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Australia Wildfire Forces 4,000 to Flee to Sea

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Australia Wildfire Forces 4,000 to Flee to Sea
The remains of burnt out buildings are seen along Main Street in the New South Wales town of Cobargo on Dec. 31, 2019, after bushfires ravaged the town. Thousands of holidaymakers and locals were forced to flee to beaches in fire-ravaged southeast Australia. SEAN DAVEY / AFP via Getty Images

An out-of-control wildfire in the Australian state of Victoria forced thousands of people to flee towards the coast Tuesday.


Residents of the town of Mallacoota hunkered down in their homes or headed for the relative safety of the beach when a siren sounded around 8 a.m., BBC News reported. Victoria's state emergency commissioner Andrew Crisp said 4,000 sheltered by the water.

"It's mayhem out there, it's armageddon," evacuee Charles Livingstone told The Guardian Australia. He said he had evacuated to the town's jetty Monday night with his wife and 18-month-old baby, but moved to the community center to escape the smoke.

The fire that prompted the flight to the coast sparked Sunday in Wingan, according to The Guardian, but CNN reported that there were more than 10 fires burning Monday in the East Gippsland area where Mallacoota is located. Three of those fires have been burning for more than a month, and several new blazes were started Sunday by dry lightning and then spread because of hot, dry, windy weather.

Mallacoota was not evacuated along with the rest of East Gippsland Sunday, and by Monday it was too dangerous for anyone to move, The Guardian explained.

Instead, residents fled to the water's edge, and the fire followed them around 1:30 p.m.

"It should have been daylight but it was black like midnight and we could hear the fire roaring," local business owner David Jeffrey told BBC News. "We were all terrified for our lives."

He said residents planned to jump off a sea wall into the water if the flames came too close.

Luckily, a change in the wind redirected the fire away from the town.

"I understand there was a public cheer down at the jetty when that was announced," chief fire service officer Steve Warrington told BBC News.

However, residents will now have to deal with fire damage. Warrington told CNN that "a number of houses" were destroyed or damaged. Mallacoota residents estimated on social media that around 20 homes, the school, golf club and bowling club had been burned, according to The Guardian.

"I just don't know how we're going to pull through this, really," Maisy Roberts, who works at the town's Croajingolong Cafe and thought her home was destroyed, told 3AW's Nick McCallum. "It's just absolute devastation."

Mallacoota is not the only place in Australia feeling the heat from a devastating fire season. Four people are missing in East Gippsland as a whole, 3AW reported. Initial aerial investigations show that 19 structures have been destroyed in Sarsfield and 24 in Buchanan, but authorities think the final tally for the region will be higher.

There are fires burning in every Australian state, CNN reported, though Victoria and New South Wales (NSW) have been the hardest hit. More than 900 homes have been destroyed in NSW alone.

Twelve people have died in the blazes so far, BBC News reported. On Tuesday, bodies believed to belong to a father and son were discovered in Corbargo, NSW.

Three of the dead were firefighters. Two, both fathers to young children, died in NSW a little less than two weeks ago. A third, 28-year-old Samuel McPaul, died Sunday when fire-created winds lifted his truck and flipped it over. He was newly married and expecting a child.

The fires have been linked to the climate crisis.

"Climate change is influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions in Australia and other regions of the world," Australia's Bureau of Meteorology said, according to TIME.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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