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Climate change is an umbrella term for the shift of weather phenomena associated with an increase in global average temperatures. Carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere due to wildfires can slow down the Earth’s ability to absorb more of it.
The impact of the huge amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere around the recent wildfires in Australia is a worrying and very complicated factor contributing to climate change.
Scale of the Fires
This instance of Australian wildfires started in September 2019. The spread of the bushfires reached around 11 million hectares of land. The intensity of the fires has led to the development of small-scale weather systems. Due to the large amounts of carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere, thunderstorms have been triggered, which further worsens the problem as the bolts of lightning caused the spread of the fire even further.
With the increasing amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, the amount of heat trapped in the atmosphere increases. Fires lead to the spread of soot into the atmosphere, which compounds the problem. According to scientists, black carbon, which is released during fires, is the most light-absorbing material and is regarded as the most impactful climate-warming agent. Black carbon particles reach the highest levels of the atmosphere where they exert an enormous heating effect.
Effect on the Biodiversity
In wildfire cycles, the vegetation that burns is usually replaced with the same type of plant after some time. However, in the case of longer and more severe fires such as the wildfires in Australia, it is harder to estimate what kind of vegetation will replace the lost ecosystems. Studies examining the fauna in Australia have shown that the first plant species to grow after wildfires are woody shrubs which are more flammable than the previous vegetation.
Moreover, according to ecologists at the University of Sydney, more than one billion birds, reptiles, and mammals have died as a result of the wildfires.
Damaged Ecosystem Balance
The depletion of animal species and their natural habitat creates a vicious cycle that threatens to cause ecosystem disbalance. An example of that is the type of rat kangaroo called a Potoroo.
This species is vital for maintaining healthy forest soil. If a Potoroos’ habitat is destroyed by wildfire and their population is reduced, there is a risk that some plants do not regenerate. This can cause the reduction of other species’ populations which feed on this vegetation.
One element of this ecosystem being disrupted can cause imbalance. Despite all the efforts from rescue groups and animal hospitals, a large number of species have been lost in the wildfires, and the effects of this on the ecosystem balance in Australia are still not clear.
The wildfires have caused a worrying decrease in air quality in the major cities in Australia resulting in the declaration of a public health emergency. Canberra’s air on New Year’s Eve was the most polluted in the world.
What is the Cause of the Fires?
The wildfires in Australia are a result of prolonged heat, drought, and strong winds, with average temperatures reaching 41 degrees Celsius in December 2019. The climate in Australia has been changing throughout the years with the magnitude of the regular annual fires expanding each year. According to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, the average temperatures have risen more than one degree Celsius since 1950.
Even though we have developed in many ways, from technology and medicine to culture and arts, humanity still has a long way to go to be able to advance without the expense of the environment. Our impact on the Earth is hard to quantify but events such as the wildfires in Australia speak of the immensity of the problem. The temperatures in Australia in December 2019 broke the record for the highest temperature nationwide, which many scientists suggest is part of the climate crisis that we are facing. The wildfire, though currently under control, had impacted not only the flora and fauna but also the people. Quantifying the impact of Australian wildfires on the climate is still an ongoing and challenging task.
References and Further Reading
Harvey, F. (2020) Australia fires are harbinger of planet’s future, say scientists[Online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jan/14/australia-bushfires-harbinger-future-scientists (Accessed on 6 March 2020).
McGrath, M. (2020) Climate change: Australia fires will be 'normal' in warmer world. [Online] BBC. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-51094919(Accessed on 6 March 2020).
Newey, S. (2020) Australia is burning - but why are the bushfires so bad and is climate change to blame?[Online] The Telegraph. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/climate-and-people/australia-burning-bushfires-bad/ (Accessed on 6 March 2020).