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Wild bushfires have been ravaging Australia for several weeks now. These fires have been especially severe in the New South Wales region. The State declared a week-long state of emergency in response to the escalating disaster. 916 homes have been destroyed this season, 363 more have been damaged. More than 100 fires are still burning in. Seven people died this week, including a firefighter. Australian authorities told people to leave bushfire-affected areas in three states. They fear that conditions could get so extreme that even firefighters may be unable to defend entire towns. Authorities in New South Wales urged people in high risk areas in the Snowy Valley to leave overnight. In Victoria, 28 people are missing in the East Gippsland region, authorities have sent 250,000 text messages to people in affected shires and urged them to evacuate. Both New South Wales and Victoria have given firefighting authorities the power to forcibly relocate people.

Causes of the fires:

  • Record-breaking temperatures, extended drought and strong winds have converged to create disastrous fire conditions.
  • As a severe heat wave gripped most of the country in mid-December, Australia recorded its hottest day on record, with average highs of 107.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or 41.9 degrees Celsius.
  • The heat wave is continuing this week in southeastern Australia, with temperatures expected to reach 105 in Canberra, the capital.
  • The extreme heat has followed the driest spring on record.
  • Most of New South Wales and Queensland have been experiencing shortfalls in rain since early 2017. The drought has hit the country’s most productive agricultural areas, including some of those now ablaze.

Effect of forest fires on biodiversity:

  • 50% of global water and this helps in cooling the Earth.
  • Significant source of emitted carbon.
  • Contribute to global warming that leads to biodiversity changes.
  • At regional and local level will lead to change in biomass stocks, alter hydrological cycle.
  • Subsequent effects for marine systems like coral reefs.
  • Impact functioning of plant and animal species.
  • Smokes from fires reduces photosynthetic activity and can be detrimental to the health of human and animals.
  • Increased probability of further burning in subsequent years.
  • As dead trees topple to the ground, open up forest to drying by sunlight.
  • Consequences of repeated burns is detrimental as it is the key factor in the impoverishment of biodiversity in rainforest ecosystem.
  • Replacement of vast areas of forest with grasslands is another negative ecological impact of fires in tropical rain forest.

Australia fires and Climate Change:

  • This year a natural weather phenomenon known as the Indian Ocean Dipole has meant a hot, dry spell across the country.
  • But the overwhelming scientific consensus is that rising levels of CO2 are warming the planet. And Australia has been getting hotter over recent decades and is expected to continue doing so.
  • This year, Australia twice set a new temperature record: an average maximum of 41.9C was recorded on 18 December. That comes on top of a long period of drought.
  • Scientists have long warned that this hotter, drier climate will contribute to fires becoming more frequent and more intense.
  • The more extreme weather patterns and higher temperatures increase the risk of bushfires and allow them to spread faster and wider.

Impact of Australian Fires:

The impact can be short and long term.

  • Fires taking massive tool on wildlife.
  • Flames, heat, smoke in habitation having devastating impacts on vertebrates, invertebrates not only killing them directly but also leading to longer term indirect effects like stress, loss of habitat, territories, shelter and food.
  • Loss of key organisms in forest ecosystem such as invertebrates, pollinators and decomposers can slow forest recovery rate.
  • Vulnerable species may become more threatened and face extinction.
  • Experts also say the entire ecosystem of rainforest will be altered.
  • Surviving in transformed ecosystem difficult for many species.
  • Displacements of territorial birds and mammals.

What has been the damage so far?

  • Entire towns have been engulfed in flames, and residents across several states have lost their homes.
  • The heaviest structural damage occurred in NSW, the country’s most populated state, where 1,588 homes have been destroyed and over 650 damaged.
  • In total, more than 7.3 million hectares (17.9 million acres) have been burned across Australia’s six states — an area larger than the countries of Belgium and Denmark combined.
  • The worst-affected state is NSW, with more than 4.9 million hectares (12.1 million acres) burn. To put that into perspective, the 2019 Amazon rainforest fires burned more than 7 million hectares (about 17.5 million acres), according to Brazilian officials.
  • In California, which is known for its deadly wildfires, just over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) burned in 2019, and about 404,680 hectares (1 million acres) in 2018.
  • A total of 27 people across Australia have died this fire season, including several volunteer firefighters.

How many animals have died?

  • About half a billion animals have been affected by the fires across NSW, with millions likely dead — and that’s a conservative estimate.
  • That number of total animals affected could be as high as one billion nationwide, according to ecologists from the University of Sydney.
  • The figures for NSW include birds, reptiles, and mammals, except bats. It also excludes insects and frogs, so the real sum is almost certain to be higher, the ecologists said.
  • Almost a third of koalas in NSW may have been killed in the fires, and a third of their habitat has been destroyed.
  • Some species, like koalas, aren’t in any immediate danger of extinction because they are spread out across the country. But others that live in more niche environments with lower populations, including certain types of frogs and birds, could be wiped out entirely if their habitats are hit by the fires.
  • These are pretty good estimates based on previous research on population density — but until the fires stop, researchers have no way of surveying just how extensive the damage is, and exactly how many animals have died.