The wildfires in Australia burned more than 28 million acres, mostly along the coastal areas of New South Wales, where hundreds of bush fires trapped thousands of people along the beaches and forced evacuations from coastal towns. Hundreds of firefighters battled the fires, including volunteers, military members, and firefighters from other countries, including from the U.S. By February of this year, the fires had resulted in 33 deaths, more than $485 million in insurance claims, had taken more than a billion animal lives, and destroyed 3,000 homes. The causes? Human activity, droughts, and the hottest year on record in Australia’s history.
The acres scorched by the fires in Australia were more than 16 times greater than those burned in California in 2018, when that state suffered more than 7,600 fires that took 100 human lives, scorched 1.9 million acres, and damaged or destroyed more than 24,000 structures. It was the deadliest and the most destructive wildfire season in the state’s history. The state had already suffered destructive wildfires in 2015 and 2017. The 40,000 fires in the Amazon rainforest in 2019 burned nearly 14,000 square miles across nine Brazilian states. While burning is a common farming practice in the Amazon, drier forests quickly led to out of control wildfires.
The frequency and the size of wildfires have increased public concern, including among scientists who are raising critical questions about the relationship between wildfires and climate change, specifically global warming. At a time when the legitimacy of science is questioned here in the U.S., and the existence of global warming is denied by many Americans, including prominent political leaders, the relationship between fires and climate change probably has not occurred to millions of Americans. There are literally hundreds of popular “explanations” that support the denial of global warming. Science, however, provides the most valid and useful indicators of global warming.
Some of the key indicators that global warming is occurring include the following provided by the Union of Concerned Scientists: 1) decreased extent of sea ice; 2) increasing ocean heat content; 3) increased air temperatures over the oceans; 4) increasing sea surface temperatures; 5) increasing sea levels across the globe; 6) increased humidity (greenhouse gases); 7) increasing lower atmosphere temperature; 8) increasing air temperature over land; 9) reduced snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere; and 10) the melting of ice glaciers. The frequency of droughts is also increasing. Each of these indicators is measurable and provides clear evidence of global warming.
Wildfires are usually caused by humans, but increased heat and drought provide conditions that can lead to infernos that destroy many forms of life, as has happened in New South Wales. Increasing temperatures dry out vegetation, including forests, where mountain pine beetles explode due to the absence of temperatures cold enough to limit them. They then kill trees across millions of acres, providing the fuel for wildfires to increase in intensity and frequency. Additionally, some experts suggest that global warming changes wind conditions, giving rise to winds that fan the fires. These conditions extend the fire season and have long-term impacts on human communities.
Increasing temperatures have broad negative effects on ecosystems across the globe. As the Amazon slowly dries out we can expect that, if nothing is done by humans to curb climate change, a tipping point will be reached and several parts of the Amazon are likely to turn into a savannah. This will have serious consequences for millions of people, animals, and the atmosphere, further altering climate patterns through the release of billions of tons of carbon dioxide, which is a heat-trapping gas. This feedback loop is part of global warming.
Wildfires, for example, release carbon dioxide, which contributes to warming, which dries the forests, making them vulnerable to large-scale fires, and the cycle continues. The plumes of smoke circle the globe, come in contact with glaciers, and speed up melting. Just recently an island was spotted off the coast of Antarctica that appeared as a result of glacial melt. That glacial melt is changing the circulation of the Atlantic Ocean, leading to the decline of fish stocks in the Gulf of Maine and off the coasts of Greenland.
Wildfires also have a negative impact on health, communities, and local economies. The smoke from the fires contains carbon emissions and toxic pollutants that are dangerous to sensitive populations. It also affects healthy individuals. For example, a player at the recent Australian Open collapsed on the court and quit in the middle of a match due to a coughing fit caused by the poor quality of air. She simply could not breathe well enough to keep playing.
Human-made global warming has negative impacts across many other sectors of society as well. Local economies dependent on agriculture, tourism, and fisheries, for example, are becoming increasingly vulnerable to rising temperatures. Changes in snow and rainfall are resulting in mismatches between the availability of water and needs in some regions. Indigenous populations whose economies, cultural identities, and wellbeing are dependent on local ecological systems are experiencing major disruptions, and populations at large are increasingly put at risk.
There is no question that climate change is real and that it poses serious threats to all forms of life on Planet Earth. If humans do not take aggressive actions to curb global emissions many more catastrophes loom on the horizon. More and more government reports are being released that warn of impending destabilization of nations and human existence. Humans ignore climate change at the peril of all humanity.
In 2018, Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager, addressed the United Nations Climate Change Conference, bringing international attention to the problem of climate change. In May 2019, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine, and in September she addressed the UN Climate Action Summit. It has taken a teenager and her student followers to focus adults on the problem of climate change. Concerted policy actions are needed across the globe to slow climate change and bring it under control. The future of humanity is in the balance.