The images from Australia being broadcast on the screens of our televisions and phones are reminiscent of an apocalyptic disaster film or the most horrifying fire and brimstone sermon ever delivered. Whole neighborhoods engulfed in flames. Kangaroos burned to a crisp. Fruit bats dropping out of a sky overwhelmed by billowing black, toxic smoke. Sometimes the sky glows a ghostly blood red. Australia’s climate change reckoning has arrived.
An area larger than West Virginia has smoldered as over 100 wildfires continue to ravage the continent. 24 people and counting have lost their lives, thousands more forced to evacuate as almost 1,500 homes have been destroyed. The smoke from these fires made the air in Australia’s capital, Canberra, the most polluted air in the world on New Year’s Day. 480 million of Australia’s iconic animals, from kangaroos to koalas, have been decimated by the flames according to Chris Dickman, a biodiversity expert at the University of Sydney. He calculated the grim number by using previous estimates of the mammal density in the Australian state of New South Wales, one of the states being hit the hardest by the fires, and comparing it to the area that has been seared. This incredible number is probably an underestimate as fires spread deeper into the states of Victoria and Queensland as Australia’s summer just begins.
Land of Fire
Wildfires in Australia may not seem as drastic as fires in other parts of the world, like the recent outbreaks in California and the Amazon over the last two years because Australia’s vegetation and animals have adapted to fire over millions of years. In Australia, the world’s second driest continent behind Antarctica, plants and animals have had to grapple with low precipitation, scolding temperatures and high evaporation rates since the continent became dominated by desert at the end of the last ice age. In this environment, fire has almost always been a regenerative tool to destroy weeds, provide nutrient-rich ash in arid soil and even help certain plants release their seeds. Some plants, like eucalyptus trees, even bring about bush fires by dropping their flammable bark in large piles at their trunks that act as kindling when the summer heats up, bringing about Australia’s natural fire season.
But this Australian summer has been disastrous for even the most fire-adapted ecosystems as Australia’s climate has become even more extreme. A crippling drought, even by Australian standards, left the landscape incredibly flammable in September. A record December heatwave, when temperatures reached as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit, caused New South Wales to declare a week-long state of emergency. It effectively dosed the parched eastern coast of the continent in lighter fluid and sparked a record blaze. Even the fire-adapted forest ecosystems have no time to recover as they repeatedly go up in smoke.
Koalas, Australia’s iconic narcoleptic marsupials, are being vaporized along with their forest homes. Unlike kangaroos and emus, who can frantically flee areas on fires, koalas are usually confined to the top branches of eucalyptus trees. When the fire comes, koalas are scalded as they are unable to escape the blaze. Over 8,000 of the small marsupials have perished, about a third of the population of New South Wales. Because of koala’s charisma, their demise has struck an emotional chord with global animal lovers across social media. Images and videos of dehydrated koalas taking swigs of water from water bottles after escaping burning forests have become a heartbreaking symbol of this calamity. The WWF is currently accepting donations to help protect koala habitat.
This alarming loss of biodiversity could spell doom for Australia’s animals, almost 80 percent of which are only found there. Although not on a similar magnitude to this, Australia has had the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world over the last 200 years. Most of these were small marsupials that were decimated by the invasion of introduced cats and foxes. Now koalas, kangaroos and flying foxes, which have literally dropped out of the sky due to lesser heat waves in the past, are fighting for their very survival in this Australian inferno.
The Climate Change Culprit
In terms of assigning blame, Australians should look no further than their own government, which continues to avoid the link between the amount of coal and gas it exports (Australia is the largest exporter for both in the world), climate change and these cataclysmic fires. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was vacationing in Hawaii when the fires raged out of control, has gone to great lengths to downplay this catastrophe, even as a third of all Australians are affected. Furthermore, there are still plans for Australia to build its largest coal mine in the near future.
But how does coal and other fossil fuels spark Australia’s deadly fires? Australia exports coal and gas to power developing countries around the world. When fossil fuels are burned, the resulting emissions create a blanket of greenhouse gases that smothers the earth and traps heat inside of the atmosphere. This heats the planet, causing the ice caps to melt at the poles, islands to sink in the tropics and record heat waves to decimate Australia. With humans continuing to burn fossil fuels, Australia’s fire season will lengthen, temperatures will continue to soar to unfathomable highs and natural disasters like this will only become more destructive.
Australia has an incredible wealth of natural resources and incredible habitat and wildlife. Unfortunately, the world’s smallest continent has become just as synonymous with destroying this amazing natural splendor. Its koala habitat was critically splintered by deforestation long before it caught ablaze. One of its most unique animals, the Tasmanian devil, is being wiped out by an infectious facial tumor disease. Most troubling of all is that as the Great Barrier Reef continues to bleach, the country is doubling down on its efforts in fossil fuel exportation. These devastating wildfires are the most recent example of Australia’s incredible and unique wilderness being squandered by self-induced climate destruction.
What is most frightening about these fires is that the Australia’s fire season is just beginning as temperatures usually peak in January and February. Could the worst still be ahead? Climate change is no longer a phenomenon happening at the poles, and it has not been for awhile. People around the world need to view this disaster as a sobering sign of what our collective future may be on a warming earth. Australia will not be an isolated incident. It is a preview of what is coming next.
All photographs by Jack Tamisiea.