* 2019 was Australia’s hottest, driest year on record
* Rainfall patterns improving but not widespread
* Warming trend expected to continue, bureau says (Updates throughout with comments from Bureau of Meteorology press conference)
By Colin Packham and Sonali Paul
SYDNEY/MELBOURNE, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Australia’s weather agency sees no sign of cooler weather or significant rainfall in the next few months, an unwelcome forecast for authorities who have warned that only a large downpour will halt bushfires sweeping across the country.
Following Australia’s hottest and driest year on record in 2019, the Bureau of Meteorology said on Thursday temperatures were likely to remain higher than average over the next few months.
While there was some rainfall coming from the north it would not be enough to douse the bushfires raging in the country’s southeast, the bureau said.
“While the rainfall will be welcome, we’re stopping short of saying that it’s going to be drought-breaking or really relieving the conditions we’ve seen,” the Bureau of Meteorology’s Manager of Climate Monitoring, Karl Braganza, told reporters at a briefing on its annual climate statement.
Australia has been battling large bushfires for months. A three-year drought that has left the countryside tinder-dry, which experts have linked to climate change, has helped fuel the crisis.
More than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres) of land - an area the size of South Korea - has been razed since September, killing 26 people and killing or injuring an estimated one billion animals, including livestock.
More than 100 fires remain alight and authorities have said the largest of the blazes will only be doused by significant rainfall.
The bureau said climate change and natural drivers, including warmer than normal waters in the Indian Ocean off Africa, had made 2019 Australia’s hottest and driest year on record, with the highest ever forest fire danger rating.
The country had only 6% of its typical annual rainfall last year, while daytime temperatures across were more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal.
“These are large departures that we saw in 2019, both in terms of how different they were to the average temperatures and rainfall that we see, but also compared to previous records as well,” Braganza said.
He said these were part of longer term trends in temperature and fire weather that the bureau has observed. Rainfall has been tracked since 1900 and temperatures since 1910.
“Australia’s getting warmer, the fire season’s getting longer and the severity of the fire weather during that season is getting more frequent and severe,” Braganza said.
“When we look at the projections that we do for climate change, certainly Australia should be preparing for those trends to continue.”
Reporting by Colin Packham and Sonali Paul; editing by Jane Wardell