The Blue Mountains, Then and Now

During our time in Australia, my partner and I decided on a whim to spend a weekend in the Blue Mountains. This national park, a two-hour train ride west of Sydney, forms part of the Great Dividing Range: a chain of mountains which stretches from north to south across the entire country, separating the vast outback to the west from the narrow strip of coastal rainforest to the east.

For a region so close to Sydney, the Blue Mountains feel surprisingly remote. You can stand at any number of clifftops, gaze out over a seemingly endless stretch of land, and see no sign of civilization whatsoever. Or you can walk down into the valleys between the mountains and explore the rainforest, a vast expanse of ancient gumtrees that’s managed to hide koalas previously thought to have vanished, and possibly even an escaped panther.


Four months later, when we were safely back in Canada, the Blue Mountains bushfires began. It was October, barely even spring in the Southern Hemisphere. To have fires starting so early in the season was virtually unheard of.

The triggers for the fires were decidedly human-caused: arson, a botched army exercise, and sparking power lines. However, unusually hot, dry, and windy conditions allowed the fires to spread far more quickly than they would have in a more normal October.


To get from the clifftops of Echo Point to the walking trails in the valley below, we took the Giant Stairway, which is exactly what it sounds like. Imagine the steepest and narrowest stairway you can manage, cut into the stone cliff and reinforced with metal, and a handrail which you cling to for dear life. Make it 902 stairs long (by my count, so let’s say plus or minus 5) and wind it back and forth around the cliff. After a few minutes walking down the stairway your knees start to buckle, and you require more and longer breaks, but you still can’t see the bottom.

The exhaustion is worth it simply due to the view.

Sometimes we would see swarms of sulfur-crested cockatoos flying over the treetops hundreds of metres below. They looked like tiny white specks at such a distance, but we could still hear them squawking to one another.


The bushfires of 2013 didn’t affect any of the areas we visited in the Blue Mountains – in fact, none of the main tourism regions were damaged. The main losses occurred in residential areas in and around the Blue Mountains. As of October 19th, 208 houses and 40 non-residential buildings had been destroyed.

Despite the huge amount of property loss, there were only two fatalities from the bushfires. This relatively successful outcome was due to mass evacuations organized by the government of New South Wales. At one point a state of emergency was declared, which authorized police to force residents to leave their houses.

As the fires continued to burn out of control, westerly winds blew the smoke and ash right over Sydney. During sunsets the sky over Sydney Harbour turned a bright orange, giving the illusion of a city built on the surface of Mars.


I had heard about lyre birds, widely considered to be among the best mimics of the animal kingdom, many times before. In an elaborate courtship display, the male lyre bird perfectly imitates the songs of nearly every other bird in the forest, one after another like some kind of avian pop-music mashup. Lyre birds blow mockingbirds right out of the water.

Footage from the BBC of a lyre bird imitating camera shutters and chainsaws seemed too good to be true, but its authenticity was bolstered by a similar story from my friend at the climate lab in Sydney. Her neighbours had been doing renovations, and when they were finished the construction equipment went away but the sounds kept going. That’s when they discovered the lyre bird living in the garden.

We saw three or four lyre birds while hiking in the valley that weekend, but for the most part they just wandered around the forest floor, combing through the leaf litter with an outstretched foot and keeping their beaks firmly shut. It was winter in Australia, after all – not courtship season for most birds. On the last day of hiking, we sat by the side of the trail for a rest and a drink of water, while my partner quizzed me on the local bird calls.

“What kind of bird is making that song?”

“An eastern whip-bird, I think.

“Hang on, it just changed into a kookaburra.

“And now it’s a currawong?”

A few minutes later, a male lyre bird strolled out onto the path ahead of us, showing off his fantastic tail feathers and looking extremely pleased with himself.


It is well known among scientists that human-caused climate change increases the risk of severe bushfires. Spells of hot weather will obviously become more common as the planet warms, but so will prolonged droughts, especially in subtropical regions like Australia. Add an initial trigger, like a lightning strike or an abandoned campfire, and you have the perfect recipe for a bushfire.

The current Australian government, which has a history of questionable statements on climate change, really doesn’t want to believe this. Prime Minister Tony Abbott asserted that “these fires are certainly not a function of climate change, they’re a function of life in Australia”, while Environment Minister Greg Hunt cited Wikipedia during a similar statement. I was actually heartened by these events: the ensuing public outcry convinced me that Australians, by and large, do not buy into their government’s indifference on this issue.

It came as a surprise to nobody in the climate science community, and probably nobody in Australia, that 2013 was Australia’s warmest year on record. The previous record, set in 2005, was exceeded by a fairly significant 0.17°C. Even more remarkable was the fact that 2013 was an ENSO-neutral year. For Australia to shatter this temperature record without the help of El Niño indicates that something else (*cough cough climate change*) is at work.

Would the Blue Mountains bushfires have been so devastating without the help of human-caused climate change? In a cooler and wetter October, closer to the historical average, would the initial fire triggers have developed into anything significant? We’ll never know for sure. What we can say, though, is that bushfires like these will only become more common as climate change continues. This is what the future will look like.

Advertisements

A Summer of Extremes

Because of our emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, a little extra energy gets trapped in our atmosphere every day. Over time, this energy builds up. It manifests itself in the form of higher temperatures, stronger storms, larger droughts, and melting ice. Global warming, then, isn’t about temperatures as much as it is about energy.

The extra energy, and its consequences, don’t get distributed evenly around the world. Weather systems, which move heat and moisture around the planet, aren’t very fair: they tend to bully some places more than others. These days, it’s almost as if the weather picks geographical targets each season to bombard with extremes, then moves on to somewhere else. This season, the main target seems to be North America.

The warmest 12 months on record for the United States recently wrapped up with a continent-wide heat wave and drought. Thousands of temperature records were broken, placing millions of citizens in danger. By the end of June, 56% of the country was experiencing at least “moderate” drought levels – the largest drought since 1956. Wildfires took over Colorado, and extreme wind storms on the East Coast knocked out power lines and communication systems for a week. Conditions have been similar throughout much of Canada, although its climate and weather reporting systems are less accessible.

“This is what global warming looks like,”, said Professor Jonathan Overpeck from the University of Arizona, a sentiment that was echoed across the scientific community in the following weeks. By the end of the century, these conditions will be the new normal.

Does that mean that these particular events were caused by climate change? There’s no way of knowing. It could have just been a coincidence, but the extra energy global warming adds to our planet certainly made them more likely. Even without climate change, temperature records get broken all the time.

However, in an unchanging climate, there would be roughly the same amount of record highs as record lows. In a country like the United States, where temperature records are well catalogued and publicly available, it’s easy to see that this isn’t the case. From 2000-2009, there were twice as many record highs as record lows, and so far this year, there have been ten times as many:

The signal of climate change on extreme weather is slowly, but surely, emerging. For those who found this summer uncomfortable, the message from the skies is clear: Get used to it. This is only the beginning.

The Associated Press Gets it Right

It’s been quite the summer. Moscow has experienced several months of weather more akin to Texas, and is literally burning up. Floods in China have killed more than a thousand and left countless others displaced. Pakistan has experienced similar floods due to a massive monsoon season, and now they have to deal with cholera, too. The Arctic sea ice extent is not much larger than 2007, and, so far, it’s been the warmest year on record globally.

We can’t tie a single extreme event to climate change. We can tie long-term trends, like 30 years of declining Arctic sea ice, to a warming world, but we don’t yet have the technology to attribute a single anomalous season to a particular cause. In 2007, for example, factors other than high temperatures contributed to the lowest Arctic sea ice extent on record.

However, these events are exactly what we expect from anthropogenic climate change. We shouldn’t look at them as evidence for global warming, but as examples of what is to come. This is an important warning that most newspapers have been shying away from. After nearly a year of terrible climate change journalism across the board, they didn’t even mention the connection between extreme events and climate change, or the fact that this summer is a very real glimpse into our future.

I gave up on my local newspaper months ago, and I don’t regret that decision. On the handful of mornings that I’ve flipped through the paper instead of reading the Globe and Mail on the Internet (journalism of much higher quality, and it saves money and paper), I’ve seen far too many op-eds and letters to the editor saying very strange things about climate science.

However, a headline yesterday caught my eye. A fantastic article by Charles J. Hanley, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, was distributed by the Associated Press and, consequently, picked up by dozens of newspapers across the continent – including my local paper.

I became more and more pleasantly surprised as I began to read through the article:

Floods, fires, melting ice and feverish heat: From smoke-choked Moscow to water-soaked Iowa and the High Arctic, the planet seems to be having a midsummer breakdown. It’s not just a portent of things to come, scientists say, but a sign of troubling climate change already under way.
The weather-related cataclysms of July and August fit patterns predicted by climate scientists, the Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization says – although those scientists always shy from tying individual disasters directly to global warming.

Read the whole article here.

Hanley does a fantastic job of distinguishing between weather and climate, and stressing that we can’t yet attribute extreme events to specific causes while acknowledging that this summer’s wild weather fits with IPCC predictions and will become a lot more common in the future. He interviews our good friend Gavin Schmidt, and explains how rising greenhouse gases are “loading the climate dice” – changing the relative odds of different extremes, rather than eliminating all cold days entirely.

I stood there and clapped. I was so proud of the Associated Press, and of my local paper, that I clapped for them. I feel like there is a smidgen of hope for climate change journalism and public understanding of this issue again. Or perhaps it just comes in waves, and we’re riding our way to the top again.