Climate concerns as Siberia experiences record-breaking heat

Heat wave sparks concerns about devastating wildfire season and melting permafrost.
Image: Satellite imagery of a wildfire in Siberia, Russia above the arctic circle on May 19, 2020

Satellite imagery of a wildfire in Siberia, Russia above the arctic circle on May 19, 2020Copernicus Sentinel/Sentinel Hub/Pierre Markuse

By Luke Denne and Olivia Sumrie

One of the coldest regions on Earth has been experiencing a record-breaking heat wave in recent weeks amid growing fears about devastating wildfires and melting permafrost.

Khatanga, a town in Siberia’s Arctic Circle, registered highs of over 80 degrees Fahrenheit this week, according to Accuweather, far above the 59 degrees F historical average, as the whole of western Siberia basked in unseasonable warmth.

While locals flocked to popular spots to sunbathe, experts sounded alarms about the possible implications for the region’s wildfire season this summer, with some blazes already breaking out in recent months.

Image: People on a sandy shore of the Novosibirsk Reservoir on the Ob River in Sovetsky District of Novosibirsk, during the pandemic of the novel coronavirus disease
People on a sandy shore of the Novosibirsk Reservoir on the Ob River in Novosibirsk on May 20.Kirill Kukhmar / TASS/Getty

Fires burned huge areas in the region last year and, at its peak, smoke engulfed an area larger than the whole European Union, the World Meteorological Organization reported.

“It is very much possible that this year, we will have another fire catastrophe in Siberia,” Anton Beneslavskiy, a wildfire expert with Greenpeace Russia, said.

“Catastrophes became the new business as usual for Siberia in the last 20 years,” he added.

From January to April, Russia was 11 degrees F warmer than average, according to the climate science nonprofit Berkeley Earth.

“That’s not only a new record anomaly for Russia. That’s the largest January to April anomaly ever seen in any country’s national average,” Robert Rohde, Berkeley Earth lead scientist tweeted.

The pace of global warming in Russia is over twice as fast as the global average, Russia’s deputy U.N. envoy said last year. But the situation in the Arctic is even more stark with the region warming at over three times the global average.

Much of the Arctic region is covered by permafrost — carbon rich soil that should remain frozen throughout the year — and rapid warming is causing it to melt, said Thomas Smith, an assistant professor of environmental geography at the London School of Economics.

Permafrost, he said, stores vast amounts of carbon, which means that when it melts, planet-warming greenhouse gasses are emitted.

“That can further drive climate change and global warming,” he said.

Image: A satellite image showing wildfires in the Novosibirsk Region, south Siberia on April 27, 2020
A satellite image showing wildfires in the Novosibirsk Region, south Siberia on April 27.NASA

“The second problem is that if the land is thawed out, and if it dries out with these high temperatures, then that soil is actually available to burn as a fuel for a fire,” he added.

These fires that emit greenhouse gases can smolder for weeks or months, “even when it has rained,” Smith said.

The unusual heat has also disrupted a number of natural cycles, according to the Siberian Times, with river ice breaking, blooms coming earlier and insects emerging earlier than normal.

While temperatures in the region have temporarily dropped, the heat is forecast to return next week.

Coronavirus forces new approaches to fighting wildfires

BOISE, Idaho — (AP) — They are two disasters that require opposite responses: To save lives and reduce the spread of COVID-19, people are being told to remain isolated. But in a wildfire, thousands of firefighters must work in close quarters for weeks at a time.

Wildfires have already broken out in Texas and Florida, and agencies are scrambling to finish plans for a new approach. They are considering waivers for some training requirements to previously-certified crew members, and moving some training online.

Other proposals include limiting fire engines to a driver and one passenger, requiring other crew members to ride in additional vehicles. They may scrap the normal campsite catering tents in favor of military-issue MREs, or “Meals Ready to Eat” to reduce touching serving utensils.

Federal resources for firefighting efforts may be more scarce, leaving states to deal with more fires.

In light of the “unprecedented challenge” of the pandemic, Forest Service resources will be used “only when there is a reasonable expectation of success in protecting life and critical property and infrastructure,” says Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen.

Wildland fire camps have always had a reputation for spreading illness. Norovirus outbreaks have occurred and outbreaks of illnesses collectively dubbed the “camp crud” are yearly occurrences for many.

The job is so demanding that it’s typically done by younger, healthy and physically fit people. But the nature of the job also works against them: firefighters regularly experiencing high stress, inhaling smoke and dust and dealing with poor sleeping and personal hygiene.

A suck-it-up and tough-it-out culture doesn’t help either, said Jessica Gardetto, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The center coordinates logistics for 14,000 federal firefighters and thousands more state, local and private crews.“

“We have really been trying to educate and change that culture because not just in this situation but in others, it’s not OK to just tough it out if something’s wrong,” she said.

You don’t have to look too far back in history to see how the one-two punch of a pandemic and wildfire can decimate communities. The 1918 influenza pandemic killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide. In October 1918, sparks from a passing train ignited fields near Cloquet and Moose Lake, Minnesota.

Four hundred and fifty people were killed in an area that spanned 1,500 square miles (about 3,885 square kilometers). There were 21,000 injuries and 52,000 displaced people, said Curt Brown, a journalist and the author of “Minnesota, 1918.” The aftermath made it easy to spread disease.

“It was the perfect situation to spread the flu — if you were lucky enough to survive the wildfire, you were crammed into evacuee housing,” he said. At least 100 people died of the flu in evacuee housing, an estimate Brown called conservative.

There also are concerns about preparations not being done. Typically, agencies spend months and millions of dollars preparing for wildfire season — clearing brush and doing prescribed burns to reduce the plants that feed massive wildfires.

That’s not happening in many places because some fire managers are trying to allow employees to abide by social distancing guidelines as long as possible and to curb smoke from the prescribed burns during the pandemic. Smoke can make breathing more difficult for people with asthma and other lung conditions.

“The biggest issue I see right now is that the prescribed burns aren’t getting done,” says Casey Judd, the president of the Federal Wildland Fire Services Association, which advocates on behalf of federal firefighters in 42 states. “That’s going to increase the fire load.”

He said leaders should have started working on a coronavirus plan for firefighters months ago. “I’m not suggesting they’re dragging their feet, but obviously they’re trying to figure it out just like everyone is,” he said.

Kerry Greene, an emergency management specialist and spokeswoman with the U.S. Forest Service, said that although the plans haven’t been released yet, they’re coming together. The agency is already working to follow directives from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as infectious disease guidelines created in 2008 after a bird flu epidemic.

Like many, fire managers are to some extent flying blind. “Some of the things we’re probably going to have to learn as we go,” Greene said.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Wildland firefighters are first responders just like hospital staff and police, and should be protected accordingly, said , said Boise State University assistant professor Luke Montrose, an expert in community and environmental health. “Like potentially having them wear masks when traveling from place to place.”

Under the $2 trillion federal CARES Act, federal fire crews will have paid sick leave for the first time, she said, which officials hope will encourage crew members to take sick leave when they need it. It’s not clear if all state or contract firefighters will have the same benefit.

Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the agency is following strict physical distancing protocols, and that could mean making larger campsites near wildfires and pulling in additional trailers for showers and other hygiene needs. But there is no agency-wide guidance beyond the recommendations every American has been given for the pandemic, he said.

“It has to be handled on a case-by-case basis because every incident is different. We rely on each individual to be responsible, and we have safety officers on the teams,” McLean said. “We will meet those needs as they come.”

FILE - In this Nov. 10, 2018, file photo, a firefighter sprays water on a controlled burn while fighting a wildfire in Magalia, Calif. The outbreak of the coronavirus is making the U.S. Forest Service and others change strategies for fighting wildfires, as the need for isolation and social distancing comes into play against the necessity of having firefighters work and live closely together. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
FILE – In this Nov. 10, 2018, file photo, a firefighter sprays water on a controlled burn while fighting a wildfire in Magalia, Calif. The outbreak of the coronavirus is making the U.S. Forest Service and others change strategies for fighting wildfires, as the need for isolation and social distancing comes into play against the necessity of having firefighters work and live closely together. (AP Photo/John Locher, File) (John Locher)
FILE - In this Nov. 26, 2019, file photo, firefighters battle the Cave Fire as it flares up along Highway 154 in the Los Padres National Forest above Santa Barbara, Calif. The outbreak of the coronavirus is making the U.S. Forest Service and others change strategies for fighting wildfires, as the need for isolation and social distancing comes into play against the necessity of having firefighters work and live closely together. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)
FILE – In this Nov. 26, 2019, file photo, firefighters battle the Cave Fire as it flares up along Highway 154 in the Los Padres National Forest above Santa Barbara, Calif. The outbreak of the coronavirus is making the U.S. Forest Service and others change strategies for fighting wildfires, as the need for isolation and social distancing comes into play against the necessity of having firefighters work and live closely together. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File) (Noah Berger)
FILE - In this Aug. 21, 2015, file photo, firefighters from several King County agencies gather for a briefing while fighting a wildfire near Twisp, Wash. The outbreak of the coronavirus is making the U.S. Forest Service and others change strategies for fighting wildfires, as the need for isolation and social distancing comes into play against the necessity of having firefighters work and live closely together. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
FILE – In this Aug. 21, 2015, file photo, firefighters from several King County agencies gather for a briefing while fighting a wildfire near Twisp, Wash. The outbreak of the coronavirus is making the U.S. Forest Service and others change strategies for fighting wildfires, as the need for isolation and social distancing comes into play against the necessity of having firefighters work and live closely together. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File) (Ted S. Warren)
FILE - In this Aug. 25, 2015, file photo, firefighters rest at a camp near the Okanogan Complex Fire in Okanogan, Wash. The outbreak of the coronavirus is making the U.S. Forest Service and others change strategies for fighting wildfires, as the need for isolation and social distancing comes into play against the necessity of having firefighters work and live closely together. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
FILE – In this Aug. 25, 2015, file photo, firefighters rest at a camp near the Okanogan Complex Fire in Okanogan, Wash. The outbreak of the coronavirus is making the U.S. Forest Service and others change strategies for fighting wildfires, as the need for isolation and social distancing comes into play against the necessity of having firefighters work and live closely together. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File) (Ted S. Warren)

‘Bad news’: radiation 16 times above normal after forest fire near Chernobyl

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/06/bad-news-radiation-spikes-16-times-above-normal-after-forest-fire-near-chernobyl

The blaze started on Saturday close to the site of the world’s worst ever nuclear disaster

A Geiger counter shows increased radiation level at the forest fire near Chernobyl.
A Geiger counter shows increased radiation level at the forest fire near Chernobyl. Photograph: Yaroslav Yemelianenko/AP
 in Moscow and agencies
Published onSun 5 Apr 2020 19.06 EDT

Ukrainian officials have sought calm after forest fires in the restricted zone around Chernobyl, scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident, led to a rise in radiation levels.

Firefighters said they had managed to put out the smaller of two forest fires that began at the weekend, apparently after someone began a grass fire, and had deployed more than 100 firefighters backed by planes and helicopters to extinguish the remaining blaze.

The fire had caused radiation fears in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, which is located about 60 miles south of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Government specialists on Monday sent to monitor the situation reported that there was no rise in radiation levels in Kyiv or the city suburbs.

“You don’t have to be afraid of opening your windows and airing out your home during the quarantine,” wrote Yegor Firsov, head of Ukraine’s state ecological inspection service, in a Facebook post about the results of the radiation tests.

Police have arrested a suspect believed to have caused the blaze, a 27-year-old man from the area who reportedly told police he had set grass and rubbish on fire in three places “for fun”. After he had lit the fires, he said, the wind had picked up and he had been unable to extinguish them.

An earlier post by Firsov had warned about heightened radiation levels at the site, which he said had been caused by the “barbaric” practice of local grass fires often started in the spring and autumn. “There is bad news – radiation is above normal in the fire’s centre,” Firsov wrote on Sunday.

The post included a video with a Geiger counter showing radiation at 16 times above normal. The fire had spread to about 100 hectares of forest, Firsov wrote.

The country’s emergency ministry put out a warning for Kyiv on Monday about poor air quality but said it was related to meteorological conditions, and not to the fire.

The service had said on Saturday that increased radiation in some areas had led to “difficulties” in fighting the fire, while stressing that people living nearby were not in danger. On Monday, it said that gamma radiation levels had not risen near the fire.

Chernobyl polluted a large area of Europe when its fourth reactor exploded in April 1986, with the region immediately around the power plant the worst affected. People are not allowed to live within 30km of the power station.

The three other reactors at Chernobyl continued to generate electricity until the power station finally closed in 2000. A giant protective dome was put in place over the fourth reactor in 2016.

Fires are common in the forests near the disused power plant.

Wildfires Threaten North American Water Supplies

As rain offers a welcome relief to fire-scorched Australia, concerns over flash floods and freshwater contamination cast a shadow on the joy. Already, massive fish kills have been reported due to heavy ash and sediment in local stream.

Local reservoirs and municipal water supplies might become so polluted from the fires that the current water supply infrastructure will be challenged or could no longer treat the water.

Flash floods and water contamination after large-scale wildfires are emerging as real hazards in Australia and many other places, threatening drinking water, ecosystems, infrastructures and recreational activities.

In many ways, this is not surprising. Forests provide water to 90 per cent of the world’s most populous cities, and most of these forests already yield degraded water quality. Forests also provide other essential water services like flood control, hydroelectricity, fishing and recreational opportunities.

Our recent global analyses clearly showed Australia’s water supply was at high risk from wildfires. We also found areas on every continent except Antarctica face similar risks. In North America, larger and more severe fires have created new challenges for forest and water managers.

Post-Fire Water Hazards

Wildfires can have many detrimental impacts on water supplies. The effects can last for multiple decades and include drinking water pollution, reservoir sedimentation, flash floods and reduced recreational benefits from rivers.

These impacts represent a growing hazard as populations expand, and communities encroach onto forest landscapes.

Looking closer, wildfires change the amount of water that comes from upstream forests and the seasonal timing of water flows. Such changes complicate water resource allocation as less water might be available during periods of high demand.

When rainstorms follow large and severe wildfires, they tend to flush ash, nutrients, heavy metals and toxins, and sediments into streams and rivers. This contamination from wildfires causes problems for the health of downstream rivers and lakes, as well as safe drinking water production.

Mercury, which can be deposited on leaves and absorbed by plants, is a particular concern. During a fire, mercury may be re-emitted in large amounts and deposited in nearby lakes, wetlands and other water, where it accumulates in the food web, and into fish, that are caught and eaten by people. Indigenous communities living in fire-prone forests in Canada and who already struggle with mercury contamination might be particularly exposed.

Risks in North America

Polluted water creates many expensive, difficult and long-lasting challenges for the drinking water treatment process. For example, water remained difficult to treat for 15 years after after the 2002 Hayman fire in Colorado.

The quality of the post-fire water increased the chances of forming undesirable byproducts of water disinfection. These toxic chemicals had to be removed before the water could be supplied to more than half a million users in Denver.

But most of the fire-prone areas in North America lack large-scale vulnerability assessments of their municipal water supplies — and not because the risks are inconsequential.

In Canada and the United States, one large and severe wildfire might increase drinking water production costs by US$10 million to US$100 million. In southern California, mudslides from heavy rainfall after wildfires caused 23 deaths and produced more than US$100 million of structural damage in 2018.

The financial burden of these changes is eventually carried by taxpayers. Adopting nature-friendly solutions to reduce severe wildfires in upstream forests, such as prescribed burns under controlled conditions, will lower the bill and provide better protection of water services.

Protecting the Source

Forest health is already declining across Canada and the United States. This trend will likely continue because of climate change and land degradation linked to human activities.

Climate projections suggest that fires will happen more frequently and become more severeUrban sprawl also increases the likelihood of these fires happening in the vicinity of homes.

Combined with increased rainfall and declining snowfall, this makes river flows and the quality of surface water less predictable. Consequently, water supplies become less reliable.

In light of these environmental changes and the inevitability of wildfires, countries like Canada and the United States can expect cascading hazards with impacts similar in magnitude to what is now happening in Australia.

Therefore, governments need to seize existing opportunities, such as leveraging existing data and taking advantage of growing computing power, to measure wildfire risk to water supplies. A tailored wildfire-water risk reduction strategy can help achieve better source water protection, improve infrastructure and foster preventive disaster planning.

There is no doubt we will learn more as our knowledge of Indigenous forest management practices improves. Instead of reinventing the wheel we must try to keep water in the landscape by restoring wetlands, and accept a helping hand when offered.

Because ultimately, forests and clean water resources are of paramount importance to our own future.

Disclosure Statement: François-Nicolas Robinne receives funding from Global Water Futures and the Canadian Partnership for Wildland Fire Science (Canada Wildfire). Dennis Hallema receives funding from the USDA Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Kevin Bladon receives funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service.

‘The only uncertainty is how long we’ll last’: a worst case scenario for the climate in 2050

The Future We Choose, a new book by the architects of the Paris climate accords, offers two contrasting visions for how the world might look in thirty years (read the best case scenario here)

 Christiana Figueres, author: ‘This is the decade and we are the generation’

Red clouds in a dark sky
 ‘The air can taste slightly acidic, sometimes making you feel nauseated.’ Photograph: Arctic-Images/Corbis

It is 2050. Beyond the emissions reductions registered in 2015, no further efforts were made to control emissions. We are heading for a world that will be more than 3C warmer by 2100

The first thing that hits you is the air. In many places around the world, the air is hot, heavy and, depending on the day, clogged with particulate pollution. Your eyes often water. Your cough never seems to disappear. You think about some countries in Asia, where, out of consideration, sick people used to wear white masks to protect others from airborne infection. Now you often wear a mask to protect yourself from air pollution. You can no longer simply walk out your front door and breathe fresh air: there might not be any. Instead, before opening doors or windows in the morning, you check your phone to see what the air quality will be.

Fewer people work outdoors and even indoors the air can taste slightly acidic, sometimes making you feel nauseated. The last coal furnaces closed 10 years ago, but that hasn’t made much difference in air quality around the world because you are still breathing dangerous exhaust fumes from millions of cars and buses everywhere. Our world is getting hotter. Over the next two decades, projections tell us that temperatures in some areas of the globe will rise even higher, an irreversible development now utterly beyond our control. Oceans, forests, plants, trees and soil had for many years absorbed half the carbon dioxide we spewed out. Now there are few forests left, most of them either logged or consumed by wildfire, and the permafrost is belching greenhouse gases into an already overburdened atmosphere. The increasing heat of the Earth is suffocating us and in five to 10 years, vast swaths of the planet will be increasingly inhospitable to humans. We don’t know how hospitable the arid regions of Australia, South Africa and the western United States will be by 2100. No one knows what the future holds for their children and grandchildren: tipping point after tipping point is being reached, casting doubt on the form of future civilisation. Some say that humans will be cast to the winds again, gathering in small tribes, hunkered down and living on whatever patch of land might sustain them.

More moisture in the air and higher sea surface temperatures have caused a surge in extreme hurricanes and tropical storms. Recently, coastal cities in Bangladesh, Mexico, the United States and elsewhere have suffered brutal infrastructure destruction and extreme flooding, killing many thousands and displacing millions. This happens with increasing frequency now. Every day, because of rising water levels, some part of the world must evacuate to higher ground. Every day, the news shows images of mothers with babies strapped to their backs, wading through floodwaters and homes ripped apart by vicious currents that resemble mountain rivers. News stories tell of people living in houses with water up to their ankles because they have nowhere else to go, their children coughing and wheezing because of the mould growing in their beds, insurance companies declaring bankruptcy, leaving survivors without resources to rebuild their lives. Contaminated water supplies, sea salt intrusions and agricultural runoff are the order of the day. Because multiple disasters are often happening simultaneously, it can take weeks or even months for basic food and water relief to reach areas pummelled by extreme floods. Diseases such as malaria, dengue, cholera, respiratory illnesses and malnutrition are rampant.

The aftermath of a wildfire in northern California, November 2018.
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 The aftermath of a wildfire in northern California, November 2018. Photograph: Noah Berger/AP

You try not to think about the 2 billion people who live in the hottest parts of the world, where, for upwards of 45 days per year, temperatures skyrocket to 60C (140F), a point at which the human body cannot be outside for longer than about six hours because it loses the ability to cool itself down. Places such as central India are becoming increasingly challenging to inhabit. Mass migrations to less hot rural areas are beset by a host of refugee problems, civil unrest and bloodshed over diminished water availability.

Food production swings wildly from month to month, season to season, depending on where you live. More people are starving than ever before. Climate zones have shifted, so some new areas have become available for agriculture (Alaska, the Arctic), while others have dried up (Mexico, California). Still others are unstable because of the extreme heat, never mind flooding, wildfire and tornadoes. This makes the food supply in general highly unpredictable. Global trade has slowed as countries seek to hold on to their own resources.

Countries with enough food are resolute about holding on to it. As a result, food riots, coups and civil wars are throwing the world’s most vulnerable from the frying pan into the fire. As developed countries seek to seal their borders from mass migration, they too feel the consequences. Most countries’ armies are now just highly militarised border patrols. Some countries are letting people in, but only under conditions approaching indentured servitude.

A young boy picks material from a rubbish dump in Taez, Yemen.
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 A young boy picks material from a rubbish dump in Taez, Yemen. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP via Getty Images

Those living within stable countries may be physically safe, yes, but the psychological toll is mounting. With each new tipping point passed, they feel hope slipping away. There is no chance of stopping the runaway warming of our planet and no doubt we are slowly but surely heading towards some kind of collapse. And not just because it’s too hot. Melting permafrost is also releasing ancient microbes that today’s humans have never been exposed to and, as a result, have no resistance to. Diseases spread by mosquitoes and ticks are rampant as these species flourish in the changed climate, spreading to previously safe parts of the planet, increasingly overwhelming us. Worse still, the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance has only intensified as the population has grown denser in inhabitable areas and temperatures continue to rise.

The demise of the human species is being discussed more and more. For many, the only uncertainty is how long we’ll last, how many more generations will see the light of day. Suicides are the most obvious manifestation of the prevailing despair, but there are other indications: a sense of bottomless loss, unbearable guilt and fierce resentment at previous generations who didn’t do what was necessary to ward off this unstoppable calamity.

 This is an edited extract from The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, published by Manilla Press (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

 Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac will be in conversation at a Guardian Live event at the Royal Geographical Society, London SW7, on Tuesday 3 March, 7pm

Letter to a Young Climate Activist on the First Day of the New Decade

Rebecca Solnit on Finding Hope and Resolve for the Future


January 1, 2020

Dear Galicia,

Climate chaos is the worst thing human beings have brought upon themselves and the earth, and we are just beginning to see its impact, in heartbreaking phenomena from melting ice to starving whales to burning forests. If you’re sad, you’re not alone. If you’re scared, you’re not alone. Those of you who are young have every reason to be furious that you were handed a world entering into an era of catastrophe and disruption. You did nothing to make this mess and most of us who are older didn’t do enough to avert it during the last 30 years that we have known we should act, the last 15 when we had the renewable-energy technology to leave the age of fossil fuel behind.

I would never question the rightness of that fury, but I am going to go after despair, hopelessness, and powerlessness. And maybe your fury pointed in the right direction is a treasure: a non-fossil fuel, a clean-burning fire, a passion to do what we need to do. Fury can fight for all that is still with us and all that is worth protecting. And there is so much that is worth protecting.

The world is still beautiful in so many places. All my life I have been told how much better it was a generation or a century before I got here, and I got here almost 60 years ago. I grew up hearing about the great flocks of passenger pigeons that darkened the eastern sky before they were hunted into extinction, the great herds of bison wandering across the western plains, the forests that covered immense portions of the eastern USA, the salmon so dense in western rivers you could hardly see the water. I grew up being told that it had been purer, better, bigger before I got here. It was.

But what is here now is beautiful.

Last spring I went on a long walk on a big hill just north of where I grew up, and the beauty overwhelmed me. It was ordinary beauty: it was the greenness of new grass and old gray oak trees with their gnarled branches sprouting tender new oak leaves with sun shining through them. It was ordinary woodpeckers and stellar jays, Douglas iris, the wonderful moss that looks like both green fur and tiny fern fronds all along the boughs of some of the trees. I realized on that walk that I have been told all my life to compare the present to the past. If we compare it to the future, we can imagine that later generations may look back on us alive in 2020 as the lucky ones.

I have seen change that was unimaginable until it happened and then became so ordinary-seeming a part of everyday life that people forgot there was a struggle.We need to love the earth as it is now and to see how worthy it is, now, of our greatest efforts. To look for that beauty and to treasure it is perhaps a crucial part of the work we have to do. This is what reminds us that the world is still full of things we love and want to protect and the effort is worth it. Galicia, the fury you feel is the hard outer shell of love: if you’re angry it’s because something you love is threatened and you want to defend it.

We can envy some of what people had 50 or 100 years ago, but people 50 or 100 years from now will think about us the same way. In 2120, there will still be much of the beauty of the inorganic natural world, of sunrise, moonlight, waterfalls, daily tides. And there will be wildlife, there will be forests, there will be rivers, birds in the sky—well in some skies. What condition those phenomena are in depends on us now. Morissa Zuckerman of the Sunrise Movement wrote me, “Yes, it’s late. Too late for some things. But every bill we pass and pipeline we stop and candidate we elect and community we transform and amount of C02 we reduce means lives saved. And that MATTERS.”

We, more than almost any other human generation, are shaping the future. Some of us are shaping it for the better, and the best cure for fear is action: becoming a climate activist is for the climate, but it will give you companionship in the questions, the doubts, and the possibilities, and it will give you power. The power of people held together by passionate conviction. So many young people have energized and transformed the climate movement in the past couple of years: from the members of the US-based Sunrise Movement to the indigenous youth around the world—including Quannah Chasinghorse of Alaska, Helen Gualinga of the Ecuadoran Amazon, and Catarina Lorenzo of Brazil who is, at 12, a year younger than you—and, of course, Greta Thunberg of Sweden. They have dreamed bigger and demanded more. As Thunberg says, “no one is too small to make a difference.”

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If you look harder at the natural world you can see that human beings are capable of change, and that environmental victories are all around us. I grew up in an era when DDT had driven a lot of birds—eagles, hawks, pelicans among them—to the brink of extinction. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring and the work of concerned people succeeded in getting DDT banned in the USA. Wildlife populations rebounded. I grew up on the edge of countryside that had none of the coyotes and mountain lions that are now so abundant here; they had been hunted out, as had the elephant seals thought to be extinct a century ago, now protected. Those behemoths came back to the central California coast in the 1980s and they’re there now, bellowing and giving birth, mating and, for the two-ton males, fighting. The natural world is strong and resilient. This does not mean that everything is fine. It does mean that given half a chance some of the natural world will survive, and giving that chance depends on us. Life wants to live.

I know the fear and fury about climate destruction is also life wanting to live, and it’s generosity that wants life, and good life, for others—other people, other species, other lives in times yet to come.

There’s a thing I call naïve cynicism, when people strike a pose of sophistication without actually knowing what they’re talking about. I see it a lot with the ill-informed about climate, when they say it’s all over and we lost. That’s not what the scientists say, and it’s an excuse to give up instead of trying. We owe it to the refugees on the US’s southern border fleeing crop failure in Central America; we owe it to the farmers flooded out last spring from Mozambique to Nebraska, and to the people—including your family—still struggling to recover from 2017’s Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico or 2018’s wildfire in Paradise, California; we owe it to South Pacific Islanders watching the sea rise over their homelands.

We owe it to the whales, to every songbird in every tree, to frogs and trout and fireflies.

There is one hummingbird on the power line outside the window of the room I’m writing this in, in the middle of San Francisco, and this work is worth it just for hummingbirds. It’s worth it for sunlight through new grass. It’s worth it for one person you will never meet who will be born on the other side of the world in 2057. Life wants to live.

Naïve cynicism is the offspring of amnesia. Amnesia says “the way things are now is inevitable, change is impossible, change for the better is beyond our power.” Memory says, not so fast: ordinary people massed together have changed the world again and again. I was born in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, at the dawn of movements for women’s rights and rights for queer people. I am a year older than Rachel Carson’s landmark book about the catastrophic impact of pesticides, Silent Spring, and was born into a world where there was barely an environmental movement, barely environmental consciousness. I am older than the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act that did a lot to limit how much we poisoned air and water (and that Trump, of course, has been weakening). I am much older than the first black woman senator and the first out gay elected official (and at thirteen, you are much older than the terms of the first Native American and Muslim congresswomen and first Latina senator, all elected in that glorious blue wave in 2018).

I have been told all my life to compare the present to the past. If we compare it to the future, we can imagine that later generations may look back on us alive in 2020 as the lucky ones.When I was young, it seemed likely that the United States and USSR would launch an all-out nuclear war that would destroy much of life on earth. In the early 1980s, “the living will envy the dead” was a phrase that caught on about life after nuclear armageddon. It seemed reasonable to imagine that the Cold War and the USSR would be there in a hundred and maybe a thousand years if they didn’t blow everything up and kill everything off. Then in 1991, over a few stunning months, the USSR fell apart in front of us, and as it crumbled so did the the global geopolitics that after 45 years had seemed so permanent.

I have seen change that was unimaginable until it happened and then became so ordinary-seeming a part of everyday life that people forgot there was a struggle, forgot there was a transformation, forgot how we got here, forgot that we are living in the once-unimaginable. I believe that there are many unimaginables in this moment that will become, must become ordinary, including the end of the era of fossil fuel. Almost no one seems to know that 20 years ago, we literally did not have the solution, because wind and solar were ineffectual and expensive; we have had an energy revolution that now makes it possible to make the transition we need, and it’s not unimaginable now—just unimagined because it’s so overlooked.

I read an amazing quote by the novelist Rene Denfeld. She was talking about surviving sexual abuse, but it could apply to so many things:

And one thing I’ve found is that the people who survive—the people who end up thriving, even—are the people who have the power of imagination. If you think about it, imagination is actually a radical act. Because if you have an imagination, you can imagine yourself in a different future. A child who’s suffering severe trauma can imagine themselves in a different family. They can imagine themselves escaping. They can imagine themselves going to college or getting a job. People in prisons can imagine themselves going on and doing something else after their release. It isn’t just the future we imagine. We tell ourselves a better story about who we are.

We need to understand the worst-case scenarios and the suffering and loss happening now, so we know what we’re trying to prevent. But we need to imagine the best case scenarios, so we can reach for them too. And we need to imagine our own power in the present to choose the one over the other. And then we need to act. I believe that resistance, that standing on principle, that engaging with the trouble, is good for the soul, a way to connect, a way to be powerful. And get results.

It’s a couple of hours later and there’s another hummingbird on the power lines on this sunny winter day. Morissa also sent me a quote from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Love,

Rebecca

Australia urges a quarter of a million to flee as winds fan massive bushfires

KEY POINTS
  • Australia urged nearly a quarter of a million people to evacuate their homes on Friday and prepared military backup as authorities said the next few hours could be “very, very challenging.”
  • Defense personnel stood ready to move to bushfire grounds if conditions became extreme.
  • Since October, 27 people have been killed and thousands subjected to repeat evacuations as monster fires scorched more than 25.5 million acres of land, or an area the size of South Korea.
VIDEO01:52
Australia urges over 240,000 people to evacuate as raging bushfires intensify

Australia urged nearly a quarter of a million people to evacuate their homes on Friday and prepared military backup as authorities said the next few hours could be “very, very challenging” even as rain poured down in some parts.

Defense personnel stood ready to move to bushfire grounds if conditions became extreme, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters, as soaring temperatures and erratic winds create dangerous conditions.

“Even with rain in Melbourne, even with forecast better conditions next week, there is a long way to go in what has been an unprecedented fire event…and, of course, we know that we have many weeks of the fire season to run,” Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria, told a televised briefing.

“The next few hours are going to be very, very challenging.”

While the winds are expected to move through by Saturday morning, Andrews urged residents to stay on high alert and leave the community “if you are told to.”

Authorities sent emergency texts to 240,000 people in Victoria, telling them to leave. People in high-risk regions in New South Wales and South Australia were also urged to think about leaving, but officials did not say how many.

RT: Australia Wildfires: Smoke billows during bushfires in Bairnsdale, Victoria, Australia, December 30, 2019
Smoke billows during bushfires in Bairnsdale, Victoria, Australia, December 30, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken December 30, 2019.
Glen Morey | Reuters

Since October, 27 people have been killed and thousands subjected to repeat evacuations as monster and unpredictable fires scorched more than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres) of land, or an area the size of South Korea.

Campaigners protested in Sydney and Melbourne on Friday as part of a wave of demonstrations planned in major world cities, to spotlight concerns about Australia’s climate change policies.

In the coastal town of Eden in New South Wales, where the alert status was upgraded to ‘watch and act’ on Friday evening, smoke filled the horizon as winds blew smoke and ash.

“We’re staying to defend and we think we’ll be OK,” said David Richardson, sitting under the town’s watchtower while walking his dog, close to his home behind a small pine forest.

Sitting beside him, Robyn Malcolm added: “If it all goes wrong we’ll dash down to the wharf and get on a tugboat,” referring to a navy vessel that has been lingering for over a week.

GP: Australian Wildfires: Firefighters Brace For Worsening Bushfire Conditions As State Of Disaster Is Extended In Victoria
Firefighters along with the Australian Defence Force (ADF) brace for worsening bushfire conditions as State of Disaster is extended in Victoria on January 10, 2020 in Orbost, Australia.
Luis Ascui | Getty Images

Here are key events in the crisis:

* Of 158 fires ablaze across New South Wales (NSW), about 39 were uncontained. One was burning at an ‘emergency level’, three blazes were in the “watch and act” category, with the rest at the “advice” level, the lowest alert rating.

* Neighbouring Victoria had 21 fires, with more than 1.3 million hectares burnt. Ten fires were at an emergency level.

* In the alpine region on the border of the southeastern states of Victoria and New South Wales, two fires were poised to merge and create a blaze over almost 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres).

* Victoria emergency services minister Lisa Neville said some communities had been provided with large containers of satellite phones, baby formula, food, nappies, and torches in case they are cut off.

* Westpac estimated total bushfire losses to date at about A$5 billion ($3.44 billion), higher than the 2009 bushfires in Victoria but smaller than the Queensland floods in 2010/11. It forecast a hit of 0.2% to 0.5% on gross domestic product.

* Australia’s alpine resorts have dusted off winter snowmaking machines to blast ice-cold water onto dry ski slopes as fires threaten the Snowy Mountains region.

* The Insurance Council of Australia increased its estimate of damages claims from the fires to more than A$900 million, with claims expected to jump further.

* Health officials in New South Wales urged extra precautions to avoid heat-related illnesses.

* Australia’s wildfires have dwarfed other catastrophic blazes, with its burnt terrain more than twice the extent of that ravaged this year by fires in Brazil, California and Indonesia combined.

* Of nine fires in the state of South Australia, one was categorized as an emergency.

* Climate protests were also planned on Friday in cities such as Canberra, targeting the government’s handling of the crisis and its position on climate change.

* Prime Minister Morrison said he was considering holding a wide-ranging national inquiry into the bushfires after the immediate crisis passed.

* Just shy of 2,000 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales, state authorities said, half during the past 10 days.

* The Commonwealth Bank of Australia is to donate cricketer Shane Warne’s prized “baggy green” cap to a museum after paying more than A$1 million for it at an auction for bushfire relief.

Authorities have warned that the huge fires, spurred by high temperatures, wind, and a three-year drought, will persist until there is substantial rainfall. The weather agency said there was no sign of that for months.

* Ecologists at the University of Sydney have estimated 1 billion animals have been killed or injured in the bushfires, potentially destroying ecosystems.

* Morrison has pledged A$2 billion ($1.4 billion) to a newly created National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

* About 100 firefighters from the United States and Canada are helping with another 140 expected in the coming weeks.

* The fires have emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide and produced harmful pollutants, the European Union’s Copernicus monitoring program said.

* Smoke has drifted across the Pacific, affecting cities in South America, and may have reached the Antarctic, the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization said.

1 Billion Animals Killed in Australia Wildfires Is “Very Conservative” Estimate

As Australia’s catastrophic wildfires rage on with no end in sight, University of Sydney ecologist Chris Dickman said the number of animals killed in the blazes has topped one billion — a horrifying figure that the scientist described as a “very conservative” estimate.

Dickman told HuffPost late Monday that the original estimate of nearly 500 million animals killed was based solely on figures from the state of New South Wales (NSW) and excluded groups of animals that have been devastated by the wildfires, which have scorched 18 million acres of land, destroyed thousands of homes, and killed at least 25 people.

“The original figure — the 480 million — was based on mammals, birds, and reptiles for which we do have densities, and that figure now is a little bit out of date,” Dickman said. “It’s over 800 million given the extent of the fires now — in New South Wales alone.”

“Over a billion would be a very conservative figure,” the ecologist said.

Stuart Blanch, scientist with World Wildlife Fund Australia, agreed with Dickman’s assessment of over a billion animals lost to the fires.

“It’s our climate impact and our obsession with coal that is helping wage war on our own country,” Blanch said in an interview with HuffPost.

Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg highlighted the shocking numbers on Twitter:

Greta Thunberg

@GretaThunberg

Ecologists at the University of Sydney and WWF Australia estimate that a billion animals has died in Australia’s bushfires.
“Over a billion would be a very conservative figure,” says Chris Dickman from the University of Sydney. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/billion-animals-australia-fires_n_5e13be43e4b0843d361778a6 

Number Of Animals Feared Dead In Australia’s Wildfires Soars To Over 1 Billion

Ecologists at the University of Sydney and WWF Australia estimate that a billion is a conservative figure.

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The unprecedented fires across Australia, fueled by record heat driven by the global climate crisis, have put several endangered species in Australia at risk of total extinction.

“Critically endangered species, including the southern corroboree frog and mountain pygmy-possum, could be wiped out as fires ravage crucial habitat in Victoria’s Alpine National Park and New South Wales’ neighboring Kosciuszko National Park,” HuffPost reported. “Threatened species, such as the glossy black cockatoo, spotted-tail quoll, and long-footed potoroo (both small marsupials), are also facing real risks of extinction in large parts of their range.”

Janine Green, a volunteer at WIRES Wildlife Rescue, told CNN Tuesday that it will be extremely difficult for animal populations to recover in the aftermath of the fires.

“They’re not coping, and now they’ve got no grass, no water, no habitat,” Green said. “Who knows if they can breed after this? We’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Number Of Animals Feared Dead In Australia’s Wildfires Soars To Over 1 Billion

 

Ecologists at the University of Sydney and WWF Australia estimate that a billion is a conservative figure.

SYDNEY ― The number of wildlife estimated to have died in Australia’s wildfire catastrophe has skyrocketed to more than 1 billion.

Chris Dickman, an ecologist at the University of Sydney, told HuffPost that his original estimate of 480 million animals was not only conservative, it was also exclusive to the state of New South Wales and excluded significant groups of wildlife for which they had no population data.

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“The original figure ― the 480 million ― was based on mammals, birds and reptiles for which we do have densities, and that figure now is a little bit out of date. It’s over 800 million given the extent of the fires now ― in New South Wales alone,” he said.

“If 800 million sounds a lot, it’s not all the animals in the firing line,” he added.

That figure excluded animals including bats, frogs and invertebrates. With these numbers included, Dickman said, it was “without any doubt at all” that the losses exceeded 1 billion. “Over a billion would be a very conservative figure,” he said.

An environmental scientist at the World Wildlife Fund Australia, Stuart Blanch, confirmed these estimates, reiterating that, given the expansion of the fires since the last calculations, 1 billion was a modest guess.

“It’s our climate impact and our obsession with coal that is helping wage war on our own country,” Blanch said.

Critically endangered species, including the southern corroboree frog and mountain pygmy-possum, could be wiped out as fires ravage crucial habitat in Victoria’s Alpine National Park and New South Wales’s neighboring Kosciuszko National Park.

Threatened species, such as the glossy black cockatoo, spotted-tail quoll and long-footed potoroo (both small marsupials), are also facing real risks of extinction in large parts of their range.

New South Wales Rural Fire Service firefighter and police officer hold a possum and her baby after they rescued them from und

New South Wales Rural Fire Service firefighter and police officer hold a possum and her baby after they rescued them from under a car during the bushfires on New Year’s Eve.

Dickman said bats, which have enormous populations along Australia’s east coast and are critically dependent on forest habitat, undoubtedly also sustained enormous losses.

“The numbers would have to be huge. And they’re very susceptible to the fires,” he said.

Over the weekend, Australia Zoo’s Bindi Irwin shared sad news from the zoo’s wildlife hospital.

“In September, flying fox admissions to the hospital skyrocketed by over 750% due to drought conditions and lack of food,” she wrote. “Flying foxes are now being drastically affected by wildfires and we’re again seeing an influx of these beautiful animals from across the country.”

Koalas have lost more than 30% of their key habitat in New South Wales and may have lost a third of their population in that region, federal environment minister Sussan Ley told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. last month. Dickman said it would be a “tough” recovery for the iconic Australian marsupial, dependent on the availability of their food ― eucalyptus tree leaves ― after the blazes sweep through.

The University of Sydney’s animal loss estimates also exclude livestock, which federal agriculture minister Bridget McKenzie expects will exceed 100,000 animals. Harrowing footage of thousands of dead animals beside roads has appeared on social media as the national Defence Force rushed to dig mass graves to avoid a health emergency.

ABCcameramatt

@ABCcameramatt

WARNING GRAPHIC. Sorry to share these images near Batlow, NSW. It’s completely heartbreaking. Worst thing I’ve seen. Story must be told.

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A graphic compiled by agriculture market analysis company Mecardo found that 8.6 million head of sheep and 2.3 million cattle were in the areas of New South Wales and Victoria affected by bushfires.

It could take months before the exact number of livestock losses are known.

Officials will reportedly kill thousands of camels in the country’s northwest as they wreak havoc on communities with their water consumption during the drought and fire emergencies.

The fires across Australia have killed 25 people, destroyed or damaged more than 2,000 homes and burned nearly 31,000 square miles ― an area about the size of Austria.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Monday that the federal government would commit $2 billion over two years to a new national bushfire recovery agency, and more if needed.

Despite sustained criticism, the government has taken a firm stance on climate policy, with Morrison dismissing calls to curb the nation’s substantial coal industry and repeatedly pushing the party line: “We’re meeting and beating our targets.”

The bushfires alone are believed to have spewed as much as two-thirds of the nation’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

As tens of thousands of residents fled their homes amid catastrophic conditions in early January, a kangaroo jumps in a field

As tens of thousands of residents fled their homes amid catastrophic conditions in early January, a kangaroo jumps in a field shrouded with smoke from a bushfire in Snowy Valley.

Dickman said that the only remaining glimmer of hope amid this disaster was that the government may finally heed the advice of ecologists and environmental scientists, who he said had been frozen out of policymaking for over two decades.

“With any luck, now the government will actually come back and think, OK, we do need the science. We do need the modeling predictions. We do need really good, informed advice about what we should be doing.”

WWF Australia’s environmental scientists have outlined a three-part plan to address the crisis, Blanch told HuffPost.

“One, reduce the threat by ending logging or bulldozing of mature forests… Secondly, a 10 million hectare major reforestation agenda, and, thirdly, in the very short term, more support for wildlife carers and wildlife hospitals around the country.”

Australia fires: How do we know how many animals have died?

Australian firefighters rescue a koalaImage copyrightREUTERS

There is a widely-reported estimate that almost half a billion (480 million) animals have been killed by the bush fires in Australia.

It’s a figure that came from Prof Chris Dickman, an expert on Australian biodiversity at the University of Sydney.

He released a statement explaining how he had reached the figure – a statement which refers to the number of animals affected rather than those necessarily dying as a direct result of the fire (although the title of the release talks about 480 million being killed).

The numbers are based on a report he co-wrote in 2007 for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) on the impact of land-clearing on Australian wildlife in New South Wales.

It estimated that there were an average of 17.5 mammals, 20.7 birds and 129.5 reptiles per hectare (10,000 square metres, so a square 100m on each side – about the size of a rugby pitch).

They’ve then multiplied that by the amount of land hit by the fires.

“We’ve estimated that in the three million hectares of New South Wales alone that were burned up until about 10 days ago probably as many as 480 million mammals, birds and reptiles would have been affected by the fires,” Prof Dickman said.

A kangaroo watching bush fires in New South WalesImage copyrightAFP

“Certainly, large animals, like kangaroos or emus – many birds, of course – will be able to move away from the fire as it approaches,” he told BBC Breakfast.

“I guess it’s the less mobile species and the smaller ones that depend on the forest itself that are really in the firing line.”

But he added that many of those that survived the actual fire would die later because of lack of food or shelter.

Colin Beale, an ecologist from University of York told Reality Check that may have been overstated.

He said: “In the areas of Africa where I work I am quite sure that very few birds die as a direct result of fire. They certainly have the ability to fly away from fires, and this is surely the case in Australia, too.”

Bush fires in AustraliaImage copyrightEPA

There are a few caveats with these figures. First of all, the estimate is for damage only in New South Wales, and the fires have spread to Victoria.

Also, the three million hectares figure is somewhat out of date – the fires have spread since then. So it is likely that more animals have been affected than the estimate suggests.

But it is important to remember that this is just an estimate – its authors say the numbers are deliberately conservative. The figure for the number of reptiles is particularly uncertain, and reptiles make up three-quarters of the animals affected in these calculations.

“Density estimates are not available for many species, so they have had to be estimated from known densities of other species,” Tom Oliver, professor of applied ecology at University of Reading, told Reality Check.

“For reptiles, there are no density estimates of individual species at all, just an estimate from a single study (Ehmann and Cogger 1985), which estimates 10 individuals per species per hectare.”

Colin Beale added: “Although it is hard to find estimates of how well reptiles survive fires, in similar areas of Australia the majority of these reptiles live in the soil.”

“Soil is a very good thermal insulator and burrowing reptiles can certainly show very low mortality even during intense fires.”

“It seems extremely unlikely that the majority of the animals affected by fire are actually killed, though we may still ask whether they will survive longer-term.”