Australia’s not the only place getting warmer

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New South Wales Rural Fire Service crews fight the Gospers Mountain fire as it impacts a structure at Bilpin, Australia in Dec. 21, 2019. (Dan Himbrechts/AAP Images via AP)

Fires in Australia are still raging, and Utah should expect similar extremes in weather, according to local leaders and experts.

The fires have burned six times more land than the record-high California wildfires of 2018, with 1.96 million acres burned, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed in a press conference on Jan. 8 there have been 27 deaths and 2,131 destroyed homes and reported that communities are struggling to recover from the fires that ravaged through their homeland.

“The fires are attributed directly to global warming,” said BYU plant and wildlife sciences professor Ben Abbott. Though the sources of the fires range from natural causes to arson, Australia’s incessant drought crisis, as well as changes in air masses and ocean masses, are associated with climate change.

“Let’s say that there were no humans on Earth,” Abbott said. “There still would have been bushfires in Australia; that’s a critical part of that ecosystem. It just would have been a tiny fraction of what we’re seeing now.”

Australia isn’t the only continent experiencing the adverse effects of climate change. Extreme weather events are happening more often Abbott said.

The United States can expect changes in weather, including longer periods of heat, shorter cold spells and an increase in floods and droughts, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

A study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America illustrates wildfires in the western United States from 1985 to 2015. (Ben Daniel)

“The Earth system has a lot of momentum, and so it’s hard to get it to change its direction,” Abbott said. “One hundred years ago the prenatal stages and consequences were already there, but you had to go looking for them. Now, the consequences of climate change are coming looking for us, and you can’t escape it.”

In Utah, rising temperatures mean snow melts earlier in the year, according to the Utah Rivers Council. With less snow and shorter-lived snow-capped mountains, Utah will experience longer periods of susceptibility to wildfires, Abbott said. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found that in some areas, the risk of megafires will increase up to 600% between 2041 and 2070.

BYU student Leika Hansen, who serves as manager for BYU’s ecology lab, said the western United States is already experiencing an increase in droughts and wildfires. Increases in temperature and more energy in the weather system means longer dry spells and more lightning, which Abbott called “a wildfire’s dream.”

As the temperatures in Utah increase, more precipitation is projected to fall as rain instead of snow, decreasing snowfall and melting the snow that does fall, according to the Utah Rivers Council. With 85-90% of drinking water coming from snowmelt run-off, not only will Utah’s water supply decrease, but there will also be more flooding events, said Executive Director of the Utah Rivers Council Zachary Frankel. 

“As Utah’s populations grow, these problems will be exacerbated,” Hansen said. 

Ecosystems aren’t the only thing at stake — lives are too, as evidenced by the 27 and counting deaths from the Australia fires.

“Numbers are an incredible, powerful way of looking at the world, but they don’t tell the whole story,” Abbott said. “As long as there’s anybody who’s dying because of my actions, or whose health is degraded because of my actions, I want to know about that. And then I want to know how I can change my life to make it less likely that that’s going to happen.”

Now, even those who have the motivation to disprove climate change can’t deny the evidence said Abbott, referring to individuals in the fossil fuel industry.

In the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment report in 2014, climate change was declared legitimate and greenhouse gases blamed for the increasingly warmer planet.

Though humans have been emitting greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution, skepticism exists. Hansen said that because people have varying opinions on climate change’s validity. Despite the research supporting it, talking about it can often seem taboo.

“There are still many legislators who don’t believe climate change is real,” Frankel said, urging Utah residents to contact legislators. “We need to tell our leaders to get serious about climate change.”

Reducing energy consumption is the most effective way to combat climate change according to Abbott. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, over six million metric tons of greenhouse gases were emitted by the United States in 2017. Abbott said this number will likely continue to increase. He recommends eliminating excessive use of cooling and heating systems, using a bike or public transit instead of driving a car and consuming less meat. 

Hansen recognized that the complexity of climate change makes it a difficult problem to solve.

“Through individual, political and overall societal change, we can avoid losses of human, animal and plant life,” Hansen said.

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