“Bushfires, ash rain, dust storms and floods”, reads
a headline in The Guardian. The editors were not talking about the
plagues of Egypt but the conflagration in Australia, which is not far from an
end-of-days segment in an apocalypse film. The scale of destruction can’t be
assessed right away as the fires still continue to burn but the feeling is that
this is something no one has experienced. For Australia this is a defining
moment. From now on, time will be divided between the days before bushfire 2019
and after it.
To get an idea of their scale, the fires burned on more than 18 million hectares in five states. That is more than twice the size of the state of Jharkhand being ablaze all at one time. Think of an entire state on fire. Fanned by searing dry winds they were too wild to be stopped by the firebreaks normally cut as a precaution in the dry season. Reports spoke of 200-metre high flames jumping hundreds of metres to engulf fire-free areas. Nothing could hold them back as the bushfires surrounded dozens of towns in the interior and forced out thousands of people from their homes.
For wildlife this season was nothing short of apocalyptic, with estimates of up to one billion animals burnt to death. The heat was so great that some firefighters doubted if they would find even skeletal remains for a proper count of casualties. A billion animals dead means not only a massive loss in genetic variability but also dozens of local extinctions, the kind of damage that might take a century to repair if at all it happens.
Most poignant is the story of the superb lyrebird, famous for its ability to mimic almost any sound. Birdlife Australia said in a preliminary analysis that at least one-third of its habitat had been destroyed by the fires. In a matter of weeks a successful wet-forest species has become threatened. Across the country the group found that 19 birds had more than half their habitat affected and another 58 more than a third. The number of nationally threatened bird species may rise by 25 per cent from the present 134. What happens to their populations remains to be seen but the worst nightmares of conservationists have been exceeded by these fires. For some species this really could be the end times.
The other major fallout is the scale of carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. Australia’s largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, turned into gas chambers, with red skies and pollution index numbers far ahead of Delhi, the world’s most polluted city. The worse news is that this crisis will contribute up to 20 per cent of one of the largest annual increases in global carbon dioxide emissions on record. Greenhouse gas concentrations are expected to rise to 417 parts per million in May, a shade below the 450 ppm mark that is supposed to be a tipping point to a permanent, much hotter climate regime. The bushfires added an estimated 250 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, half the country’s annual emissions in normal times.
Is it time to wake up and read the writing? It is long past that, really, but there are few signs that either the Australian or other governments are waking up. They refuse to see the evidence from science, creating, perhaps inadvertently, a new religion, denialism.
Forests are a sink or trap for carbon. They are the most
efficient way of sequestering atmospheric carbon. But after these fires
Australia’s forest area will be drastically shrunk so the continent’s ability
to neutralise the carbon load will be substantially lower. This has long-term
global consequences that are hard to quantify at this point but in a time of
global warming it is bound to add to the planet’s existing stress levels.
It should be emphasised that these fires are not an event in isolation. They come on the tail of a long drought and ever hotter summers for the last three years. The year 2019 was the hottest on record for Australia, with ground temperatures passing 49 degrees Celsius in some parts. So it is possible the world’s driest continent will be even drier in coming years.
The Darling, the continent’s longest waterway, has been reduced to stagnant pools of stinking mustard-coloured water fouled with pesticide and rotting carcasses of cattle and fish. For the Aborigines this is like losing a part of their soul as a place they celebrated in song and art withers. Is it time to wake up and read the writing on the wall? It is long past that, really, but there are few signs that either the Australian or other governments are waking up. They refuse to see the evidence from science, creating, perhaps inadvertently, a new religion, denialism, that looks to the heavens. Maybe that is the true sign of end times; no one sees their death until it is too late.