Aussie bushfires: Earth's system at risk to disrupt climate

Australia rethinks strategies to tackle rampant wildfires, driven by escalating carbon emissions, can jeopardize Earth's systems and trigger more substantial climatic disturbances in the future.
Shubhangi Dua
Climate change caused out of control fire on Narrow Neck Plateau, Katoomba, Blue Mountains, Australia
Climate change caused out of control fire on Narrow Neck Plateau, Katoomba, Blue Mountains, Australia

Andrew Merry / Getty Images 

During the years 2019 to 2020, Australia experienced bushfires – unprecedented wildfires leading to a staggering 800 percent expansion in the burned area compared to the period from 1988 to 2001. These fires occurred under “fire weather” conditions – extreme heat combined with record-low rainfall. 

A new study finds that a recent surge in bushfires worldwide, particularly spotlighting Canada and Greece and the Australian Black Summer fires, could exacerbate climate change and disrupt Earth’s systems, leading to severe climatic experiences. 

Disrupting Earth’s systems

Researchers from the University of New South Wales Canberra and The University of Tasmania uncovered that bushfires caused widespread vegetation dieback, ensuring the burning of wildland fuels at maximal intensity.

Jason Sharples, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra Professor of Bushfire Dynamics, said that fire thunderstorms prevalent across the 2019–20 fire season could significantly disrupt Earth systems, such as the climate.

"During the Black Summer, we witnessed 44 fire thunderstorms, also called pyrocumulonimbus, where extreme fires alter the surrounding atmosphere," Sharples stated.

He added that the Black Summer fires shattered all previous records for Australia's fire season. 

"While these enormous fires had devastating immediate impacts, people were killed, homes were destroyed, and innumerable wildlife and habitats were lost, they also had a significant effect on systems that influence global climate.”

The human-driven greenhouse gases and smoke released caused intense stratospheric pollution, damaging the ozone layer and causing a drop in ocean temperatures. This resulted in the production of algal blooms in the Southern Ocean, which were described o be larger than Australia.

Calling for urgent climate action

"These impacts might be less evident than the immediate destruction, but they pose a severe risk to the health of ecosystems across the planet, Sharples said, “It is crucial that the global community takes steps to limit the effects of climate change and improve fire management techniques to prevent these extreme fires as much as possible.

Sharples warns that if eco-friendly techniques to contain the fires are not employed, people will be locked in a vicious cycle of climate change. The consequences of such a scenario could cause larger fires, heightening the effects of climate change.

An article by Science magazine alluded to climate change's societal and environmental impacts, citing that Australia is rethinking wildfire management and working towards innovative solutions.

Learning from Aboriginal communities

“This includes driving research into the effects of climate change on fire, optimizing approaches to prescribed burns, and leveraging Indigenous knowledge and expertise of Aboriginal communities. These approaches could prove vital for Australia and for managing extreme fires elsewhere in the world,” Science magazine stated.

David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science at the University of Tasmania, also expressed that Australia, and other fire-prone countries, needed to rethink fire management practices and adopt diverse approaches to meet the challenge.

“Following the Black Summer, policy discussions have focused on increasing firefighter capability and capacity, but with the extreme fires we expect in the future, no firefighting service could adequately respond to those.”

He suggested alternative practices, including adapting to cultural burning practices used for centuries by indigenous Australians. 

He further stated, "We should also consider what benefit marsupials and non-native herbivores can have on reducing the understory vegetation across different parts of Australia. Thinning bushland surrounding urban areas and establishing 'green fire breaks' with irrigated, low-flammable.”

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