On Thursday, the raging wildfires in Australia brought the death toll to at least 18 people nationwide, AP reported. The Australian military has now deployed ships and aircraft to help affected communities.
On Wednesday, the air quality in the capital Canberra severely plummeted, with PM2.5 levels in the Monash suburb soaring above 3,700. The city, whose air quality is usually among the best in the world, took the top spot on the AirVisual pollution rankings on Wednesday evening (AEDT time zone), with Delhi at number two.
Bushfires are routine in Australia, but authorities are calling this season the worst on record. This year, the fires started in August, much before the Southern Hemisphere summer (December to February), and have been aggravated by an impending drought and record high temperatures.
Why is this year’s bushfire season especially severe?
Australia is hot, dry, prone to droughts, and, in some parts of the country, to bushfires. Such fires happen when grass, branches, and trees start to burn in an uncontrolled manner. In New South Wales and Queensland, the risk of bushfires peaks during the spring and early summer.
This summer, Australia has witnessed its worst drought in more than five decades, and a heatwave has sent the mercury soaring to temperatures above 41 degrees Celsius. Scientists have said that the conditions demonstrate the effects of climate change.
What is the extent of the damage?
So far, the death toll has been estimated at at least 17 people. The New South Wales state has been the worst hit, with 15 dead. Military planes and ships are now assisting towns as many highways have had to be closed due to the fires. About 5 million hectares (12.35 million acres) of land have burned nationwide over the past few months, with more than 1,000 homes destroyed, according to AP.
At the coastal Mallacoota town in Victoria state, 4,000 people on Tuesday escaped from impending fires and rushed to the shore. Some slept in their cars and at petrol pumps, and at surf clubs converted into evacuation areas. A few houses burned, but a change in the wind direction later that day saved the rest of the town. Military ships were being moved to the town to bring vital supplies, authorities said.
Wildlife in the country has also been severely hit, with more than 2,000 koalas estimated to have died in New South Wales, with one-third of their habitat getting burned. The wine industry in Adelaide Hills has also suffered serious destruction. The smoke from the wildfires has also drifted to New Zealand where it has turned the daytime sky orange across the South Island, Reuters reported.
Criticism of Australia’s climate policy
One-third of global coal exports come from Australia, accounting for 7% of global carbon emissions. The country is the largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas in the world, and the energy sector is an important employer here.
Prime Minister Morrison’s conservative government, which returned to power in May, has defended the country’s coal industry despite criticism from environmentalists. Australia has also invited scorn for counting carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol instead of making new reductions to meet its emissions targets. Opposition leaders are now demanding a royal commision of enquiry to look into the wildfire crisis.
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