Australia Bushfires

An unprecedented fire season devastates Australia

Active bushfires affecting a 5,000 square mile area of New South Wales, Australia are shown in this Overview. The massive burn accounts for just a portion of the 38,000 square miles that have already been engulfed by the historic burn. Source imagery courtesy of ESA / Copernicus.

Bushfires in Australia began in September 2019 on the eastern coasts of Queensland and New South Wales. Throughout the country, fires are referred to as “bushfires” because all non-urban areas of Australia are referred to as “the bush”. The flames have continued to spread, now advancing towards the city of Melbourne, as the summer heat has moved further south down the continent. Already the fires have burned 8x the area of the California Wildfires of 2018, and almost 6x the area of the Amazon Fires of 2019 that both caught the world’s attention. With 500 million animals estimated to have been killed so far, the fires continue to devastate wildlife and cause unfathomable destruction, forcing many to flee their homes.

The forest and ground are charred around Wallabi Point - a coastal community in New South Wales. Homes here were declared to be in immediate danger as the 21,000 hectare Hillville Road Fire grew in size to emergency levels. Left - July 21, 2019 / Right - November 27, 2019. Source imagery © Nearmap / -31.985923°, 152.567435°

Climate conditions on the ground in Australia are responsible for the massive burn – in 2019 Australia had its hottest year on record. The mean temperature was 2.7.°F higher (1.5°C) than the long-term average when records were first kept in 1910. Worldwide, temperature increases have led to fire seasons becoming longer and more damaging – recent fires in Greece, California, and the Amazon are evidence of this trend. Like these fires in other parts of the world, the Australian blaze has also been fueled by lack of rain – the amount of rainfall in 2019 was the lowest level since 1900, 40% below the long-term average, creating dangerously dry conditions. A delay in the start of the monsoon season in recent years (December to March) has not helped matters. The moist air from these storms moves down from South East Asia into Australia, dumping water that cools hot and dry lands in the North. The hope is that rains from the late-arriving monsoons may move south soon to douse spreading flames.

The Himawari-8 satellite, which photographs the Earth every 10 minutes from 22,000 miles away, captured a massive plume of smoke coming from Australia on January 1, 2020. Smoke from the blaze has been observed crossing the Pacific Ocean all the way to South America. Image courtesy of RAMMB/CIRA/CSU.

While rains will help, firefighters and volunteers continue to try everything in their power to stop the continued spread of the bushfires. The use of containment lines, which typically involve bulldozing paths in the forest to prevent the fires from jumping, and water drops from planes are some of the strategies currently being employed. Life for many of Australia’s 25 million residents has been impacted by the fires – from poor air quality to the loss of homes. In the last few weeks, air quality in cities like Melbourne have been the most hazardous of anywhere in the world. Full ecosystems and animals have been devastated – the koala bear may soon be on the endangered species list. With global temperature increases on the rise, fire seasons will continue their intensity, perhaps challenging the livability of areas affected, forever. To learn more about how you can help and support those effected by the fires, click here.

In this video we’ve blended together two images of the same area in southeastern Australia to show the devastating impact that brushfires have had on the region since mid-November. The first image shows clear skies over the border of Victoria and New South Wales on July 24, 2019, and the final frame shows a blanket of smoke covering the entire area on January 1, 2020. Source imagery courtesy of Joshua Stevens / NASA.

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