Wildfires raging out of control in eastern Australia continue to burn, sending huge plumes of smoke into the Pacific. Various Earth observing satellites, including weather satellites, are capturing the orange-tinted haze blowing off the fires to the east. The fires in Australia began in September; to date, they’ve claimed at least 20 lives with dozens more missing. In addition to the fatalities, they have so far destroyed more than 1,300 homes.
A climate system in the Indian Ocean known as the dipole, is the main driver behind the extreme heat in Australia. A somewhat cyclical weather and climate event, in the dipole, unusually hot, dry, and windy conditions rake against the east coast of the Australian coast. Because portions of the coast have experienced drought conditions for up to 3 years, the current fire weather makes fires that much easier to spread and grow.
The huge amounts of smoke being generated by these massive, widespread fires can be seen on satellite view heading to New Zealand and elsewhere over the South Pacific.
#VicBushfires #AustraliaBushfires #BushfireCrisis #Sentinel2 image acquired today (3 January) at midday#ClimateCrisis #AustraliaBurning #AustraliaOnFire #AustraliaBurning #bushfiresAustralia pic.twitter.com/Ju5AvqJEiD
— Annamaria Luongo (@annamaria_84) January 3, 2020
? Latest @CopernicusEU #Atmosphere Monitoring Service data shows #CarbonMonoxide in the lower #troposphere released by #Australian #wildfires between 15 Dec and 2 Jan. Animation shows particularly intense activity in #NewSouthWales & #Victoria#AustraliaBurning #AustralianFires pic.twitter.com/O14dF63r9f
— Copernicus ECMWF (@CopernicusECMWF) January 3, 2020
Beyond threatening fires and filling communities with unhealthy level of smoke and pollutants, the fires are also impacting agriculture and wildlife. The area being impacted by fires in eastern California is world-famous for its wines; and as those that experienced wildfire in California’s Napa Valley are aware, just the presence of smoke alone can be enough to wipe out entire grape crops.
The world famous #wine industry in #Australia‘s #HunterValley is suffering from #drought, but ash & smoke from #NSWfires are threatening to contaminate the fruit on the vines here rendering them useless. Vineyards have already tossed acres of crops due to smoke. pic.twitter.com/TGwtZzCC76
— the Weatherboy (@theWeatherboy) December 11, 2019
The smoke has darkened skies over New Zealand while ash and other particles from the fires have covered some of New Zealand’s South Island glaciers with a dark, dusty top.
The smoke has been so bad at times in Sydney that smoke alarms have gone off in the city’s high rises, prompting frequent evacuations of tall buildings there.
The smoke in Sydney is so bad that smoke alarms are going off in buildings throughout this neighborhood. Even inside, you can’t escape the stench of burnt trees and grass. #bushfiresNSW pic.twitter.com/S2gEnUNNLr
— the Weatherboy (@theWeatherboy) December 10, 2019
Australia’s famous koala also finds itself under threat of fire. While internet rumors spread that the fuzzy, cuddly animal was facing a “functional extinction”, the population is alive but is declining. The recent fires in New South Wales have claimed the lives of an estimated 350 – 1,000 koalas according to National Geographic. “We’re not going to see koalas go extinct this fast,” says Chris Johnson, professor of wildlife conservation at the University of Tasmania. “Koala populations will continue to decline because of lots of interacting reasons, but we’re not at the point where one event could take them out.”
While the politically inclined want to link the wildfires there to “climate change” or some type of “climate emergency”, the science says otherwise. Cycles of drought after periods of heavy rain, poor maintenance of forests and grasslands, and arsonists are to blame for the fires.
Returning wet conditions + poor land management strategies could create a situation for more growth of fuels on the hills and mountains outside of Sydney, like here in the #HunterValley. A future drought cycle could be more catastrophic than this 1 if something isn’t done today. pic.twitter.com/L9Tpm6WacB
— the Weatherboy (@theWeatherboy) December 12, 2019
Just months ago, record heavy rainfall drenched the region, creating an all-time record rainfall for Sydney. More dramatic heavy rain events impacted New South Wales in 2016, allowing brush to grow significantly. Each significant rain event was followed by a prolonged period of dry, which helped turn the new brush that grow into fuel and food for future fires. As was the case with numerous wildfire problems in California, a prolonged period of environmental mismanagement has created a tinderbox of unharvested timber, dead trees, and thick underbrush. Lightning-sparked fires from cyclical thunderstorms would typically “re-set” these forests and promote new healthy growth. But with people living near and inside these forest areas, the fires that naturally exist to keep forests healthy are fought away while strict environmental rules on lumber and vegetation allow fuels to grow unchecked. The result is what you see today in both Australia and California: wildfires threatening homes and people and the firefighters that try to get them under control.
While lightning is often to blame for starting wildfires, most fires in Australia appear to be intentionally set. In nearby Queensland, nearly 100 arsonists were arrested for starting fires there have have destroyed homes and consumed thousands of acres of land. At the end of December, police revealed 103 of the destructive fires that have burned Queensland since September were deliberately lit. According to Queensland police, 31 adults and 67 juveniles were arrested for deliberately setting fires.