Not to put too fine a point on it, but the huge fires in southeast Australia look a lot like a wake-up call.

About 40,000 square miles have burned since September. At least 30 people have died as a result of the fires, thousands of homes have been destroyed, and up to a billion animals have been killed, maimed or displaced. And worst of all, businesses had to close temporarily because of smoke and ash.

This disaster sounds pretty familiar to a lot of Californians who have lost electricity, been made homeless, or lost friends and family members to longer and more severe wildfire seasons in recent years. President Trump’s solution was for California to do a better job raking its woods. But the real problem, as almost everyone else in the world knows — and more Australians than ever — is the Earth’s climate is changing.

Temperatures worldwide have risen significantly over the last few decades, making dry places drier and, therefore, more likely to burn. Australia recorded its highest average temperature ever in 2019 (5.8 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm), including the highest daily temperature ever recorded, 121.8 in December on the southeast coast.

The temperature is rising because in the past roughly 250 years, enormous amounts of carbon dioxide have gotten into the atmosphere that weren’t there before. Carbon dioxide is a gas that seals in heat. Anything that burns oil throws carbon into the air, and the carbon turns into carbon dioxide. Live trees absorb carbon dioxide. Burning trees throw carbon into the air. The fewer trees there are, the more carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere and the less is absorbed.

And as if that wasn’t enough to get your attention, the temperatures and resulting changes are happening faster and sooner than most scientists were predicting 10, 20, 30, five years ago. “The temperatures we’re experiencing this summer I think many scientists didn’t expect to see for several decades yet,” one of them said in Australia.

Australia and California are not the only places in the world that are burning. But Australia’s backyard is so much more like ours than are Africa, Indonesia or South America’s, that it gets our attention better.

Nowhere is going to escape this, whether by fire or flood or worse. The only question is how bad we are going to let it get.

What’s happening:

• NASA and NOAA reported this month that 2019 was the second warmest year ever recorded for Earth. It was .04 degrees Celsius behind 2016, and the warmest on record for Alaska, North Carolina and Georgia.

• A study released this month found that “the world’s oceans (especially at upper 2000 meters) in 2019 were the warmest in recorded human history.”

• Global temperatures are on pace to rise by 5.8 degrees Fahrenheit (3.2 Celsius) by the end of the century, a recent United Nations report states.

• A heat wave in the Pacific Ocean from 2014 to 2016 killed tens of thousands of common murres, according to a study published this month. The heat wave disrupted the food chain, leading to the birds essentially starving to death. It was triggered by several factors related to global warming.

• Nearly 30% of North America’s avian population, about 3 billion birds, has been lost since 1970, a study published last fall shows.

• Scientists recently declared the Chinese paddlefish extinct. The paddlefish, which was up to 23 feet long and native to the Yangtze and Yellow river basins in China, was last seen in 2003. It first appeared about 200 million years ago and survived the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. It died out in the 21st century as a result of overfishing and dam construction.

• Scientists who have studied the Amazon rain forest stated recently that the forest is “teetering on the edge of functional destruction.” Warming temperatures, large wildfires and clear-cutting have disrupted rainfall patterns, extended dry seasons, and may turn the rain forest into a savanna ecosystem much sooner than previously predicted.

• Since 1967, springtime (April-June) snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has declined, with the most pronounced reductions since 2005, according to NOAA.

• Since 1992, nearly 4 trillion tons of ice have melted into the ocean from Greenland’s ice sheet, a recent study calculated. Ice losses nearly doubled each decade, from 33 billion tons per year in the early 1990s to an average of 254 billion tons per year, equivalent to roughly a centimeter of global sea-level rise.

What we are doing about it:

• In December, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change gathered to finalize rules to implement the Paris climate accord. It failed to agree on much of anything. A Union of Concerned Scientists official who has been attending climate talks since the 1990s said, “This is the biggest disconnect between this process and what’s going on in the real world that I’ve seen.”

• This month President Trump proposed changes to 50-year-old environmental regulations to redefine what constitutes a “major federal action” in order to make oil pipelines and mines, among other things, easier to build and operate. The changes will: exclude from regulation privately financed projects that have minimal government involvement; set time and page-length limits on environmental impact studies; limit public comment; and may prevent communities from having much say about what gets built in their backyards.

• In December, the U.S. Energy Department announced it will not impose stricter energy efficiency standards for “general service” lightbulbs which were to take effect Jan. 1. It has been estimated that discarding the standards will increase energy costs by $14 billion each year and result in 38 million more tons of carbon dioxide than energy-efficient bulbs.

Wake up, Earthlings. How bad are we going to let it get?

 

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His recent book is “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods,” available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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