Australian bushfires: Earth’s ‘fever’ rises!

Dr. Utku Perktaş is a professor in the Biology Department at Hacettepe University.

Gospers Mountain fire (New South Wales, Australia, December 2019).

What happens if your fever, your body temperature, increases by 3 degrees? You have to run to the emergency room, right?

But what if earth’s fever increases 3 degrees? I try to explain. Oceans become warmer as the land heats up. On the one hand, the melting of glaciers at the poles accelerates In Antarctica, it is pointed out that even the accelerated melting in the “Thwaites” glacier, which is equivalent to the surface area of Great Britain, may threaten sea-level cities and agricultural lands from New York to Istanbul.

Moreover, this is about 1 degree Celsius global warming compared to the measurements before the industrial revolution. However, if global warming continues at this rate, it is estimated that earth’s “fever” may increase by 3 degrees Celsius until 2100. Of course, not only will the waters heat up, but the farmland and forests will also be affected by the high temperature. Huge forest fires will further increase global warming; nightmare scenarios predict a continuous cycle of disaster.

Earth’s increasing ‘fever’

Well, if all the forests in the world were burnt one day, what would happen if we suddenly lost all the forests? For example, firstly, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will start to increase immediately, the air will become inhaled and the greenhouse effect will peak. Air pollution and earth’s temperature will increase even more, some species will disappear in a short time, biodiversity will decrease, etc… It is possible to increase the answers.

But there is no need to go too far to get the picture to emerge. Let’s remember the last months of 2019. The press constantly informed about the fires that could not be stopped in Australia, the floods that followed. The answer to the question I just asked was given on a peerless and unprecedented scale for a continent, if not for the whole world. Australia, the government underestimated the matter first, the country’s prime minister ignored the incident and went on vacation as forest fires were spreading. More than 60,000 square kilometers were burned in the states of New South Wales and Victoria alone. This area is equivalent to Southeastern Turkey or equivalent to total surface area of Belgium and the Netherlands together. When we consider all of Australia, the burning forest area reached more than 186,000 square kilometers. In other words, an area equal to the total of the Black Sea and Marmara regions turned to ash in a few months. Smoke from fires completely covered the cities of Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.

People living in the countryside were desperate, and Australia’s extraordinary biodiversity was also in an important bottleneck. Then there was a strange development such as hitting camels from helicopters to consume water resources. The civilized image of a nation that ignored global warming and could not adequately protect its biodiversity was also heavily damaged with burning plants and animals in forest fires. What had happened on this continent that was not so alien to forest fires, and how had fires become so effective? Let me try to explain briefly.

The distribution of bushfires and burning places in Australia between February 2019 and February 2020. (Data downloaded from NASA).

The chain effect threatens the earth

We have just given an example of an increase in human body temperature. When your fever increases, its effect is felt in almost every organ, in varying degrees.

So is the world. Let’s continue with the Australian example.

The land parts, which have a coast to the oceans, are rapidly affected by the increase in temperature due to global warming, and the climate of these lands changes at a rate that the world does not see in the past. The vast Indian Ocean, which stretches from the western shores of Australia to the eastern shores of Africa, seems to have been affected by global warming. According to the system called the Indian Ocean dipole (the ocean surface temperatures on both ends of the Indian Ocean are completely opposite each other), when the ocean temperatures rise on the eastern shores of Africa, average rains increase in Kenya; the west Australian coasts are cooling in contrast to the warming in eastern Africa. As a result, central and western Australia is getting more drought. Thus, the probability of fire in the middle and west of the continent is much higher than expected today.

Besides the effect of the Indian Ocean dipole causing drought, the increase in earth average temperatures has also affected Australia. Australia’s average surface temperatures peaked twice last December. On December 17, the average maximum temperature was recorded as 40.9ºC, a day later this value increased to 41.9 ºC. Both values have outstripped 2013’s 40.3ºC record. These high values, which have never been seen in the continent’s past, were important evidence for those who ignored global warming. The result was driven to fires, increased the fire frequency, and caused unstoppable fires.

Global warming has undoubtedly driven the fires. Fires also negatively affect the climate in the environment in which they occur and provide positive feedback to global warming. For example, important greenhouse gases such as carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane are released into the atmosphere as a result of fires. Thus, depending on the severity and frequency of the fire, the climate where the fire occurred may deviate from the normal.

We prepare the disaster with our own hands

Well, intense fires have reshaped Australia’s climate in the short term. Australian meteorology reported that a total of 391.6 mm of rain fell to Sydney in the first days of last month (February 2020). This value was the highest value had been measured since 1990. Increasing precipitation came after intense fires and possibly transformed a certain part of the continent into a more temperate and rainy than expected as a result of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. Global warming undoubtedly extended the fire season in Australia and made the effects of warming much more evident. At the same time, fires triggered precipitation, increased the likelihood of floods, and drought significantly happened in some parts of the continent, with the effect of global warming. It seems that the frequency of fire and floods will continue to increase in Australia in near future.

As stated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the major source of warming in the climate system today is human.

Due to the increase in the human population, unplanned practices in land use raise the problem of deforestation that cannot be prevented today. Today, we have been making same kind of the effects on forests like fires do. In addition, the intensive use of fossil fuels triggers global warming all over the world. IPCC states that the world temperatures will increase at least 0.2ºC every ten years. Supporting this situation, Australia’s current meteorological data have already confirmed that average surface temperatures in the continent have increased by more than one degree in the past 25 years.

This strong warming not only triggers natural disasters such as drought, floods, heat waves, fires and storms, but also negatively affects ecological processes that affect people, animals and forests, in short, all natural life.

The temperature increase is an important risk not only for Australia, but for the whole world. For example, scientific studies on the distribution of animals showed that some species in Turkey will change their distribution pattern over the next 30-40 years due to climate change (1). The same result is also true for the species in North America (2). Therefore, the problem of climate change due to global warming is not just Australia’s problem, but of everyone in the world Fires in Australia reveal the inner link between natural disasters and climate change. This means that we need to address a wider problem quickly: what can we do to slow down global warming? This should be a difficult question for countries that do not have a good reputation to protect their nature, yet the answers are not very difficult.

[1] Abolafya et al. 2013. PLoS ONE 8(7): e68037., Perktaş et al. 2015. Bird Study 62: 14-28.

[1] Perktaş and Elverici 2019. Acta Ornithologica. 54: 213-222.


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