Amid soaring temperatures and extreme fire danger across south-east Australia yesterday, the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) has declared Australia to officially be in an El Niño climate pattern.

The BoM had Australia on an El Niño alert since May, but until yesterday a lack of tell-tale signs in the atmosphere had the bureau hold off on making the declaration.

El Niño occurs when the sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific are significantly warmer than average, leading to a shift in rainfall away from the western Pacific Ocean and eastern Australia, and toward the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. 

Historically, nine of the ten driest winter-spring periods on record in eastern Australia have occurred during El Niño years. Now, with the confirmation of El Niño, we face the threat of drier and hotter conditions and the increased risk of dangerous bushfires and drought conditions. 

The threat of bushfires takes us back to 2019/20 —  the Black Summer fires and Australia’s hottest and driest year to date. Yet El Niño was not a factor in 2019 and 2020 when bushfires torched swathes of eastern Australia.

Since then we saw a protracted La Niña episode — El Niño’s colder counterpart — which delivered record-breaking rainfall and flooding along the east coast, supporting the growth of grass and bushland that could fuel fires. On the other hand, thanks to La Niña, many dams are full and soil moisture in most areas is good.

As such Australia is in a precarious position as we enter this next El Niño period. Especially considering that this could be the year in which global average temperatures exceed the 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average. 

As El Niño conditions intensify over the coming months, this year could mark a new hottest year on record, not only in Australia, but globally. 

Global warming makes the hot and dry years even hotter and drier

While the connection between  El Niño and climate change is complicated, both El Niño and La Niña events have become more frequent and intense as global warming destabilises the atmosphere and ocean temperatures. 

A new Australian study identified an alarming increase in the occurrences of extreme La Niña and El Niño years since the dawn of the industrial age, while some models suggest extreme El Niños could occur twice as frequently by century’s end — rising from once every 20 years to once a decade.

The primary driver behind these changes is climate change, which adds a layer of complexity to naturally occurring climate phenomena. 

Dr Jaci Brown, research director at the CSIRO Climate Science Centre said, “Climate change puts a layer on top of what we see in El Niño and La Niña years. We’ve always had periods of more intense and less intense years—that’s just natural variability—but we don’t yet understand how climate change will impact this because we are moving into a climate regime we’ve not seen before. This is a whole new world under climate change.”

The research amplifies concerns about the unpredictability of weather patterns and calls into question existing climate models. It also highlights the need for deeper understanding of how climate change will influence natural variability in extreme climate events.

Lethal humidity to cause “mass deaths”

It’s not like we need another reason to worry about (and taken action on) climate change, but lethal humidity might be amongst the most unacknowledged threats of global warming.

In a recent presentation at the Boao Forum for Asia in Perth, Andrew Forrest warned that lethal humidity is an immediate threat that is already killing people. Forrest described humidity, which is rising seven times faster than temperature, as the next global pandemic — one that lacks a vaccine and is curable only by halting global warming.

“In Covid, health systems broke down. You saw what happened. This time you’re not going to get a vaccine team. There’s no cure. The only cure is stopping global warming. Your heart rate accelerates”, he said.

Forrest detailed that in conditions of 35C and high humidity, individuals could face life-threatening circumstances within six hours. Normal cooling mechanisms like sweat evaporation fail in such conditions, leading to severe health implications. 

“I just have to tell you what happens because people are dying of this: You get pounding headache. You get vomiting. Your heart pumps blood at around 400% as to what it’s pumping now.

“Within minutes to hours your body temperature rises to very dangerous rate 41 degrees. This is the beginning of the end. 

“Your blood thickens. Your organs start to fail.

“You have hallucination. Seizures comes. Your heart attack can happen at any time. You struggle to breathe.

“If you made it to hospital, great. Well done. You’re in a First World country. What about the other four billion people?”

Both temperature and humidity drive climate change as water vapour traps heat in the atmosphere. As the world warms, the air holds more moisture — nearly 7% more for every degree Celsius and when that moisture condenses, it releases heat or energy. 

“[Humidity] will be the next level pandemic. Ladies and gentlemen we just can’t avoid it unless we can put the handbrake on it. Over the next 10 years it’s going to live with us forever. We do not have the human evolution to survive it.

“There’s no cure. The only cure is stopping global warming.”

He highlighted the nations most susceptible to this threat as China, India, and the United States, which are also major food sources, thereby raising concerns of a societal collapse.

The Fortescue CEO has discussed this urgent issue with leaders including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Premier Li Qiang, but he also holds himself accountable and calls upon the industrial world and business sectors to act decisively. 

Forrest acknowledged, “It’s business which is causing global warming. It’s business which will kill your children.” 

In a strongly-worded closing, Forrest emphasised, “Business, guided by government, will either destroy or save this planet. You [the public] have to hold us to account.”

If you haven’t seen it yet, the full presentation (120 slides) can be found here, or you can watch Forrest speaking at the forum here.

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