Australian bushfires should be a global concern
Massive bushfires have ravaged vast swaths of land in Australia, burning structures, uprooting communities and creating a major challenge for the country's government, which is struggling to tackle the environmental, economic and political fallout of the catastrophe.
So far at least 28 people have been killed and over 3,000 houses burnt or damaged in the hundreds of fires that have ravaged the area. The plumes churned up by the burning wood and vegetation have also reached the stratosphere.
According to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the smoke generated during the many months of bushfires is expected to complete one circle around the globe, affecting places thousands of miles away from Australia, and making it truly a global problem.
Back in Australia, the impact is far-reaching. Many major cities including Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and Adelaide are reported to have dangerous air quality levels due to smoke that has continued to spread from blazes in nearby areas.
The air quality has become so poor in some areas that a tennis star, Dalila Jakupovic of Slovenia, collapsed during an Australian Open qualifying round match in Melbourne. Another match between Maria Sharapova and Laura Siegemund was called off due to poor air quality.
These incidents provide us with solid evidence that the fires have started taking a visible toll on humans. Fears of a major catastrophe with long term negative impact on human health cannot be ruled out until remedial measures are taken to rectify things.
The fires have also adversely affected thousands of species of flora and fauna which have been burned and killed. Some estimates showed that about a billion animals were directly or indirectly affected. This makes the issue even more urgent.
Australia's economic loss is expected to surpass $4.4 billion. This was the cost of the deadly 2009 fires that killed 173 people and razed the entire town of Marysville. The current blazes have burnt 8.4 million hectares of land as compared to 450,000 hectares in 2009.
The already volatile climate profile around the globe will only deteriorate further due to the fires. NASA reported that the smoke is now affecting New Zealand, where the issue of air quality is becoming a major concern. Farther away, in South America, the smoke from the fires has even changed the color of skies.
Scientists have warned that the bushfires are a precursor to even a bigger disaster that may hit us in the coming decades if the Earth's average temperature rose by 3 Celsius degrees above pre-industrial levels. Data shows that Australia witnessed an increase of 1.4 Celsius degrees before the blazes late last year as compared to 1.1 Celsius degrees elsewhere.
Massive damage of a vast magnitude, some of which irreversible, may ravage the globe if temperatures rise by even 2 Celsius degrees. The ensuing weather changes will increase the frequency of fires and amplify the scale of the losses to unsustainable levels.
The impact of the disaster is not just limited to land but also affects the oceans, according to scientists. Fire generates large amounts of carbon dioxide and oceans work like sponge to absorb it. Toxic gas and fumes then react with water to create an acid, thereby increasing the level of acidity of the water and affecting marine life.
The issue of bushfires is complex despite the belief that it is closely linked with the adverse changes in the climate and our lifestyle. According to the Australian Academy of Science, the cause of blazes is multi-faceted and vary from the massive increase in population to the changes in weather patterns.
The academy is calling for the right set of policies to be implemented on urban planning, building standards, habitat restoration, biodiversity and management of land, water and wildlife. It is clear that fire weather is multiplying the dangers of bushfires, but humans are by and large responsible for the disaster.
So far Australia has been dealing with the issue mostly on its own. It would be better however, if it were open to international aid, which can stop the fires through joint international efforts and minimize the damage to the environment.
Once the fires subside, major research work should be undertaken to study their impact on vegetation, animals and human beings. The issue of large bushfires has not received much attention in the past, but with their increasing threat in the coming years, the world should be better prepared and protected.
There is no dispute that the damage to the ecosystem is tremendous and urgent measures are needed to tackle the long term fallout of this environmental disaster with far-reaching impact.