THE LONG HOT WINTER

It’s easy to forget, being on the other side of the world and all that, how different this time of year is for those residing in the Southern Hemisphere. Reminders are often necessary, such as sporting events beamed into British homes. I recall switching-on the TV one biting January morning a few years back to watch Andy Murray playing in the Men’s Final of the Australian Open; the court basked in intense heat and sunshine whilst heavy snow was piled-up outside my window. Similarly, whenever an Ashes series takes place down under, the scheduling of it seems so alien to someone accustomed to cricket as a summer sport – yet the Australian summer runs from December-February.

The idea that Aussie seasons are the wrong way round – or right, if you’re from over there – is a head-f**k to anyone raised in the Northern Hemisphere and feels especially strange when it comes to a season associated with a fat bearded man in a red outfit; the reality of Antipodean Yuletide completely contradicts the clichéd images of Christmas drilled into us from an early age. Mind you, most of them were also redundant relics to the Victorians, inspired as they were by Dickens’ childhood during the backend of ‘The Little Ice Age’ over 20 years before he documented the redemption of Ebeneezer Scrooge. Nevertheless, so used are we to a specific visual representation of Christmas that re-imagining it as an event staged during the summer is a weird, topsy-turvy concept indeed.

If one is old enough to remember the UK’s Long Hot Summer of 1976, the thought of having a Christmas dinner and watching Morecambe and Wise in the middle of it is as bizarre a notion as planning to go sunbathing or swimming in the sea on December 25; but that’s the common experience down under – as is the dreaded bushfire. In Australia, Fire Danger Ratings are as crucial a component of a weather forecast over the festive season as warnings of blizzards, black ice or flooding are here. The bushfire is a potential threat throughout the year, depending on how extreme the heat happens to be, and can also vary depending on which part of Australia you happen to be in; but a look at some of the most damaging bushfires to have hit the country since records began shows the majority appear to have taken place between November and March, which encompasses the Aussie summer.

Records date from 1851, and running through the stats is a sobering undertaking. The Black Friday Bushfires in Victoria that year wiped out a million sheep and thousands of cattle, whilst 71 human lives were lost in the same State during the bushfires that spanned Christmas 1938 and New Year 1939; fire claimed 62 lives and more than a thousand homes in Tasmania’s Black Tuesday Bushfires of February 1967; 1983’s Ash Wednesday Bushfires in South Australia and Victoria killed 75 people and burned-down an estimated 2,400 houses, whilst the worst loss of life occurred during 2009’s Black Saturday Bushfires in Victoria, when 173 people died. It’s an unavoidable fact that bushfires of this severity have increased substantially over the last 20 years; prior to the 21st century, each decade seems to have had around half-a-dozen of these major incidents, whereas 17 are recorded for the 2000s and 23 are listed for the 2010s, including the current crisis.

New South Wales began 2019 with bushfires that mercifully claimed no lives, but from September this year the State has been engaged in battling an ongoing inferno that is also being mirrored to a slightly lesser degree in South Australia. Record-breaking temperatures have served to exacerbate a situation that has resulted in a State of Emergency being declared in New South Wales; and to be frank, it’s hard to think what constitutes an emergency more than a relentless march of fire cutting a merciless swathe across the country and reducing everything in its path to ash. Fire-fighters and those forced to watch their homes razed to the ground are furious with the apparent inaction of federal government and the sloth-like response of the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has only just seen fit to cut short his Hawaiian holiday to try and offer some belated leadership.

Since returning, the PM has acknowledged the part played by global warming in the increase of bushfires this century. Last Wednesday, Australia recorded its hottest-ever day; temperatures reached 41.9C – that’s 107.4F in old money – and broke the record for the previous hottest-ever day which had been set as far back as 24 hours earlier. On Thursday, the country’s hottest-ever December day was recorded in South Australia, with the heat rising to an unimaginable 49.9C (121.8F). And whilst FIFA are probably thinking such conditions sound ideal for staging a future World Cup, in the meantime Australians are confronted by the unenviable position of being on the frontline of climate change. But it would appear to be an unholy union between man and Mother Nature that is responsible for the Hellish cauldron Australia has been plunged into – or as the manager of climate monitoring at the Bureau of Meteorology put it, ‘Natural variability and global warming are pushing in the same direction.’

Two of the natural forces that drive the Australian climate are known as the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and the Southern Annular Mode (SAM); this pair constitute nature’s role in leaving central Australia baking in its current unprecedented heat-wave. I won’t even attempt to explain the details of precisely what the IOD and SAM do; I’ve tried to absorb a quick-fire lesson in them and reckon only Michael Fish could come away with a full understanding lost on a novice. That aside, the connection between the extremities of temperatures and the bushfires are obvious; but the extra greenhouse gases clogging up the atmosphere don’t help either. This particular factor is being disputed in the Australian Government as much as it is in other circles around the world, but arguing over the causes is doing bugger all to put out the fires, let alone coming to the aid of both people whose lives have been ruined by them or the wildlife whose habitat has been erased from the landscape.

One New South Wales village with a population of 400, Balmoral, has been nicknamed Ground Zero by outsiders – a place where it is claimed 90% of the bush-land has been lost, along with 18 homes; fire-fighters even temporarily ran out of water supplies at the height of the inferno on Saturday, and locals are angry with the slow response of government at every level. In a situation that sounds all-too familiar, cuts to funding for services intended to deal with severe climate conditions in a country accustomed to them is being partly blamed for failure to extinguish fires that have been burning and spreading for three months now. As someone averse to high temperatures – even the pathetically low ones we experience here in comparison to over there – I can only extend my sympathies to the Australian people and hope autumn comes sooner for them rather than later – and their autumn starts in March.

© The Editor

4 thoughts on “THE LONG HOT WINTER

  1. There is little argument that the climate is changing, but then it always has done: it was repeated bouts of ‘global warming’ that did for the various ‘Ice Ages’ after all, long before a single coal-fired power-station or internal combustion engine had ever sullied the earth by its useful presence.

    The real debate is if, and to what extent, mankind is impacting on that process. I have no qualifications to pronounce on that, but then neither do most of those who seem happy and vociferous in doing so. It is claimed that 90% of scientists take the view that mankind is having a negative effect on the world’s climate, but then 500 years ago 99% of scientists took the view that the world was flat. In both cases, the adjective ‘independent’ is usually missing, as most of those historic and current scientists fail to satisfy that criterion, largely due to their need to deliver the required results for their paymasters. As ‘Deep Throat’ once sagely advised, follow the money.

    Australia has always had bushfires, it always will: maybe one should question the wisdom, in such a huge country of vast, available land, of building housing or commercial units in those areas susceptible to ignition. Given modern equipment, it wouldn’t be a big deal to create generous fire-breaks wherever human habitation or commerce occurred, thus mitigating the greatest impact of those unsurprising events.

    As climate changes, as it always does and surely will continue to do in some form, it is incumbent on each country to adopt policies and procedures appropriate to the topical risks faced by that country: it may be fires, it may be floods, it may be water-shortages, it may be hurricanes – pick your risk and mitigate it. The first duty of any government is the protection of its citizens, if that means protecting them from climatic variations rather than just invading armies, then do it, that’s what we pay you to do.

    As for the tabloid attacks on the holidaying PM, it may appear as poor timing for PR purposes, but what did they expect him to do, personally drag hosepipes everywhere and quench all the fires himself? Simply by turning up at a scene and glad-handing all the fire-fighters, he’s actually preventing them from doing the real job of extinguishing fires that day: he’d have achieved more by staying in Hawaii and sending an e-mail.

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    1. There seemed to be a touch of the ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ Callaghan scenario about the Aussie PM’s holiday – though, as we all know, Sunny Jim never actually uttered that phrase during the Winter of Discontent. From what I can gather, there were warnings earlier in the year that 2019’s bushfires could possibly be especially catastrophic, though a lack of advance (not to say costly) preparation in anticipation of such a disaster tends to happen with governments across the globe, whatever the weather. As you say, the sensible means of dealing with an issue that has been something both natives and convict descendants have always had to deal with in Australia would apppear to be to avoid building communities in or around areas susceptible to bushfires – particularly now they’re so much more frequent than they used to be. That said, this year’s have been exceptionally fierce in that they’ve spread beyond their usual locations and crept ever closer to populated areas normally safely distanced. Let’s hope the heat-wave has passed its peak.

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  2. I have read reports suggesting the lack of firebreaks is the main cause for this ferocity. And the firebreaks are no longer where they used to be because the government forbade the chopping down and clearing of shrubs, trees, bushes and the like for “Green & wildlife reasons”. Had the historic firebreaks remained in situ, and regularly cut back and cleared, the damage would have been more limited, fires burning out once they ran out of fuel.

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