By John Lawrence
Australia has had its hottest year on record, and the warm temperatures combined with dry conditions have sent over 100 wildfires whipping across the southeastern Australian state of New South Wales. The fires have caused a deep haze to descend over Sydney, Australia’s largest city, and spurred the deployment of more than 1500 firefighters across the region. Hundreds of homes were either burned or damaged. The fires impacted 82 of Australia’s parks and protected areas, including the Blue Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More than 311,000 acres were burned in New South Wales, and damage is set to exceed $100 million.
The newly reopened NASA Earth Observatory reported that temperatures up to 93°F and winds gusting to 56 mph helped fan the flames. Conditions over the past six months also played a key role. This past September was Australia’s hottest on record and kept the country on pace for a record-breaking year. Average temperatures in New South Wales were a whopping 6.1°F above the September norm. It was the country’s warmest 12-month period on record as well. Maximum temperatures were even more extreme, measuring 8.3°F above normal. The fires also came unusually early — October is still the springtime in Australia as Australia is south of the equator and has seasons opposite to ours. Springtime or no, the region was primed to burn. The hotter summer months are still ahead!
Power was out at more than 1,300 homes in fire-stricken regions, according to Ausgrid, a state-owned electricity network. The wildfires stretched along a nearly 1,000-mile line in New South Wales, from the far north of the state south of Brisbane to east of Canberra, the country’s federal capital.
“The World Meteorological Organization has not established a direct link between this wildfire and climate change — yet,” U.N. Climate Chief Christiana Figueres said Monday. “But what is absolutely clear is the science is telling us that there are increasing heat waves in Asia, Europe and Australia; that … these will continue; that they will continue in their intensity and in their frequency.”
Fires these days are accompanied by high winds which blow embers for miles starting new fires. When the wind shifts, new fires are started in multiple directions. Hot dry conditions supply the necessary fuel. In February 2009, wildfires killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Victoria state.
The most recent fires in New South Wales were accidentally started by a military exercise giving a whole new meaning to the idea of defense. Maybe Australia has more to fear from natural disasters than it does from the enemy whoever that is.
Monster Cyclone Hits India
On Saturday October 12 Cyclone Phailin crashed into India. Up to a million people had to flee their homes. The cyclone wrecked many coastal homes, uprooted trees and blocked roads in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa states. The massive storm made landfall packing winds of about 125mph, the strongest storm in 14 years.
The storm tore down power and communication lines and knocked out road and rail links. An estimated 1930 square miles of mostly paddy crops was destroyed, causing a loss of some $320 million. Near the coast, houses were damaged and some villages flooded. Flood waters left nearly 100,000 people stranded in Mayurbhanj and Balasore districts.
Twenty-seven people were killed in the cyclone and floods – all but one of the deaths were in Orissa. But the intense storm has made more than half a million people homeless, state government officials said.
The coast guard said it rescued 18 fishermen who were stranded at sea, as well as 18 crew from a cargo ship carrying iron ore that reportedly sank during the storm. But despite the destruction, there was a feeling of relief that the loss of life had been lower than had been feared. Many people said the government’s urgency in getting people into shelters ahead of the storm had made the difference.
Hurricanes are known as cyclones in the Indian Ocean. At 140 mph wind speed, Phailin made landfall as the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane. The strongest hurricane is a Category 5, which comes with winds greater than 155 mph.
Two weeks after Phailin made landfall, incessant rainstorms, totaling three times as much rain as was contained in the cyclone, hit the same area. Rivers in the Ganjam district in the southern part of the state overflowed. It was a double blow for Ganjam. It was the worst hit by cyclone Phailin, and then later it was pounded by flash floods. The heavy downpour left many people marooned and 10 dead so far.
Killer Storm in Europe
A storm on October 28 battered north-western Europe and killed at least 13 people – six of them in Germany. Two people died when their car was crushed by a falling tree in Gelsenkirchen, in western Germany. Two children in the car were injured. Including the Gelsenkirchen incident, four people were killed in north-western Germany when trees fell onto cars. In Brittany, western France, a woman was swept out to sea. And in the Dutch city of Amsterdam a tree felled by the wind crushed a woman by a canal.
Record gusts of 119 mph were measured over the North Sea. Power cuts hit 42,000 homes in northern France. The storm whipped across Brittany and Normandy felling trees and knocking out power lines.
Many trains were cancelled in and around London and in north-western Germany. At least 50 flights were cancelled at Schiphol airport in the Netherlands, and the German media reported severe delays at airports in Hamburg and Dusseldorf.
In the UK as many as 600,000 homes suffered power cuts. In Kent in southeast England, a 17-year-old girl was crushed when a tree fell on the caravans her family was living in while renovation work was taking place at their home. A man and a woman died when they were trapped under rubble after an uprooted tree caused a gas explosion in Hounslow in west London. In Germany, a fisherman and a sailor were killed in separate accidents at sea.
German authorities halted all local trains in Schleswig-Holstein, as well as the Hanover-Bremen service and north-bound trains from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Along Germany’s North Sea coast many ferries were confined to port and shipping on the Elbe was also disrupted.
Emergency services in Denmark and Sweden were on alert as Scandinavia faced winds gusting at about 100mph.
In Brussels, Belgium, pedestrians were blown over as they walked down the street. And October 29 was the one year anniversary of Super Storm Sandy, from which many have still not recovered.