Australian Bushfire Crisis – All You Need to Know

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The on-going Australia bushfires have already destroyed millions of acres of land, making it worse than that of the last year’s Amazon rainforest fire. The blaze due to these fires have turned the skies orange and made breathing air in Sydney equivalent to smoking 19 cigarettes. It is hard to even fathom the impact on the land and biodiversity. An estimated 1 billion animals have died and the scientists fear long-term damage to many sensitive ecosystems. This is one of the many symptoms of global warming and the blaze may even contribute to it. This disaster is a warning to the world that the extreme fire events like this one will only grow more likely to occur.

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How big is current Australia’s bushfire?

  • It is difficult to comprehend the size of the affected area in Australia.
  • Added up, the burned land is the size of South Korea or the US state of Virginia.
  • According to Reuters, since the start of the bushfire season in September, an estimated 25.5 million acres have burned in Australia and at least 25 people have lost their lives.
  • Even the last year’s Amazon forest fire that saw the 17.5 million acres of rainforest destroyed is less when compared to the present fires in Australia.

How bad are the current fires in Australia?

  • Although Australia always had bushfires, this season has been a lot worse than normal.
  • According to the European Union’s satellite observation program, Copernicus, in 2019, wildfires across the globe had released approximately 6.38 billion tons of Carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That is about 17% of the global total for the year.
  • Until now, Australia’s annual bushfires are net-zero in terms of greenhouse gas emission as the CO2 emitted was balanced out by how much CO2 the country’s forest sequestered. Yet, in the last three months, Australia’s fires have emitted approximately 350 million metric tons of CO2. By comparison, the Amazon fires produced less than half of that (140 million metric tons).
  • Between 2013 and 2017, Australia’s fires emitted 340 million metric tons of CO2 on average per year. This year’s total has already blown past that and Australia’s dry season has two more months to go.
  • The area of the resulting smoke from the fires is 1.3 billion acres – equal to the areas of Alaska, Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon, Wyoming and Michigan combined.

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How many animals have died due to the bushfires?

  • More than 1 billion animals are feared to have died.
  • A study estimated that half a billion animals have died in North-South Wales alone. These fires not only kill animals but also destroy their habitats, leaving the survivors vulnerable even once the fires have gone. Thus, the true scale of animal loss is not clear yet.

How did the Australia bushfires start?

  • Australia has always experienced bushfires and is often termed as “fire season” and the current fires are the worst when compared to the previous years.
  • These fires are usually caused by lightning strikes or accidentally by a spark – but sometimes, they are even deliberate.

Are Australia fires caused by climate change?

  • According to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, last year in Australia was the hottest and driest on record, with the average annual temperature 1.5 degrees Celsius, above the 1960 to 1990 average.
  • The temperature in Australia last month had hit 49.9 C.
  • By the end of December 2019, every state in Australia measured temperature above 40 C – including Tasmania, which is usually much cooler than the mainland.
  • This has a huge impact on the intensity of the bushfires.
  • A hotter and drier climate will contribute to fires becoming more frequent and more intense.
  • Many parts of Australia have been in drought conditions for some time now. This has made it easier for the fires to spread and grow.
  • The main climate driver behind the increased heat has been a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) – an event where sea surface temperature is warmer in the western half of the ocean and cooler in the east.
  • The difference between the two temperatures is currently the strongest in 60 years.
  • This resulted in the higher-than-average rainfall and floods in eastern Africa and droughts in Southeast Asia and Australia.

How are the fires fought?

  • The firefighters are currently spraying water and fire retardant from planes and helicopters as well as from the ground.
  • However, putting out bushfires is very difficult due to high intensity and often the authorities have to focus on just stopping the spread, rather than fighting it.
  • The spread can be contained by digging earth boundaries to stop the flame from spreading.
  • Fires with intensity less than 800 kilowatts per metre are suppressed with hand tools with water support.
  • More intense fires up to 2,000 kilowatts per metre are suppressed directly using machines, tankers and water bombers.
  • For higher-intensity fires, methods to ensure firebreaks are undertaken.
  • Higher intensity fires cannot be put out. Therefore, the priority is focused on saving lives.

What is the impact of bushfires on the weather systems?

  • The bushfires that are currently consuming Australia are generating so much heat that they are creating their own weather systems including dry lightning storms and fire tornadoes.
  • There are even fire-generated thunderstorms in Australia.
  • An RFS firefighter was killed recently by a fire tornado caused by the collapse of a pyrocumulonimbus cloud formation.
  • According to Australia’s Climate Council, these weather conditions are due to the formation of the pyrocumulonimbus clouds. They have been recorded all over the world but due to the global climate change, they may become a frequent occurrence for the country.
  • According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, pyrocumulonimbus clouds are essentially a thunderstorm that forms from the smoke plume of fire as intense heat from the fire causes air to rise rapidly, drawing in cooler air.
  • As the cloud climbs and then cools in the low temperatures of the upper atmosphere, the collisions of ice particles in the higher parts of the cloud build up an electrical charge, which can release lightning.
  • These can cause deadly and unpredictable changes in the fire’s behaviour, making them harder to fight as well as causing lightning strikes that can initiate new fires.
  • The rising air can also shoot intense updrafts that suck in so much air that strong winds develop, causing a fire to burn hotter and spread further.

What are the measures taken by the government?

  • Each state in Australia takes its own emergency operation.
  • The Prime Minister of Australia had promised increased funding for fire-fighting and pay-outs for the volunteer fire-fighters and an additional $1.4 billion for recovery.
  • However, the national government had been strongly criticised for it not doing enough against climate change.
  • Australia is one of the world’s biggest per-capita greenhouse gas emitters.
  • Under the Paris Climate Agreement, Australia had set a target for 2030 of making a 26-28% reduction in its emission compared with 2005 levels.
  • These goals have been criticised for being too low and last year the United Nations had reported that the country was not on track.
  • About half of the G20 countries, including Australia, are falling short.
  • The Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia last out of 57 countries responsible for more than 90% of greenhouse gas emission on climate policy.
  • Australia also withdrew its international fund to tackle climate change.
  • It is predicted in December that Australian emissions will be only 16% lower than that of 2005 levels in 2030 if the current trend continues.
  • Australia is among the world’s largest exporters of iron ore, uranium, coal and natural gas.
  • According to the International Energy Agency, Australia is the fourth-largest producer of coal in 2017.
  • Eliminating the use of coal is vital for limiting global warming within 1.5C. However, the Australian government is continuing to support the industry due to its importance in economic growth.
  • The government had even approved the construction of a controversial new coal mine, which would be the biggest in the world and would export coal to India. It is going to be built by the Indian company Adani.
  • Australia is one of the most vulnerable countries on the planet to the rising temperatures, yet there is still denial by the government about the impacts of rising carbon dioxide levels on the events like wildfires.

Aboriginal people’s solution for bushfires:

  • Long before Australia was invaded and colonised by the Europeans, fire management techniques called the “cultural burns” were practised so that the natural bushfires have lesser fuel to burn.
  • Since the start of Australia’s fire crisis, many had called for it to be undertaken. However, this solution should have been used earlier.
  • The Aboriginal leaders in Sydney have been assessing the overgrown bush and extreme dry kindling and have warned about the coming of the huge bushfires.
  • However, the local authorities have forbidden aboriginal people from undertaking the cultural burning when they sought permission.
  • The cultural burning is not a one-size-fits-all approach like precautionary burning because the Australian landscape is diverse.
  • Some states integrate cultural burning with other strategies.
  • There is a stark difference in northern Australia, where the Indigenous cultural burning is substantial. In southern states, it is sometimes done according to the needs and wishes of the local communities.
  • These activities are based on the knowledge of the indigenous communities. They know the types of fires to burn for what types of lands, how long to burn and how frequently.
  • These techniques rid the land of fuel like debris, scrub, undergrowth and certain grasses.
  • The aboriginal people would set small-scale fires that are not too intense and clear the land of the extra debris, thus reducing the impact on the insects and animals that occupy the land as well as protecting the trees within the area.
  • However, these techniques are difficult to be implemented as the firefighters don’t know –
  • When to start the fire
  • How long the fire should burn
  • What time of the year should the cultural burning be initiated
  • What are the local pants that exist and which are the flammable ones
  • The weather conditions that are favourable for the cultural burning
  • The Europeans, though seeing the benefits of the practice, are not able to practice them, creating far worse errors as a result.
  • It is argued that it is difficult to completely adopt the aboriginal fire practices because of the high cost.
  • However, the cost to fight the current bushfires is far higher.
  • Also, the indigenous burning alone is not enough to address this issue.
  • The communities must properly manicure the adjacent forests, landscape their private properties and ensure effective house design and maintenance.

Conclusion

Australia is well-known for its bushfires. The Australians must know and care for their land like the Aboriginal people. The knowledge of local fire conditions is vital for addressing this issue. This along the measures to address climate change can prevent the repetition of this devastating incident in the future.

Test Yourself

Australia’s current increased intensity forest fire is caused due to ignorance and limited knowledge of the native land. Elucidate. (250 words).

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