Why should the world be concerned about the raging wildfires in Australia? The fires in Amazon, bushfires in Australia, drying out of the Victoria Falls in Africa, the three-year-long drought in South Africa are all red flags pronouncing that the climate change fallouts are catching up with us
With back-to-back disasters, the earth is giving us signs that all is not well with the ecosystem. Instead of looking at the symptoms and going for the remedy, we as Earth's inhabitants – who are responsible for the ills, keep on debating whether global warming is real or false.
The undeniable fact about the warming is that it will affect us all – regardless of where we live. The bushfires raging across Australia may be far away from Bangladesh, but its impact will not spare us. Let us now look at what this phenomenon is and why this is happening.
Some places in the world are more prone to fires breakouts, so much so that they mark a particular time of the year as the 'fire season'. California campfires, Amazon fires as well as Australia bushfires are all examples of such breakouts. Though these are regarded as routine to some extent, they get out of hand fast and turn into a horrifying disaster.
The Amazon fires' event was one of the most talked-about news in the latter part of 2019. However, the bushfire raging in Australia swiftly put it out of the headlines in the very first week of 2020 with its wide range of devastation.
Reading about the combined effect of the fires is emotionally trying for people around the world. Acres of forest land turned to ashes, millions of animals wiped out. At least 28 people have died due to the fire since September. Animals had to be euthanised because of the severe injury that they sustained. The worst might not be over yet. Nobody can say for certain that scores of human lives would not fall victim to the fires too.
Across the six affected states of Australia, more than 7.3 million hectares (17.9 million acres) have been burned in total. The area is larger than the countries of Belgium and Denmark combined.
According to a NASA analysis, 306 million tonnes of CO2 has been emitted by just the New South Wales and Queensland bushfires, as of January 02, 2020. As the prolonged drought in Australia has damaged the ability of the forests to fully regrow, it might take decades for the carbon emitted by the fires to be reabsorbed by the forest regrowth.
The hazard level of Air Quality Index (AQI) is 200, yet in December 2019, the AQI in Rozelle, a west suburb of Sydney hit 2552. On January 01, 2020, the AQI around Monash, the suburb of Canberra, was measured at 4,650 – more than 23 times hazardous level which peaked at 7,700.
The effects have already left the Australian mainland and spreading to the nearby islands. On the first day 0f 2020, a blanket of smoke from the Australian bushfires enveloped the entirety of New Zealand's South Island, whose sky glowed with an orange-yellow haze. MetService, meteorological service of New Zealand, claimed that the smoke would not have any adverse effects on the weather or temperature in the country. The smoke was less intense the next day, although it affected that glaciers in the country, giving a brown tint to the snow.
Why should the rest of the world be worried?
Not only is the area of destruction wider than that of any other past forest fires, scientists fear the Australia fires might impact the rest of the world as well.
The thought might sound absurd. Australia is an island, isolated from the rest of the world by a vast distance of water. The fire can't reach elsewhere on earth. And yet, the effect of this fire may be far-reaching and linger for a long time afterwards.
Referencing a tweet by Steve Nesbitt, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois, this fear is not unfounded. The tweet stated, "Starting to wonder how all of this sensible, radiative, and diabatic heating (from the fires) might be modifying the large-scale circulation...and the global models will have no clue except for data assimilation."
In layman's terms, it boils down to this: Is the heat and smoke changing larger-scale weather patterns? And how will the global forecast models respond? According to American Meteorologist J. Marshall
Shepherd, there is certainly scientific evidence that fires of this calibre can and will affect weather-climate processes far from Australia.
The starting of the fires in Australia were already largely influenced by climate change. Climate change-deniers can cry arson as much as they want, it will not change the reality that arson alone cannot explain the enormity of the blazes. This year a natural weather phenomenon known as the Indian Ocean Dipole has meant a hot, dry spell across the country which contributed to the fires.
"Arson is a red herring," Mike Flannigan, director of the Canadian Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta in Edmonton had informed the NBC news via email. He estimates that only a handful of the hundreds of massive fires that have broken out in Australia since September were due to arson. Rather, he said, many of the blazes were likely started by lightning in extremely hot and dry parts of the continent – all dangerous ingredients for wildfires and all conditions that are exacerbated by climate change.
"The problem with climate change is that it is lengthening the fire season, causing more lightning and leading to much drier fuels at times due to warmer temperatures," Flannigan said. "Drier fuel means it is easier for a fire to start, and to spread and to burn more intensely as more fuel is available to burn."
It is imperative to mention here that the bushfires in Australia are generating so much heat that they are creating a weather system of their own – complete with dry lightning storms and fire tornadoes, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
Just like how climate change contributed to the massive range of the Australia fires, the fires, in turn, will impact the environment worldwide, like a vicious circle.
Fear for the rest of the world
The fires in Australia, all combined, are essentially a large pit of fire at this moment with all the potentials of a raging fire – a rise in temperature and plumes of smoke and soot into the atmosphere. It will continue to spread so long as there is fuel available.
Let us start with the smoke.
A 1991 study in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres shows that biomass fires can significantly reduce daytime surface temperatures by 1.5°C to 7°C under the smoke. A more recent study found that wildfires in Russia reduced the amount of incoming solar radiation at the ground over much of Eastern Europe because of the smoke plume. Similar results seemed from a 2019 study in Canada.
Bottom line, smoke and haze caused by large fires result in cooling close to the surface (under the smoke), but the part of the atmosphere that is covered in smoke gets warmed. This happens because the aerosols in the smoke absorb solar energy. There is also the possibility that the massive size of these fires will cause stability anomalies in the atmospheric columns regionally and even beyond.
That's not where it ends though. Another easily noticeable effect of a large fire is the presence of Pyrocumulonimbus clouds. A 2019 study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that the smoke plumes from towering smoke-laden clouds can penetrate as far as into the stratosphere. It ultimately creates warming at the top of the atmosphere.
Since volcanic eruptions can have significant cooling effect on the atmosphere due to the sulfate-based aerosols they release into the atmosphere, it is also not a far-fetched idea that an inferno like the Australia bushfire may also alter the atmosphere worldwide.
From the space, the broad range of destruction in Australia is evident. According to NASA researchers, the smoke plumes from the Australian fires have risen as high as 12 to 13 kilometres (7 to 8 miles) in the atmosphere. The gas and pollutants from these fires can rise high into the atmosphere and their effects can spread across oceans and continents and can linger for weeks to months.
This will obviously affect health wherever the aerosols land, not to mention the black carbon and other debris in the smoke that can darken snow and ice, which accelerates melting. These particles can absorb or block sunlight, affect cloud formation, and increase or reduce rainfall. When lofted in great quantities, smoke plumes might have an impact on climate.
"Events like these are like natural experiments to study atmospheric air mass movements," said Santiago Gasso of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre. "Like a volcanic eruption, there is so much material in these smoke plumes that you can track the air for thousands of kilometres. It is like releasing a tracer and following where it goes over the South Pacific, an area that is notoriously under-observed."
"The fires in Australia will not impact Bangladesh's weather, it would mostly have implications for the southern hemisphere," claimed Meteorologist Rasheduzzaman in a conversation with The Business Standard.
Some people might think the current cold wave has something to do with that disaster, but it is a baseless thought." Adding to that he said, "In the past century, Bangladesh's temperature has risen by 0.7°C and we do not discuss much more than that. We only focus on weather forecasts in the country."
When asked, Dr M Maksudur Rahman commented that he does not think the global implications of events like the California fire, Amazon wildfire or Australia bushfires would impact Bangladesh much.
"The Australia bushfire might affect regions around it to some extent," he surmised, "perhaps it will affect New Zealand or Papua New Guinea. But not Bangladesh."
"Of course, if the fires continue to burn for years on, it will have an impact on world environment."
While asked if Bangladesh will face disasters like this due to climate change, Rahman explained a few things, "First of all, Bangladesh is already facing repercussions of the climate change. We are experiencing longer, colder winters, increased disasters like storms and hurricanes, not to mention the rise in sea level. But it is to be noted that there is not a lot of possibility of fires like that Australian bushfire or Amazon wildfire breaking out in our country. We mostly have forests made of evergreen trees which do not burn or spread as quickly, thus we do not have the possibility of that kind of a disaster."
Even though the fires have been burning for weeks at the very least, Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison has only recently expressed regret over his handling of the crisis. He's been criticised for his government's response to the bushfires and its climate policy. The government has been accused of not doing enough to address climate change. Experts said that this could have increased the intensity, frequency and scale of the bushfires.
"We're living in longer, hotter, drier summers," the primer said. "This is obviously affected by the broader changes in climate." He also claimed a "global solution" was needed to tackle climate change.
The conditions in Australia seemed slightly better on Saturday, January 11. But hotter weather is expected next week, which means the risk is far from over.