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Climate Change and the End of Australia

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In the hills above Melbourne, Jane O'Connor and her husband spent the morning clearing dry brush from around their home and watering the roof. The fire conditions were nightmarish. The temperature had hit 115 degrees – the hottest day on record. Humidity was only six percent, and a strong wind was blowing from the northwest. "We knew the situation was bad," says O'Connor, a 56-year-old publishing executive, "but we felt we were prepared for it." Even when the radio reported that fires were sweeping through the hills 30 miles away, she and her husband made no move to head for safety. "We weren't too worried," she recalls.

Then, as O'Connor watched in horror, a wall of smoke that had seemed far to the south suddenly began racing toward her home. "By the time we realized the trouble we were in," she says, "it was too late to evacuate."

The firestorm sweeping across the hillside was like nothing she – or anyone – had ever seen before. A wall of flame moving at eight miles per hour was incinerating everything in its path. O'Connor hurried to stuff wet towels under the doors while her husband soaked down the yard with a hose. But within minutes, she heard a deafening roar. Looking out the window, she saw a "hurricane of fire" – flames shooting 70 feet into the air, fanned by the high winds created by the storm's thermal vacuum. As trees burst into flames, O'Connor and her husband narrowly escaped to a nearby house that was more fire-resistant.

For the rest of the night, she and her neighbors watched the hills burn. "We could see houses igniting, diesel tanks exploding," she recalls. Officials later reported that 600 fires broke out in Victoria that day, some with flames 300 feet high capable of killing people nearly a quarter mile away. One researcher estimated that the amount of energy released by the fires in a single day was equivalent to 1,500 atomic bombs of the size dropped on Hiroshima.

The next day, when O'Connor returned to her home, nothing was standing but the chimney. The fire had been so hot it had melted the windshield of her car. "Everything we had was gone," she says. Not far from her house, nine people died in a brick home they had taken refuge in, including a mother and five children.

You might think that surviving such a harrowing encounter would make O'Connor more attuned to the risks of living on a superheated planet, but it hasn't. "I think the jury is still out on the science of climate change," O'Connor says from the safety of her air-conditioned office in Melbourne. "Australia has always had wildfires, and this could be just part of a natural cycle. I think it's too soon to tell."

Climate experts say otherwise. According to Australia's top scientists, a hotter planet equals a much higher risk of catastrophic fires. Even in a "low global-warming scenario" with modest increases in carbon pollution, catastrophic fires will ravage Victoria every five to seven years by 2020, and every three to four years by 2050. Under a "high global-warming scenario" – essentially the track the world is on today – catastrophic fires will occur every year in some regions. As Peter Marshall, a leader of the Australian firefighters union, put it in a letter to the prime minister, "The science suggests we are well on the way to guaranteeing that somewhere in the country there will be an almost annual repeat of the recent disaster."

Two days before Yasi hit, I was 45 miles off the coast of Australia, swimming with sea turtles and parrotfish on the Great Barrier Reef. The reef is a festival of color and life: corals in bright-pink mounds, blacktip reef sharks, silver jacks and angelfish. But whenever I got too carried away by the beauty of the reef, my underwater guide, David Kline, a researcher at the University of Queensland's Coral Reef Ecosystems Lab, would point to a cluster of ghostly corals and nod. I knew what he meant: These underwater skeletons had been killed off by the warming ocean – a sign of the trouble ahead for one of Australia's most important ecosystems.

Climatewise, what's happening to the reef is in many ways the opposite of a hurricane: Instead of a dramatic blowdown, it's an incremental collapse. Rising ocean temperatures, as well as the sea's increasing acidity, are slowly killing off coral reefs around the world. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the best-managed reefs on the planet – commercial fishing, a major problem in other areas, is severely restricted. But even here, the increasingly hot, acidic seas mean that the reef is unlikely to survive much beyond 2050. As J.E.N. Veron, former chief scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, has put it: "What were once thriving coral gardens that supported the greatest biodiversity of the marine realm will become red-black bacterial slime, and they will stay that way."

For most Australians, the decline and fall of the Great Barrier Reef is impossible to imagine. "What the polar bears are to northerners, the reef is to us," says Karoly. The reef itself, which is roughly 9,000 years old, is the largest structure ever made by life on Earth, extending some 1,250 miles along the coast. It is home to an incredible diversity of life: 5,000 types of mollusks, 1,800 species of fish, 125 kinds of sharks. It is also a major economic engine for Australia, drawing 2 million visitors a year and generating $6 billion in revenue.

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