Updated: Oct 6
✦ It is clear that the stark reality of climate change is becoming increasingly more apparent with each passing year.
A notion that was generally pooh-poohed as an over exaggeration by many observers in recent times evidently poses a much more real and serious threat to our planet and, ultimately, the future of humanity. So what happens when our increasingly warming planet meets with a natural climate pattern?
We are set to find out this year as The Australian Bureau of Meteorology recently confirmed an El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean that will impact large parts of the country’s east this summer to create a potentially devastating scenario.
El Niño is a natural weather phenomenon which climate change has exacerbated.
Part of a natural cycle known as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), El Niño occurs every 2 to 7 years and results in increased and sustained warmer weather conditions, while its counterpart La Niña generates the opposite.
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology explains El Niño as occuring “when sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean become substantially warmer than average, and this causes a shift in atmospheric circulation.”
Essentially El Niño results in rainfall moving away from the western Pacific Ocean and eastern Australia, and toward the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, thus creating dry, arid conditions – not great for a traditionally hot country and even worse when you factor in the ever-increasing impact of climate change and global warming.
The threat of El Niño to Australia, especially in the eastern part of the country, is very real with warmer-than-usual temperatures and reduced rainfall prompting an increased threat of intense heat waves, extensive drought and hazardous bushfires. The tragic Black Summer bushfires of 2019/20 followed an El Niño event the previous year, resulting in widespread devastation, including loss of life, property and irreparable damage to wildlife, with over a billion animals killed. In subsequent years we have experienced La Niña, resulting in heavy downpours and destructive flooding. This summer it is the turn of El Niño and experts are concerned.
“We face a dramatic season ahead… things continue to unfold, but Australia being the most vulnerable nation in the developed world makes us really on the frontline of the impacts of climate change,” award-winning climate scientist and writer from the Australian National University Joëlle Gergis explained on a recent podcast with The Monthly.
“El Niño is coming again - and Australia is vulnerable,” she added. 2024 is predicted to be the hottest year on record globally, with the Climate Council stating that we “may witness the first year in which the global average temperature spikes at 1.5°C or higher above the pre-industrial average. Unfortunately, this would result in high fire risks across Australia in the next year.”
Ominous warning signs
The warning signs are already there and they are ominous. CNN details more than 20 runners in the recent Sydney Marathon being hospitalised during a heat wave, ski resorts closing early due to a lack of snow after Australia’s warmest winter since records began in 1910, and over 60 bushfires breaking out already across New South Wales.
“We are in a serious place,” David Bowman, professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania, Australia, told the news channel. “The climate change monster has woken up and El Niño means it is angry.”
Several years of wet summers and flooding courtesy of La Niña has seen grass and bushland growth explode across much of the country, creating a precarious situation that is ripe for widespread bushfires this summer. Manager of Climate Services at the Bureau of Meteorology Karl Braganza warned things were rapidly drying out after three consecutive years of wet conditions. “It’s really up to individuals and communities now to prepare for a summer of heat and fire hazards,” he told SBS.
Hot conditions, less cloud cover and a warmer ocean surface also results in extensive bleaching of corals, posing a threat to the Great Barrier Reef in particular; during the 2015/16 El Niño, approximately a quarter of the Great Barrier Reef was lost to this phenomenon and this year could turn the situation decidedly desperate. “I fear that the reef might not survive,” Dr Gergis laments. “It really pains me to say that I think we are bearing witness to the death of the Great Barrier Reef and it's not something I ever thought I would witness in my lifetime.” With global warming expected to breach 1.5°C next year and surpass 2°C by 2040, it paints a rather bleak picture of what may lie ahead.
Averting the crisis
So what can be done? The Climate Council states simply that “Australia must urgently cut carbon pollution from the burning of coal, oil and gas this decade to protect ourselves, and all future generations, from worsening extremes.”
Dr Gergis further explains that as the sunniest country on the planet Australia has the conditions and ability to become the global leader in the green economy by switching more reliance to solar generated power, which currently only provides 15% of electricity supply nationwide. Overall, only 36% of energy in Australia is generated by renewable sources, way off the government’s declared target of 82% by 2030. A sustained policy insistence on supporting the use of fossil fuels, despite them compounding the global warming crisis, further compounds the situation. “Scientific reality is absolutely being lost on our decision makers... It’s infuriating and it’s heartbreaking,” explains Dr Gergis. SBS states a recent independent Climate Council report as finding existing government targets as leaving Australia “barrelling towards catastrophe”.
Scientists like Dr Gergis have been presenting factual evidence for years, warning decision-makers at the highest level of government what needs to be done in order to slow the impact of global warming but, unfortunately, it appears to be falling on deaf ears. “We just need our political leaders to be brave [but] I really feel despairing that the political will still isn’t quite there,” she says. “There’s something we can do about it and we’re choosing not to. So I’m hoping that people step up because, you know, I really do believe that the 2020s are a make or break decade that we’ll look back at and say, you know, where were you? How did you show up and what did we do to avert this crisis?”
In the short-term, Aussies in threatened areas are encouraged to be vigilant and prepare for the possibility of bushfires this summer by updating and rehearsing bushfire survival planning. “It may sound over-zealous, but assigning a day and rehearsing your bushfire plan could help you identify areas for improvement and importantly that rehearsal could be invaluable if you were to experience a fire,” Professor Delene Weber, an environmental scientist and bushfire researcher at the University of South Australia, said in comments distributed by the Australian Science Media Centre and reported by SBS. “Lastly, talk to your neighbours. It takes a community to make an area bushfire safer. Consider offering to help people with mowing, pruning or clearing gutters.”
Ultimately, El Niño, and La Niña, are natural climate patterns and there is very little we can do to avert them. However, contributory factors that are exacerbating them are essentially within our control and the facts and research are there to be acted on. Even at an individual level we can make changes to our everyday lifestyles to reduce the impact of global warming and, hopefully, minimise the threat of causing further devastation to our beloved planet.
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