A bushfire in trees

CSIRO researchers believe there could be a link between changes in the surface temperature of the Indian Ocean and the dry, hot conditions which precipitated recent major bushfire events in Victoria.

Indian Ocean temperature link to bushfires

Reference: 09/49

The weather conditions that led to Victoria’s past two major bushfires may be linked to lower than normal sea-surface temperatures in the eastern Indian Ocean, according to researchers from CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans National Research Flagship.

  • 24 March 2009

The Ash Wednesday bushfires in February 1983 and the Black Saturday bushfires in February of this year were preceded by months of very dry conditions. Those dry conditions were partly caused by cooler ocean sea-surface temperatures in the eastern Indian Ocean, which contributed to a substantial reduction in spring-time rainfall over the south-east of Australia.

The see-sawing nature of sea-surface temperatures in the east and western Indian Ocean is commonly referred to as the Indian Ocean Dipole. When the dipole is in a positive phase sea-water off the Sumatra-Java coast, northwest of Australia, tends to be cooler than normal, leading to a reduction in the rain-bearing systems that normally extend to Victoria during spring.

According to CSIRO’s Dr Wenju Cai, the recent bushfires in Victoria occurred during a protracted drought made worse by an unprecedented three consecutive positive Indian Ocean Dipole events from 2006 to 2008.

“The sequence of these dipole events were captured by Argo measurements, which use robotic floats that spend most of their life drifting below the ocean surface,” Dr Cai says.

"The recent bushfires in Victoria occurred during a protracted drought made worse by an unprecedented three consecutive positive Indian Ocean Dipole events from 2006 to 2008."

Dr Wenju Cai, CSIRO

“Another study examining temperature records of the past 100 years shows that the frequency of positive Indian Ocean Dipoles in the past three decades is much higher than over the previous 70 years. This trend is consistent with climate change experiments from the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, published in 2007, which projects a mean warming pattern across the Indian Ocean reminiscent of a positive dipole pattern.” 

The research, co-funded by the Department of Climate Change, will be presented at the GREENHOUSE 2009 Conference being held in Perth from 23-26 March 2009.

Dr Cai and co-researcher, CSIRO’s Tim Cowan, will join a panel of international experts who will present the latest research into the Indian Ocean Dipole as well as the El-Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

Other scientists included in the ENSO stream at GREENHOUSE 2009 include: Dr Gabriel Vecchi from the National Ocean-Atmosphere Administration, USA; Dr Alex Timmerman from the University of Hawaii and Dr Matthew Collins from the UK Meteorological Office.

Visit the GREENHOUSE 2009 [external link] for more details.

National Research Flagships

CSIRO initiated the National Research Flagships to provide science-based solutions in response to Australia’s major research challenges and opportunities. The nine Flagships form multidisciplinary teams with industry and the research community to deliver impact and benefits for Australia.

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