We’ve all heard about the deadly wildfires that just raged through southern Australia–and according to a story in Time magazine this week, climate change may be fanning the flames.
While we still aren’t certain what caused these fast-moving fires, which have claimed as many as 200 lives, global warming has created weather conditions in Australia that cause fires to burn faster–or increase the risk of a spark turning into a blaze.
“The driest inhabited continent on the planet, Australia has warmed 0.9 degrees C since 1950, and climate models predict the country could warm further by 2070,” writes Time’s Bryan Walsh. “Heat waves and drought set the table for wildfires, and temperatures in the worst hit areas have been over 110 degrees F, while humidity has bottomed out near zero.”
When I lived in Colorado, which has a similarly dry (if cooler) climate, people were terrified of wildfires, especially during the summer. Anytime we drove up into the mountains during the warmer months, we’d see the huge, brightly painted fire meter by the side of the road, its needle permanently affixed to the red “high risk” section.
I remember a friend once joked about throwing his lit cigarette butt out the window on one of those drives–and was silently reprimanded by the driver, a native Coloradan, who pointed to the mountainside ahead of us. Instead of the usual soft, dark fur of pine trees, that ridge sported a sharp crest of charred tinder, bright and bare in the high-altitude sun.
The message was clear: don’t even think about it.
Now, we need to prepare ourselves for an even greater fire threat, no matter what the initial causes might be. Today, says Walsh, “our ability to adapt to the impacts of warming, including more aggressive responses to wildfires like those in Australia, will become all the more critical, lest natural disasters turn into human catastrophes.”
So let’s act quickly, lest the landscapes we treasure go up in ash–in Australia, or even closer to home.