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As the east coast bushfire crisis unfolds, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Rural Fire Service operational officer Brett Taylor have each warned residents bushfires can create their own weather systems.
This is not just a figure of speech or a general warning about the unpredictability of intense fires. Bushfires genuinely can create their own weather systems: a phenomenon known variously as firestorms, pyroclouds or, in meteorology-speak, pyrocumulonimbus.
Occurrence - Firestorms - Australia - Period - Period
The occurrence of firestorms is increasing in Australia; there have been more than 50 in the period 2001-18. During a six-week period earlier this year, 18 confirmed pyrocumulonimbus formed, mainly over the Victorian High Country.
Its not clear whether the current bushfires will spawn any firestorms. But with the frequency of extreme fires set to increase due to hotter and drier conditions, it's worth taking a closer look at how firestorms happen, and what effects they produce.
What is a firestorm?
The term "firestorm" is a contraction of "fire thunderstorm." In simple terms, they are thunderstorms generated by the heat from a bushfire.
Contrast - Bushfires - Prevailing - Wind - Firestorms
In stark contrast to typical bushfires, which are relatively easy to predict and are driven by the prevailing wind, firestorms tend to form above unusually large and intense fires.
If a fire encompasses a large enough area (called "deep flaming"), the upward movement of hot air can cause the fire to interact with the atmosphere above it, potentially forming a pyrocloud. This consists of smoke and ash in the smoke plume, and water vapour in the cloud above.
Conditions - Fire - Cloud - Pyrocumulus - Cloud
If the conditions are not too severe, the fire may produce a cloud called a pyrocumulus, which is simply a cloud that forms over the fire. These are typically benign and do not affect conditions on the ground.
But if the fire is particularly large or intense, or if the atmosphere above it is unstable, this process can give...
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