Forecasts of rain expected to bring some respite but risk of landslides and water pollution grows, officials say. Meanwhile, a top climatologist says Australia could become so dry that its residents could become "climate refugees."

An injured Koala is looked at by a vet after it was treated for burns at a makeshift field hospital at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park on Kangaroo Island on January 14, 2020.
An injured Koala is looked at by a vet after it was treated for burns at a makeshift field hospital at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park on Kangaroo Island on January 14, 2020. (AFP)

Forecasts of rain and storms are expected to bring some relief to land scorched by Australia's months-long bushfires, but heavy downpours now bring the risk of landslides and water pollution, meteorologists and water authorities said.

A shift in the weather pattern is now forecast to bring much more humid conditions to many fire-stricken areas across eastern Australia, helping to control the blazes or even extinguish some, the Bureau of Meteorology said. 

But the much-needed rain is only partially good news.

"Heavy rainfall and gusty thunderstorms bring the potential for flash flooding, particularly in the burnt-out areas of New South Wales and Victoria which are now vulnerable for landslips and trees coming down," meteorologist Sarah Scully said in a video posted on the Bureau of Meteorology website.

NSW water authorities have also raised concerns that strong and erratic rainfall after fires can cause water pollution, with debris sweeping into reservoirs.

Worst bushfire season

The country is going through its worst bushfire season on record, with fires burning since September taking 28 lives, destroying more than 2,500 homes and razing forests and farmland the size of Bulgaria.

Scientists at NASA said on Wednesday that data from one of the U.S. space agency's satellites had traced smoke from the fires moving across the globe, showing that it had circumnavigated the Earth.

After widespread domestic and global criticism for poor leadership during the bushfire crisis and his dismissive attitude towards climate change, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said adaptation to the country's environmental situation is key.

Science Minister Karen Andrews was to meet with scientists, researchers and bushfire experts Wednesday to address the fire disaster.

"Every second that we spend talking about whether the climate is changing, is a second we are not spending on looking at adaptation, mitigation strategies," Andrews told ABC Radio National.

"It really is time for everyone to move on and to look at what we're going to do."

Smoke haze from the bushfires continues to hang over Melbourne, Australia, January 15, 2020.
Smoke haze from the bushfires continues to hang over Melbourne, Australia, January 15, 2020. (Reuters)

Australian Open qualifying delayed

Bushfires are common during Australia's summer months, but this fire season started unusually early, often moving quickly and unpredictably, and leaving swathes of the drought-stricken land a scorched earth.

Heavy smoke over Melbourne on Tuesday caused disruptions at the Australian Open, a darling of the country's sporting events, as organisers faced a storm of criticism for going ahead with matches.

The decision to push back the time players take the court followed a qualifier retiring with breathing difficulties on Tuesday and Canadian Eugenie Bouchard needing medical attention.

"Conditions at Melbourne Park are being constantly monitored," Tennis Australia said.

 'Climate refugees'

As global temperatures soar, Australia could become so hot and dry that the country's residents could become climate refugees, US climatologist and geophysicist Michael Mann told Reuters news agency.

"It is conceivable that much of Australia simply becomes too hot and dry for human habitation," said Mann, who is director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

"In that case, yes, unfortunately, we could well see Australians join the ranks of the world’s climate refugees."

Climate refugees, or environmental migrants, are people forced to abandon their homes due to changes in climate patterns or extreme weather events.

Mann, the recipient of last year's Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, is on a sabbatical in Australia where he is studying climate change.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies