Fire in the Land Down Under; Let’s Talk Australia Bushfires

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Australia has started the new decade with angst as unprecedented bushfires continue to engulf the country. The bushfires have been raging since July and have burnt over 25.5m acres (an area larger than South Korea), destroyed over 3,000 homes, and killed over 1 billion animals and 33 people. The below graphic reveals the scale of Australia’s fires. This graphic reveals the scale of Australia’s fires.

Although ruinous fires aren’t new in Australia, extreme conditions — a combination of extreme heat, prolonged drought, and strong winds — have shaped these fires as the most intense in the country’s history.

As we have seen throughout the world, the scope and impact of natural disasters like fire and floods has been getting more extreme, and fires have been starting earlier in the season and spreading with greater intensity. The UN’s IPCC report released in August 2019 reiterated that the global fire-weather season grew almost 20% longer from 1979 to 2013.

Australia documented its hottest day on record on December 17, with an average national temperature of 105.6 degrees, albeit this record was eclipsed within as little as 24 hours, as average temperatures reached 107.4 degrees on December 18. Both of these temperatures surpassed the old record of 104.5 degrees set on January 7, 2013. Meanwhile the national average rainfall was also the lowest recorded since 1902, totaling 277mm.

Catastrophic fire conditions have also been prevalent because the positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). An event where sea temperatures in the India Ocean are cooler than normal, and the west is warmer than normal. As a result, positive IOD drags moisture away from the east (Australia) and pushes it towards the west (Africa). On the flipside, Eastern African countries are experiencing heavy rains, flooding and landslides. Due to continued climate change, the IOD is expected to increase threefold by 2100, making fires and flood events like this far more common.

The fire comes as the country is polarized by the debate over global warming. Australia’s government continues to downplay the link between the fires and climate change. Scott Morrison, Australia’s Prime Minister, has come under immense scrutiny for his passive stance on the issue as he continues to advocate to expand the coal industry.

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas, and the current conservative government wants to continue to expand this industry at the cost of fueling more dramatic fire episodes. The fires have contributed one aspect that scientific arguments and an abundance of statistics couldn’t: they stand as the most emotional and visible pieces of evidence of the impact of a harsher climate.

Globally, fires raged in the United States, Brazil, Sweden, Germany and Russia in 2019, with Australia’s fires surpassing all others in terms of breadth and intensity. No matter each country’s stance on matters of global climate change, the feedback loops triggered by disasters of this magnitude will shift the balance of weather systems globally, and begs the question — what’s next?

Hamish Baillieu,

A group of 200 scientists came together on Monday to urge the returning parliament to reduce Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The open letter suggests a need for immediate action to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions, and manage a rapid transition to net zero emissions by 2050.

  • The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, which helps rescue injured koalas is accepting online donations
  • Volunteer organization BlazeAid is accepting donations to help rural families rebuild after damaging fires
  • Victoria’s Country Fire Authority has set up a Bushfire Disaster Appeal to support community members affected by fires in the area
  • The Salvation Army Australia, which is providing meals to evacuees and frontline responders, is accepting monetary donations
  • The Australia Red Cross is accepting to contributions to its Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund
  • Please click here to view the whole list of organizations who you can donate to

Burning bush: a fire history of Australia by Stephen J Pyne to understand the importance of fire to Australia both biologically and culturally.

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