News: Australia has been experiencing one of its worst bushfire seasons. A series of bushfires have been raging across the continent’s East Coast since September, affecting rural and urban areas in New South Wales and Victoria.
Check out this NASA image to get a visual sense of the ferocity and scale of the fires. It shows smoke billowing from the country’s east coast.
Background: Bushfires are a well-understood threat in Australia and the local authorities are equipped to manage them. A bushfire is a fire in a forest or grassland where there is plenty of wood, plant leaves or forest that can burn. The fires take place when the weather is very hot and dry. Bushfires often pass in just a few minutes but can fume for days.
Did you know? Eucalyptus forests in Australia have a unique relationship to fire; the trees actually depend on fire to release their seeds.
Why are they different this year? The bushfire season has started earlier than usual and the fires have gotten very fierce, very early. Declining rainfall, record high temperatures and dry, windy conditions are causing the wildfires to spread and grow.
Impact on the environment: Almost 15 million acres of land (an area about twice the size of Belgium) have burned so far, over 1,400 homes destroyed and an estimated 480 million animals killed.
Many animals have been affected directly by the fires or the destruction of their homes. Many of these animals are found on no other continent. According to the University of Sydney, eight thousand koalas have died. The news has been showing distressing images of injured kangaroos and koalas, and videos of thirsty animals on the sides of roads.
Help: Thousands of firefighters and volunteers have been fighting the infernos. Australians have come together not only to support humans but also to care for the animals that are injured and need rehabilitation. They have created temporary animal shelters in their own homes.
Is this because of climate change? Climate change is partially to blame. Climate change has intensified these fires. Australia has warmed by more than 1 degree Celsius since 1910. Last year was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Unusual weather patterns such as heat waves, lack of rain and drier conditions have made the fires more frequent and severe when they happen.
What next: This is only the start of the bushfire season and scientists say that the risk of additional fires remains high. Stay tuned for more updates.