CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology State of the Climate report: More fires, rising sea levels, hotter weather to come

Extreme weather events causing bushfires like this one near Tenterfield last September are on the rise due to climate change a new report says
Extreme weather events causing bushfires like this one near Tenterfield last September are on the rise due to climate change a new report says

The Mayor of Glen Innes says her shire is already at the forefront of climate change, and has been devastated by worsening bushfires, droughts, and heatwaves.

The Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO have released their sixth biennial report on Australia's changing weather and climate, and it's sobering news for a country still reeling from the effects of a devastating bushfire season.

Australia will see more catastrophic fire weather, hotter temperatures, rising sea levels and more intense cyclones in the coming years due to the effects of climate change, according to the new report by the government's science and weather agencies.

Carol Sparks

Carol Sparks

"Last year, we were at level 5 water restrictions, with people surviving out of buckets of water," Mayor Carol Sparks said.

"The State of the Climate's confirmation that temperatures and bushfire danger are rising, and that rainfall is declining in our region are extremely alarming.

"The long-term health and prosperity of Glen Innes' families, farmers, and businesses relies on urgent climate action.

"Just like we successfully flattened the COVID-19 curve by listening to the science, the Federal Government must act quickly to reduce emissions, phase out fossil fuels, and transition to a renewables-powered economy."

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The State of the Climate 2020 report outlines a number of trends made in previous reports are continuing with 2019 being recorded as the warmest year since records began in the early 20th century.

Australia has warmed on average by 1.44 degrees Celsius since 1910 and the report projects that's only set to increase further over the coming years and decades.

BOM manager of climate environmental prediction services Dr Karl Braganza said the temperature shifts might seem minimal but it was the extreme weather events they caused that would help us take notice.

"What we're seeing now is a more tangible shift in the extremes so we're starting to feel how the shift in the average is impacting on the extreme events," Dr Braganza said in a briefing on the report on Thursday.

"We don't necessarily feel [the] 1.4 degrees increase in average Australian temperature but we feel those heatwaves, we feel the fire weather."

It's not just warmer days more generally but the intensity of that heat.

In 2019, Australia experienced 43 "extremely warm" days the report said was more than triple the amount of any of the years prior to 2000. Last year also brought 33 days where the national daily maximum average exceeded 39 degrees Celsius.

"This long-term warming trend means that most years are now warmer than almost any observed during the 20th century," the report read.

"When relatively cooler years do occur, it is because natural drivers that typically cool Australia's climate, such as La Nina, act to partially offset the background warming trend."

As Australians saw over the 2019-20 summer, when hotter weather is combined with low rainfall, the outcome is disastrous.

The amount of extreme fire weather days and the length of the overall bushfire season increased across parts of Australia since the mid-20th century - an outcome it directly links to climate change.

A 12 per cent drop in rainfall averages across south-eastern Australia since the 1990s, may have also contributed to dry fuel loads for the fires which tore through that part of Australia.

The CSIRO and BOM's findings represent what's happening now but their projections for Australia's coming decades provide little comfort.

There's no one single entity that's going to solve that problem. It's a combined effort of the government, the private sector [and] the individual.

Dr Jaci Brown, CSIRO's Climate Science Centre director

Oceans are rising and acidifying and will continue to do so. More warming and extreme heat days are on the way. Fewer but more intense tropical cyclones are predicted. Longer droughts are possible dispersed by short-term heavy rainfall events.

Dr Jaci Brown, CSIRO's Climate Science Centre director, said the key to adapting and mitigating the effects the report outlines was by combining the efforts of governments, private industry and the people.

"There's no one single entity that's going to solve that problem. It's a combined effort of the government, the private sector [and] the individual," Dr Brown said.

"A lot of climate change is locked in so adaption is a very important part of what we do."

While the report provides no policy recommendations or solutions, Dr Brown said it aimed to inform governments and people about the stark reality of where the climate is heading if we continue on this trajectory.

"To build a sustainable, resilient and productive future for Australia, governments, industries and communities need robust climate information," Dr Brown said.

"This report presents a synthesis of our most up-to-date understanding of the changing nature of Australia's climate, providing a sound base for economic, environmental and social decision-making now and into the future."