Unless they have been living under a rock since November 11, 2019, readers and news watchers are aware that Australia is burning. Perhaps, for the more perceptive news junkie out here, they’ve even heard statistics such as 500,000,000 being thrown about. That’s the number of animals estimated to have been killed as of about two weeks ago. Today, the estimate stands at perhaps 1 billion animals. The land estimated to have been burned stands somewhere around 46 million acres; that’s about the equivalent of the land area of the state of Washington, or a little more than all of New England. Imagine if the entire Northwest or Northeast corner of the United States simply burned to a crisp! Insane. Here’s everything you need to know, as of today, about what’s going on in Australia.
The first item of interest is that while today’s fires are absolutely devastating, they are not the biggest fires on record for Australia. That happened in 1974. The 1974 fires burned 117 Million hectares of land, representing about 15% of Australia’s total land surface, or in acreage, somewhere just south of 300,000,000 acres. That’s a larger area than California and Texas combined. However, due to the low intensity of the 1974 burn, and the remote location of the fires, that blaze caused only about $5 million worth of damage; that would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $36 million today. Additionally, Stephen J. Pyne, of Arizone State University, an expert on fire history and author of a book on the history of fires in Australia, points out that without satellites, the 1974 fires may not have even garnered attention at all: “The 1974/75 fires had almost no impact and much of the damage was found by satellite after the fact”, as he told News.com.au. Of course, with nearly ubiquitous news coverage and social media, this is simply not the case for the current bushfires burning today.
So, why are the fires raging today so bad? First, these fires are burning in populated areas of Australia, as shown in the image above, rather than in sparse or unpopulated areas of the continent like the 1974 fires did. Coastal, especially eastern and southeastern coastal Australia, is burning from end to end. This is the part of Australia that everyone associates with Australia: Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland, etc. Another reason is that the country has been experiencing severe drought since at least 2018. According to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, 2019 was the driest year in the country’s history. And not only has it been dry in Australia, it’s been extremely hot as well. 2019 was, on average, the warmest year on record for Australia, where temperatures were 1.52° C above the average of previous years. This follows the general pattern of global warming as well, where the hottest years in all of recorded history have happened in the last decade and a half. In fact, nine out of ten of the hottest years ever recorded on the planet have happened since 2005. Extremely dry conditions, combined with extremely hot conditions, are a recipe for disaster; and we’re seeing that play out along eastern and southeastern Australia.
Because these fires are happening where they are, their estimated cost, as of January 16th, 2020, is somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 billion, according to The Conversation. At least 24 people have died, 1,400 homes have been destroyed, and, as already mentioned, an estimated 1 billion animals have perished.
In terms of the loss of wildlife, we can never know the exact number, and 1 billion seems a massive number, nearly beyond comprehension. How can wildlife experts be certain? How do they come up with this number? It’s important to remember that this number includes all animal species, not just the cute ones like koalas and kangaroos, which get all the attention. This number includes frogs, birds, insects, etc. So, thinking about it in those terms suddenly makes the 1,000,000,000 tag somewhat more believable. A bee hive may contain anywhere from 10- to 60,000 bees; the largest ant colony ever discovered contained an estimated 306,000,000 ants; in 2004 an ant super colony was discovered in Melbourne, Australia measuring 62 miles wide. Do you know how many ants can live in a single colony in a 62 mile tunnel? Neither do I, but, presumably a lot. Experts in the field calculate these numbers based on available data. For instance, Chris Dickman, a biodiversity expert at the University of Sydney, co-authored a report on the effect of land-clearing on Australian wildlife populations. Scientists have pretty good ideas of animal population densities based on previous studies that have been done in that area (New South Wales). They then take that number and multiply it by the area of land/vegetation destroyed (Samuel). The area of vegetation destroyed, multiplied by the density of animals in those given areas produces that enormous number of 1 billion. It’s not so unbelievable.
Why should you care?
Because the planet is sending a cry for help. People will experience varying degrees of the effects of global warming depending on where they live. In New England, where I’m at, winters are getting shorter, warmer, and coming later than ever. We are half-way through January and we’ve only have a couple days this winter at or below freezing. Less than a week ago it was fifty degrees in southeastern, MA. We have had no significant snow accumulation to speak of. Some are fine with this: less shoveling. But if you live in, Florida, let’s say, Miami, specifically, residents there experience flooding on a regular basis. The city has thus “launched a $400 million project that’s begun installing as many as 80 pump stations throughout the city. In addition, more roads on the island’s low-lying western edge will be rebuilt higher” (NPR). The oceans are rising, and lives are being effected. Change is here. It’s not coming at mid-century or in 100 years; It’s happening now. It is with 100% certainty that we will continue to see more, and more destructive, extreme weather events.
There is a real cost, both in economic terms (this seems to be the only language politicians speak) and in ecological terms. Entire ecosystems are being destroyed, and entire species are on the brink of extinction. Episodes like the ones playing out in Australia in recent months, in California in the last several years, and in other places around the globe, are only going to get worse. This planet is in the middle of what many scientists are calling the sixth mass extinction and nearly all of it is preventable, because a good deal of it is caused by human activity. Pandas and Orangutans are on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss and destruction, and now, due to the Australian bushfires, somewhere around 80% of the Koala habitat has been eradicated. Moreover, what’s left seems to be unprotected and/or is privately owned. I suppose the question we ask ourselves today is whether we will be content to continue to chronicle our own destruction, or whether we will seek change in our lives and lobby for change in our governments.
If you want to donate to help alleviate the destructive force of Australia’s wildfires, you can visit these sites below. Get out there.
World Wildlife Federation:
Donate directly to Australian Fire Departments:
The Australian Redcross:
For more specific causes to pledge aid, click on the following link. USA Today has a pretty extensive list of reputable organizations if you want to help.
3 Comments Add yours
Although this is a horrible story, I want to thank you for sharing it. I, for one, have only gotten bits and pieces of this information. You lay out a succinct, informed list of details that help me understand the magnitude of this world catastrophe. I liked the way you compared the current situation to the most recent horrible fire, that occurred during the year of my birth! I’ve read that fires can be healthy for forests and nature (“1491”, Charles C. Mann). Obviously, that is not always the case, and you do a good job explaining the gasoline of warming temperatures, combined with drought that has exasperated the situation in Australia.
Another thing that I really liked about this was the way you addressed potential reader questions. You didn’t just confront them, you brought them up. I thought it classy and Jared Diamond-esque to tell how scientists can relatively accurately estimate the population of animals. Just before reading that section of your text, I was thinking about the animals that one doesn’t typically think of that play such an important part of an ecosystem; namely insects. I was so glad to see you mention them!
In short, thanks for communicating this news, however awful it is to read. It is a necessary cerebral shaking that many need!
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Thanks for your in depth commentary, Matt! Mann is an amazing scholar. His more recent Wizard and the Prophet is something I think you would also enjoy. Gripping! And while I have no doubt the Australian landscape will recover, in time, the animal species may have a more difficult time, especially given our propensity toward progress despite the damage that often does.