Attribution of the Australian bushfire risk to anthropogenic climate change

Geert Jan van Oldenborgh*, Folmer Krikken, Sophie Lewis, Nicholas J. Leach, Flavio Lehner, Kate R. Saunders, Michiel van Weele, Karsten Haustein, Sihan Li, David Wallom, Sarah Sparrow, Julie Arrighi, Roop K. Singh, Maarten K. van Aalst, Sjoukje Y. Philip, Robert Vautard, Friederike E.L. Otto

*Corresponding author for this work

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Disastrous bushfires during the last months of 2019 and January 2020 affected Australia, raising the question to what extent the risk of these fires was exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change. To answer the question for southeastern Australia, where fires were particularly severe, affecting people and ecosystems, we use a physically based index of fire weather, the Fire Weather Index; long-Term observations of heat and drought; and 11 large ensembles of state-of-The-Art climate models. We find large trends in the Fire Weather Index in the fifth-generation European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) Atmospheric Reanalysis (ERA5) since 1979 and a smaller but significant increase by at least 30 % in the models. Therefore, we find that climate change has induced a higher weather-induced risk of such an extreme fire season. This trend is mainly driven by the increase of temperature extremes. In agreement with previous analyses we find that heat extremes have become more likely by at least a factor of 2 due to the long-Term warming trend. However, current climate models overestimate variability and tend to underestimate the long-Term trend in these extremes, so the true change in the likelihood of extreme heat could be larger, suggesting that the attribution of the increased fire weather risk is a conservative estimate. We do not find an attributable trend in either extreme annual drought or the driest month of the fire season, September-February. The observations, however, show a weak drying trend in the annual mean. For the 2019/20 season more than half of the July-December drought was driven by record excursions of the Indian Ocean Dipole and Southern Annular Mode, factors which are included in the analysis here. The study reveals the complexity of the 2019/20 bushfire event, with some but not all drivers showing an imprint of anthropogenic climate change. Finally, the study concludes with a qualitative review of various vulnerability and exposure factors that each play a role, along with the hazard in increasing or decreasing the overall impact of the bushfires. © 2021 BMJ Publishing Group. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)941-960
Number of pages20
JournalNatural hazards and earth system sciences
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 11 Mar 2021


  • Bushfire
  • Climate change
  • Climate modeling
  • Ensemble forecasting
  • Extreme event
  • Hazard assessment
  • Qualitative analysis
  • Risk assessment
  • Trend analysis
  • Warming
  • Australia


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