Environmental Science Division (EVS)a Division of Argonne National Laboratory
Predictive environmental understanding

EVS researcher discusses devastating bushfires in Australia

January 8, 2020

EVS’s Scott Collis appeared on a January 6 WTTW broadcast to discuss the devastating bushfires in Australia, the weather behind the fires, and regional factors contributing to the fires. Collis is an atmospheric scientist and head of the EVS Geospatial Computing, Innovations, and Sensing (GCIS) department and a Senior Fellow at the Northwestern Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering (NAISE). Having grown up and received his science and meteorology degrees in Australia, Collis is well qualified to talk about the causes and potential results of the catastrophic fires.

The statistics of the fires are staggering: at least 25 people and more than half a billion animals have been killed and more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed as a result of the fires, which cover 14 million acres — an area twice the size of Maryland. According to Collis, although bush fires are a critical part of Australia’s ecosystem, unusual weather patterns over the past 2 years have contributed to the conditions that feed the raging fires.

Weather is influenced by climate, which in turn, is influenced by the oceans. Collis points to two important ocean oscillations that are contributing to conditions in Australia: the Indian Ocean dipole is suppressing thunderstorms in the North Territory and the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) is pulling westerly winds up over Australia. Add to those oscillations a 3-year drought and, according to Collis, you’ve got all the conditions necessary to fuel the fire: “leaves, logs, all tinder dry… just waiting to go up.” Such a combination of conditions is unprecedented in Australia’s history and, although no one aspect of global warming can be blamed for the fires, such warming does tilt the playing field, making the effects of the ocean oscillations more extreme. Because it is surrounded by an ocean, Australia tends to feel these impacts more than other countries like the United States. That’s why we are using Earth System models like those developed by the United States Department of Energy to understand extreme event risks in the future.

How will it end? Lots of moderate rainfall over a long period is needed to end the Australian fires and, although Australia has received some rain in the past couple days, the country is only in the beginning of its dry season. There is still a lot of summer to go.

Researchers like Collis at Argonne and other DOE laboratories are using earth systems models to predict the role of climate change in future weather patterns. Read more about their work.