Australia's Black Summer
By Hana Sakr and Katherine Davies
The Australian wildfires in the summer of 2020 were catastrophic. 27 million acres of land, an area larger than Portugal, were scorched, which is 44% of the total area burned by high-severity fire since 1988. 3,000 homes and over 5,900 buildings were destroyed, with fires hitting every state and territory in Australia.
The fires were also incredibly devastating for the country’s diverse ecosystem. Australia has been isolated from other continents for so long that many of its forested areas have developed unique ecosystems with huge and diverse animal species. 244 species of mammals can only be found there. Unfortunately, these animals were severely affected by the fires, and the impacts are still present today, especially in sensitive ecosystems. 1.25 billion mammals and birds died in the initial fire, plus thousands of bats and bugs due to food and habitat loss.
The fires started during a record-breaking heatwave in Australia, making it the hottest and driest season to date. Even if humans started the wildfires, climate change is what fueled them to be this large and disastrous.
“Australia’s climate has warmed by just over 1° C since 1910, leading to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events,” according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s 2018 State of the Climate report.
Not only did climate change cause the rise in temperatures, but it also caused the dryness that created perfect conditions for the fires to form. When wood and soil dries out, it is used as tinder for the fires. An increase in wind is another factor- the Southern Annular Mode is the circular movement of a belt of wind from Antarctica as it shifts South or North, which sends wind to Australia. Together, this has caused a record number of firestorms, especially in January and early February, and according to Geophysical Research Letters from Advancing Earth and Space Science shows that climate change increases the potential for extreme firestorms in the future.
The increase in these fires will have an even larger impact on Australia’s ecosystems. According to the UN Environmental Programme, “With over 1 million species currently facing extinction if we continue with business as usual, extreme weather events such 'megafires' become an increasing matter of concern for species survival.”
If we continue to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more fires like these will happen again, much more frequently and severely. During the Australian bushfires, carbon emissions reached Australia’s annual emissions level, in just three months, 400 megatons, causing a concerning loop. This feedback loop increases carbon dioxide, increasing the likelihood of more fires, and the cycle repeats.
This feedback loop will lead to a decrease in biodiversity, which is imperative for human survival. Since most of the world's terrestrial biodiversity is concentrated in forests, when they burn, our chance of surviving this crisis burns with it.
In addition, ash contains nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, and when it catches the wind and spreads across the ocean, it encourages the excess growth and over-fertilization of water plants and algae. Large algal blooms absorb the oxygen in the water, asphyxiating marine life and decreasing biodiversity. Marine ecosystems in past wildfires have suffered from this as well. In the wildfires of Indonesia in the late 1990s, iron-rich smoke spread across the ocean and caused a plankton bloom that asphyxiated coral reefs.
On the bright side, because the bushfire season impacted people directly, the fires received a lot of media attention and public awareness worldwide. Local and global nonprofits are trying to combat the everlasting effects, including Cookies for Koalas, an environmental nonprofit that was started last year by freshman Katherine Davies, a student at Georgetown Day School and advocate for environmental sustainability. Her original goal was to make 100 dollars that went to both forest restoration, tree planting and animal hospitals in need of supplies. So far she has made over 600 dollars and takes orders on her website cookies4koalas.net. Today, Cookies for Koalas is dedicated to raising money for environmental crises all over the world. To buy some cookies, go to the Cookies for Koalas website.
The Australian wildfires are a sad reflection of society’s negligence and inaction towards the climate crisis. However, it is not too late, if we work together to face these issues, we can prevent another black summer.
Bradstock, R., Clarke, H., Collins, L., Clarke, M., Nolan, R. H., & Penman, T. (2021, March 29). A staggering 1.8 million hectares burned in 'high-severity' fires during Australia's Black Summer. The Conversation. Retrieved April 18, 2021, from https://theconversation.com/a-staggering-1-8-million-hectares-burned-in-high-severity-fires-during-australias-black-summer-157883
Resnick, B., Irfan, U., & Samuel, S. (2020, January 22). 8 things everyone should know about Australia's wildfire disaster. Vox. Retrieved April 18, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2020/1/8/21055228/australia-fires-map-animals-koalas-wildlife-smoke-donate
Ten impacts of the Australian bushfires. (2020, January 22). UN Environment Programme. Retrieved April 18, 2021, from https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/ten-impacts-australian-bushfires