Swept up in a fiery inferno of destruction, both literally and politically, Australia is currently a nation on fire. For the most part confined to the realm of abstraction, the reality of global warming hasn’t truly sunk in for masses (myself included), that was until a month ago when our country went up in a blaze.
On the date of writing this (4th January) so far Australia has lost 15 million acres (think twice the size of Belgium) of land to ravenous wildfires along with 2,500 structures and the lives of 24 with a further 30 unaccounted for.
Unprecedented is the scope of these current fires, touching almost every state and devouring more land mass than any previous bushfire in Australian history. Authorities and witnesses have likened the damage and evacuation measures to a war zone as fires burn through areas larger than some small European countries.
More than 140 fires are burning across NSW, with dozens uncontained and thousands of firefighters in the field.
In Victoria about 50 fires burning in the state's east and north east.
There are about 20 bushfires burning in South Australia which includes three significant blazes.
Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland each have more than 30 fires burning with a number of considered significant.
The smoke has become it's own disaster. On January 1st, Australia's capital recorded the worst pollution it's ever seen, with an air quality index 23 times higher than what's considered "hazardous." Smoke in the city crept into birthing rooms, stopped MRI machines from working, and triggered respiratory distress in one elderly woman who died soon after stepping off a plane.
New South Wales has faced the brunt of the disaster, with the largest amount of effected land mass and an estimate of over 500 million wildlife dead, among 8,000 included koalas, accounting for one third of their entire population.
The unnerving fact is, the worst is yet to come. Summer extends from December to February, with fire season typically peaking in late January or early February - the disaster is expected to continue. On January 3rd, officials warned that conditions would get worse over the following few days. "It's going to be a blast furnace," says New South Wales Transport Minister Andrew Constance.
Is Global Warming a cause?
"The reality is, this is a function of climate change - this extreme heat, these extreme conditions that are so volatile and are producing the types of intensity and early season burning that we do not normally see in Australia," says Crystal Kolden, an associate professor of fire science at the University of Idaho who studied wildfires in Tasmania.
Bushfires are not new to Australia. It's typically hot and dry, similar to conditions in California or the Mediterranean. Eucalyptus forests in Australia have a unique relationship to fire; the trees actually depend on fire to release their seeds. However a large amount of the inferno has taken a grip on forests often too moist to be susceptible to wildfires, a sure sign that the current climate conditions are contributing to the vastness of this disaster.
Weather conditions feeding the fires are historic. Australia suffered its hottest day on record with temperatures in Australia last month hitting 49.9 C (121.8 F), with the average annual temperature 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1960 to 1990 average. This extreme heat and drought create more tinder to fuel fires.
The heightened intensity and frequency of wildfires falls in line with scientists' predictions for a warming world.
In October there were record warm temperatures above Antarctica over a matter of weeks. this "sudden stratospheric warming" brought above-average spring temperatures and below-average rainfall across large parts of New South Wales and southern Queensland.
This Antarctic warming resulted in persistent strong westerly winds bringing hot dry air from the interior to the coast, making the fire weather even riskier for the coasts.