As high winds and torrential rainfall sweep Australia’s southeast coast, new research suggests high-intensity bushfires may not be too far behind, with their dual effects expanding damage zones and encroaching on low-risk residential areas.
Conducted by an international research team, including the University of South Australia, the study is the first to examine what happens when cyclones and fires interact.
The study found that when severe weather events occur in close succession (more common due to climate change), they can have major environmental impacts, with the interactive effect of the two disturbances being greater than that of any single event combined.
UniSA researcher and ecologist, associate professor Gunnar Keppel, says understanding the effects of intense weather changes can help protect us from harmful impacts.
“Cyclones and fires are formidable weather events in their own right, but if they happen in close succession their effect can more than double,” says Assoc Prof Keppel.
“When a tropical cyclone or storm hits, it opens forest canopies, creating a large amount of debris and drier and warmer conditions on the ground. This dry material, in turn, increases the likelihood, intensity and area of subsequent fires.
“Additionally, with cyclones expected to occur at lower latitudes, this could mean that fires could start in previously pristine areas, for example the greater Brisbane area of Australia. We need to be aware of this so we can assess potential risks to limit.”
The research coincides with CSIRO’s 2022 State of the Climate report, which projects a higher proportion of high-intensity storms, longer fire seasons and more dangerous firefighters.
Assoc Prof Keppel says shifting weather patterns are affecting all aspects of our environment – from ecosystems to suburban areas.
“Climate change is altering cyclone and fire regimes globally, increasing the intensity of cyclone-fire interactions that are altering biomes and their distribution,” says Assoc Prof Keppel.
“Once an environment is damaged, it takes time to regenerate, and if it doesn’t recover from a fire or subsequent cyclone, the negative effects last longer and can reduce protective buffer zones for other regions.
“Understanding the likely future interactions of cyclones and fires under climate change is a necessary step to protect against avoidable devastation.”
Material supplied by University of South Australia. Note: Content is editable for style and length.