In just a few months some 5.8 million hectares of broadleaf forest burned down in New South Wales and Victoria.
Australia is a vast parched land exposed to unrelenting heat and sunshine all year round so bushfires aren’t uncommon. Yet the latest outbreak of wildfires dealt unprecedented harm to the continent’s ecosystem by destroying a fifth of local forests, scientists say.
In just a few months between September last year and January this year some 5.8 million hectares of broadleaf forest burned down in New South Wales and Victoria, accounting for 21% of Australia’s forests, a team of scientists has estimated.
And that is without damage to forests on the island state of Tasmania being taken into account. Usually Australia loses around 2% of its forests to bushfires, or a 10th of the damage in recent months.
The extent of the recent destruction horrified even seasoned scientists. “The shock came from realising that this season was off the charts globally in terms of the percentage of the continental section of a forest biome that burned,” observed Matthias Boer, an expert at Western Sydney University who focuses on the landscape ecology and management of fire-prone environments.
Prolonged droughts since 2017 across much of the continent have worsened matters, preventing vegetation on a parched landscape from recovering from earlier bushfires, experts said. Consensus attributes the main cause of these droughts to climate change, which has been wreaking havoc with traditional weather patterns over the past years.
“The unusual extent of the fires has led many to name Australia ‘ground zero’ for climate change, motivating domestic and international demands for Australia and other wealthy nations to strengthen their mitigation efforts,” the authors of an article in the journal Nature note.
That is why devastating droughts could well become recurrent events in future, exacerbating wildfires. Their effects could be devastating for Australia’s flora and fauna. This time around 1 billion animals perished in the fires, pushing several already endangered species closer to extinction.
In New South Wales alone more than 800 million animals died, according to a scientist at the University of Sydney. “It’s events like this that may well hasten the extinction process for a range of other species,” the scientist, Chris Dickman, said.