Torrential rain swept across Australia's east coast over the weekend after years of drought — putting out two of the biggest and longest-burning bushfires in the country’s populous region of New South Wales.
The storms provided the heaviest and most sustained rainfall in Sydney and its surrounding areas in 30 years. If the rains continue, they could extinguish all remaining bushfires in New South Wales by the end of the week, officials said.
According to the Bureau of Meteorology, 2019 was the hottest and the driest year in Australia's recorded history. The wildfires that ensued killed 34 people, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and razed nearly 12 million hectares (29.6 million acres) of land.
Experts have attributed Australia’s extreme weather in part to climate change.
“For years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted weather will be more extreme and unpredictable. This is consistent with the pattern this year in Australia of a longer than expected dry period, followed by unexpectedly high rainfall”, Tim Forsyth, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told NBC News.
“However, it is also important not to draw rapid conclusions. There’s still a lot of uncertainty about long-term weather patterns. We have to acknowledge that human records of weather in Australia only go back to the early 20th century — so there are limits to what we know,” he added.
Before rains slowed their spread, the past summer’s wildfires were some of the worst in the country’s history. Scientists said the blazes were so bad, they threatened to reshape Australia’s ecology, even in places where plants and animals had adapted to yearly fires.
The fires have not only been responsible for large swaths of destruction, they have also put the Australian government under increased pressure from environmental groups, scientists and the public to address the climate change issue.
“For the first time, there is doubt about whether forests in Australia will grow back," Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said.
"If they don’t, climate change has permanently altered the face of Australia — which also casts doubt on planting trees as a partial solution to climate change. If the trees later go up in smoke, it can’t work,” he added.
The blazes witnessed throughout Australia’s summer could portend a worrisome trend that is echoed around the world. According to Nathan Thanki from the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice, Australia’s summer of extreme weather has taught us that climate change “is a today problem, not a tomorrow problem.”
“It’s much worse than we’re told if even developed countries struggle to cope. Imagine if Australia had the same GDP as Malawi, or some of its neighboring countries in the South Pacific," he said, referring to the gross domestic product.