I think we can all agree, 2020 was quite eventful. Within the first few months we experienced the global threat of nuclear war, the onset of COVID-19 and what can only be described as hellfire in Australia as their bushfires ravished the eastern coast of the country. Focusing on the latter, I remember seeing images of orange skies and injured koalas that circulated through the news and our social media feeds. For those of us not living in the impacted areas, although we didn’t experience it firsthand, seeing the devastation was heartbreaking.
The 2019-2020 bushfires were some one the worst on Australia’s record. These occurred at the height of the country’s fire season and can be tied to multiple different factors. In the previous blog post, we learned about atmospheric oscillations near Europe, but in this case another oscillation took control.
The Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) influences shifts in precipitation and temperature in Australia and Eastern Africa. In 2019, the IOD index had its highest positive recording within the last 60 years. When the IOD shifts positive, waters near Eastern Africa become warmer and promote more rainfall in this region. In contrast, the opposite happens near Australia, where waters become cooler and rainfall isn’t as prevalent. Cooler waters doesn’t necessarily mean cooler weather though.
According to the Bureau of Meteorology, Australian experienced the hottest year on record in 2019 and Spring 2019 was officially the driest of the 120 years of rainfall records. This on top of a dry 2018 led to Australian soils being sapped of moisture. Perfect conditions for fires to thrive.
When a wildfire picks up momentum, a tremendous amount of heat and smoke floods the air around it. As the smoke rises into the atmosphere, the clouds cool and build into pyrocumulonimbus clouds where thunderstorms can form. This is bad. If a bolt of lightning from one of these clouds hits the right location, this could then create a positive feedback system and set off even more fires.
Starting in New South Wales in September 2019, the fires burnt approximately 14.7 million acres (twice the size of Belgium) into early 2020. The smoke from the fires persisted in the atmosphere for nearly 4 months and travelled 66,000 km around the globe.
Over one billion animals perished, approximately 2000 homes were destroyed and nearly A$600 million in insurance claims were filed. The Federal Government promised A$2 billion for the National bushfire recovery fund and pledged an additional A$11 million for the National Aerial Firefighting Centre. Analysts assessed the potential impacts on tourism for the following three years (before COVID-19 halted travel all together) and estimated that the tourism industry in Australia could face a loss of A$32 billion. All together, the total costs added up to approximately A$110 billion. That’s quite a hit.
Now, Australia isn’t a stranger to drought and fires, however extreme drought and heatwaves like this one could appear more often with the impacts of climate change as mean global temperatures rise. In order to mitigate some of these effects, monitoring water storage, maintaining underbrush and implementing traditional practices to prevent fires could help limit the overall impacts on affected areas. Hopefully we won’t see something like this happen again for a while…
If you enjoyed today’s read, tune in for our next blog about Global Agriculture in the coming weeks!
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