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El Nino May Yield More 'Catastrophic' Fire Days in Australia This Summer

Record heat and dry conditions, in part due to El Niño, has put Australia at risk for an intense fire season.

"A prolonged fire season could strain the largely volunteer firefighting forces in Australia and destroy crops, livestock and farms, many of which have suffered through decades of drought," the New York Times stated in an article.

The Bushfire and Natural Hazards Research Center released an updated seasonal bushfire outlook in early November noting that areas in Queensland, New South Wales, located along the south coast to Adelaide in South Australia are at risk for an above-normal fire season through the summer months, December through February. Eastern portions of Tasmania and a large part of Western Australia are also likely to face an above-normal brushfire threat this summer.

An El Niño pattern, which is defined by above-normal water temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, has been a contributor to the early fire season, which is also expected to be more intense than normal.

"Typically, El Niños result in drier and warmer-than-normal conditions across eastern Australia," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Jason Nicholls said.

"This is amplified when the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), warm water near Africa and cool water near Indonesia, is positive. The dry correlation with El Niño is strongest in the winter and tends to diminish from November through the summer."

Nicholls added that southeastern Australia and northern Australia are especially vulnerable for droughts and high heat during El Niño and positive Indian Ocean Dipole years.

"The combination of the strong El Niño and positive IOD in the spring likely contributed to the recent heat and dryness," Nicholls stated.

Justin Leonard, a bushfire research leader at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, told the New York Times that Australia would have more days where the severity of weather will push the fire rating to "catastrophic".

Leonard added that once the weather reaches a certain threshold, some fires will be unstoppable.

Little drought and heat relief, along with a below-average number of tropical cyclones expected across northern Australia this summer, will make battling bushfires more difficult.

"There can be minor dryness relief in southeast Australia early in the summer, but a drier pattern is likely mid- to late-summer," Nicholls said.

The strong El Niño event that occurred in 1997 also brought very hot and dry weather conditions in southeastern Australia, including across Victoria and New South Wales. The weather conditions fueled several major bushfires in these areas.

Nicholls stated that although El Niño is certainty a contributor to intense fire seasons, the strength of the El Niño seems to have a limited impact on the intensity of fire seasons.

In addition, there have been bad fire seasons during La Niña years, which are denoted by cooler water in the central and equatorial Pacific and typically bring wet weather to Australia, when the Indian Ocean Dipole was strongly positive, Nicholls said.