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The Australian wildfires: How are they related to Charlottesville?

University environmental science professors discuss the global and local implications of the fires sweeping the island nation

<p>The effects of global warming have created destructive wild fires throughout Australia, disrupting ecosystems and increasing pollution. Statistics are from the Atmosphere Monitoring Service.&nbsp;</p>

The effects of global warming have created destructive wild fires throughout Australia, disrupting ecosystems and increasing pollution. Statistics are from the Atmosphere Monitoring Service. 

Currently, fires rage in Australia, ravaging the landscape and destroying everything in their way, be it plant, animal or building. Flames consume historic forests and descend upon communities of species from the charismatic koala and kangaroo to the endangered western ground parrot and mountain pygmy possum. 

With apocalyptic images and dire predictions of hellish temperatures dispersed daily, the disastrous conflagration sharply contrasts the chilly weather in Charlottesville. However, according to experts at the University, there may be a stronger link between the fires half a world away and the local community.

“The same thing could happen here,” environmental science Prof. Karen McGlathery said. “If you have a period of drought and fire fuel builds up, you could have a forest fire … The lessons that we learn from Australia about [these sorts] of extreme events related to climate, we could see — not to the same extent — those things happen in Virginia.”

Wildfires in the southeast region of Australia started burning in September and have quickly evolved into one of the country’s most disastrous fire seasons on record. The blaze has claimed 29 human lives, destroyed 2500 homes, released 400 megatons of carbon dioxide and killed 1.25 billion animals to date.

While the fires are markedly severe, Hank Shugart, W. W. Corcoran professor of environmental sciences, noted that wildfires in and of themselves do not necessarily constitute an emergency. Bushfires are a normal part of certain ecosystems in Australia. However, though the origins of present fires have been attributed to lightning and arson, climate change has exacerbated the problem to nearly unprecedented levels.

“Wildfires are part of the Australian ecology,” Shugart said. “There are ways you can reduce the fuel, which is basically the real problem. You can run controlled fires to keep the fuel down ... You don’t tend to realize it here, but typically 15 to 20 percent of the land area in Australia burns every year.” 

These heat waves are mostly concentrated around the southeast coast, especially near the states of New South Wales and Victoria, leading to decreased rainfall and buildup of dry vegetation, which effectively serves as tinder for wildfires.

“The thing that is behind all of this is climate change … that is starting to promote fires,” Shugart said. “The fires might occur normally every 200 to 400 years might start occuring every 50-100 years, which is a big change, because you are dealing with fires that are roaring into highly populated areas.”

Effects from the wildfires are expected to outlast the flames. Not only will the scorched expanses no longer provide habitats or food for the animals that remain, nor tracts of land for housing, but also debris may spill into freshwater sources and contaminate them.

Air pollution is a widespread concern as well that impacts more than just the immediate region. Australia certainly bears the brunt of the soot and ash that fill the sky, enduring days in places such as Sydney where the amount of smoke rivals that present in 37 cigarettes. Yet this problem has extended well beyond the physical limits of the continent. Based on several satellite images and reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the smoke from these wildfires reached parts of South America, posing serious health hazards.

Furthermore, the soot expelled into the atmosphere, along with carbon dioxide released from burning trees, can cause temperatures to increase and ocean levels to rise, environmental science Asst. Prof. Kevin Grise said.

“Downstream, that sort of ash and carbon from the fires can deposit itself on various surfaces in the ocean, on glaciers in New Zealand,” Grise said. “That can speed up glacial melt in certain places because it changes the color of the glaciers and allows them to absorb more sunlight.”

Although Virginia has not experienced as drastic a climate crisis in Australia, it was only a few years ago in 2017 when Charlottesville experienced its own period of drought. McGlathery claimed such conditions could cause damaging fires in Virginia’s forests, although on a much smaller scale.

Grise argued some relevant concerns for the local community are actually directly opposite in nature to Australia’s fires. The intensity of storms has trended upward in recent years, especially with regards to the amount of rainfall. Due to the climbing average temperatures, Grise explained that the atmosphere can carry more water that storms could potentially release in quick succession.

“Things you should care about here are heat waves and actually potentially the other direction, in extremes with rainfall events,” Grise said. “The argument is that as the climate gets warmer, a given storm has the potential to rain more. The system producing the rain is the same, but if the same storm passed over us in 1900 and 2100, presumably it would rain a lot more in 2100.”

Another connection between the seemingly disparate Australia and Charlottesville is the response to such extreme events. In Australia, despite the efforts of its citizens to lobby for policies addressing the threat of soaring greenhouse gas emissions, the Australian government has been reluctant to claim responsibility for the contribution of the country’s major coal industry to climate change. Shugart pointed out that, in fact, everyone can claim at least partial responsibility for climate change and its effects, including Australia’s fires, regardless of their location.

“What is happening in Australia is by some degree caused by the people in Charlottesville,” Shugart said. “It's a planetary problem.”

McGlathery echoed that sentiment and promoted the strategy of creating change through policy. She encouraged individuals to engage in environmentally friendly practices, but declared those actions alone would not be sufficient to curb extreme events. Supporting officials at the local and national levels with explicit climate agendas could help combat harmful climate change on a larger scale, McGlathery said.

“I think that changing policies is critical,” McGlathery said. “I hope the Australian wildfires will help raise the awareness of people in Charlottesville and all of Virginia about the many effects that climate change can have on the environment and on people and animals.”