Updated: Apr 6, 2020
First there were the polar bears standing forlorn on broken ice floes along the Arctic Circle. Now we have seen the kangaroos witnessing their habitat desolated by the fires burning in Australia. We have learned that the Australia wildfires of 2019-20 have destroyed 1/5 of the country’s forests, making this the largest loss of forests in recorded history.1 One study showed that between September 2019 and January 2020 around 5.8 million hectares of broadleaf forests were burned in New South Wales and Victoria. This loss does not include the additional devastation that occurred on the island of Tasmania. Matthias Boer, from Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at Western Sydney University was “shocked” that so much forest could be burned in a single season. He concluded that all the models for these fires had vastly underestimated what could happen to the forests of Australia. The typical season sees about 2 percent of forest loss each season in Australia.
Climate scientists are sometimes accused of being alarmists and overestimating the impact of a warmer planet. In this case they missed the mark on the other side. There were no widely known climate models predicting this kind of devastation in Australia. Climate scientist Benjamin Sanderson of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder says, “This event was worse than anything in any of the models at any point in this century. Only one of the models toward the end of the century started producing things of this magnitude.” 2 Knowing that rich forests are a defense against the increase of CO2 into the atmosphere, heightens the alarm this miscalculation means for Australia and the rest of the world. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion this Australian fiery event can only signal more disasters in the future.
Another victim in this season of devastation have been animals of Australia. A number of ecologists, including Christopher Dickman at the University of Sydney, estimate that 1 billion animals have been killed in these fires. This is not based on a body count, but on models used for animal loss due to land-clearing practices. These models do not include bats, frogs and other invertebrates and so even these estimates could be significantly low.3 Whether one is scouring statistics or seeing tragic images of charred Koala bears, the impact is the same. The animals of Australia have been decimated by these fires.
While the scientists are doing their important work, the Australian fires have been a wake-up call for its citizens. The people are becoming more vocal and demanding that their government respond with science-backed recommendations. Yet Australia cannot do it alone. Those in the West may not yet be feeling the heat of these fires, but we should open ourselves up to the peril of our neighbors down under. They are under the weight of ecological devastation and we all have a responsibility as global neighbors to partner with them in recovery and future transitions. Even moreso, Christians are called to stand with the least of these which include not only the hungry, naked and imprisoned, but also those ravaged by fires which have swept across their communities.
1 Galey, Patrick. (2020, February 15) Those Horrific Wildfires in Austrailia Destroyed a Fifth of the Continent’s Forests, Science Alert. Retrieved from https://www.sciencealert.com/bushfires-decimated-a-staggering-fifth-of-australia-s-unique-forests
2 Simon, Matt. (2020, February 24) Australia's Bushfires Completely Blasted Through the Models. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/australias-bushfires/
3 Pickrell, John (2020, January 22) Australian Fires Have Imperiled up to 100 Species. Science News for Students. Retrieved from https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/australian-fires-have-imperiled-up-to-100-species