The experience of Australia with bushfires is not news. Eucalypt trees are synonymous with the Australian bushland and are likewise identified with “bushfire“ as the leaves contain highly flammable oils that burn rapidly and extremely well. Therefore, the country, mostly well known as the home of the rarest ecology and unique wildlife in the world, generally suffers its “fire season” from December to February. However, bushfires started as early as July in 2019. Because of the high temperatures and strong winds, the fire extended quickly and unpredictably along the most populated areas. Early in January, Victoria declared a state of disaster and New South Wales declared a state of emergency. Both states were granted extraordinary powers and additional government resources to battle the fires. Such has been the extent of the bushfires that the effort of firefighters, State and federal authorities working together for months is not enough to fight the fire crisis until there is substantial rainfall.



What has been the damage of the wildfires so far? 

In November 2019 a state of emergency was already declared across the Australian southeastern coast over the fires. So far, more than 27 million acres (11 million hectares) of bushland has burnt during Australia’s Bushfires, an area bigger than Portugal. The crisis has caused 33 people died  and affected about one billion animals according to the Federal Environment Ministry estimates. Among them, almost a third of koalas (about 25,000) have died just in the Kangaroo Island and ecologists fear that some species may not recover. 


This ecological disaster, unprecedented in Australia’s history, threatens  drinking water supplies, coastal ecosystems, and the freshwater rivers that support iconic Australian wildlife, such as the platypus. Thankfully, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has not yet been affected, as the focus of the fires has so far been further south, and the ocean currents carry water in a southerly direction, away from the reef. 


Furthermore, the black smoke has reached as far as New Zealand and was even visible from  space, leaving ‘very unhealthy’ air quality levels in the urban centre of the largest cities. In December, the air quality measured 11 times the “hazardous” level in Sydney. scientists fear that when rain falls, huge quantities of ash could get into rivers, which could be a threat to drinking water supplies of major cities, such as Sydney which may get polluted. In addition, it could eventually cause great damage to Australia’s marine and freshwater ecosystem.


NASA Aqua satellite captured smoke plumes coming off the wildfires in South-eastern cost Australia on Jan. 4 2020. (image credit: NASA, Joshua Stevens)



What role does climate change play in Australia’s bushfires?

According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology Authorities, 2019 also broke temperature records as the driest and the hottest year. An average maximum of 41.9 C° was recorded on 18 December (approximately 2.7 degrees above the average). Experts agree that climate change is contributing to the historically intense fire seasons. With rising levels of CO2 warming the planet, Australia has been getting hotter over recent decades and so, fires will become also more frequent and more intense. Despite this year, the three years period of severe drought has been further influenced by a natural weather phenomenon, the Indian Ocean Dipole. 



The Reactions: Thousands rally for climate change action amid bushfire crisis

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison is facing a political crisis for acknowledging that Australia’s high greenhouse gas emissions do not affect the severity of the fires burning the country. The emissions that the government had committed itself to reduce by international agreements. This has prompted more than 10,000 people to participate in climate change protests in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra calling upon the government for more action on climate change. 


The protesters  think that the government’s rejection of climate change is impeding its ability to prepare and respond to the crisis, and put pressure on Morrison to make a quick transition away from fossil fuels. While there is not a magic solution to the complex phenomenon of bushfires, some argue that the prime minister should take more responsibility, as the solution is both national and international, but not local. 



What is next?

The federal government has deployed all of Australia’s police, military troops, navy shifts and aircraft for assistance, firefighting, evacuation, search and rescue, and clean-up efforts. Firefighters and arm forces are working together, along with professional firefighters coming from the US, Canada, and New Zealand supported by thousands of volunteers. The Morrison administration has also allocated 3 billion Australian dollars ($2 billion) in federal aid, to help to rebuild basic infrastructures.


Another positive insight is that despite the fires and Australia´s excess of its Kyoto Protocol emissions-reduction targets, there are still promising perspectives as the carbon consumption of the average Australian has reduced by a third since 2005 and it has been also decreased to a quarter in the economic sector. 


Hopefully, when the rains finally fall and the summer season ends, much of the vegetation will naturally rejuvenate. Beds of ash  provide nutrients for the Australian trees, that survive the fires. particularly eucalypt forests where koalas live and feed. The native eucalyptus trees, have achieved an evolutionary advantage through their ability to facilitate and survive fires. After all the heartbreaking news, there may be still a chance for Australia’s unique landscape, and wildlife to recover.




Photo by Johan Douma on Flickr



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