The smoke from Australia’s raging bushfires will make the full circuit around the globe and return to Australia to blanket the country with the same smoke generated by incinerated plant matter in parts of New South Wales and Victoria.
This extraordinary event, though not unprecedented, was captured by satellite animated by NASA Goddard.
The fires in Australia are not just causing devastation locally. The unprecedented conditions that include searing heat combined with historic dryness, have led to the formation of an unusually large number of pyrocumulonimbus (pyrCbs) events. PyroCbs are essentially fire-induced thunderstorms. They are triggered by the uplift of ash, smoke, and burning material via super-heated updrafts. As these materials cool, clouds are formed that behave like traditional thunderstorms but without the accompanying precipitation.
PyroCb events provide a pathway for smoke to reach the stratosphere more than 10 miles (16 km) in altitude. Once in the stratosphere, the smoke can travel thousands of miles from its source, affecting atmospheric conditions globally. The effects of those events — whether the smoke provides a net atmospheric cooling or warming, what happens to underlying clouds, etc.) — is currently the subject of intense study.
NASA is tracking the movement of smoke from the Australian fires lofted, via pyroCbs events, more than 9.3 miles (15 kilometers) high. The smoke is having a dramatic impact on New Zealand, causing severe air quality issues across the county and visibly darkening mountaintop snow.
The smoke is expected to make at least one full circuit around the globe, returning once again to the skies over Australia.
James Temple writes in MIT Technology Review that the fires pumped more CO2 into the atmosphere than over 100 low emitting nations combined.
The wildfires raging along Australia’s eastern coast have already pumped around 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further fueling the climate change that’s already intensifying the nation’s fires.
That’s more than the total combined annual emissions of the 116 lowest-emitting countries, and nine times the amount produced during California’s record-setting 2018 fire season. It also adds up to about three-quarters of Australia’s otherwise flattening greenhouse-gas emissions in 2019.
Alexandra Pattillo writes in Inverse Magazine that Australia’s fires could change global climate patterns for the worse.
One of the most striking weather phenomena are massive, explosive pyrocumulonimbus or “pyroCb” clouds. These clouds are created by the heat and smoke from wildfires, forming towering chimney-like structures that have the same violent characteristics of a thunderstorm.
These lightning-filled clouds are often seen after volcanic eruptions and have been seen in other large-scale wildfire events like the 2018 fire season in California. And similar to a chimney, they funnel smoke up into the Earth’s stratosphere with “lingering ill effects,” according to NASA. In 2018, climate scientists found pyroCb clouds can perturb the atmosphere at levels similar to volcanic eruptions, injecting smoke plumes that persist in the atmosphere for months after the fire cloud disappears.
for those of u asking if the fires have stopped: they haven’t, in fact two fires on the NSW/Victorian border have merged and created a 600 000 hectare mega-fire.— geo (@lovesickgeorgia) January 11, 2020
hot, dry and powerful winds & dangerous conditions are fuelling the fires across australia. we stilll need ur help pic.twitter.com/aG5pXpQr7e
The Australia fires have produced a huge volume of carbon dioxide, aerosols, soot, fine particle pollution, and greenhouse gases — filling not only Southern Australia’s sky, but also parts of New Zealand and South America. These emissions are responsible for the strange glowing haze seen in recent days across New Zealand skies.
Scientists estimate that wildfires around the world are responsible for about five to ten percent of total CO2 emissions annually. These toxic gases have a complicated relationship with global temperatures. Some aerosols can have a temporary cooling effect by making the atmosphere more reflective and blocking sunlight, while other emissions, like black carbon, trap heat and lead to rises in atmospheric temperature, according to InsideClimate News.
The smoke from large-scale fires can move thousands of miles across the globe, spiking air pollution in distant lands. A 2018 study showed smoke from Canadian wildfires led to dangerous spikes in aerosol levels thousands of miles away in Europe — 20 times higher than those seen with the 1991 Pinatubo volcanic eruption.
Opening the gates of Hell – A fire tornado with power and intensity rarely seen on Earth – that can create its own weather – but eh Australia needs to double its coal emissions says Morrison Govt #climate #actonclimate when we still have a choice – soon it will be too late pic.twitter.com/il1DQIRSvJ— GO GREEN (@ECOWARRIORSS) January 12, 2020
The complicated ways megafires—like those blazing across Australia— influence global weather patterns means even if you currently live far from a forest or fire-prone area, your town may eventually become part of the growing areas likely to encounter wildfires.
Perhaps, the Australia fires are part of a larger problem resting on all of our backs, one of the long series of environmental tests to come, Wells says.
National Geographic has a detailed report on how mounds of ash and other debris, washed away by heavy rains into catchment areas, pollute freshwater supplies, kill aquatic animals along with marine life as the syrupy runoff eventually enters the ocean.
A bushfire in the catchment in 2006 was the likely cause of an algal bloom that lasted several months in the dam in 2007, and the current bushfires are far more extensive.
Algal blooms in the drinking supply are problematic for several reasons. The resultant deoxygenation can cause fish kills, but it also makes iron and manganese soluble, which can give water a poor taste, odor, and color. Cyanobacteria can also produce chemicals that give water a musty or earthy flavor.
In rare cases, blooms produce dangerous cyanotoxins, which “will require a lot of attention to find out and be looking closely at what’s growing in these reservoirs,” adds Khan. While he thinks public health problems are unlikely in Sydney, he does worry about the challenge of keeping treatment plants running.
“We are not accustomed to having massive amounts of cyanobacteria and ash coming through our plants … and the treatment processes might be slowed down significantly,” he says.
With the current drought, Sydney’s water supplies are already overstretched, necessitating the use of a desalination plant. If the rate of production of treated water from Warragamba slows, it might lead to temporary but significant shortages and severe drought restrictions. Forested areas that make up water catchments have been incinerated throughout southeast Australia, and the fire crisis is likely to continue for several months, so it’s possible the drinking supply of many urban centers across the southeast could be affected by the end of the summer.
Who gave fossil fuel companies permission to anchor dozens of coal ships every day inside the #GreatBarrierReef World Heritage Area?— Terry Hughes (@ProfTerryHughes) January 11, 2020
The impacts from giant anchors are enormous. Other activities require a permit. Where is theirs? pic.twitter.com/oUNjfnTtNJ
However, the ongoing mass mortality of kangaroo, koala and other large animals will produce more carcasses than scavengers – eagles, dingoes and a species of reptiles known as goannas – can keep up with. Instead of disappearing quickly, carcasses will likely become breeding grounds for bacteria and insects. This is worrisome, because many of these may be pathogens that affect people, wildlife and livestock, and the flies can transport pathogens great distances. In fact, in previous experiments, our simulated MMEs produced enough flies to cover the ground in a river of maggots.
Our work has also revealed that mass mortality events can have long-lasting effects by poisoning soil and restructuring plant communities. As carcasses decompose, they release gases and spill cocktails of liquefied remains, acidic body fluids and microbes that the soil absorbs. When this happens en masse, the toxicity can kill plants, including trees. Our unpublished data repeatedly show that MMEs alter the soil microbiome and soil nutrients. How long these effects can last is unknown.
The effects of MMEs on ecosystems are complex, but one thing has been consistent across our multiple studies: Healthy scavenger populations reduce the effects of mass mortality events.
Scavengers like vultures, coyotes and dingoes are among the most persecuted groups of animals worldwide, yet they provide critical ecosystem services. When scavengers were present in our experiments, the carcasses were consumed or dragged away quickly, producing fewer maggots and flies, leaching fewer chemicals into the soil, and having a lower impact on the plants and ecosystem.
Douglas Smith writes in NITV:
Aboriginal activist Bruce Shillingsworth, a self proclaimed “water warrior” who had just returned from the Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree, said he had travelled with a large convoy through Walgett, Brewarrina, Bourke, Wilcannia and Menindee, to discuss the impact of having no water.
“The impact of the water mismanagement and the corruption and the corporate greed and capitalism in this country has killed our rivers,” said Mr Shillingsworth.
Mr Shillingsworth said he was going to speak and “raise a voice” for his community who “have been voiceless over the last 230-years.”
“Why are our people dying young? Why are our people suffering because of the greed – The taking of our water.
“Where is our rights to water… First Nation rights to water?
“We have a right to freshwater… put the water back in the river. Not just for us, but for the environment,” he said.