How Australia's Bushfires Will Affect Us for a Lifetime to Come

australian bush fires
credit: Matt Palmer

Bushfires are a natural part of the Australian summer season. But nothing could have prepared the country or the world for the fires that have been tearing through the continent for months. 

Australia has been burning since September 2019 and it’s only getting worse. The bushfires have scorched at least 16 million acres of land, killed 25 people, and ecologists estimate that half a billion animals have perished, including 1/3 of the koala population.  

Unfortunately, even with the endless work of volunteer firefighters and aid from other countries, Australia just entered its summer season, meaning the fires will last for months. 

Not to mention that Australia is experiencing one of the worst drought seasons in years and is having an unusually hot summer. There is no doubt that the fires throughout Australia are a direct effect of climate change, and given its severity, Australia’s ecology will never be the same. 

Stuart Blanch, a conservation policy manager at the World of Wildlife Fund Australia explained to NBC News just how difficult it’s going to be for the flora and fauna to recover from the fires.

“Ecologists have much lower confidence that wildlife populations — particularly the 1,000 threatened species across the continent — will recover from such widespread and utter forest devastation.”

What’s happening in Australia is heartbreaking. And while it may seem like the fires aren’t affecting us, this catastrophe will have a direct effect on us all. 

Due to smoke inhalation, there will be an increase in health risks for those exposed to the toxic air

The smoke from the fires has diminished the quality of air in cities in the state of New South Wales, including Canberra, Sydney, and Newcastle. But as the fires get stronger, the smoke is now moving to some of Australia’s neighboring countries, with New Zealand being the first affected. 

On New Years Day, smoke covered the whole South Island, and those who have been exposed to the toxic air will most likely have health issues in the future. 

University of New South Wales professor Bin Jalaludin told the Sydney Morning Herald,

“What we’re finding out now is that air pollution tends to affect all parts of the body. There is increasing evidence around air pollution and neurological conditions, for example, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.”

While the side effects of smoke inhalation could be instant, it could take years before victims feel the long term effects of breathing toxic air. 

The fires will create a growing rise in CO2 emissions

One of the most common consequences of climate change is the rise in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. We saw a rise in emissions back in August when the Amazon rainforest was on fire. Scientists estimated that the fires released at least 140 million tons of CO2 emissions into the air. But the Australian bushfires have already released more than double the amount of CO2 emissions. The fires from Queensland and New South Wales alone have emitted 306 million tons of CO2 since August, more than half of Australia’s global footprint. 

In normal amounts, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that is beneficial to our planet and helps the earth function. Typically, the CO2 emitted from bushfires is reabsorbed into the environment over time. But with the severity of the 2019-2020 fires and drought, scientists fear that the forests scorched by the fires might struggle to regrow and the CO2 absorption could take decades.  

That increase of CO2 in the air warms up the earth faster, causing ice caps to melt and sea levels to rise Which will directly affect island nations and coastal cities and states.  

The heat and smoke could change weather patterns globally

The fires are already creating bizarre weather occurrences in Australia. Climate scientist Sarah Perkins- Kirkpatrick told NBC News that the fires are “interacting with the atmosphere and creating their own weather, including lightning, which can cause new wildfires”

While weather and atmospheric changes are nothing new when it comes to bushfires, how will they affect the weather in years to come?

It’s hard for scientists to give an exact answer as to how fires will affect the heating and cooling of the atmosphere. But along with CO2, bushfires release dangerous particles of aerosols like black and brown carbon into the air.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, some aerosols block sunlight, which naturally cools the atmosphere. But black carbon actually absorbs heat which makes the atmosphere hotter than normal.

While black carbon is short-lived, some of it does stay in the upper atmosphere, increasing the world’s atmospheric radiation. At this rate, if the fires continue to burn, the increase in toxic aerosols will eventually cause unusual weather patterns throughout the world.

How you can help

While the fires are in Australia, our entire planet and future generations will all be affected. It’s a terrifying realization, but it’s one that we have to come to grips with.  

It’s easy to feel hopeless during this time, but there are countless organizations that are taking donations right now to help the people and wildlife of Australia:  Port Macquarie Koala Hospital,  Currumbin Wildlife Hospital,  Australian Red Cross,  the NSW Rural Fire Service, and  WIRES.


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Alysia Stevenson
Alysia Stevenson is a twenty-seven New York City transplant currently living in Florida with her boyfriend and three furbabies. When she's not writing, you can find her watching beauty tutorials on Youtube or Parks and Rec for the millionth time.