Smoke from fires in Australia is expected to make at least one “full circuit” around the globe and return to the skies over the country, scientists from NASA have warned. Studying smoke plumes from late December, the space agency said that the smoke had traveled “halfway across Earth” and affected air quality in other countries. Australia is being ravaged by the worst wildfires seen in decades, with large swaths of the country devastated since the fire season began in late July. At least 28 people have died nationwide, and in the state of New South Wales (NSW) alone, more than 3,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged. State and federal authorities are struggling to contain the massive blazes, even with firefighting assistance from other countries, including the United States.
There have been fires in every Australian state, but New South Wales has been hardest hit. Blazes have torn through bushland, wooded areas, and national parks like the Blue Mountains. Some of Australia’s largest cities have also been affected, including Melbourne and Sydney — where fires have damaged homes in the outer suburbs and thick plumes of smoke have blanketed the urban center. Earlier in December, the smoke was so bad in Sydney that air quality measured 11 times the “hazardous” level.
Each year there is a fire season during the Australian summer, with hot, dry weather making it easy for blazes to start and spread. Natural causes are to blame most of the time, like lightning strikes in drought-affected forests. Dry lightning was responsible for starting a number of fires in late December, which then traveled more than 20 kilometers. Not many know that even humans are causing the fire. Australian police have charged at least 24 people with deliberately starting bushfires, and have taken legal action against 183 people for fire-related offenses since November, according to a police statement.
The signal of human-induced warming has become clearer in different parts of the world with the passage of time. A paper published last year suggests the impact of climate change could be detected outside the range of natural variability in 22% of land that’s available for burning. This has been seen in many regions, including the western US and Canada, southern Europe, Scandinavia and Amazonia. Human-induced warming is also increasing fire risks in other regions, including Siberia and Australia. Experts involved in the review say that people are seeing the signal of global warming “with their own eyes” when it comes to wildfires and heatwaves. Unless, humans take the signs seriously and do all that it takes to stabilise the world’s climate, climate change is going to write more dangerous chapters for humans, challenging their very existence on the planet.
With Vijay Sonkhia, Zeba Warsia Warsia for NMTV News.