El Nino Alert: High Fire Risk in Australia & Indonesia Forests

The US NOAA has predicted a 'Strong' El Nino whilst the Australian BOM has predicted an El Nino with '70% confidence.'

Fri 18 Aug 23


Scientists have warned that this year’s El Nino is likely to be “strong” and could lead to an elevated risk of extreme forest fire.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) El Nino update declared a 95 per cent probability that the weather event will last through to February 2024 “with far-reaching climate impacts.”

“El Nino will continue through the Northern Hemisphere winter,” according to the US government weather bureau.

The NOAA announcement is backed by the World Meteorological Organisation (WOM), who announced El Nino is already underway.

The Australian Bureau of Metrology (BOM) has yet to announce El Nino formally, but in its latest climate update on Tuesday, the odds are pegged at 70 per cent.

“Our global climate models predict that the warmer-than-average Pacific Ocean conditions will not only last through the (Northern Hemisphere) winter but continue to increase,” according to the latest NOAA update.

Maps show impacts of El Nino by season (Photo Credit: NOAA)

The NOAA said that sea surface temperatures in the east-central tropical Pacific have already soared abnormally high — an early sign that a strong El Nino is on the cards.

The temperatures exceeded the long-term average for 1991 to 2020 by 1C throughout July, with May to July temperatures 0.8C higher than usual.

The bureau requires five consecutive three-month averages above the threshold before these periods will be considered a historical ‘El Nino episode.’

According to the bureau, “two is a good start.”

Impact on the Asia Pacific region

According to ASEAN, El Nino brings drier weather, increased forest fire and haze risk throughout Oceania and South East Asia. Particularly in Australia and Indonesia.

The impact is most destructive over South East Asia’s southern and eastern parts from June to October. 

In Australia, it increases the risk of severe fire during bushfire season.

Australia’s bushfire seasons. (Photo Credit: Supplied by the Australian Bureau of Metrology)

Bushfire season typically runs from December to May in southern Australia, May to October in northern Australia and August to March in central Australia.

Impact in Australia

In June, Wood Central reported that Australia should prepare for a “catastrophic 2023-24 bushfire season.”

The warning came from three professional foresters who have observed current pastoral conditions across three states. 

“The whole countryside is carrying a body of grass as big or bigger than ever in my memory,” Peter Lear said.

Fires impact on landscapes is well known but according to laboratory experiments, a given amount of wildfire smoke causes more inflammation and tissue damage than the same amount of air pollution. (Photo credit: Deposit Photos)
The Black Summer bushfires have had a catastrophic impact on Australia’s landscape. (Photo credit: Deposit Photos)

According to fire authorities, Australasian Fire Authorities Council CEO Rob Webb, three subdued fire seasons under the La Nina climate pattern have resulted in large amounts of new grass and vegetation that could catch alight.

“We often think of La Nina, and we equate it with flood conditions across the eastern part of Australia, but what it also brings is large amounts of grass growth,” Mr Webb said.

“We’ve seen much fuel over central and northern New South Wales, Queensland, and the Northern Territory over three years.”

“So eventually, when the climate dries out, grass fuel tends to become like tinder, increasing the risk.”

A Forest Fire Management team member tends to a young koala after fighting fires that ravaged a wide area of southeast Victoria.
A Forest Fire Management team member tends to a young koala after fighting fires that ravaged a wide area of southeast Victoria during the last El Nino weather event in Australia. (Photo Credit: Supplied)

Mr Webb said this summer’s fire season was unlikely to be another Black Summer, but he urged Australians to prepare.

“We’ll be watching closely to see how quickly those fuels dry out, how quickly the temperatures increase into the summer months,” he said.

“It only takes a short time of the 40-plus temperatures and very windy conditions to create that tinderbox you need to drive bushfires.”

According to the CISRO, over 24 million hectares of forest were burnt during the Black Summer bushfires.

In New South Wales alone, more than 50% of the forestry estate was damaged by the fires. 

This included 33% of short-rotation plantation forests used to produce structural timbers and led to an acceleration in planting to meet future timber supply.

Forestry Corporation planters work from May until late August. Planting between 2,500 and 3,000 trees a day, ABC Rural: Annie Brown)
In NSW, foresters have accelerated planting rotations to recover plantations from the Black Summer fires. Wood Central understands crews planting between 2,500 and 3,000 trees a day. (Photo Credit: ABC Rural via Annie Brown)
Impact in Indonesia

El Nino’s dry weather threatens to dent pulp, paper and coffee production in Indonesia.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest coffee export market, ranked sixth and eighth for global pulp and paper products.

Mr Taupik Rismawan, a 37-year-old farmer, picked coffee fruits at his plantation in Sumedang, West Java, on Aug 2. (Photo Credit: Supplied by Reuters)

“There are forecasts of El Nino weather leading to dryness towards the end of the year and early next year in Indonesia,” said Mr Carlos Mera, head of agri-commodities markets research at Rabobank.

Indonesia’s weather agency (BMKG) said the El Nino weather phenomenon already affects over two-thirds of the country, including Java and parts of Sumatra, essential coffee, pulp and paper producing areas.

Plantations in Sumatra and Java are likely to bear the brunt of any drought, with meteorologists forecasting El Nino to intensify towards the end of 2023 and early 2024.

In preparation for the expected dry season, Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) has invested in three new water bombing helicopters to assist in fighting wildfires across its South Sumatra estates.

APP and its supplier partners, PT Bumi Mekar Hijau, PT Bumi Andalas Permai, PT SBA Wood Industries, PT Rimba Hutani Mas, PT. Tripupa Jaya, PT Bumi Persada Permai, and PT Sumber Hijau Permai have taken significant steps to improve their preparedness to face wildfire hazards in 2023. (Photo Credit: Supplied by APP)

It has also increased the size of its Rapid Response Team (RRT) and Firefighting Brigade (FFB).

APP is one of the world’s largest paper companies with a combined pulp, paper, packaging product and converting capacity of over 19 million tones per annum.

According to South Sumatra’s Governor, Herman Deru, the investment in fire infrastructure was significant not only for plantations but also for public health.

“Immediately activate the existing fire posts in companies, fire-conscious communities, fire-conscious farmer groups, or others, as well as utilize village funds for Karhutla control according to the existing provisions,” Herman Deru said. 

Smoke from Forest Fires can influence El Nino progression

According to researchers from the Technical University of Crete and Imperial College London, smoke emissions from forest fires can weaken Nino, effectively burning out the climate pattern.

Apostolos Voulgarakis and Matthew Kasoar found El Niño event is weakened by around 22% on average due to the wildfire emissions that the El Niño event itself produces.

As well as indicating the climate impact, the findings also have clear implications for El Niño predictability. 

The impact of enhanced wildfire emissions during significant El Niño events can significantly influence the progression and intensity of El Niño itself. 


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