Her prophecy of an Australian inferno was correct. Bad news for the coal-loving government.
Soon after this top scientist warned that conditions were ripe for wildfires, Australia went up in flames. Such warnings can go ignored in the country, where the government has downplayed human-caused climate change. Arblaster's career shows the challenges posed by the politicization of science policy.
On an evening in the Southern Hemisphere’s late spring that was still cold enough for a jacket, Julie Arblaster joined about 100 other choral singers at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra rehearsal studio to practice a new piece of music. Its name was “Fire of the Spirit.”
It celebrated a female mystic from the 12th century whose words might have been spoken by environmental activist Greta Thunberg in the 21st: “The Earth sustains humanity. It must not be injured; it must not be destroyed.”
Arblaster, an Australian climatologist, had just co-authored a paper about a weakening Antarctic polar vortex. She knew it would combine with a worrying set of conditions that can occur in the waters surrounding her vast country.
The eastern Indian Ocean was cooler than normal, and the western Indian Ocean was warmer than normal, part of a cycle known as the Indian Ocean Dipole. When combined with an El Niño – when waters are warmer than normal over the equatorial Pacific Ocean – and a weakening of the Antarctic polar vortex, the result was often a bad fire season.
“I mean, we’re in this massive drought at the moment,” she said in her Melbourne office, pointing to a chart in the paper that explained Australia’s vulnerability to fires.
And even though the paper analyzed conditions that predated this day in October 2019, it was clear to Arblaster that the conclusions were about to be borne out.
“Well, this is suggesting that for this October-to-January period, it’s not going to get any better.”
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