‘Set for a bad year’: Grim outlook amid El Nino threat

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Source: Bureau of Meteorology

Australia is set to burn if El Nino returns as predicted, bringing hot and dry conditions.

While a official declaration of an El Nino event for Australia is yet to take place, the Bureau of Meteorology has enacted an alert.

Scientists predict it could be “the strongest El Nino ever measured”.

While El Nino is a worldwide phenomenon, Australia is the most vulnerable nation in the developed world because it raises the risk of drought, heatwaves and bushfires in the east of the country.

It also increases the chances of mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.

Greg Mullins, an internationally recognised expert in responding to major bushfires and natural disasters, predicts an above-normal fire season for the year ahead.

“We’re set for a bad year,” Mr Mullins told a Climate Council media briefing on Monday.

“If I was a betting man, I’d say we’re going to get big fires this year.”

In Australia’s most recent major fire season, the Black Summer of 2020, much of the east coast – from Victoria to Queensland – was on fire simultaneously.

From July 1, 2019, until that bushfire season ended on March 31, 2020, an estimated 35 million hectares of land burned across Australia. In NSW alone, there more than 11,400 bush and grass fires across NSW and 6.2 per cent of the state burnt – the largest burnt area recorded in a single fire season in eastern Australia, according to the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience.

The season also resulted in the loss of several lives, including 20 civilians: Three in October, five in November, four in December and eight in January.

Mr Mullins said historically, bushfires were sequential, burning first in Queensland, then NSW and then Victoria – which made it possible for states to share aerial firefighting resources.

But that may no longer be possible because of simultaneous fire seasons along the east coast. He said it was almost impossible for emergency authorities to prepare adequately for what is to come.

“[For example] Canada at the moment … just totally unprecedented fires,” he said.

“These fires are beyond the capacity of firefighting agencies. It doesn’t matter how many aircraft you throw at it, how many trucks, how many people.

“We’re seeing places burn that never used to burn before.”

Mr Mullins said it was important to get in front of the curve of global warming or doom future generations to natural and unnatural disasters from which society could not recover.

El Nino conditions will continue to intensify over coming months and will likely make 2024 the world’s hottest year on record.

An El Niño means a higher chance of drier weather in eastern Australia, with warmer conditions in the country’s southern states.

Bureau of Meteorology Senior Climatologist Ganter said models showed tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures were very likely to reach El Nino levels during winter.

“The bureau’s long-range winter forecast is for drier and warmer conditions across almost all of Australia, and the climate conditions in the Pacific Ocean are already factored into our forecasts,” she said.

“The long-range forecast for winter also shows an increased chance of below average rainfall for almost all of Australia and the move to El Niño alert does not change this forecast.

From 2020 to early 2023, a protracted La Nina episode led to record-breaking rainfall and flooding along Australia’s east coast.

Climate Council research Simon Bradshaw said that heavy rain had spurred rapid growth of grass and bushland, including rapid regrowth in areas scorched during the Black Summer bushfires.

That growth leaves much of Australia in a precarious position.

“In the event of an El-Nino-boosted drought, it is only a matter of time before we face another catastrophic fire season,” Dr Bradshaw said.

-with AAP

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