Why Australia is burning – Climate change became real

Update January 5th: Due to the increasing intensity of this crisis, I am sticking this post to the top of my blog. The size of the burnt land has now reached twice the size of Belgium; 23 people have died since beginning of the fires in September; more than 1500 houses were destroyed; 480 Million animals died in New South Wales alone [12]. If you want to help, please find information on how to donate here!

The media is showing those scary images of devastating bush fires in Australia again and again. It begins to feel like one of theses American movies about the end of days. I used to live in Australia for a while and therefore feel especially shocked by these images: Part of my home is burning. Bush fires with sizes never seen before are raging since October and many are still not in control. They already cost 8 human lives [1] as well as so many lives of animals and an unprecedented destruction of nature. But as an outstander from Europe it is hard to judge: What is happening there? Aren’t bush fires normal in Australia? What does this have to do with climate change?

Forest fires in Australia due to climate change.
Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash

“Normality” of bush fires in Australia

Australia lies in pretty hot and dry climate zones – therefore bush fires per se are not unusual. During the summer months (which are right now as Australia is on the southern hemisphere) bush fires are kind of normal and occur due to accidents, sometimes even on purpose. In aboriginal culture, fire plays an important role for hunting [2].

So in principle, bush fires are normal and are even part of the Australian ecosystem: Some plants like special kinds of eucalyptus rely on fire for their reproduction. They can only cast their seeds with help of fire, which makes bush fires essential for their spread. Because of their highly flammable essential oils they also increase danger and severity of bush fires [3]. The trees themselves are even able to survive fires and because of them casting seeds under fire, you can see the bush prosper month after a bush fire (like for example 2002 in the Blue Mountain National Park near Sydney [4] or as shown in the picture of a bush fire aftermath in Tasmania, which I took in 2015).

Month after a bush fire the trees are visibly burned, but still this Tasmanian bush is prospering. This is because the ecosystem is used to frequent bush fires.
Month after a bush fire the trees are visibly burned, but still this Tasmanian bush is prospering. This is because the ecosystem is used to frequent bush fires.

Why is the current situation not normal?

What has been happening in Australia in the last couple of month is far from the usual extent of bush fires. While single bush fires are normal, the size and number of fires right now is extraordinary. In New South Wales (NSW) alone there is one especially big bush fire of an area of 150.000 hectares [5], that is more than half the size of Mauritius buring. In NSW alone an area of 2.7 Million hectares has burned in this season alone [6] – that is more than half of the area of Wales. Because of this, NSW officials have called out the state of emergency twice already since November. Over 700 houses have been destroyed [6] and the situation still is out of control.

Why is this happening? Because of Climate change!

Australia has been suffering of an extreme drought [1,7] in the last three years. This as well as the enormous heat wave currently raging there led to a spread of the normal bush fires. Furthermore, under these conditions it is even harder to get control over the fires as drought and heat hamper the firefighting operations. The triggers of any bush fire is not as relevant but the climate conditions enabled the current escalation of the situation.

The annual mean temperature in Australia increased by 1 °C over the last 90 years.
Data and image by the Australischen Bureau of Metrology, [8].

The annual mean temperature in Australia increased by 1 °C over the last 90 years [8], especially since the 50s. In the same time period also the number and severity of bush fires has increased significantly with higher number of deaths and destruction [6]. And still temperatures are rising with two new temperature records alone in the last week [6]!

These trends surely are not limited to Australia, but can be measured globally. Australia is just a good example because the consequences of climate change got very prominent here due of the severity of the bush fires. Looking at the temperature change globally beginning in 1850, the trend is even more prominent:

The global annual mean temperature also increased significantly over the last 150 years.
Data and Image by the Australischen Bureau of Metrology, [9].

Climate change can no longer be denied and if we keep ignoring it, its consequences will become increasingly prominent also in other regions. Even here in Germany we have seen more devastating forest fires lately due to the last few dry and hot summers: Last summer a huge fire raged in Brandenburg near Lübtheen and 2018 in a small region called Emsland.

These fires are only one consequence of climate change, but they demonstrate the severity of the problem. The destruction caused by the fires are shocking for people, animals and nature in the affected region. And more despressing, the CO2 spread during the fires also act as a driver for the temperature increase. Therefore, the fires should be a clear warning to all of us: It is time to act against climate change! There is a need for more political actions to reach the 2 °C climate goals (as the maximum of the mean temperature increase caused by mankind) signed in the Paris Agreement. And it is still unclear whether this goal is sufficient [10.11]!

But also, each and everyone of us needs to help by questioning their own actions. Get aware of your ecological footprint and try to reduce it. It is possible to choose climate-friendly options in our own diet, mobility or life style. Climate change is a global problem and we can only solve it together!

[1] https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/australien-feuer-105.html
[2] https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buschfeuer_in_Australien
[3] https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eukalypten#Waldbrandgefahr
[4] https://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/natur/australien-eukalyptus-vollbringt-gruenes-wunder-a-195154.html
[5] https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/waldbraende-in-australien-behoerden-haetten-sich-anders.676.de.html?dram:article_id=463807
[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-50585968
[7] https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/heute/buschfeuer-duerre-australier-reden-klimawandel-klein-100.html
[8] http://www.bom.gov.au/tmp/cc/tmean.aus.0112.38269.png
[9] http://www.bom.gov.au/tmp/cc/global_t.global.0112.23092.png
[10] https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonderbericht_1,5_%C2%B0C_globale_Erw%C3%A4rmung
[11] https://www.mpimet.mpg.de/kommunikation/aktuelles/im-fokus/15-grad-ziel/
[12] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/world/australia-bushfire-scale-twice-the-size-of-belgium-burnt-12234478

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