Australian Bushfires

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Milene Klein

“Koalas are already highly endangered in certain locations,” said Jahan Okata-Harrison ’20. “So, when I heard about the bushfires, I was really worried about what would happen to them.”

In Australia, bushfires are nothing new. 

While there have been several instances of particularly severe fires in the country over the past few decades, they have never been a cause for significant concern. In fact, they are an important part of maintaining balance in many biomes and have many positive environmental effects. They occur throughout the year, and contribute to maintaining a healthy ecosystem by regenerating native flora and by triggering certain kinds of adapted seeds that will eventually grow into trees, repopulating landscapes that have been subject to deforestation and other environmental damage. This type of growth also isn’t unique to Australia––in fact, the benefits of controlled, periodic fires have also been noted in areas in the United States, most prominently Yellowstone National Park.

However, the fires currently ravaging the country have long since surpassed the normal level, wreaking havoc on many of Australia’s ecosystems and leading to additional environmental repercussions. Experts have found that the force pushing the fires forward to new, more dangerous heights is neither freak accident nor irresponsible management, but rather a symptom of a much larger challenge facing the world: climate change.

With global temperatures soaring higher than ever, previously manageable fire seasons have grown in magnitude with them, and left a host of consequences in their wake. Bushfires from New South Wales and Queensland have produced, according to NASA analysis, 250 tons of carbon dioxide since August 1st, 2019, which comprises half of Australia’s average yearly carbon emissions. Even under normal conditions these emissions would be problematic; however, experts have gone on to say that the loss of plant life that has accompanied the bushfires makes the drainage of excess carbon into ‘sinks,’ which remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it to produce oxygen, even more difficult. 

The increasing severity of forest and bushfires has also led to higher demand for intercontinental helicopter services, which provide vehicles that circle overhead and can quell fire much more effectively than firefighters on the ground, both from Australia and other countries that are experiencing similar upticks in the spread and damaging potential of these formerly routine ecological incidents. Firefighting companies and governments alike have been scrambling to provide sufficient resources to provide for the environmental changes these fires have produced, but ultimately the question of the feasibility of expanding firefighting to a global scale looms large.

The Australian bushfires have also had far-reaching impacts for native species. Koalas, for example, have suffered significantly due to their inability to flee the fires as they spread throughout the bush. Eucalyptus, which they rely on to survive, is extremely flammable, and has only heightened the intensity of the blaze as it tears through the koalas’ habitat. This has led to national outcry of concern for the species, which is seen as a symbol of Australia’s biodiversity. 

Though koalas have evolved to resist fire, the smog has made many ill and hindered their movement, which makes them susceptible to illness and sluggishness and can prevent them from properly withstanding the flames. Koala hospitals have launched rescue operations to save the already dwindling species, as well as widespread public appeals. “I’ve heard about the efforts to save the koalas,” said Sadia Rahman ’20. “For example, I remember a campaign to knit mittens that would go over their burnt paws. It’s really admirable that the overall population has gotten involved as well as environmental organizations.” Unfortunately, the damage done by fire often has long-term effects that prevent rehabilitated individuals from returning to the wild despite conservationists’ best efforts. This has further damaged ongoing conservation attempts, and led to the decline of koala populations in many areas in Australia. “Koalas are already highly endangered in certain locations,” said Jahan Okata-Harrison ’20. “So, when I heard about the bushfires, I was really worried about what would happen to them.”

Simply brushing the fires off as a peripheral environmental concern has been the reaction of many, both within Australia and throughout the world. However, in the past few days, Sydney––the country’s capital and a popular tourist destination––has been blanketed in thick smog, which has obscured even the city’s most famous attraction, the Sydney Opera House. This has prompted a wave of international concern, which will hopefully attract more attention to the ongoing crisis and finally put an end to this year’s destructive fire season.

“Koalas are already highly endangered in certain locations,” said Jahan Okata-Harrison ’20. “So, when I heard about the bushfires, I was really worried about what would happen to them.”

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