The situation in Australia is dramatic. Videos and pictures are being shared all over the world and the situation is truly tragic. Around half a billion animals and 28 people have died, many have lost their homes and millions of acres of forest have been destroyed, while the smoke travels for thousands of miles.
Once again, behind this catastrophe we can find the hand of man: arsonists and climate change. Movements such as “Fridays for Future” have warned us to take care of our planet, the only home we have. Unfortunately, this is not enough. The whole world is watching a country burning alive. Is there anything scarier?
Fires in Australia have spread over 6 million acres since October in the areas of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland, burning more land than the 2019 Amazon and California fires combined. The fires are spreading simultaneously and the summer does not end until the end of February, meaning they could intensify. Approximately 30% of the forest in New South Wales has been burned, but this figure may increase to around 50%. Bushfires are fairly common in summer and fall, and warm and dry conditions increase the probability of fire. The 2019-2020 bushfire season is of particular intensity compared to previous seasons because of extreme drought and record-breaking temperatures. Twenty-eight people have been killed, along with at least 480 million animals.
Bushfires can be triggered by natural causes, such as lightning, but frequently are man-made, either unintentionally and deliberately. Up to today, 24 people have been charged for deliberately lighting bushfires. Although arson is a serious problem in Australia, there is clear scientific evidence that climate change is making Australia’s bushfire seasons longer and more severe.
Australia’s climate has warmed by more than one degree Celsius over the past century, causing an increase in heat waves and droughts. According to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, the year 2019 was the hottest on record. These conditions dry out the undergrowth and make it easier for bushfires to spread. Moreover, average rainfall decreased by one-third. As droughts become longer and more intense, more vegetation dries out and fires burn for a longer time while they are spread by the wind. Flames can reach up to dozens of meters and move at a speed of 10 km/h.
Professor Chris Dickman at Sydney University estimated that over 480 million animals died in the fires in New South Wales. This includes mammals, birds and reptiles but does not include insects, bats and frogs. Many of these animals were killed by the fire, while others died due to the loss of food and shelter. Smaller and less mobile animals, such as koalas, cannot escape and their habitat has been forever destroyed. 8,000 koalas have already been killed in the bushfires. The fires also threaten rare plants endemic to Australia, such as the Wollemi pine. The nesting sites of the regent honeyeater (Anthochaera phrygia) were destroyed by the fires and the species could be functionally extinct. Millions of other animals will be killed and many endemic species have already become endangered, while even previously common ones could become vulnerable.
Meanwhile, about 10,000 camels are at risk of being shot and killed in South Australia, after complaints that the thirsty animals are endangering locals as they desperately search for water.
The smoke caused by the fires is dangerous to breathe and contributes to the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, intensifying the climate crisis. The Australian government has been heavily criticized because of its lack of commitment to reduce carbon emissions. Australia’s Prime Mister is reluctant to link the country’s emissions to the bushfires and was insulted by angry residents when visiting a bushfire-ravaged town.
Australia’s bushfire crisis is a reminder that climate change is real and our levels of production and consumption are the cause. In the future, more ecosystems, more habitats, more animals and more people will be hit.
Featured image: a helicopter attempts to put out a fire in East Gippsland, Victoria state, Australia. Image credit Ninian Reid, CC BY-SA 2.0.