Canberra is usually a pristine city. Its skies are so clear that many of Australia’s top astronomy sites are either in the ACT or nearby.
- Canberra’s mountain surrounds and prevailing winds make it a perfect smoke trap
- Warmer winds from the west will break down the pollution, but worsen the fire risk
- Meteorologists say the city will likely continue to be smoke-blighted ‘until the fires are out’
Yet for two weeks over the holiday period, the national capital has had some of the world’s worst recorded air quality.
As the pollution from bushfires in surrounding New South Wales peaked, people who spent time outside were effectively smoking two-and-a-half cigarettes an hour.
The smoke seeped into most buildings, too. Offices, shops, museums and restaurants closed. Hospitals had to abandon some procedures.
After a brief respite over Monday and Tuesday, the choking haze will return today.
And while the smoke’s comings and goings cannot be predicted precisely, meteorologists say it is likely to stay for some time.
There are three main reasons: Canberra’s hills, its prevailing winds — and, of course, the fact that the city is surrounded by blazes of unprecedented scale and ferocity.
The Brindabella trap
Canberra’s topography helps traps thick fogs in winter. In the same way, it has turned the city into a smoke pit during this summer’s bushfire crisis.
The capital lies in the hollow between two mountain ranges: the Brindabellas to the west and the main spine of the Great Dividing Range to the east.
As Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Grahame Reader put it: “it’s a bit of a bowl surrounded by hills”.
“So long as the winds aren’t strong enough to disperse the smoke, there’s nowhere for it to go,” he said.
This also explains why some of the worst pollution has been in Tuggeranong, in Canberra’s south, which lies in a deeper valley.
Mr Reader said the local landscape created an effective trap for the smoke.
“Once you have a temperature inversion combining with those hills, it’s like a lid on top, which stops the smoke from escaping upwards,” he said.
The cool evening breeze
A temperature inversion is the lower atmosphere, in a way, turning upside down.
Australian National University honorary lecturer Clem Davis, a former meteorologist, said at most times, the air at ground level is hotter than the air above it.
But in certain conditions, the ground-level air becomes cooler.
“The hotter air above acts like a lid and traps everything below the inversion … all the pollution is stuck,” Dr Davis said.
These inversions are a normal part of Canberra summer: the prevailing evening winds are east or south-easterly breezes, which bring sea-cooled air into the city.
This summer, however, that cool air is also dumping ash and fine particulate pollution from fires to the east, and the hot air above is holding it down in the Canberra “bowl”.
Live wind map for New South Wales
When will it clear?
The main problem is neither the hills nor the winds — it’s that the nearby bushfires are so massive and have the potential to keep burning.
Dr Davis was in the bureau’s forecasting office in Canberra during the 2003 firestorm that destroyed 500 homes.
While that was “horrendous”, he said it did not bring the prolonged pollution that has blighted Canberra this summer.
“And I can’t really see that we’re going to get any real clearance from the smoke until the fires go out or until we actually get some westerly winds,” he said.
Warmer winds from the west or north-west break down temperature inversions, clearing trapped smoke.
But, Mr Reeder said, they bring with them a new risk: bigger fires.
“The downside is it will be much hotter. And if there are fires to the west or the north-west, those winds will bring it over Canberra,” he said.
“Either way, while the fires burn, Canberra will probably continue to be smoked out.”
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