As strong winds and torrential rains scour Australia’s south-east coast, new research suggests high-intensity bushfires may not be too far behind, with their dual impact expanding damage zones and encroaching on previously low-risk residential areas.
The study, conducted by an international research team including the University of South Australia, is the first to look at what happens when cyclones and fires interact.
The study found that severe weather events occurring in close succession (more frequently due to climate change) can have significant environmental impacts, with the interactive effect of the two disturbances being greater than that of either event combined.
UniSA researcher and Ecologist Associate Professor Gunnar Keppel says understanding the effects of intense weather changes can help protect us from harmful consequences.
“Hurricanes and fires are powerful weather events in their own right, but when they occur in quick succession their impact can more than double,” says Assoc Prof. Keppel.
“When a tropical cyclone or storm hits, it opens up the tree canopy, 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.
“Also, as cyclones are expected at lower latitudes, it could mean fires could strike in previously untouched areas, such as Greater Brisbane in Australia. We need to be aware of this so that we can mitigate potential risks.”
The research coincides with the 2022 CSIRO State of the Climate report, which forecasts a greater proportion of high-intensity storms, longer fire durations, and more dangerous fire weather.
Assoc Prof. Keppel says changing weather patterns affect all aspects of our environment – from ecosystems to suburbs.
“Climate change is changing cyclone and fire regimes worldwide and generating an increased intensity of cyclone-fire interactions that change 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 hurricane, the negative impacts 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 guard against avoidable devastation.”
Materials provided by University of South Australia. Note: Content can be edited for style and length.