Australia's Severe Wildfires Were Predicted by the Government Over a Decade Ago

Australia is currently experiencing a particularly severe fire season—and a government report produced over a decade ago warned that something like this could occur.

The 2008 report noted that fire seasons will start earlier, end later and generally be more intense. Furthermore, it stated that this effect will increase over time but should be "directly observable by 2020."

This season—which started in September, a month earlier than usual—fires have burned more than 8 million hectares of land, killed at least 24 people, left more more than one billion animals dead, and created smoky conditions in major cities, New Scientist reported.

Scientists say that record-breaking hot, dry conditions are creating the perfect environment for the fires to spread. They are caused either by human activities or natural phenomena, such as lightning strikes.

The Australian government has been criticized for its dismissive response to the impacts of climate change and its links to wildfires, the Associated Press reported.

For example, Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced backlash last year for ignoring a meeting request with 23 former fire and emergency service leaders who wanted to warn him of the potentially catastrophic upcoming fire season. However, experts say that the risks have long been known about, as outlined in the 2008 report.

"We can certainly say it has contributed to the length and severity of this fire season," Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick from the University of New South Wales told New Scientist. "We knew this was going to happen.

The 2008 report outlined several long-term trends which have characterized the changing climate of Australia and which could play a role in exacerbating the severity of the country's fire season.

For example, the annual average temperature in Australia has increased by nearly one degree Celsius since 1910, with the greatest warming occurring in the central part of the country.

"As a result, droughts have become hotter, with effects on rainfall, evaporation and runoff, and, more generally, water availability for human use," the report read.

In fact, 2019 was Australia's driest and warmest year on record, according to the country's Bureau of Meteorology (BM). In addition, experts say that two large-scale climate phenomena—the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and Southern Annular Mode (SAM)—are also helping to create the perfect conditions for the fires to spread.

The IOD has played a role in creating drought conditions across Australia, while SAM has pushed hot, dry winds from the country's desert interior towards the east coast, helping to spread fires in the southeastern states of New South Wales and Victoria. These two trends have coincided before but never for this long, Andrew Watkins from the BM told New Scientist.

Australia fires
A military helicopter flies above a burning woodchip mill in Eden, in Australia's New South Wales state on January 6, 2020. SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images