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What the Australian Bushfires Mean for the Rest of the World

As the continent's lands burn, it's not only Australians who are suffering.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by DEAN LEWINS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10518220i) A firefighter works to contain a small bushfire, which closed the Princes Highway, near Ulladulla, Australia, 05 January 2020. According to media reports, at least 1,200 homes in Victoria and New South Wales have been destroyed by fires this season, at least 18 people have died, and more than 5.9 million hectares have been burnt. Bushfires in Australia, Ulladulla - 05 Jan 2020DEAN LEWINS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The worst fires on record

It’s bushfire season in Australia and for months, some of its lands have been in flames. This year’s fires are the worst on record, with at least 23 people dead, an estimated half-billion animals severely impacted or dead, and over 1,500 homes torched to the ground. With at least six weeks left to go in fire season, New South Wales has called a state of emergency, as efforts to rescue stranded residents, bring any kind of aid to parched and singed animals now faced with loss of habitat and depleted food resources, and temper infernal flames, continue in a country that was already contending with drought conditions due to the effects of climate change. Australians of all species are suffering the most. But the fires have grave consequences for the rest of the world, too. Learn 13 things you never knew about forest fires.

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Tasman Glacier and lake with massive icebergs, Mount Cook National Park, New ZealandHighly/Shutterstock

Faster-melting glaciers

New Zealand, one of Australia’s closest neighbors, is feeling the effects of the bushfires. Acrid, lung-filling smoke made it 1,000-plus miles across the Tasman Sea, where it was reducing visibility and increasing risk for locals of complications from smoke inhalation such as respiratory distress. The most consequential effect of the fires, though, might be on the country’s glaciers, about which Helen Clark, New Zealand’s former prime minister, tweeted: “How one country’s tragedy has spillover effects: Australian bushfires have created haze in New Zealand with particular impact on the south of the South Island yesterday and now spreading more widely. Impact of ash on glaciers is likely to accelerate melting.” Melting glaciers could usher in a future none of us wants to suffer.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Rick Rycroft/AP/Shutterstock (10517722c) Smoke from a fire at Batemans Bay, Australia, billows into the air, . Australia's prime minister called up about 3,000 reservists as the threat of wildfires escalated in at least three states on Saturday, while strong winds and high temperatures were forecast to bring flames to populated areas including the suburbs of Sydney Wildfires, Batemans Bay, Australia - 04 Jan 2020Rick Rycroft/AP/Shutterstock

Trapped heat

Raging fires, and the enormous amounts of ash and soot they create, cause a cyclical warming effect that was noted by CBS News as large tracts of Russia burned this summer (are you beginning to sense a trend?). Namely, when this soot inevitably gets blown around and inevitably falls on ice, snow, and glaciers, it has the effect of darkening them. While this may not sound like a precipitous occurrence, it actually reduces snow and ice’s surface reflectiveness, which causes heat to be trapped beneath it. The Russian fires have caused Arctic ice and permafrost to melt, releasing more carbon dioxide and exacerbating global warming. The Australian fires will only add to this calamity. Check out 15 of the most breathtaking glaciers in the world while they’re still around.

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coal fired power station silhouette at sunset, Pocerady, Czech republickamilpetran/Shutterstock

Increased carbon emissions

By some estimates, the bushfires in Australia are putting the country on track to at least double its carbon emissions for the year (not including the emissions from melting glaciers elsewhere). In fact, as the Guardian reported in mid-December, the fires had already spewed 250 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere—about half of its usual annual load. And with forests and grasslands, which both sequester and store carbon, effectively destroyed in some instances, the ability of systems to repair this damage has been greatly reduced—creating what a fire ecologist interviewed in the article called “a nasty negative feedback cycle of a biosphere carbon sink becoming a source [of carbon].” This could have grave global implications, as the world is nowhere near on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions to stave off climate disaster. Try these 25 simple ways to reduce your own carbon footprint.

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clouds and thunder lightnings and stormMihai Simonia/Shutterstock

Changing weather

There’s no such thing as weather that happens in isolation—storms in one place on our planet often have their origins in fronts that begin over oceans or mountains thousands of miles away. And, as a recent Forbes article reports, fires—including those from erupting volcanoes—have the potential to not only block visibility for airplanes, grounding them, but to create giant thunderstorms. They might also create pockets of hotter or colder air, or create situations where the weather is increasingly less stable overall—although no one is yet certain how far from the Australian continent those effects might roam, or how deleterious they may prove to be. This is what the Amazon jungle looked like before forest fires and other changes.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Corporal Nicole Dorrett/AP/Shutterstock (10518713a) Provided by the Australian Department of Defence, a woman and three children prepare to board an Australian Army Blackhawk helicopter in Omeo, Victoria, Australia, for evacuation from the wildfire effected area. The wildfires have so far scorched an area twice the size of the U.S. state of Maryland Wildfires, Omeo, Australia - 04 Jan 2020Corporal Nicole Dorrett/AP/Shutterstock

Displacement of peoples

The world is already reeling from the effects of increased migration as people in the regions most impacted by climate change pack up their families and some scant belongings and head for places where they hope to find a better, safer, future. Many host countries have turned against their newest residents, though, claiming that they overburden their resources. With the 2019-20 bushfires, a good number of Australians are now displaced and on the move, and one could speculate about what might happen if such extremes of fire are the new normal—making large swaths of, not just Australia, but any drought-ravaged country and fire-prone unliveable. These 13 islands may disappear completely before the century is out because of rising water levels.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by DEAN LEWINS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10326772e) A general view of Port Botany shipping container terminal in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 03 July 2019. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures out for May 2019 Australia's trade surplus increased to 5.75 billion Australian dollar (about four billion US dollar) in May, from 4.82 billion Australian dollar (about 3.3 billion US dollar) in April. Exports were up four per cent for the month, while imports were up one percent, the ABS said on 03 July. ABS figures for Australia's trade surplus in May 2019, Sydney - 03 Jul 2019DEAN LEWINS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Decreased exports

In addition to coal, Australia also exports all kinds of agricultural products—like beef, wheat, dairy items, and wool—particularly to Asian countries including China, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia. In fact, 65 percent of the country’s ag products are sent overseas, accounting for 14 percent of its exports and a significant portion of its GDP. But what happens when the land it uses to grow all that food and fiber is destroyed by fire? Obviously, no more goods to export, which puts a huge economic burden on Australian citizens. But it also creates a huge kink in the international supply chain. Thanks to globalization, pretty much no country eats only the food it grows. What happens to the global food supply as agricultural land in Australia and other export nations burns to a crisp?

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by LUKAS COCH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10518087i) A kangaroo is seen in bushland surrounded by smoke haze early morning in Canberra, Australia, 05 January 2020. Smoke haze in Canberra, Australia - 05 Jan 2020LUKAS COCH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A harbinger of our global future

Australia, the world’s third-biggest exporter of fossil fuels, is also one of the western world’s greatest climate change deniers, with its prime minister, Scott Morrison, refusing to take meaningful action to reduce emissions despite the protestations of some of his constituency, and seen to be “unwavering” in his dismissal of the climate crisis, according to the New York Times. But as of this writing, the fires continue to burn, mirroring calamitous fires in other places like California and Brazil, New York magazine offers a prediction that should make everyone’s blood run cold with fear: Powerful forces are mobilizing to normalize such fires, making them seem less horrific than they truly are. And with that normalization comes inertia: a luxury none of us in a burning world can afford. Next, read on to find out about the animals that may become extinct due to the wildfires in Australia.

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australia bush fire 2020Rick Rycroft/AP/Shutterstock

Ways you can help Australia

While this situation is devastating and it’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of it, there is something you can do. Donating to one of the following worthy and reputable organizations can help in a big way. Each provides much-needed assistance and relief in a different way—from helping affected communities and rescuing koalas to supporting the volunteer firefighters, many of whom are unpaid and have put their own lives on hold to help.

As they say, every little bit helps—and it truly does. Another thing you can do? Visit—yes, now. Your tourism dollars will also help, and vast areas of the continent are unaffected the fires, including these 13 breathtaking places in Australia you can still visit.

Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.

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