Impact of devastating bushfires on Australian agriculture
Australia is no stranger to bushfires, but the 2019-2020 season has been especially devastating. The first major fires of the season started in September 2019, even before the official arrival of spring. The situation only worsened dramatically beginning in November, with hundreds more fires burning across the country. The enormous extent of the fires can even be seen by satellites in orbit. About 10 million hectares of bush and forest across the country have been burned heavily, and ecologists estimate more than a billion animals have been killed. Particularly, several endangered species are facing the risk of extinction. By January 10th, the destroyed area was estimated as large as the size of Portugal, and the damage over three times as much as last year’s Amazon wildfires. In the worst-hit state, New South Wales (NSW), more than 5 million hectares have been affected and thousands of people have lost their homes.
2019 was Australia’s driest year on record, and December was the driest month in 110 years, as reported by the Bureau of Meteorology of Australia. Along with the extended drought, dangerous fire weather conditions in early November led to renewed fire activity in NSW and eastern Queensland, then emerged strongly during December in South Australia, Gippsland, north-eastern Victoria, Tasmania and across the Alpine region. These extraordinary weather conditions are indicated to link strongly with a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), the counterpart to the ENSO weather that develops in the Pacific Ocean and can dramatically impact weather patterns. These bushfires have also led to significant losses of livestock, horticultural crops, and forests over main commercial agricultural areas of Australia, including NSW, Queensland, and Western Australia. So far it is difficult to evaluate exactly the extent of the impact at the national level due to the limited access to affected regions. However, the loss in agriculture, both in crop production and livestock, is estimated to be massive.
As for the previous forecast of ABARES in December 2019, Australian winter crop production was unfavorably affected by seasonal conditions and is about to fall by 3% in 2019-2020 to 29.4 million tonnes. Amongst major winter crops, wheat production is estimated to decline by 8% to around 15.9 million tonnes, while barley production is about to increase by 4% to around 8.7 million tonnes.
Due to the unfavorable seasonal conditions, Western Australian and southern NSW suffered the most significantly in a reduced crop production forecast. However, yields in South Australia and Victoria are predicted to be above average, as the spring rainfall was average. Furthermore, vineyards located near the devastating bushfires in eastern Australia have also been heavily impacted.
Whilst area planted to winter crops is estimated to increase, the area planted to summer crops is forecast to fall by 49% in the 2019-2020 season as a consequence of very low levels of soil moisture and destructive seasonal conditions during summer in Queensland and northern NSW, which could adversely impact summer crop yields and production.
According to the Department of Agriculture, during the first weeks of 2020, rainfall was recorded on a large scale across the affected area, which is likely to foster plant growth there. Additionally, the rainfall outlook for January to March 2020 proposes that wetter than average conditions are more likely for Western Australia, north and south of the Northern Territory, and the western part of South Australia. Thus, appropriate actions of the Australian government and further forecasting for unfavorable conditions are necessary to support its agricultural production in 2020.
Diep-Anh Pham, AgriGlobe
Geoscience Australian/ BBC/ ABARES