Global Warming cited as a major cause : The Fire Down Under | Sunday Observer

Global Warming cited as a major cause : The Fire Down Under

In July, I had an opportunity of taking a drive along the legendary Pacific Coast from Sydney to Brisbane, a scenic 920 Km route that takes the better part of 10 hours counting in the rest stops. I enjoyed every minute of it, in the company of former Lake House Pictures Editor Nishantha Sumanadasa, who was at the wheel.

But little did I think that just one month later, many parts of Australia would literally be on fire. It is devastating for anyone who has been there or for those who love this continent of an island (or is it an island of a continent?). Many experts have cited global warming and Climate Change as the primary cause of these bushfires that have so far killed nearly 30 people and destroyed thousands of homes (more than 3,000 homes have burned down in New South Wales alone).

Sadly for Australia and the rest of the world, many attempts have been made even at the top level to deny any such connection.

This is a very dangerous trend that has been seen all over the world, but one teenage Swedish girl has changed that perception somewhat. Greta Thunberg’s relentless campaign against Climate Change has woken up Governments and nature lovers everywhere to this challenge.

Australia may be a vast country, but losing a land area the size of Denmark (more than 28 million acres) to fire is unbearable. The massive blazes have burned about 16 times the amount of land destroyed during California’s worst fire season in 2018. The fires have been burning since late July 2019 and still there is no end in sight, though some of the fires have been controlled. Some fires that have been raging separately have merged - Last week, a 1.5 million acre ‘mega fire’ formed as two fires crossed paths in the southeast part of the country. The fires are concentrated along Australia’s southeast coast, in the states of New South Wales and Victoria. The southeast is the most severely affected, but fires have also hit every Australian state and territory this season.

An unprecedented drought and exceptional temperatures (December saw Australia’s two hottest days on record) triggered the massive-scale bushfires. Wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem in Australia. Many plants and other organisms even depend on regular blazes to germinate, cycle nutrients, and clear decay. The combination of rising heat and drier weather has turned vegetation into tinder, leaving trees, shrubs, and grass ready to ignite near some of the most densely populated parts of the country. Much of the severe heat was accompanied by brisk winds across much of Australia, which exacerbates fire risks and spreads blazes.

There is a school of thought that the fires themselves could contribute to Global Warming having released 400 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

It is believed that nearly 500 million wild and domesticated animals could have been killed in the fires. We have seen moving videos of firefighters and ordinary people who risked their lives to free Koalas (once described as the world’s only plush toy) and Kangaroos, both of which are endemic species found nowhere else in the world, not even in neighbouring New Zealand. We have also seen pictures of weeping farmers burying their own cattle.

Just imagine the plight of the Kangaroo Island Dunnart, a mouse size carnivore that used to inhabit only this island. Less than 500 of them remained in the wild – now it is down to just one survivor. Indeed, the fires may have burned entire animal and plant species out of existence.

Thousands of parent trees—dominant, centuries-old individuals that were elders in their ecosystem—have died. Around 244 species of mammals are found only in Australia. Although fire has shaped the Australian landscape for millennia, with local species adapting accordingly, the fires this time are so extensive that recovery could take many years, if ever.

Australia’s Royal Fire Service, which comprises mostly volunteers, has been stretched to the limit. Fire-dousing planes and helicopters have been called into service and some countries including the United States have sent elite firefighting units to help their Australian counterparts. Even the 100 firefighters from the US, all veterans of California bushfires, were surprised by the extent of the fires and apparently had to deploy all-new techniques to tackle the fires. One of them even described the conditions as “explosive” to reporters. Many other countries have offered help to Australia to fight the nearly uncontrollable blazes.

But there is a real danger that fires on this scale could happen every few years and the Royal Fire Service may be ill-equipped to handle them. Many volunteers with zero firefighting experience have joined the effort to contain the bushfires that have left viewers around the world horrified.

Indeed, the fires are so bad that latest reports say smoke from them will make a ‘full circuit’ around the globe. NASA, which has been tracking the fires via satellite, is reporting that the smoke had traveled ‘halfway across Earth’ and affected air quality in many other countries.

The Fox and Franz Josef glaciers in New Zealand had turned brown as a result of Australian bushfire smoke.

‘Unprecedented conditions’ of searing heat combined with dryness have led to an ‘unusually large’ number of pyrocumulonimbus (pyrCbs) events -- fire-induced thunderstorms, triggered by an uplift of ash, smoke and burning material -- the space agency has said.

PyroCb events provide a pathway for smoke to reach the stratosphere more than 10 miles in altitude, and once there, the smoke can travel thousands of miles from its source and affect atmospheric conditions around the world, NASA said.

It is feared that particles in the smoke could permanently affect air quality even in South American countries, thousands of kilometres away.

It has become a major health issue in Australia and could become one in other countries in the region. One expert has said that breathing the air in Sydney right now could be as bad as smoking 19 cigarettes at a stretch.

But Australia was not the only country that experienced fires on this scale. Spare a thought for the Amazon, where fires have destroyed the rainforest at an alarming rate.

The number of fires in the Amazon rainforest grew 30.5% in 2019 from the previous year, according to data released by space research agency INPE.

According to INPE, the number of fires detected in the Amazon region was 89,178 in 2019 compared with 68,345 fires in 2018. These two examples show us that fighting Climate Change is perhaps the only way to stop these fires and save the Earth.