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02.20.2020

Maxar Spotlight: Using Space-Based Intelligence to Understand and Respond to the Australian Bushfires

By: Maxar Technologies


Read Time: 4 minutes

In many parts of Australia, bushfires are a fact of life. That doesn’t make them any less dangerous, but it does make them something that can be planned for and mitigated. But no amount of planning could adequately prepare Australians for the devastating bushfires of the 2019-20 fire season—and according to climate experts, there’s no indication that the situation will improve in the months and years ahead.

The location of this season’s fires has been equal parts surprising and devastating. With its lush forests and moderate climate even during the Southern Hemisphere summer, the state of New South Wales isn’t accustomed to extreme fire danger. But the state with the second-highest population density in Australia has seen an astonishing frequency of damaging bushfires.

Over 1,300 homes and 12 million acres have burned—that’s more than five times the land area burned in the recent catastrophic fires in California and the Amazon. Even more striking, estimates suggest that 1/3 of the total population of Australia’s most iconic wild animal, the koala, has been lost to the fires.

This month’s Maxar Spotlight illustrates how Maxar’s industry-leading satellite imagery and unique weather-monitoring tools can provide near-real-time data and analysis in the event of wildland fires and other natural disasters. With climate change-driven wildfires impacting lives and property in regions that once thought themselves protected from these events, Maxar imagery, data and analysis will become more crucial to prevention and recovery efforts in the years ahead.

How can governments and aid organizations get the actionable and timely intelligence they need to protect resources and save lives as devastating events like the Australian bushfires unfold? See the complete picture on the ground and from space with this month’s Maxar Spotlight.

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Sneak Peek: (excerpt from Maxar Spotlight, Vol. 20)

Extreme Brush Fires Are Becoming More Frequent as Temperatures Steadily Climb

While Australia has averaged at least one devastating bushfire every decade and a half since 1960, the frequency of moderate-to-severe fire events has increased. Three times as many significant bushfire seasons have occurred in the past 20 years as in the two previous decades. Analysis of burn extent since the early 2000—and of the two most influential atmospheric phenomena for Australia’s climate—suggest that the future doesn’t hold much relief.

When positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) cycles coincide with positive El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycles, Australia is prone to extreme drought and heat. Some of the most destructive bushfires in southern and southeastern Australia have occurred under these conditions. But what makes this year even more significant is the presence of neutral ENSO and IOD cycles. In fact, recent La Niña years (a negative ENSO cycle often associated with cooler days in southern Australia) have exceeded temperatures of positive ENSO events in the 1980s. This has led many scientists to believe that climate change has already begun to alter how these climate phenomena impact Australia.

Data from Maxar’s Global Weather Interactive (GWI) application shows how extreme weather variability in southeast Australia created conditions favorable to uncharacteristically strong bushfires. Maxar’s GWI is a highly responsive and intuitive web application that provides custom access to robust, accurate, and manageable weather data across the globe. As shown on the maps that follow, parts of New South Wales experienced maximum temperatures nearly 14% higher than the 30-year average and precipitation 96% lower during the period from December 1, 2019 to January 15, 2020. Registered departures across 10 geographically dispersed weather stations in New South Wales showed a 10.7% increase in average maximum temperature combined with a 82.5% drop in average precipitation.

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