For several months, Australian forests have been constantly consumed by fires. It would seem that this is nothing new – fires on this continent occur cyclically. What’s more – they are part of the natural rhythm of Australian nature. This time, however, they have almost taken the form of a cataclysm, and their consequences will probably be greater than this year’s, also record-breaking, fires in Amazonia or in Siberia. Dozens of people and millions of animals have already died, and the tragic situation is expected to persist for several weeks. Is this state of affairs the fault of climate change? What are the real consequences of bushfires in Australia for its biodiversity?
Highest temperature and lowest humidity in years – why?
Bushfires in Australia take place every year. On the other hand, this year’s extremely drastic situation was favored by extremely high temperatures. After 6 years from the last record maximum temperature, the record was broken twice – day by day. On Tuesday, December 10th 2019, the average maximum temperature was 40.9 degrees Celsius, and just a day later 41.9 . Remember that this is the average of the maximum temperatures – on this day, e.g. in Nullarbor, thermometers showed even 49.9C.
Three phenomena affect such high temperatures and droughts in Australia. The first is the so-called Indian Ocean dipole. The phenomenon resulting from the difference in temperatures on the east and west coasts of the Indian Ocean cyclically affects Australia’s weather patterns. In the so-called positive phase of the dipole that took place last year, humid air moves away from the continent causing severe drought. These, in turn, are known to favor the spread of fire. According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, 2019 was the driest year on the continent since the beginning of rainfall recording, i.e. since 1900 .
The second fire-friendly event was the negative phase of the Antarctic Oscillation. It is simply a wind belt encircling Antarctica. Due to the extremely long-lasting negative phase of the circulation of air masses, dry and warm air reaching central Australia further increased the likelihood of easy spread of fire.
Both phases fluctuations of the Arctic Oscillation and the Indian Ocean dipole are the most natural phenomena that control the climate of Australia. Despite this, scientists note that anthropogenic global warming contributes significantly to such weather extremes . Without it, Australia still would be warm and there would be fires – but probably not on such a scale.
Where exactly are the fires?
Bushfires in Australia are much more aggressive and occupy a larger area than in previous years, but to say that the whole country is on fire is a slight abuse. Which, of course, does not detract from the facts and does not undermine the scale of this year’s ignitions. To date, fires in Australia have destroyed approximately 8.4 million hectares of land . So much space, in total, burned in the areas affected by the fires of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, West Australia and Tasmania.
New South Wales, however, was hit hardest. Only there, nearly 5 million hectares of Australian land have burned . This is the highest number in Australia since there are records of damage caused by fire. The last tragedy on a similar scale took place 45 years ago. This year’s bushfires in Australia, however, broke the record, and experts don’t expect a significant improvement for another month. This season is therefore the worst in terms of drought and fires for several decades, and perhaps the worst in Australian history.
Houses and forests are burning – people and other animals die
The difference from previous years is also the fact that this year’s bushfires in Australia, in addition to dry meadows, covered an unusually large amount of forests. This makes the fire harder to control and causes more severe damage to both humans and other animals. Flames have also reached national parks and even UNESCO World Heritage areas located in the Blue Mountains .
Until now, at least 23 people have been killed in the fires . In addition, several people are considered missing. However, these are not the only victims of this national tragedy. As a result, over 1,500 households were destroyed . The number of evacuated families far exceeds these estimates.
However, wild animals have the least chance of finding shelter and survival. Internet is being circulated by alarming recordings of kangaroos fleeing from the flames, burned koalas and ducks, bodies of dead animals along the roads. This is an unimaginable tragedy – Prof. Chris Dickman from the University of Sydney stated that busfires in Australia affected about 480 million animals . It should be remembered that these are only estimates – exact numbers are not known (the more that the density of some species has never been determined).
Bushfires in Australia tear down balance
These huge numbers include potentially injured animals as well as those that will lose their lives as a result of fires. Some mobile animals, such as birds, emus and kangaroos, may be able to escape from fire. Reptiles that find shelter in a soil that isolates well against heat, also have a chance to survive. Despite how many animals actually die in flames, bushfires in Australia will also cause indirect, long-term dysfunctions in ecosystems.
After the extinction of the last flames, the remaining space will largely be scorched, stripped earth and the remains of vegetation. Such conditions provide neither shelter nor food for the surviving animals. In the longer term, therefore, their number may be further limited by the lack of space and living resources.
We can already observe conflicts between wild animals and people that occur during the disaster. Record drought caused animals exhausted by thirst to stop respecting the boundaries set ot them by people – and people panic. Only a few days ago, up to 10,000 camels who entered human estates in a desperate search for water, were assigned to be killed . They are not the only animals that seek help from people (although for others a help is offered instead of killing).
Will Australian ecosystems change forever?
Australia is an absolutely unique place in the world when it comes to biodiversity. Most of the animals (and plants) inhabiting it are endemic species absent outside its borders. That is why such drastic fires (in addition to the danger they pose to people) can be tragic for the populations of wild animals.
Some isolated and particularly affected areas may have a problem to recover quickly. Estimates, for example, for Kangaroo Island indicate that more than half of the koala population, or 25,000 individuals, have already died in the fires . That’s not the end of the tragic story. In recent months, the fire has destroyed forest ecosystems with a total area of about ⅓ of the island. This is a huge loss, considering that they were home to many endangered species – including island’s endemic marsupial – Kangaroo Island dunnart (Sminthopsis aitkeni) and rare subspecies of the parrot – the glossy black cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus lathami). The protection of these two species has been the main focus of the efforts of local scientists for several decades.
Bushfires in Australia have significantly reduced the food base and breeding space for these – and many others – animals. Kangaroo Island is just an example. Similarly unique places in Australia that have been affected by fires, are abundant.
Firefighters are not enough – the army joins the fight
Although the Australian government is prepared for annual fires, local firefighters need outside support this year. At the moment, around 2,700 firefighters are doing thei best to extinguish fire . Volunteers are the most involved in fire-fighting activities – according to some sources , they constitute as much as 90% of all active daredevils. Members of organizations such as New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) are fighting for free, several hours per shift. As part of the assistance, about 30 firefighters from the USA also head to Australia , and New Zealand has sent three helicopters with a trained crew to the continent .
In recent days, military forces have been called to help firefighters exhausted after many weeks of work. Last Saturday it was announced that three thousand Australian reservists will join the firefighting .
Bushfires in Australia create their own atmospheric phenomena
Strong winds are, however, a very big obstacle when putting out fire. They contribute to the uncontrolled spread of flames – but not only. In some places on the Australian continent, raging fires transform into phenomena far beyond the capabilities of firefighters to limit the tragedy. A rare phenomenon has been registered in several places, operatively referred to as the ‘firenado’ . It is (however unbelievable it sounds) a fire tornado. The temperature inside it can reach 1093 degrees Celsius.
Bushfires in Australia are also causing new local weather disorders. A large amount of heat emitted from the flames moves the air masses upwards, causing changes in the atmosphere. As a result, so-called pyrocumulonimbus is formed , i.e. a massive cloud that can potentially cause rain. This seems to be an ideal natural mechanism to prevent further spread of fire. Unfortunately, between the newly formed cloud and the air outside it, there is a high risk of lightning strikes that are likely to cause further ignitions.
Who sets Australia on fire?
In fact, lightning is one of the most important causes of fires during severe drought. However, there is one more, very important – man.
It is estimated that intentional arson accounts for around 13% of all fires in Australia . Another 37% are suspicious – it is therefore possible that at least some of them are caused by intentional human action. These calculations don’t include accidents and recklessness. But why would anyone deliberately stir up the fire, when bushfires in Australia already destroy the country?
It turns out that fires in Australia are largely caused by children playing with fire and losing control over it, as well as by people with developmental disorders. Australian police admit that some fires are started simply out of malice or as part of revenge. It also happens that the culprits are irrational and emotional firefighters.
Can controlled burnouts prevent a disaster and do environmentalists really block it?
In some cases, bushfires in Australia are induced intentionally – not for fun or anger, but to prevent fires. In the first impulse, situation in which fire is stoked to prevent fire sounds absurd. The Australian authorities, however, have quite a good justification.
The most widely discussed way of reducing the risk of fires by the government is to remove the so-called fuel, i.e. dry, flammable elements of nature . These include old, fallen trees, dry grass and leaves. One can, of course, remove them mechanically, but controlled arson seems much easier and less expensive. There is no doubt, however, that it is better to get rid of such fuel in a controlled manner than leave it without interference, multiplying the risk of large-scale fires.
Many conservative groups and individuals try to blame this year’s cataclysm on pro-ecological organizations that would supposedly block such controlled burnouts. It is worth noting that such speculation is not true – employees of the National Parks and Wildlife Service have met the assumptions regarding the planned reduction of fire risk. Moreover – the number of controlled burnings increased due to the increased risk of fires . The Australian Government itself, which is responsible for guidelines, points out that such preventive measures are certainly not a panacea and do not eliminate the likelihood of ignition, but only limit or slow down its spread .
The Australian government negates climate change and opens new coal mines
One of the conservatives mentioned above is Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Known for his well-grounded views, the climate denialist – along with other politicians – wages a silent war on insults. Meanwhile, the indignant residents frown in disgust and emphasize that their long-term demands for the implementation of a better climate policy have not been taken into account earlier . Undoubtedly, if nothing changes in this matter, there will be more and more extremes similar to this year’s.
Meanwhile, political elites, dependent on the current economic model, are not eager for change. Coal is recognized by many as a national treasure, which is to remain so regardless of global commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even more – new coal mines are being opened. After all, Australia is coal’s largest global exporter.
A light of hope in the midst of poisonous smoke
Regardless of who is called the names, the busfires in Australia are still killing countless lives. Smoke poisons residents, and cities are seeing a dramatic drop in air quality. Fires produce so much exhaust gas that it can be felt throughout the continent and even in New Zealand. The air over Canberra has recently reached the most polluted level in the world , and the amount of harmful, fine suspended particles (PM2,5) over Sydney in December was 734 micrograms per m3 (Australia standard is 8), which is the equivalent of what burning 37 cigarettes produce . Hospital reports increased by 10%.
Still, this year’s fire season is (very) slowly coming to an end. On the west coast, cyclones have already brought heavy rains that may also reach zones affected by fires in the near future . The air temperature has dropped slightly, and a small part of the east coast has recently been watered with light rain. They didn’t help to put out the fires, but they gave hope that the Australian nightmare would end soon. Let’s hope that this happens as soon as possible, and that people and other animals will be able to breathe calmly with a bit cleaner air.
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