Sydney Faces ‘Catastrophic Fire Danger’ for First Time as 130 Australian Bushfires Burn
More than 130 wildfires were burning on Australia's East Coast Sunday, The Guardian reported. The blazes have killed three and destroyed at least 150 structures so far, and conditions are expected to worsen Tuesday, when the greater Sydney area will face "catastrophic fire danger" for the first time.
"Everybody has to be on alert no matter where you are and everybody has to be assume the worst and we cannot allow complacency to creep in," New South Wales (NSW) Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney, according to Reuters.
Sydney is the capital of the southeastern Australian state of NSW and the most populous city in Australia. It is expected to see temperatures of up to 37 degrees Celsius Tuesday, which will combine with high winds to increase fire danger.
This appears to be the first such "catastrophic" fire risk designation (the highest level, above "extreme") for… https://t.co/59OM9dULkg— Daniel Swain (@Daniel Swain)1573365021.0
Firefighters and scientists have observed that it is unprecedented for so many extreme fires to ignite so early in the season, The New York Times reported.
"The consequences are absolutely apparent and evident over the last few weeks and particularly highlighted in the last 24 hours," Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons of the NSW Rural Fire Service told The New York Times. "We have got the worst of our fire season still ahead of us. We're not even in summer yet."
Scientists have predicted that the climate crisis would make Australia's bushfires more frequent and more extreme: Australia's Climate Council first warned that climate change was already increasing fire risk in 2013. The fires also come as the country has been suffering from a drought, and some of the affected areas are now burning.
Over six years the Climate Council has released 11 reports about the link between climate change and worsening bush… https://t.co/K3pSKPSR3p— Climate Council (@Climate Council)1573438596.0
But Australia's political leaders dismissed concerns about climate change. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who supports the coal industry, refused to answer questions this weekend about the connection between climate change and the current fires, Reuters reported.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack went further on Monday, accusing climate activists of politicizing the sufferings of fire victims.
"They don't need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they're trying to save their homes," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) radio, as Reuters reported.
I'm a rural Australian I'm a survivor of Black Sat bushfires I'm an agricultural scientist I'm a volunteer CFA fire… https://t.co/jv7bae98zH— Ruth McGowan (@Ruth McGowan)1573429340.0
Former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner and Climate Council member Greg Mullins pushed back against the idea that it was inappropriate to talk about the climate crisis while fires were burning in an opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald Monday.
"In the past I have heard some federal politicians dodge the question of the influence of climate change on extreme weather and fires by saying, 'It's terrible that this matter is being raised while the fires are still burning.' But if not now, then when?" he asked.
Greg Mullins is a former NSW fire chief who has just visited firefighters battling blazes in northern California. H… https://t.co/C6BKzt35Aa— abc730 (@abc730)1573425632.0
Mullins pointed out the fingerprints of climate change on the last two decades of Australian fires:
In NSW, our worst fire years were almost always during an El Niño event, and major property losses generally occurred from late November to February. Based on more than a century of weather observations our official fire danger season is legislated from October 1 to March 31. During the 2000s though, major fires have regularly started in August and September, and sometimes go through to April.
The October 2013 fires that destroyed more than 200 homes were the earliest large-loss fires in NSW history – again, not during an El Niño.
This year, by the beginning of November, we had already lost about as many homes as during the disastrous 2001-2002 bushfire season. We've now eclipsed 1994 fire losses.
Mullins also noted that this year's drought was more intense than a major drought in the 2000s; that this year's wildfires were making their own thunderstorms, something that did not used to happen often when he was fighting fires; and that fires were burning in new areas like rainforests in NSW and Queensland.
Terri Nicholson watched firsthand as the fire menaced rainforest from her parents' property in Terania Creek. Her parents, Nan and Hugh Nicholson, were instrumental to a successful blockade that saved the forest from logging 40 years ago.
"Nan and Hugh Nicholson hosted the site of the Terania protest to defend this great rainforest from logging and now we're here defending it due to the effects of climate change," Nicholson told The Guardian. "I don't even have the words right now. It's just gobsmacking and distressing to witness."
The deadliest fire raged near the town of Glen Innes in NSW. Two people died in that blaze, The New York Times reported. One woman was found unconscious and severely burned Friday and died in the hospital. Another body was found in a car Saturday.
The woman has been identified as 69-year-old Vivian Chaplain, a grandmother of six who died trying to protect her home, Radio New Zealand reported. The victim found in a car was identified as George Nole. Another woman, Julie Fletcher, died north of Taree.
At least seven people are also missing from the fire near Glen Innes, according to The New York Times.
"People were burned, lives were lost," Glen Innes Mayor Carol Sparks told The New York Times. "People battled to save their houses and then had to walk out because their cars had blown up — it was just horrific."
As well as extensive damage to homes, buildings and facilities, there is also broad damage to infrastructure includ… https://t.co/4IeS7Jt6v8— NSW RFS (@NSW RFS)1573269993.0
More than 50 fires were also burning in the northeast state of Queensland Sunday, where homes were destroyed and thousands were forced to flee, The Guardian reported.
"Most people just want to go back home to see what's actually happening. That's making them very anxious. That's what they're telling us," Red Cross Queensland's emergency services manager Colin Sivalingum told the ABC, as The Guardian reported.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>