Australia is burning and why you should care

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Australia, the land down under, of kangaroos and koala bears.  Where you can find vegemite, Foster’s and shrimp on the barbie.  Australia is a bucket list trip for those with wanderlust. But recently, the news from Australia has been about the devastating fires the country is experiencing. Fires, multiple fires across the country, of a scope that is almost incomprehensible.

Some Fast Facts About Australia

  • Australia covers some 2.97 million square miles and is home to almost 25 million people. 
  • Australia is almost as large as the continental United States which covers 3.119 million square miles
  • Australia is the world’s 6th largest country
  • Australia contains 5% of the world’s land area
  • Australia is the world’s smallest continental land mass, but the world’s largest island
  • Australia is one of 17 megadiverse countries

What is a megadiverse country?

Megadiverse countries are home to the majority of the earth’s species and have a high number of endemic species.  Endemic species are species that exist only in one geographic region.  In order to be a megadiverse country, there must be at least 5,000 endemic plants and a marine ecosystem within the countries’ borders. Since Australia is an island, the marine ecosystem gets a check. Australia ranks first in the world for endemic species. 

The majority of wildlife found in Australia is found no where else is the world. 

  • 378 species of mammals are found in Australia, 87% are found nowhere else.  That’s 328 species that are found no-where else. The koala, wombat, kangaroo, and platypus are some you may recognize.
  • Australia has no native hoofed animals, monkeys, cats or bears.
  • Over half of the mammals found in Australia are marsupials. Marsupials have a pouch to carry the young.
  • Australia has 828 species of birds, 45% are found only in Australia
  • 300 different types of lizards can be found in Australia, and 93% can only be found in Australia.
  • 140 different types of snakes can be found in Australia

There are more than 24,000 species of native plants in Australia. The vast variety of native plants is one of Australia’s most prized assets.  Some of the most common species of plants include:

  • Acacia trees, commonly known in Australia as wattle trees.  There are over 1,200 different species of Acacia found in Australia.  The golden wattle is Australia’s floral emblem. Acacia has been used by the Aborigines for thousands of years for everything food and medicines, to utensils and weapons, for musical instruments and glues, string, dyes and waterproofing, sandals and head decorations, ceremonial items and seasonal signals. 
  • Eucalyptus is commonly associated with Australia.  With over 2,800 species of gum trees they are found in many different areas of Australia.  Australia’s Blue Mountains are home to the most diverse range of eucalyptus species and get their name from the blue haze believed to be created by the trees.  Koala’s feed exclusively on a species of eucalyptus.
  • Tea Tree Oil comes from the Melaleuca trees.  Locally known as paperbarks, tea trees or honey myrtles there are 170 different species of Melaleuca trees.  Tea Tree essential oil is revered for it’s antifungal and antimicrobial properties.

These are just a few of the things that make Australia unique and are at risk with the fires burning this year.  So far, 10 million hectares of land has been burned.  That sounds like a lot and it is.  One hectare is 2.47105 acres.  That equates to over 38,000 square miles.  More area than the entire state of Indiana with fires still burning.

So, what happened?

While there is not one single fire, there was also not a single cause.  The fires had both natural and human causes.

Extreme heat and dryness are major influencers of fire, and 2019 was a remarkable year for both in Australia. 

  • 2019 was the hottest year on record in Australia.  Temperatures were 2.74 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1961-1990 average.  New South Wales, which was hit hard by the bush fires was 3.51 degrees above its average.
  • Australia had its driest year on record with 40% less rainfall than average based on records going back to 1900.  New South Wales also had its driest year.
  • Australia’s dryness was also impacted by the Indian Ocean dipole in a positive phase.  This means the Indian Ocean off Australia’s north-west was cooler than normal and the west of the ocean was warmer. That draws moisture away from Australia and delivers less rainfall.
  • Another phenomenon impacting Australia is the southern annular mode or SAM. SAM was in a “negative phase” as the bush fires took hold in November and December, generated by a warming event in the stratosphere above Antarctica.  This caused westerly winds to track further north blowing hot air across fire prone areas.
  • Extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are impacting the dipole and SAM and these events are becoming more common.

Over 1.25 billion animals are estimated to have perished in the fires.  Conservation groups are working diligently to help with recovery efforts as 1,800 Australian animals and plants are at risk of extinction.

Unfortunately, once the fires end the environmental and human crises won’t.  After a major disaster studies have found a 5-15% increase in mental health problems among survivors. There will also be a lot of rebuilding that will need to be done.

Freshwater sources may become contaminated when the rains wash the charred debris into it, polluting the water for people, animals and aquatic life.  Animals will continue to perish as resources as food and shelter are no longer available.

How can you help?


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