At least 24 people have lost their lives, nearly 500 million animals have perished and more than 12 billion acres of land — an area as large as Denmark — has turned to cinders as bushfires have ravaged large parts of Australia. The fires, among the worst in the country’s history, have been raging since September and show no signs of abating. New South Wales, the country’s worst-affected state, declared an emergency last week in its southeastern region and people were asked to move to safer locations. But the state government faced people’s ire when those fleeing the inferno had to face long traffic jams. More opprobrium has been heaped on the country’s Federal government. Across the country, frustrated Australians have vented their anger at Prime Minister Scott Morrison for playing down the blaze’s association with climate change — a charge the Federal government has denied.
Bushfires are actually a part of Australia’s ecosystem. Many plants depend on them to cycle nutrients and clear vegetation. In fact, eucalyptus trees in Australia depend on fire to release their seeds. But all this usually happens during a few weeks in late January-February, when the country is at its driest. The prolonged blaze this year has coincided with Australia’s harshest summer. Parts of the country recorded their highest recorded temperature in December. Then, longer-term factors have been at play. Much of Australia is facing a drought that is a result of three consecutive summers with very little precipitation. This, according to climate scientists, is unprecedented. Moreover, as the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s 2018 State of the Climate report notes, “Australia’s climate has warmed by just over 1 degree Celsius since 1910, leading to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events.” This has led to more rainfall in northern Australia, but created drought-like conditions in the more densely populated southeast.
Australia is home to nearly 250 animal species, some of them like the koalas and kangaroos are not found elsewhere. But the region also has the highest rate of native animals going extinct over the past 200 years. The fires will aggravate this situation. Experts, for example, reckon that more than a quarter of the koala habitat has been consumed by the blaze. The fires have also caused a drop in the bird, rodent and insect populations. These creatures are the building blocks of the ecosystem and the fall in their population is bound to have long-term impacts. In Australia’s bushfires lie a warning about the complex ways in which climate variables interact.
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