The Australian wildfires that began in June of 2019 have left the continent in ecological disarray. New South Wales and parts of Victoria were hit hardest, with an estimated 46 million acres destroyed. The most startling implications of the fires are the effects on wildlife and air pollution. Catalyzed by climate change and changing precipitation patterns, extreme droughts and warm temperatures have laid the groundwork for this unprecedented bushfire season. Since August 1st, carbon dioxide emissions have measured up to 250 million tonnes. What frightens scientists most is not only the scale of the fires, but that they may represent the dawn of a new, more intense and destructive, climate era.
Over 1 billion animals have died as a result of the Australian fires. Australia has one of the most diverse biospheres in the world. The continent was uninhabited by humans far longer than other continents. This allowed evolution to take strange new paths, with little human influence. Sarah Legge, an ecologist from the Australian National University, claimed, “Hundreds of species have been affected by these fires… That includes many dozens of threatened species; some of these will be brought to the brink of extinction as a result of this event. And if they’re not made extinct by this event, I think this is the beginning of the end for them. It’s awful. It will be ecosystem collapse in a lot of cases.” An underlying threat to this existing nightmare is the loss of food from fires, greatly impacting the death toll of animals by decimating food supplies. Due to the nature of this issue, animal deaths will continue to grow over time. Nearly a third of Australia’s third-largest island, Kangaroo Island, was burned. Some of the most affected animals are sea lions, kangaroos, koalas, penguins, and Ligurian bees. This vast devastation puts serious risk to ecosystems throughout New South Wales and Victoria in terms of food chain effects and disproportionate populations.
Also contributing to environmental degradation is poor air quality. The smoke from these fires travels far beyond the flames, and its effects are just as serious. Government officials have rationed face masks to particularly vulnerable people, including pregnant women, the elderly, and those with chronic heart and lung conditions. Wildfire smoke that lingers for weeks doesn’t solely get into people’s pores and eyes—it affects mental health. Following the deadly Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009, both firefighters and residents suffered from post-traumatic stress and depression, which doctors credited to the smoke. Increases in asthma and lung infections are also widespread from poor air quality. New South Wales, home to Sydney, reported more than 34 percent of health officials visiting emergency rooms for asthma and breathing problems in the period from December 30 to January 5 .
Australians are worried because these are the largest fires in recorded history. Bushfire season occurs annually. However, civilians who were in no immediate path of the flames were subject to toxic air quality and lung illnesses. The fears of pervasive damage don’t end with this season of fires; climate change is shaping a new reality for the continent, and its effects are felt around the world.
To understand these fires and the damage they engendered, it is crucial to understand how climate change aided in the magnitude of the destruction. In 2019, an Indian Ocean dipole, caused by increased amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere and therefore warmer atmospheric temperatures, created two large convection cells over the Indian Ocean, one with high moisture and the other extremely dry. Dr Andrew Turner, a lecturer in monsoon systems at the UK’s University of Reading described the situation: “When an Indian Ocean dipole event occurs, the rainfall tends to move with the warm waters, so you get more rainfall than normal over the East African countries. In the east of the Indian Ocean, sea surface temperatures will be colder than normal and that place will get a reduced amount of rainfall.” Warming temperatures affect precipitation patterns, and as a result, exacerbated conditions arise. Extreme rates of rainfall were 300 percent higher this year than in 2018. Without proper warning or ability to predict future events, risk concerns are at a constant high.
Given the severity of the situation, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has taken a surprising approach in his response to the fires. A conservative, right wing candidate, Morrison is one of the few international figures remaining that still leads the charge in denying the immediate and severe impacts of climate change. His policies lack environmentally sustainable agendas, and he himself is an avid supporter of the fossil fuel industry. When directly asked about climate change and the outlook for the future, Morrison simply responded, “My only thoughts today are with those who have lost their lives and their families.” Earlier, he had been ridiculed for taking a vacation with his family during the worst of the fires, giving citizens the idea that he has abandoned the people of Australia. Whether on a trip to Hawaii with his family, or his inability for effective structural policy, Australian’s are losing faith in the capacity for change and if their leader can effectively prevent further destruction.
As of February 13, 2020, officials report that all fires in New South Wales have been contained, proving a huge break in the nearly 10 month endeavor. More than a week of heavy rain has helped fire crews extinguish or control dangerous fires. While the deluge has created its own problems, such as flooding and mudslides, firefighters welcomed the news that they finally have the upper hand in combating fires and can focus on the recovery process. Existing issues of ecosystem disruption and food shortages are still widespread. Whether these conditions will sustain is still in question. The most pertinent debate, however, is what will be done from an environmental policy to prevent future fires from occurring.
Readfearn, Graham “Australia’s bushfires have emitted 250m tonnes of CO2, almost half of country’s annual emissions”. Guardian Australia. December 2019.
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Paulson, Amanda. “800 million animals, 26 million acres. Australia’s tragedy in numbers” The Christian Science Monitor. January 2020
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The Australian Wildfires: Causes and Impacts“Is Climate Change to Blame for Australia’s Bushfires?” November 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-50341210