Australia’s catastrophic, out-of-control wildfires constitute a stark, prophetic message from the future: a warning to the world about our fate on a planet that is growing hotter, faster than anyone predicted. And they aren’t unique to the Land Down Under. By end of the century, the fire-triggered thunderstorms could make vast swathes of the Earth uninhabitable. Paul Hockenos explains.
The apocalyptic scenes of skyscraping flames and massive gray clouds of ash against the backdrop of glowing orange horizons are not simply manifestations of larger-than-average wildfires. They’re something entirely novel to the last decade: a grim new chapter in the climate crisis. We’ve seen these fierce, ravaging infernos light up Australia in 2009 and 2013, as well as Brazil’s Amazon, North America’s West Coast, north-eastern Asia, and the Mediterranean in recent years.
Scientists even have a name for this draconian type of conflagration: pyroCbs, after the “pyro-cumulonimbus clouds” that spread fires by inducing lightning storms and lofting of embers many kilometers away through gale-force winds, according to the Bureau of Meteorology in Victoria.
Marc Castellnou, president of the Spanish independent wildfire prevention group Pau Costa Foundation, is among the wildfire experts who argue that ever hotter, drier weather is causing uniquely cataclysmic, higher-intensity, faster-moving fires that can turn into erratic, deadly firestorms.
Castellnou says that the ferocious blazes in Europe, Australia and the US over the last decade were first evaluated as “abnormal,” but not a unique form of extreme wildfire. With the fierce blazes in Chile and Portugal in 2017, however, he and other analysts concluded that something qualitatively new was upon us.
“That was the new normal arriving. 2018 has confirmed that,” he told Horizon: The EU Research & Innovation Magazine in early 2019, referring to the blazes in Greece, Portugal and California. This kind of lethal wildfire, “eats everything,” Castellnou says. Firefighters are nearly helpless against blazes of this intensity. Portugal’s October 2018 fires incinerated 220,000 hectares of forest, an area 22 times Lisbon’s size, and caused 40 deaths. At its apex, the flames engulfed 10,000 hectares of land per hour over seven hours, according to Castellnou.
“This is something that blew my mind and I cannot use technology to simulate that because models can’t predict it,” Castellnou said. “The challenge is now predicting how they will behave. We’re still not there. We’re struggling.”
What happens is that severe fires generate great volumes of smoke that mushroom into the sky, lifting with it ash and other burning particles. The updrafts are so powerful that they can propel plumes of smoke into the stratosphere — 10 to 50 kms above the Earth. When the heat collides with calmer, cooler air it triggers extreme weather in the form of fast-moving lightning storms, which can spread the fire across land or even morph into a kind of fire tornado. The lightning bolts can start new fires kilometres away.
Arguably the most horrendous pyroCbs storms to date happened on 7 February 2009 when Victoria in south-eastern Australia experienced the tragic Black Saturday blazes, which killed 173 people, millions of animals, and torched over 2,000 houses and 450,000 ha of territory. Scientists claim that on that day there were three distinct pyro-cumulonimbus storms, the largest of which soared 15 km skyward and generated hundreds of bursts of lightning. Experts say the 2009 inferno released an equivalent energy of 1,500 atomic bombs.
Eight years later on 12 August 2017, meteorologists in British Columbia watched on aghast as fires that would eventually consume 4,700 square miles burned out of control, as reported in Yale Environment 360. The five fire-driven thunderstorms “rose over the conflagration, shooting black smoke and carbon high into the lower stratosphere, spewing noxious gases that were eventually detected almost as far north as the North Pole, and touching off more fires. At the same time, fires in neighboring Washington State spawned yet another pyroCb.”
Everywhere the pyroCbs hit produced real-life scenes from regions of our planet that are now, or will be soon, barely habitable – images even more terrifying than the severe hurricanes, islands being lost to rising seas, Africa’s long droughts, and emaciated polar bears. What makes them particularly terrifying is that some of this extreme weather could, in one form or another, happen anywhere in the world.
Australia’s blazes in New South Wales and Victoria — more than 130 at once — have claimed at least 20 lives, thousands of homes, and over ten millions of acres of land. Records for the region’s hottest days – over 107 degrees Fahrenheit (41.2°C) — have been shattered one day after another, and meteorologists say more blistering weather is on its way. Low humidity and stiff winds have only complicated firefighting and rescue efforts, which now include over 10,000 people, the Australian military, and fire fighters from as far away as the US. The smoke is so intense that it has even wafted to New Zealand 2,000 kms away.
And yet for denialist politicos, even the fires blazing in front of their eyes and the sight of their citizens choking on smoke-befouled air seem to produce no epiphany. Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison is in league with US President Donald Trump on climate change: a liar in the name of big business, in particular the coal industry. Indeed, due to its heavy burning of coal and use of liquified natural gas, Australia has one of the highest per person greenhouse gas emissions rates in the world. Last summer, Morrison’s administration gave the green light to a new coal mine; others are in the pipeline. The UN’s warning that Australia is not on track to meet its modest obligation pledged at the Paris climate summit in 2015 does not faze Morrison.
On the same page, deputy prime minister Michael McCormack dismissed climate change as the concerns of “raving inner-city lefties” who were ignoring the needs of rural Australians. “We’ve had fires in Australia since time began,” he said last month.
Australia’s plight is really only the latest wake-up call – but one with some of the most powerful images yet of the future that awaits a complacent world.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, obviously shocked by the blazes in Australia delivered her starkest warning yet – in nearly 15 years in office — in her New Year’s address. The world has to do “everything humanly possible” to deal with global warming,” she said. “It is still possible. Global warming is real. It is threatening. It, and the crises arising from global warming, are man-made.”
This may be more truthful than the likes of Trump, Morrison and McCormack let on, but German and European greenhouse gases are every bit as responsible as Australia’s emissions for the fires on Terra Australis.