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First sparks of climate change seen in Australian infernos

SYDNEY (Xinhua) - As Australians face another week of record temperatures and 99 bushfires continue to rage across the state of NSW alone, authorities are starting to grapple with a future where even the first sparks of climate change could turn the arid continent into an inferno.

 With temperatures soared into the forties on Saturday - despite the first signs of an unexpected cool change - a total fire ban across the state was extended for a further 24 hours through Saturday in response to the threat. Australia is now a country under climate siege.

The fires stem from the continent's lingering, seasonal droughts. Cruel, dry and arid conditions now permeate even in its humid climatic regions.

While the merest stretch of dry years bring the disaster of fire hazards, the summer of 2012/13 has eclipsed most heatwaves on record and witnessed the outbreak of hundreds of fires in virtually every Australian state.

Now in Australia, drought condition conducive to widespread outbreaks of wildfire extends into the Humid Subtropical and even Marine climates. One of the most damaging fires this week occurred in Tasmania, an island state with a climate more usually equated with the highlands of Scotland.    

Climate experts have begun to identify Australia's ongoing disaster as the first, terrible consequences of the future yet to come for the southern continent, and that the wider world must develop planning strategies to adapt to such disasters stemming from an increasingly hotter and dryer earth.

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Australia's respected Climate Commission has made the direct link to this week's firestorms, declaring Saturday, that Australia is now a clearly hotter environment and its people must act if they wish to survive the consequences.

The Climate Commission says the length, extent and severity of the 2013 heatwave is "unprecedented"and "shows climate change" which make extreme heat and bushfires worse.

Around the world, 2013 could be the hottest on record - surpassing the previous record held jointly by 2005 and 2010, according to Britain's Met Office.

The Australian heatwave is a continuation of the record- breaking temperatures since September, according to the special climate statement issued by the Met bureau last week.   "This event is ongoing with further significant records likely to be set,"the statement said.

The Australian Climate Commission's Professor David Karoly has studied the 2013 heat models and concluded the heatwave has affected over 70 percent of Australia and longstanding temperature records have been broken.

"Although Australia has always had heatwaves, hot days and bushfires, climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and longer heatwaves and more extreme hot days, as well as exacerbating bushfire conditions," Professor Karoly said in a statement released to Xinhua on Saturday.

According to Karoly, Australian now live in a hotter world and the rise of more frequent and severe extreme weather has already increased.

The Climate Commission has been urging Australians to come to grips with climate change risks to ensure that action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and plans are made to respond to more extreme weather.

There can be no doubt that Australia is the "canary in the coal mine" for the world's rising temperatures and the impact of climate change. Only 6 percent of Australia's 7.7 million sq. km is arable outside of drought seasons, which are happening with more regularity and intensity.

Australia's "dome of heat" located in its "red heart" - the deserts above South Australia. The region has seen the Bureau of Meteorology's interactive weather forecasting chart added new colors - deep purple and pink - to extend its previous temperature range that had been capped at 50 degrees.

The range now extends to 54 degrees - well above the all-time record temperature of 50.7 degrees reached in 1960 in the same region.   "The scale has just been increased today and I would anticipate it is because the forecast coming from the bureau's model is showing temperatures in excess of 50 degrees,"David Jones, head of the bureau's climate monitoring and prediction unit, told journalists last week.

One of the realities all Australians must now face is the dichotomy of its economic engine, where the continent is now the world's largest exporter of coal, the most carbon intensive fossil fuel. Taking meaningful action on climate change would require a serious reassessment of the way life is lived in the country.  

The current heatwave is just the latest event in a decade of extraordinary weather: weather of the kind that scientists have long warned is a likely consequence of man-made global warming.

In response to the record heatwave, Australian Prime Minister Gillard this week told local media of the likelihood of further' catastrophic'days.

"We do know over time that as a result of climate change we are going to see more extreme weather events and conditions," she said.

In 2009, Australia suffered a series of firestorms, resulting in over 200 deaths and  the collapse of more than 700 homes destroyed by the most prolific bushfires ever documented on the Australian continent.  

This year's firestorms are much worse, with daytime ambient temperatures setting new records.  

"The scale has just been increased today and I would anticipate it is because the forecast coming from the bureau's model is showing temperatures in excess of 50 degrees," David Jones, head of the bureau's climate monitoring and prediction unit, said.

As the warming trend increases over coming years, record- breaking heat will become more and more common, according to Dr Jones. There are very real consequences for Australia's fragile eco-system, itself an invaluable carbon sink and first line of defense against global warming.

The continent's giant eucalpytus trees have come to rely on fire to regenerate, but an increase in major bush fires due to climate change is likely to impede their growth, according to Professor David Bowman from the Unviersity of Tasmania.

New research predicts that when temperatures rise, regions with "Mediterranean" climates will be the first to suffer.

As many Australians must deal with the fires already on their doorstep, Acting Premier Andrew Stoner told journalists on Friday "There's no room for complacency. We must remain vigilant. We must remain prepared."

His advice has implications for the entire globe if global warming continues to incrementally change the climate. "Don't take too much solace from the fact we have come through some very severe conditions relatively unscathed because there are further severe conditions ahead."   
 

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