Australia is currently in the middle of a horrific wildfire. Wildfire season usually doesn’t begin in Australia until January, but this year the season began in August. And since August, Australia has been getting hotter and hotter and dryer and dryer until now Australia is seeing fires like it has never seen before. It is becoming more and more obvious that Australian Wildfire and climate are intimately connected.

The Kincaid fire in the US was a much smaller fire than the Australian fire.
The Kincaid fire in the US was a much smaller fire than the Australian fire.

In the latest New Yorker magazine, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote an important article pointing out 2019 was the year that the world began taking climate change seriously. This was the year that the connection between wildfires and a world where every year is hotter can no longer be denied.

Australia has always had wildfires but this one is different. “According to Victoria’s commissioner of emergency management, the fires were “punching into the atmosphere” with columns of smoke nine miles high. The smoke columns were so high and so huge they were producing their own weather, generating lightning that, in turn, was setting still more fires.”

Wildlife in Australia is being devastated by the fire.  It is being reported that  " hundreds of millions of animals, including a significant proportion of the country’s koalas" have already been killed.  This image was taken in the current Australian fire.
Wildlife in Australia is being devastated by the fire. It is being reported that ” hundreds of millions of animals, including a significant proportion of the country’s koalas” have already been killed. This image was taken in the current Australian fire.

In East Gippsland, a popular tourist destination in Australia, residents and tourists got an emergency evacuation notice. And then just a few hours later they got another notice which said that “It is now too late to leave: You are in danger and need to act immediately to survive.” I think these were the people who were finally evacuated on an Australian navy ship.

Kolbert says that “Just to the north of Victoria, in New South Wales, blazes have so far destroyed more than nine million acres. Meanwhile, in the state of South Australia, dozens of fires were burning last week, some of them uncontrollably. At least nineteen people have died in the fires, as have hundreds of millions of animals, including a significant proportion of the country’s koalas.”

In an earlier article, the Scientific American reported that “The fires raging across the southern half of the Australian continent this year have so far burned through more than 5 million hectares. To put that in context, the catastrophic 2018 fire season in California saw [only] 740,000 hectares burned. The Australian fire season began this year in late August (before the end of Australia’s winter). Fires have so far claimed nine lives, including two firefighters, and destroyed around 1,000 homes. It is too early to tell what the toll on our wildlife has been, but early estimates suggest that around 500 million animals have died so far, including 30 percent of the koala population in their main habitat. And this is all before we have even reached January and February, when the fire season typically peaks in Australia.”

There are links to both the New Yorker article and the Scientific American article at the bottom of this essay. There is also a link to an NPR article.

In the midst of the wildfire the Australian Prime minister was not much help. He said that “I can think of no better time to express to the world just how optimistic and positive we are as a country.” He has also said many times that the Australian fires are in no way part of climate change. He has often been compared to Donald Trump in his ecological attitudes. At the time of these statements the prime minister was on holiday in Hawaii.

Needless to say, this attitude enraged all of those Australians who were not on holiday in Hawaii, but fighting for their lives and losing their homes and all of their possessions back in Australia.

The obvious rage of the Australian people toward their prime minister leads me to think that politicians who are indifferent to climate change as the cause of the increasing heat and to the growing number of wildfires may begin to find it difficult to become elected in the future. We may not be at quite at this point yet, but it cannot be long.

Many homes have burned in the Australian wildfire.
Thousands of homes have burned in the Australian wildfire. 1300 homes burned in just one state alone.

2019 has been a horrendous year all over the world. The world has never been hotter or more dangerous to all life.

“In India this past summer, a heat wave killed more than a hundred people in the northeastern state of Bihar, and in Japan a month later a heat wave sent an estimated eighteen thousand to the hospital. All-time temperature records were set in France, where a high of a hundred and eight degrees was reached in the town of Vérargues on June 28th, and in Germany, where the mercury in the town of Lingen hit a hundred and seven degrees on July 25th.”

“In Australia, records were broken only to be rebroken. On December 17th, maximum temperatures across the entire country, which is roughly the size of the continental United States, averaged 105.6 degrees. Then, on December 18th, they climbed to 107.4 degrees. The “feeling when you open the oven door” is how one Australian described the heat to the BBC.”

“Globally, it was the second- or third-warmest year since accurate measurements began. (The exact ranking is still to be calculated.) In either case, each of the past five years has been among the hottest five, and the decade counts as the warmest ten-year stretch on record. If 2019 was supposedly the year we “woke up to the climate crisis,” the twenty-tens have been called “the decade we finally woke up to climate change.””

Another image from the Australian wildfire.
Another image from the Australian wildfire.

So, says Kolbert, what does this mean for the future? Basically it’s a no brainer she says. Every decade it has been warmer than the previous decade all the way back to the 1980s.

And with still higher temperatures will come still greater damage. Droughts will grow more punishing. (Australia’s horrific wildfires are, in large part, the result of what Australians are calling a “big dry,” which is now in its third year and has forced many towns to truck in water.) Warmer air holds more moisture, so the flip side of drought is deluge. (Last week, as Australia was roasting, flooding in Indonesia killed at least forty people.) Meanwhile, the planet’s ice sheets will continue to melt, leading to ever-higher sea levels, as will the Arctic ice cap. It’s possible that by 2030 the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free at the end of the summer.  

Quote by Elizabeth Kolbert.

We have to stop kidding ourselves. We are in big trouble and it is getting worse every year. By the 2030s we will seeing temperature rises of at least two degrees celsius. This will mean the death of the world’s coral reefs, “the inundation of most low-lying island nations, incessant heat waves and fires and misery for millions—perhaps billions—of people equally unavoidable.”

The Australian wildfire approaching  a lama farm.
The Australian wildfire approaching a lama farm.

Kolbert says that, “Really waking up, and not just dreaming to ourselves that things will be O.K., has become urgent—beyond urgent, in fact. To paraphrase Victoria’s fire authority: The world is in danger, and we need to act immediately to survive. “

When Elizabeth Kolbert says such things, I for one pay attention. She is not a scientist, but she is probably the world’s foremost journalist on global warming. She wrote a famous book call “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2015.

Below is an Australian government fire-map showing hundreds of wildfires now burning in Australia. An NPR article says that the fires will continue to burn for months and the environment toll will be enormous.

Hundreds of fires are burning in Australia from its southwest coast to its northeast, as seen in this Google Map from the government’s fire agencies.

At any rate, one thing is for sure, the Australian Wildfire and climate are now clearly linked and if we expect things in the future to be better, something big and soon is going to have to be done about fighting climate change.

But let's remember that there is still much of the world that has not burned yet.  This is Yellowstone National Park
But let’s remember that there is still much of the world that has not burned yet. This is Yellowstone National Park.
Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
The Tetons in Teton National Park in Wyoming.  There are millions and millions of acres of forest like this that will go up in flames if we do nothing now.  I for one cannot stand the thought of losing forest like this.
The Tetons in Teton National Park in Wyoming. There are millions and millions of acres of forest like this that will go up in flames if we do nothing now. I for one cannot stand the thought of losing forest like this.
More precious lands that we must save
More precious lands that we must save

*************

More reading on Wildfires and the end of nature as we once knew it.

Here is Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker article on the Australian wildfire.

Here is another article on this wildfire in Scientific American

Here is an excellent article on the fires by NPR.

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