27 million acres of Australia have burned in one of the country’s worst fire seasons on record. That’s an area larger than Portugal, and more than 14 times the area that burned in California in 2018, the state’s most destructive year for wildfires.
At least 33 people have been killed – including four firefighters – and more than 11 million hectares (110,000 sq km or 27.2 million acres) of the bush, forest and parks across Australia has burned.
The severity of the widespread fires is a symptom of global warming, and the blazes may even contribute to it — at least in the short term. Australia’s bushfires have released 400 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service. Burning vast swaths of forest introduce carbon stored in biomass back into the atmosphere, and that carbon will stay there mostly as long as it takes the forest to regrow.
Here’s what everyone should know about the crisis down under.
The Fires Ignited Amid a Record-Breaking Heatwave
The fires started in various ways some by lightning, some by human actions, including arson. However, it’s the climate conditions that provide ample fuel for the fires to grow and spread.
Before the fires ignited, Australia was already enduring its hottest and driest year on record. It’s summertime in the southern hemisphere, and the heat keeps rising.
Sydney experienced its highest temperature on record. Much of the severe heat was accompanied by brisk winds across much of Australia, which exacerbates fire risks and spreads blazes. “The intensity and size of bushfires in some areas has led to the creation of their weather systems,” the Red Cross reported on January 8, “generating pyrocumulonimbus clouds, trapping heat and generating strong wind and lightning strikes, in turn sparking further fires.”
High temperatures, dry weather, and wildfires are not unusual this time of year. But the severity and continued persistence of these fiery conditions are alarming and fit the pattern of what scientists expect as the climate changes.
Climate Change Is Partly To Blame. But So is Weather variability
This summer’s high temperatures and subsequent fires are linked to climate change, which drives long-term warming trends and makes these kinds of events more severe. Australia is also facing a severe drought, spurred by three winters in a row with very little precipitation. With drought conditions, there is less moisture evaporating in the heat, a phenomenon that usually has a cooling effect.
But the country’s geography is also a factor, as well as the unfortunate alignment of a few short-term weather patterns.
One sign a huge heatwave was coming was that the Indian Ocean Dipole, the cycle of the temperature gradient between the eastern and western parts of the Indian Ocean, was in its positive phase in 2019. That led to much less rainfall over Australia as prevailing winds pushed moisture gathering above the Indian Ocean away from the continent in the spring.
Another alarm bell was the Southern Annular Mode. This describes the movement of the circular belt of wind around Antarctica as it shifts north or south. It’s in its negative phase right now, bringing dry conditions to Australia.
And while Australia’s annual monsoon rains in the northern part of the country packed a devastating wallop in February, causing dangerous flooding in the state of Queensland, they were also behind schedule this year. That allowed more heat to accumulate over the central part of the country.
“So lots were going on in terms of natural climate variability for this season to be quite hot,” Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a senior lecturer at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, explained.
Australia is a Biodiversity Hotspot, and Millions Of Plants And Animals Are In Danger.
Australia is one of the great biodiversity hotspots in the world. The island continent was isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years, allowing evolution to take strange new paths, and until fairly recently, with little human influence.
Around 244 species of mammals are found only in Australia. Before the fires, its great diversity of life was already threatened due to invasive species, habitat destruction, and climate change, according to Australia’s science research agency, CSIRO. Now, ecologists fear severe ecological consequences from so much land being burnt at once.
The whole concept of an ecosystem is about connectivity,” Manu Saunders, an ecologist at the University of New England in Australia, says. “Across whole forests, there are millions of individuals and hundreds of different species in those forests that all rely on each other. And if you lose one, it’s like a link in a chain, you then lose the others that it is connected to.”
The loss here is almost hard to fathom. A staggering 1.25 billion animals are now estimated dead, though there’s a good deal of uncertainty in that figure.
Many wild animals and some farm animals have been killed directly by the flames. We can see the evidence with our own eyes: Distressing images of burned kangaroos and koalas, and videos of dead animals on the sides of the roads, have circulated online over the past week.
Other animals have not been burned alive but have faced death due to the destruction of their natural environment, which they rely on for food and shelter.
Initially, the number of animals killed was put at 480 million, an estimate that came from Chris Dickman, a biodiversity expert at the University of Sydney. The truth is, it’s hard for anyone to know the precise impact of the fires at this stage, not least because many animals that survive the flames will likely die later due to lack of food, water, and shelter.
Regardless of the exact numbers, this is a crisis for biodiversity in Australia, which is home to some of Earth’s most distinctive animals, like marsupials.
The smoke is so plentiful that NOAA reported it’s “in the process of circumnavigating the planet,” showing up over South America after being pushed there by the wind.
Smoke is a hazard in itself. It’s an irritating pollutant that exacerbates respiratory illnesses and heart problems. Fine particles from the smoke and soot can be smaller than 2.5 micrometres — tiny enough to lodge themselves into the crannies of the lungs and pass into the bloodstream.
“The biggest health threat from smoke comes from fine particles,” the US Environmental Protection Agency explains. “These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. Fine particles also can aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases — and even are linked to premature deaths in people with these conditions.”
Thousands of people’s lives are being disrupted, and the government’s response hasn’t been inspiring.
Australia’s government created a new National Bushfire Recovery Agency to help fund fire relief and authorized payments to volunteer firefighters, some of whom have now spent months on duty.
However, Australia’s elected leaders have been reluctant to confront the country’s contributions to climate change, a major factor in the bushfires. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, and both of Australia’s major parties are courting support from the country’s powerful mining industry. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in particular, has refused to connect the dots between Australia’s reliance on coal, its greenhouse gas emissions, the ongoing blazes, and the consequences for Australians.
The Disaster won’t End when The Fires Go Out
Beyond the immediate destruction from the bushfires, Australians face other risks to their well-being — which will persist long after the flames are subdued.
The extreme stress of losing homes, livelihoods, pets, and property can be challenging to cope with. As always in a natural disaster, mental health is a concern. After a major disaster, studies find a 5 per cent to 15 per cent increase in the incidence of mental health problems among survivors. And there will be a lot of rebuilding to do.
The environmental crisis doesn’t end either when the fires go out. When rains come, all the charred debris from the fire may wash into freshwater sources, polluting it for both aquatic life and human consumption.
On dry land, animals will continue to suffer, too. “There’s going to be ongoing mortalities [i.e. deaths] as the result of starvation — there will be nothing to eat — and the lack of shelter,” says Sarah Legge, an ecologist at the Australian National University who studies how species respond to fire. Feral predators like cats and foxes will be attracted to burned areas she says, and they’ll “mop up all the native animals that are left there over the next few months.”
Understanding our current climate risk helps us plan for a safe future. So how prepared are we to deal.
Sourced from : Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC