A continent ablaze By Mario Salazar, Environmental Engineer
Australia is burning. As of January 2020, over 5.9 million hectares have burned. This area is larger than several European countries combined. The damage to the unique wildlife in the continent is catastrophic. Estimates of a billion animals destroyed may be conservative.
These fires are the worst ever for Australia since records have been kept. Immediate causes are the extreme dry weather and extreme heat affecting the area. However, the causes of the weather are related to climate change.
So, what is climate change?
As the world started to get industrialized in the middle of the nineteenth century, products of combustion like carbon dioxide started to strain the balance of gases in the atmosphere. As more of these gases entered our environment, its effects became clear.
More gases of this type in our atmosphere create a barrier to the escape of heat from our planet. The energy of the sun’s radiation is enough to allow the heat from the sun to enter, but the reflected energy does not have the ability to exit the gas curtain formed by the by products of our industrial world. Originally it was called the “greenhouse effect” comparing it with the net gain of heat that a greenhouse experiences.
The net gain of heat has unexpected consequences. It is superimposed on our natural weather patterns to produce extreme weather events such as we have experienced in the last three decades. Some of these can be counter intuitive.
For example, an overheated ocean creates air masses that are super saturated with water. This is because as air gets hotter, it can carry more humidity. These air masses migrate to northern latitudes and as they encounter very cold currents, precipitate to create very strong snowstorms. These counter intuitive effects have been exploited by the climate change deniers to claim that it is a hoax.
Others accept that these phenomena are real but indicate that it may not be as dire as predicted. The Russian government has indicated that climate change has benefited their country. They have reported that Ocean access has been improved on the northern part of their country, improving transport. They also claim that growing seasons have increased with production of more vegetable in areas like Siberia.
It is important to be able to differentiate between climate and weather. The former is the overall effect on the planet, the latter is the local effects, that may be affected by climate change.
What is the net effect?
While it is true that some areas of the planet may benefit from increased temperatures in the short term, the fact is that the net effect is dire. We are already seeing extreme dry weather in areas like Australia and the Western United States.
As the climate change effect is incorporated into our natural weather patterns, we are already seeing extreme storms and unusual occurrence of tornados in places and times where they did not take place.
Overall the mean temperature of the planet has increased faster than predicted by scientists. Every year we see records being broken. Forest fire seasons start earlier than ever before, and they are more devastating.
What can we do?
Mostly we should not do what the current Brazilian government is doing. It is allowing the wholesale destruction of tropical forest by fire to implement cattle farming. Another example is ignoring climate change to encourage the production of coal in Australia as it is being done by its current administration.
We should come together as countries to find the best approach to decrease the rate of climate change. As citizens we should be aware of our carbon footprint and ways to reduce it.
Mario Salazar is an Environmental Engineer with over forty years of experience. He is in Twitter (@chibcharus), LinkedIn and Facebook (Mario Salazar).