The boy child strikes

Last week, sadly, four people lost their lives in fires in Esperance, in Western Australia, in tragic circumstance, they appeared to take a wrong turn, for the worst. El Nino is here, and is already wreaking vengeance.

El Nino or ENSO (EL Nino Southern Oscillation) is the phenomena when warm water wells up on the Peruvian coast. Changing the sea surface temperature, this then shifts winds, and atmospheric circulation patterns, across the Pacific, and into the Indian Ocean, where sea surface temperatures fall to the north of Australia (see Dr McDonald, I was listening).

This is a strong El Nino, one of the strongest on record. Usually we see the fire seasons start in the top part of the country, make their way down the eastern seaboard, before heading across to the west.

This year we have seen fires in the Blue Mountains, near Sydney, bookended by falls of snow, fuel reduction burns escape and increase in intensity in October in Victoria, and now this tragedy in Western Australia. While my climatology lecturer was always at pains to point out that climate changes needed to be recorded over decades, or centuries (according to my paleo climatology lecturer), I reckon at 50 years old, and a keen interest in weather for four decades (handed down to me by my seafaring father and grandfather), I can say the weather is strange, and changing.

Strong El Nino’s kicked off the millennium drought in Victoria, South Australia and Southern New South Wales, leading to severe fires in 2003, 2006, and then the culmination of the drought in 2009 with the Black Saturday Bushfires. A strong El Nino also preceded the Ash Wednesday Fires of 1983.

I remember my lecturer speaking excitedly at the time about how they had just discovered the El Nino Southern Oscillation phenomenon, and how this might revolutionise the predictions for drought, fire seasons, and even (he was an avid skier) snow seasons. Today it is part of our lexicon in the industry. But it needs to be broader than that. Just as the financial indicators have become part of our daily news consumption, what the Australian Dollar is worth against the greenback, and what the all ordinaries are doing, this knowledge needs to become part of our daily discourse, and part of our wisdom.

Science has contributed dramatically to our knowledge about how to predict and manage climate related events. We would also do well to incorporate the traditional knowledge of the first nations. The Wurundjeri people, from round where I hail, have six seasons rather than our European four). When you look at them, they line up nicely with the weather patterns in melbourne. IF we adopted them, we might whinge a little less about the weather, as it would then line up with our expectations. The Wurundjeri also talk about a Big Fire season, every 6-7 years, and a Big Water Season every 28 years. This also generally lines up with the most recent fire events, 2009, 2003, 1997. This year is 7 years on from Black Saturday.

The more we understand and convert this knowledge into normal daily routines, the more savvy we will become in understanding our environment, and the steps needed to protect ourselves, and stop needless deaths and heartbreak.

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