• In the past century, average temperatures in Australia have soared – a trend set to continue.
  • Global warming has increased the frequency and intensity of bushfires in the country, scientists say.
  • This summer, 100,000 square kilometres of land have been scorched.

Bushfires are a fact of life for many people in Australia. Each year, blazes are sparked as summer sun dries the landscape leaving forests and woodlands tinder-dry.

Recently, the flames have arrived earlier in the season, and 2019 was no exception. What was exceptional was the speed with which the wildfires spread and the unprecedented scale of destruction to life, property and the environment.

This graphic shows how much land has been burned by Australia’s recent bushfires.
Image: Reuters

Devastating scale

Firefighters in California battle seasonal outbreaks most years, and blazes have burned in Indonesia and incinerated vast areas of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.

As some of its forest species, like eucalyptus, rely on fire to regenerate, Australia’s fires differ in nature to some of those events. But in terms of size alone, the total affected area in the Australian state of New South Wales alone was greater than that burned by the fires in California, Indonesia and Brazil combined.

When Queensland, Victoria and other parts of Australia are included, the current bushfire season has scorched more than 100,000 square kilometres of land – an area equivalent in size to Iceland. This has devastated ecosystems, claimed human lives and killed an estimated 1 billion animals.

Mean temperature anomalies in Australia, 1910-2019
Image: Australian Government, Bureau of Meteorology

Temperatures rising

Scientists have linked the increasing risk of wildfires around the world to climate change, saying longer periods of hot, dry weather are creating conditions for fires to take hold.

And maps that track the mean temperature anomaly – a departure from the long-term average – across Australia over the past 100 years show the extent of the growing threat facing the country.

The mean temperature anomaly in Australia in 1919
Image: Australian Bureau of Meteorology

A century ago, average temperatures were considerably lower than today. With the exception of one or two hotspots in the south-east, for most of the country mean temperatures stayed around 1℃ above average.

The contemporary mean temperature anomaly is considerably higher.
Image: Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Today, the picture looks very different. Highs of 3℃ above average in the west are accompanied by higher above-average temperatures across the whole landmass. The mean temperature anomaly for large swathes of Australia is now 1℃ or above.

This trend is set to continue unless urgent action is taken to address the underlying causes of climate change.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

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