500 million animals dead in Australian fires

Scorched: Female koala, Anwen, recovering from burns at the Koala Hospital in Australia. © Getty

Is the crisis in Australia due to climate change? Some claim the bushfires are part of natural cycles that have occurred for millennia; others say they are caused by man-made global warming.

The sky was orange with smoke when the town of Mallacoota, Victoria, woke up on New Year’s Eve.

For them, it wasn’t a festive day. Instead, they had to take refuge on the beach as bushfires swept the region.

By 9:30am, the fire was so close that the smoke had blotted out the sun.

“There was this real feeling of apocalyptic dread,” said Raphael Korman, a camper from Melbourne. He and his wife sheltered in his car from the toxic smoke.

“We could hear the fire roaring,” said a resident. “We were all terrified for our lives.”

Since September, around six million hectares of Australia have been destroyed, exacerbated by temperatures of over 40ºC and strong winds.

In the hardest-hit state of New South Wales (NSW), an area twice the size of Belgium, is scorched — four times bigger than the worst of the fire damage in the Amazon during last year.

So far, over 1,300 houses have been destroyed and at least 24 people have died in Australia. In the past week, thousands of residents have been evacuated.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” the NSW state Premier said.

Professor Chris Dickman, an ecologist from Sydney University, calculated that even using “deliberately conservative estimates”, half a billion animals have died since September. The true number may be much higher.

Among the most affected are koalas, that are highly flammable and slow-moving. It is believed that over 8,000 of them – a third of NSW’s koala population – have died in under four months. Up to 30% of their habitat is gone.

Australian bushfires have occurred for thousands of years and are well-studied, with four large events in the past century. However, research has also shown that global warming has made the situation worse.

Both scientists and politicians have criticised the Australian government’s inaction.

So far, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been unwilling to discuss the causes of the fires, saying “blame doesn’t help anybody”.

“What is happening is a wake up call for our governments to start making effective contributions,” said Sydney’s lord mayor.

So, is the crisis in Australia chiefly due to climate change?

A new normal?

Some say no. They argue that Australia has always had bushfires, and this year’s event isn’t that unnatural. Earth has gone through many climate crises, including extreme warming and cooling. Furthermore, weather and climate patterns are complex, so it is hard to say that the latest fires are chiefly down to human activity. Australia’s wildlife has survived fires before and will recover and adapt once the burning stops.

But there are others who are convinced that the man-made climate crisis is the key to the severity of this year’s fires. The evidence from independent ecologists shows that bushfire conditions are now far more dangerous than before, with longer fire seasons, drought, drier fuels, drier soil and record-breaking heat. These conditions are caused to a greater or lesser extent by human activity over the past century. We can’t escape the fact that we are to blame.

You Decide

  1. Is Australia a warning to the world? Or is the tragedy that is unfolding unique to the country?
  2. Is this the most important story in the news at the moment?

Activities

  1. What do you know about Australia? In groups, research and share what you know about Australian wildlife. Then choose one single Australian animal and prepare a factsheet about it, with illustrations.
  2. Do you know your country’s pledges on the climate crisis? Research them and decide if you think they are good enough.

Some People Say...

“We are entering an era of heightened disaster, thanks to climate change. Being prepared for disaster will mean being prepared to sift truth from rumour, and being prepared to adjust our worldview.”

Rebecca Solnit, US writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The wildfires in Australia have destroyed around six million hectares of the country so far, and are unlikely to stop before the end of the summer there. Over 500 million animals are estimated to have been killed as a result, including a third of koala populations in some places. Thousands of people have had to evacuate their homes over Christmas and the New Year. Scientists mostly agree that the scale of the fires this year has been unprecedented and is linked to the man-made climate crisis.
What do we not know?
When the fires going to stop. And will the Australian government improve its climate crisis policies? Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been indifferent to taking action and has said that the devastating bushfires might go on for months. The scale of the disaster may shift his stance, particularly in light of public opinion. However, it is also possible that his ideas remain unchanged, leading to more coal mining in the country and increases in the future severity of wildfires.

Word Watch

Exacerbated
Made worse.
New South Wales
A state on the east coast of Australia.
Premier
The head of the executive branch of government in an Australian state.
Ecologist
The branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.
Flammable
Easily set on fire.
Lord mayor
The head of the council of the city of Sydney.

Subjects

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