Associated Press
A fire truck moves away from out of control flames from a bushfire in the Bunyip Sate
Forest near the township of Tonimbuk, Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009.

Deadly Wildfires Destroy Australian Towns

February 09, 2009 10:56 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Australia's prime minister has said those who set deadly wildfires that are raging across the southeastern part of the country are guilty of "mass murder."

Australia Mourns As Fires Rage

More than 130 people have died after fires spread across the Australian state of Victoria. The fires have burned an area larger than the country of Luxembourg, Agence France-Presse reports, and have completely or mostly destroyed the towns of Marysville and Kinglake, which are northwest of Melbourne in Southeast Australia.

“Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria in the last 24 hours. Many good people lie dead, many injured,” said Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister.

Some people burned in their cars as they tried to escape the fires, AFP said. Authorities believe arsonists started some of the fires.

The fires rank among the most deadly Australia has seen. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a 1939 fire killed 71 people in Victoria and burned nearly 5,000,000 acres, an event known as Black Friday. However, a historian told the newspaper that the death toll from that fire was probably much higher because bush dwellers that weren’t counted.

In 1983 the state of Victoria experienced a series of fires that killed 47 people, destroyed 2,000 homes and burned 500,000 acres. On that day, known as Ash Wednesday, fires also killed 28 people in another Australian state.

Background: Australia’s drought

Southern Australia has been wracked with drought for the past several years. Generally, scientists have drawn links between rainfall in the region and the weather pattern known as El Niño, which stems from temperature changes in the Pacific Ocean, or its reverse, La Niña.

But a study conducted by a group of Australian researchers indicates that another ocean-based climate pattern may be the cause of southern Australia’s lack of rainfall: the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD).

Dr. Caroline Ummenhofer of the Climate Change Research Center at Australia’s University of New South Wales was quoted as saying by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), “We have found the Indian Ocean plays a profound role in driving [the southern Australian] drought.”

ABC writes, “In its negative phase, the IOD is characterised by cool water to the west of Australia and warm water to the north, leading to winds that bring warm moist, rain-bearing air to the continent.”

During its reverse, fewer humidity-carrying winds pass over Australia, resulting in less rainfall.

According to 100 years of data surveyed by Ummenhofer and her team, all of Australia’s long-lasting droughts occurred during periods when the IOD had few negative phases. There is some evidence that positive IOD cycles may be occurring more often; however, this needs further study.

The aberrant weather cycle is located some 2,000 kilometers off the coast of Australia in an area of the Indian Ocean that is seeing “unprecedented warming,” writes Australian paper The Age.

Related Topic: Other effects of the Indian Ocean Dipole

Scientists have also drawn links between the Indian Ocean Dipole and malaria rates in East Africa, as well as coral reef mortality.

A study by three Japanese researchers approved in 2008 suggests that “the number of malaria cases in the western Kenyan highlands increases” in the months following times when the Indian Ocean Dipole shows a higher surface temperature difference.

In 2003, a team of Australian and Indonesian researchers published a study in Science magazine showing a correlation between Indian Ocean Dipole activity and death in coral reefs off the coast of Sumatra in 1997. The study found that iron fertilization from wildfires, combined with the effects of the IOD, caused red tide that choked off the reef’s oxygen supply.

Reference: Guides to Australia, Environmental Science


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