What caused Australia’s wildfires? Is Australia wildfire impacting the environment?

2019 came to a dreadful end for many Australians as fires continued to rage across their homeland, showing no signs of slowing down. A year cursed with continued drought, abnormally high temperatures, and out-of-control bushfires, 2019  saw catastrophic damage imparted on Australia’s environment and wildlife, raising major concerns around the globe as to the implications and dangers of the situation. This left many wondering: What caused Australia’s wildfires? Is Australia wildfire impacting the environment, locally and globally?

What caused Australia’s wildfires?

The fires ravaging Australia started at the beginning of the bushfire season in late July of 2019. Bushfire seasons are ill-defined periods that attained their name because of the increased frequency and intensity of bushfires during the months of that season and can vary from region to region across Australia.

Typically, however, they run from June to May of the following year, highlighting the fact that bushfires may occur all-year-round in Australia. The presence of such a term also indicates that bushfires are not at all a rare occurrence in the hot and dry mainland of Australia, and are instead a seasonal sight that has come to shape Australia’s unique environment and ecosystem for past millennia.

However, despite the fact that bushfires (also called wildfires) are seasonal and not at all unusual in the planet’s sixth-largest country, those blazing Australia right now are far more severe than is usually expected in the country on average. The reason for this has to do with the presence (or lack thereof) of rainfall in Australia, as well as the frighteningly high temperatures that have scorched all of Australia’s six provinces. So to find out what caused Australia’s wildfires, we must first understand some of the underlying factors behind them.

Since 2017, Australia has been suffering from the drought brought about by abnormally low rainfall across the country. Normally, bushfires across Australia are contained and sometimes eventually extinguished by said rainfall, preventing it from getting out of hand and uncontrollable. This is because dry wood and vegetation are the primary fuels of the bushfires, and rainfall makes the land less dry and less susceptible to igniting whereas prolonged periods of dryness make it far more likely for large areas of land to go up in flames.

What else caused the wildfires?

The other major contributing factor to the immense wildfires is the abnormally high temperatures. 2019 was the hottest recorded year in Australia’s history, with the average temperature across the country being some 1.5 °C higher than the long-term average of Australia (recorded between 1961 and 1990 and currently used by authorities and meteorologists).

Similarly, the hottest day on record in Australia was also reached in 2019, with the average maximum temperature reaching a frightening 41.9 °C. Higher temperatures across the country, especially in the driest regions and the regions with the most vegetation such as New South Wales. Eventually, lead to more bushfires as ignitions become more and more frequent. This also explains why we need to learn more about how to make our lifestyle more sustainable.

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Is Australia wildfire impacting the environment?

As of now, the bushfires have blazed down more than 10 million hectares of land (100,000 square kilometres), and are showing no signs of stopping. It is feared that their severity will only become more intense as even higher temperatures are expected in the coming few days.

At least 25 people and countless millions of animals have died as a result of the fire. Thousands of homes have been damaged or destroyed, and entire villages have gone up in flames. In and around the most severely affected areas, the sky has turned a hellish red/orange, and extraordinary mountains of smoke have choked the air and the land, even reaching neighbouring countries such as New Zealand and reaching as far as South America.

What is the cost of the damages caused by Australia’s wildfires?

The estimated bill caused by the damage is now said to be upwards of $500 million (USD), but authorities are expecting it to rise considerably before this crisis is over. Furthermore, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who’s recently been heavily criticized for trying to deny the connection between climate change and the fires, has pledged that $1.4 billion would be spent on recovering from this crisis over the next two years, announcing additionally the creation of a new recovery agency. However, many citizens feel their government is simply not doing enough to tackle the crisis they’re currently battling, nor to prevent it from happening again.

How is Australia wildfire impacting the environment, locally and globally?

Perhaps the most obvious way in which the wildfires have impacted the local environment in Australia is through their devastation of Australia’s wildlife. Because wildfires have been a natural part of Australia’s unique landscape for thousands of years, an extensive number of species endemic to Australia have evolved to cope with the fiery environment, whether it is through adapting themselves physically, adapting their habitats, or adapting the way through which the species proceed to re-inhabit land fertilized by flames.

However, the scale of the fires throughout 2019 has been quite unprecedented in many ways, and as a result of this unfortunate fact, countless animals have been killed and entire species have been threatened severely.

Although concrete numbers are still being debated, it has become clear that millions of animals (including birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects) have been killed as a result of the fire, with almost a billion others having been impacted by it in some way or form — whether directly through injury or forced relocation or indirectly through habitat destruction which would potentially cause millions of animals from that species to die in the future. 

Endemic species

There are also many endemic species (native to Australia and found only there) that are now threatened by extinction as many experts believe they will not be able to recover from the catastrophe. They include the long-footed potoroo, the Kangaroo Island cockatoo, and dozens of species of insects, plants, and bacteria, all playing their own unique role in their respective ecosystems. 

Due to the rich variety of life in Australia, it is very possible and likely that in the aftermath of this catastrophe we’ll have lost many species that we hadn’t even discovered existed. 

Shooting over 10,000 camels

It has also very recently been reported that the Australian government has begun its plan to shoot over 10,000 camels in to lower the strain on the nation’s dwindling water supply and to reduce the security threat posed by camels moving into residential areas in search of water (which has led them to break down fences and destroy some infrastructure). The Australian authorities have commissioned snipers to shoot the camels from aboard helicopters, a tactic that has garnered some controversy from the public due to its questionable moral ground.

Beyond the fires’ effects on wildlife, we must also acknowledge the impact they are having on the climate and global warming. In the case of bushfires (as well as most other practical examples), fire is a thermochemical process that consumes the reactant biomass and produces water vapour and carbon dioxide (or carbon monoxide) in the process. When such a huge mass of land and forest goes up in flames, it is expected that an equally gigantic amount of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere as a result of it.

This is true especially when it comes to Australia’s wildfires. In fact, it is estimated that over 350 million metric tons of carbon dioxide have been released solely by the Australian fires this past season. If the wildfires were considered to belong to some imaginary nation other than Australia, then that nation would rank 17th in the world in terms of highest CO2 emissions per year (as per 2016 data) solely due to the emissions caused by the fires and nothing else. 

While the figure of 350 million might seem relatively small in comparison to the 30+ billion metric tons of carbon dioxide that are emitted worldwide each year, it is definitely significant enough to have had an impact on the local environment and weather patterns in Australia.

The carbon dioxide released by the fires has been reported to have caused small-scale extremes in weather occurrences, such as thunderstorms and even more ignitions of dry forests in regions where the CO2 is most concentrated. Commonly, it is thought that thunderstorms occurring over areas with wildfires may be a good thing in terms of helping to extinguish the flames, but in reality what usually occurs is that lightning strikes from thunderstorms cause trees in previously safe areas to ignite, allowing the fire to spread even further.

Should we be worried about the climate in the future?

It is not clear how such a massive fire season will impact the global environment in the long-term, but we now know that occurrences such as these are going to become increasingly more frequent. This poses a grave danger not only for the habitats and organisms of the threatened forest but also for humans all across the globe who, directly or indirectly, will be affected by it.

How can we prevent a similar occurrence in the future?

Now that we know what caused Australia’s wildfires, and how these wildfires impacted the environment, it is natural to then ask how can we prevent them from happening again in the future. As previously mentioned, wildfires are a natural occurrence and are in many ways necessary for the long-term flourishing of the ecosystem. However, that does not mean that we should not also do our best to make sure we don’t inadvertently cause them to become more destructive and forceful than is necessary and natural. By implementing policies and changes on both a smaller and larger scale, we can try to ensure that future catastrophes such as what we are witnessing in Australia become rarer rather than more frequent.

Did humans cause global warming?

The majority of forest fires around the globe are started by humans, and so if we adopt smaller scale habits and responsibilities it is well within our power to limit our harmful impact in this regard. Firstly, all fire restrictions and rules must be observed and complied with. Authorities tend to know best which areas of land are most susceptible to going up in flames, and so it is always wise to heed their warnings and respect the rules of the area. In such cases, one must be extra careful when smoking cigarettes, lighting campfires, and leaving fires unattended.

In cases where no authority has weighed in on the matter, we should be especially vigilant and observant of the local weather conditions, and use our judgement to act most responsibly. For example, it would be common sense to realize that lighting a fire in a dry patch of grassland or woodland amidst a period of no rain is a dangerous and irresponsible idea.

How can we reduce the negative impact on the climate?

We need to push for governments and international corporations to commit more to fight global warming and climate change (by first learning more about the 7 Most causes of Global Warming) and to put an end to proven environmentally-destructive practices. Climate change has already been designated as the main culprit behind the current situation in Australia, and so it is clear that in order for any long-term plan to combat wildfires to be effective, we must also become more serious in tackling climate change, especially in the most vulnerable and susceptible areas. 

What else can we do right now to help the situation?

Perhaps the most effective way for the average reader to help out with what’s happening in Australia right now is to donate to the organizations that are on the frontlines, dealing with the emergency as it unfolds. Below are a few of the organizations that are accepting donations and are committed to helping the situation in different ways.

New South Wales Rural Fire Service (https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/): A firefighting agency with a working force composed mostly of volunteers, working in the area of NSW.

RSPCA New South Wales (https://www.rspcansw.org.au/): This organization is currently accepting donations for its bushfire appeal, which it will use to support its work in evacuating animals in the most affecting regions of NSW.

Conclusion on Is Australia wildfire impacting the environment?

On a final note, it must be said that while it is important to understand what caused Australia’s wildfires and the impact they’ve had on the environment, we must also strive to become global citizens that are more environmentally conscious. Whether through personal resolutions to make our lifestyle more sustainable, or to become more politically active and informed, every little step counts towards saving and preserving the world’s beautiful nature.

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