Science

Australia Has Become Ground Zero of Climate Change’s Science Experiment

The fires are fueled by the heat, which is fueled by climate change.

A pair of firefighters spray water from a hose on a huge orange blaze that is swallowing trees.
Firefighters in Sydney.
David Gray/Getty Images

“Australia is on fire,” reports NBC. It has been for weeks. Which follows Venice being flooded. Which follows California being on fire. Before that, Australia had been on fire.

We have a full picture book unfurling of what a world slipping into climate chaos looks like. The recent additions: A firefighter on Australia’s Central Coast confronts trees that are turning to pure flames. Residential areas have bright-orange skies, hot clouds of smoke that register as something created by a computer for an action movie, maybe, but not as real life. A koala recovering at a koala hospital looks stiff and worn, like a stuffed animal charred by a radiator. These images fit next to so many other contortions of water and fire and people and buildings. Last year, my colleague Henry Grabar wrote that watching marathon runners splash through water during extreme flooding in Venice (a different occurrence of extreme flooding in Venice from the most recent one) felt like watching “climate change as a child would understand it.”

Beside the disaster images are a roster of stats. One hundred seven degrees Fahrenheit was the averaged maximum temperature Australia reached on Dec. 18, the highest on record, according to the country’s Bureau of Meteorology. The hottest place that day was the Birdsville Airport, toward the center of the continent, which reached 117.9 degrees Fahrenheit—though not itself a record maximum, and not as hot as meteorologists expect it to get. It can get hotter, which is why, in 2013, they actually expanded the weather charts up to 129 degrees Fahrenheit, which would be represented with splotches of purple.

The local government in New South Wales has called two states of emergency in the past two months, reports CNN. Also in that report: 100, the number of active fires there on Thursday; six, the number of people who have been killed by fires this season; 800, an estimate of the number of homes destroyed. Two volunteer firefighters were killed Thursday, and three more injured, per the Guardian. The Bureau of Meteorology reports that Australia’s tropical area had less than 20 percent of the rainfall this year as it has in a typical year. This November was the driest on record.

Is it fair to attribute all this to climate change, as protestors frustrated with their prime minister’s lack of action on climate change are doing? Certainly the warming temperatures can be blamed on climate. The rest is more complicated. BBC asked a few climate scientists, in November, about global warming’s connection to the fire. One scientist drew a direct link, but others were hesitant to say for certain. Australia is, in a sense, ground zero of a sprawling science experiment; it is impossible to see the whole story as the data is still barreling in. These pictures might register as symbols as a crumbling planet (they do for me), and as reminders of what we’re due to see more and more of, but terrifying natural disasters are also a staple of existence in a natural world.

What the climate scientists do agree on (and what an analysis of historical fire seasons in Australia published this year concluded) is that the intensity of the fire season at large is exacerbated by a decline in rain and an uptick in temperature—which in Australia has meant average temperatures of nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1910. There’s always a tangle of reasons behind each individual disaster, but we can definitively say that we are on balance going to have more disasters that are worse. These images and stats coming out of Australia—as they have from place after place—represent what our world is going to increasingly look and feel like.