In a few days it will be the 17th anniversary of the bushfires that ravaged Canberra (the national capital of Australia) and its surrounds in 2003. With bushfires currently burning to the west of the territory, Canberrans are understandably anxious. It’s old news but some may be interested in this disaster. In many ways, the Canberra bushfires brought about a much broader call for research and action to better understand and respond to bushfire risk. Here are the sanitised details of that event —
“On 18 January, two fire fronts combined to create a 25 km fire front and wind gusts of up to 65 km per hour propelled the fire towards Canberra. The Chief Minister declared a state of emergency at 2.45 pm and the firestorm hit the outer streets of Duffy at approximately 3 pm, and soon reached [other] suburbs …. Four people were killed by the fires, more than 435 people were injured and there were 5000 evacuations. Approximately 160,000 hectares were burnt which equated to almost 70 per cent of the ACT’s pasture, forests and nature parks including Namadgi National Park, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve and all government pine forest west of the Murrumbidgee River Stromlo pine plantation. There were approximately 488 houses destroyed and many more were damaged.“
A full history of that event, with links to the various associated inquiries, can be found here at the font of all knowledge.
Also razed on that fateful day, was the iconic Mount Stromlo Observatory and all of its historic telescopes. Mount Stromlo Observatory was, and continues to be, the home of the Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Visitors to the observatory can view the burnt out domeless shell that once held the historic Yale-Columbia Refractor.
I get goosebumps when I go there. In mid summer when the wind buffets the city, the chill solidifies into an icy fear; a fear that nevertheless is tinged with admiration for nature’s power. Nature roars, “I will take whatever you can throw at me and then I’ll raise the stakes.”
Inside the building shell are the remnants of the concrete girders that held the massive telescope. Above there is nothing but the sky.
However, the view that is most compelling is that of the Brindabella Hills. It is from these hills, which spoon the city to the west, that the inferno came.
Yesterday I felt the urge to take another photo of the view from that window, but I was prevented from doing so. (I’ve reduced the haze on this photo so that the words can be read clearly.)
So I had to go to another hill to take a photo. I couldn’t see the Brindabella Hills in the distance through the smoke, so I took a photo of a neighbouring hill in the middle of the city. Can you see it? And the telecommunications tower?
On that afternoon in 2003 when the firestorm struck Canberra, firefighters couldn’t see the telecommunications tower either. Day turned to a fiery red, then black, then grey.
The 2003 Canberra firestorm had the distinction of generating the first documented fire tornado in Australia and the first known fire tornado in the world to have EF3 wind speeds. Unlike 2003, emergency services agencies knew what they were/are facing this summer (2019/20) in Australia. The fire models that have been developed in the wake of the Canberra fires and the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday bushfires, are data intensive. The models include data on multiple complex climate factors (eg. temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, vegetation, topography, etc) and their interaction to identify and manage bushfire risk. Extensive research underpins this data. The accuracy of catastrophic fire weather and fire spread predictions has been proven, albeit no one is claiming that the models are perfect. Still, we don’t need to be 100% certain of the forecasts to take action, do we? In our current bushfire season, the predictive capacity of the models more than likely saved lives.
The same is true of climate change models and forecasts. These are extensively tested through peer-review and fine-tuned regularly as new research comes to hand. Predictions of an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events have come to pass. The climate models are like a window on our future. For those who still like to quibble about the science, I ask you, “do the forecasts need to be proven 100% accurate before we take collective action to reduce global emissions?” In an emergency, if we are not to put our faith in science that saves lives, then what?
The Australian people are the lucky ones, not so our threatened species and other organisms that keep our forests and landscape healthy. I wonder with such a huge area burned in Australia this year, whether our unique flora and fauna will recover as quickly as we humans will?
In our lives and in the natural course of planetary climate change, change takes place slowly. In our infancy, changes happen more quickly but as we age, signs of old age creep up on us. Provided there is no shock to the system (a mass extinction event), we will have the potential to go on. Even after mass extinction events, whatever life remains (a small proportion of the life that existed before) can make a new home in difficult circumstances. Global human-induced climate change is providing another shock to our world now. So we have to act fast, don’t you think? Alternatively, we can live in the past and deny ourselves a future.
The Science of Climate Change: Questions and Answers, Australian Academy of Science
Global Warming and Climate Change Myths, Skeptical Science
Climate Change – Trends and Extremes, Australian Bureau of Meteorology
State Of The Climate 2018, Australian Bureau of Meteorology
Climate models have accurately predicted global heating, study finds, Dana Nuccitelli, The Guardian
Tracy worked for almost 30 years in the Australian Public Service, providing impartial policy advice on a range of industry and regulatory matters, including on programs to assist industry to transition to a low carbon economy.