Geography in the News: Australian Fires Out of Control

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Appalachian State University

Raging Australian Wildfires

Australia is under siege by raging out-of-control wildfires. The fires are being blamed on the continent’s long droughts. Most of its climates are relatively dry ones anyway, but Australia’s long series of droughts has created dry conditions even in its humid climatic regions.

Any unusually dry years bring onslaughts of fire hazards to Australia. This year has seen hundreds of fires in virtually every Australian state, with 130 in this week alone in the country’s most populous state, New South Wales, according to the Guardian (Jan. 8, 2013).

Even before the drought, only 6 percent of Australia’s 2.9 million square miles (7.7 million sq. km) was arable, or capable of producing crops. More than half the continent’s total area is tropical desert, extending from its west coast throughout much of its interior. Surrounding the desert is a region of steppe grassland, which has a semi-arid climate. All total, more than 70 percent of the continent is normally classified as desert or semi-desert, where even meager precipitation is undependable.

In addition to the desert and semi-desert regions, however, there are three regions around Australia’s southern and eastern margins that normally have more equable middle latitude climates. The two regions around Perth and Adelaide have Mediterranean-type climates with annual dry summer season cycles. The climate of these regions is much like that of Southern California or Italy. Normally, winter precipitation makes these two of Australia’s best agricultural regions for wheat, sheep and vineyards.

When high temperatures, strong winds and drought occurs in Australia’s desert and semi-desert regions, as with the present situation, these Mediterranean regions also tend to be impacted. Their normal summer dry season is extended to the entire year, sometimes literally halting farming.

Australia’s east coast and Tasmania have a humid subtropical climate, normally free from drought. This climate is similar to that of the U.S. South with precipitation occurring throughout the year, but even this climate has occasionally experienced drought conditions. Dairying and crop cultivation, including cotton, soybeans and sugarcane, are normally parts of the agricultural economy in this climate.

In 2009 Australia suffered a series of firestorms, much worse than normal. In early February (summer), the news media reported more than 200 deaths and more than 750 homes destroyed by the most prolific bushfires ever documented on the Australian continent. This year’s firestorms are much worse, with daytime ambient temperatures setting all-time records.

A combination of climatic conditions contribute to Australia’s wildfire catastrophes—soaring temperatures, swirling winds from the parched middle of the continent and a seemingly unending series of droughts with brief wet interludes, according to some experts. These conditions result in extremely dry vegetation that can ignite quickly and burn out of control.

New research shows that as global temperatures rise as they are predicted to do over the next 50 years, regions with Mediterranean climate will be in particular jeopardy as droughts and fires increase, making living in these regions more difficult.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified the Mediterranean region and other regions with similar climates as “future climate hot spots.” The panel says these areas are increasingly likely to suffer from severe droughts, heat waves and wildfires associated with global climate change. Researchers are studying past rainfall patterns in these areas to reconstruct past climate regimes.

Now in Australia, dry conditions conducive to widespread outbreaks of wildfire extend out of the desert, semi-desert and Mediterranean dry summer climates and into the Humid Subtropical and even Marine climates. One of the most damaging fires this week occurred in Tasmania.

If Australia’s ongoing disaster is any indication of what’s to come for the continent, residents must develop planning strategies to adapt even more to future disasters from increasingly hotter and dryer conditions.

And that is Geography in the News*.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

*Nearly 900 of the 1200, full-length weekly Geography in the News articles are available in the K-12 online education resource Maps101, including maps and other supporting materials and critical thinking questions.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..