview with Prof Tim Palmer from the University of Oxford.
The New Normal: Climate Change Poses Challenges For Minnesota Farmers
by KMSP-TV Minneapolis-St. Paul
Spring brought a deluge of rain in southern Minnesota and it never seemed to stop.
Report: Today's Kids' Health Will Be Imperiled by Climate Change
by VOA News
An international report from researchers at 35 institutions says climate change will threaten the health and quality of…
How Supercharged Trash Gas Could Produce More Green Energy
by InnerSelf Staff
Synthetic compounds called “siloxanes” from everyday products like shampoo and motor oil are finding their way into…
300 Million Face Severe Risk of Climate-Fueled Coastal Flooding by 2050
by Democracy Now!
As a shocking new report finds that many coastal cities will be flooded by rising sea levels by 2050, Chile’s President…
Climate Warning: California Continues To Burn, Data Estimates Of Global Flooding
Ben Strauss, CEO and Chief Scientist of Climate Central joins MTP Daily to discuss alarming new information about…


The Earth Needs Multiple Methods For Removing CO2 From The Air To Avert Worst Of Climate Change
The Earth Needs Multiple Methods For Removing CO2 From The Air To Avert Worst Of Climate Change
by David Goldberg
Many climate researchers like myself believe government needs to advance technology that will actually suck carbon…
The Emissions Due To Electricity Loss On The Power Grid Is A Lot
The Emissions Due To Electricity Loss On The Power Grid Is A Lot
by Sarah Marie Jordaan and Kavita Surana
When it comes to strategies for slowing the effects of climate change, the idea of reducing wasted energy rarely gets a…
Ultra-fast Computers Could Avert Global Disaster
Ultra-fast Computers Could Avert Global Disaster
by Tim Radford
The world can be saved. It needs global co-operation, careful research and the building of ultra-fast computers.
Politicians Not Markets Slow New Energy Dawn
Politicians Not Markets Slow New Energy Dawn
by Paul Brown
It is politicians, not economists, who stand in the way of wider adoption of cheap renewable energies across the world.
Racing Ice Loss Strips Greenland Of Mass
Racing Ice Loss Strips Greenland Of Mass
by Tim Radford
Greenland is shrinking, losing ice seven times faster than a generation ago. Scientists have taken a new and ominous…
Lessons From The Hockey Rink Could Help Ontario Tackle Climate Change
Lessons From The Hockey Rink Could Help Ontario Tackle Climate Change
by Jennifer Lynes and Dan Murray
The Auditor General of Ontario’s recent report found the province’s current climate change plan is not based on “sound…
Climate Change Threatens A Scary Number Of Plant Species
Climate Change Threatens A Scary Number Of Plant Species
by InnerSelf Staff
Almost 40% of global land plant species are very rare, and these species are most at risk for extinction as the climate…
How Drought Is Affecting Water Supply In Australia’s Capital Cities
How Drought Is Affecting Water Supply In Australia’s Capital Cities
by Ian Wright and Jason Reynolds
The level of water stored by Australia’s capital cities has steadily fallen over the last six years. They are now…