Fires Take a Toll on Australian Forests
This image was acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite on 09 December, 2019.
The fire season in New South Wales normally ramps up in December. In 2019, unusually hot weather and a potent drought primed the region for a roaring start in October. Two months later, more than 100 fires are still raging in forests and bush areas near the southeast coast, including some subtropical rainforests and eucalyptus forests that do not often see fire.
By 12 December, 2019, fires in New South Wales had charred 27,000 square kilometres (10,000 square miles), an area about the size of Maryland. Vast plumes of smoke and pollution have streamed from fires for weeks, enveloping coastal towns and cities with toxic haze and smoke. Parts of Sydney, a city of 5 million people, recently endured pollution levels several times above what is considered hazardous, according to news reports.
The fires have been particularly damaging to eucalypt forests and woodlands, which thrive in areas of relatively dry and nutrient-poor soil. These forests are prone to big outbreaks of fire because many of the trees species have oil-rich foliage that is extremely flammable.
Though normally immune to fire because of moist conditions, the drought and hot temperatures of recent years have made rainforests and wet eucalyptus forests vulnerable. "Rainforest systems from Australia's northern wet tropics, to Lamington National Park, to alpine montane ecosystems have experienced massive fires," said Tulloch. "These systems cannot tolerate fire, and most plants are killed by it," adding that they will not recover nearly as quickly as dry eucalyptus forests can.
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Credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens and Lauren Dauphin.