The Australian flag flies under red skies from fires on Jan. 4 in Bruthen, Victoria. Photos: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images
The year 2019 was marked by widespread fires around the world that extended from Indonesia, Europe, Siberia, and the American continent all the way to Australia as the fires continue to devour millions of hectares of forest.
It appears that the role of climate change is clear in increasing the number of fires in southern Australia, where it rains mostly in winter, according to a researcher at the Earth Science Institute at the Australian National University, Nerley Abram, in an article published on the Scientific American website in the last days of the past year.
The past years there has been a significant decrease in precipitation, which has led to the drying of large areas and the deterioration of vegetation that increases humidity. These are additional factors that contributed to fuelling the fires.
Scientists have previously observed a change in the direction of the western winds carrying moisture towards the south, depriving Australia of rain. Climate fluctuations work on top of the long-term trends that drive the Australian climate to be more vulnerable to fire.
What is happening in Australia was to be expected, with the ideal conditions for the spread of fires. From high temperatures and changes in climate, as well as drought.
Millions of animals are dying
Nearly half a billion animals have been impacted by the fires in NSW alone and millions have died according to ecologists at the University of Sydney. That figure includes birds, reptiles, and mammals (excluding bats, insects and frogs, meaning the true number is likely much higher).
The total number of animals affected nationwide could be as high as a billion, according to Christopher Dickman, the University of Sydney ecologist who led the report.
Fires are nothing new in Australia, but they have been growing more intense and becoming more destructive in recent years, a problem that has been exacerbated by climate change. And animals have been on the front lines — Australia has the highest rate of species loss of any area in the world, and researchers fear that rate could increase as the fire disaster continues.
“The scale of these fires is unprecedented,” said Dieter Hochuli, an environmental sciences professor at the University of Sydney. “There are substantial concerns about the capacity of these (ecosystems) to rebound from the fires.”
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In 2019 the planet witnessed a large number of fires. The number of fires increasing between January and September 2019 by 41% compared to the previous year.
The fires devoured large portions of the forest in the Amazon and the Congo Basin, the two largest “lungs of the world.”
Even areas less known for such tragedies such as Siberia and the Arctic were affected. Other areas where wild fires are more common, such as California, also suffered as over 750 thousand hectares of forest burnt.
The southern Australian fires were the last wildfires of 2019 and the fires are still raging. So far five million hectares of forest has been destroyed by the fires.
Wildfires require four components: availability of fuel, dryness of this fuel and climatic conditions that spark and speed up spreading of fire.
Experts say that climate change has made forest fires more widespread and frequent than before. The temperature has increased by more than 1 degree Celsius during the past century in most regions of the world. This change has caused an increase in the frequency and intensity of heat waves. Rising temperatures cause evaporation, dry soil and plants become flammable fuel.
More than a decade ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that anthropogenic climate change would increase the severity and frequency of fires in Australia, Africa and the Americas.
Several scientific studies and reports subsequently reached the same conclusion, including the IPCC Climate and Earth Change Report (released in August 2019).