South Florida is widely considered Ground Zero for climate change in the United States. NBC 6 is committed to reporting on this global crisis and how it is challenging and changing our way of life.
Globally, Australia rests at the heart of climate change. Raging fires have devastated the island continent over the past few months. Extreme heat and drought have been amplified by climate change in a record-breaking and disastrous way. The horrifying images on unprecedented bush fires have shocked the world.
NBC 6 Meteorologist Angie Lassman visited Australia to document the scope of the fires, the causes, the wildlife decimation, the human toll, and the threats climate change is posing to the mainland and the Great Barrier Reef, now and in the future.
In this five-part series, we also examine how political and media landscapes are framing the conversation, possible solutions, and how Australia’s experiences parallel with what South Florida is facing in many ways.
What lessons can we learn? Is this a cautionary tale for South Florida? What can we do to prevent climate catastrophe?
Extreme Weather: Fire and Water
Australian summers are known for extreme heat and humidity, and for bringing out the worst during brush fire season.
For nearly six months around summertime, the continent experiences a mixture of severe weather, including heat waves, brush fires and tropical cyclones.
A three-year drought, coupled with extreme heat and amplified by a warming climate, helped to fuel the fires responsible for the recent devastation seen across the country.
The fires are most often started by lightning strikes from nearby thunderstorms. The extremely dry landscape then catches fire and with elevated winds the fires are quick to spread.
Oftentimes, lightning sparks fire. In turn, fire can then create lightning, causing a viscous and merciless cycle.
Pryocumulonimbus clouds form as smoke plumes cool in an unstable atmosphere. Eventually, thunderstorms develop but do not offer any relief to the parched landscape. Instead, the rain evaporates as it comes in contact with dry air. Historically, lightning ignites more fires.
Climate change is a global disease and wildfires are just one symptoms. Florida is no stranger to fire, but large-scale blazes are mitigated by controlled-burns and built-in humidity.
The biggest climate threat to the Sunshine State comes in the form of water. Sea level rise, flooding, storm surge with intensifying hurricanes are all part of that picture.
Whether it’s fire or water, climate change is Earth’s more formidable threat.
Devastating Wildlife Loss
In the midst of the unprecedented wildfire devastation in Australia, an unfathomable wildlife catastrophe occurred. The fires overtook 27 million acres of landscape and with it the animals that live there.
Scientists estimate more than a billion individual animals have been killed on the Australian continent during the 2019-2020 bush fire season.
The unique and rich biodiversity of Australia is unmatched worldwide. Many of the animals in the path of the expansive bush fires exist nowhere else in the world.
Two of Australia’s unique animals, the koala and the kangaroo, are also beloved cultural icons for the country. They are also two of the hardest hit by the unprecedented blazes.
Kangaroo Island is a celebrated wildlife sanctuary and tourism hot spot situated just off the coast of Adelaide. The island was left unrecognizable with 30-thousand kangaroos And 50-thousand koalas are estimated dead.
Rae Harvey runs Wild 2 Free Kangaroo Sanctuary on the island. She dedicated her life to care for and protect the marsupial. So much so, that she stayed at the property until the flames were at her doorstep, leaving her sanctuary and home in ruin. Harvey was forced to flee by boat and watch as the flames engulfed peninsula.
Nick De Vos of Taronga Zoo in Sydney is one of the many people that have pitched in to care for koalas rescued from scorched areas.
There was potential that koala could become extinct in the next 30 years with current land-clearing regimes and habitat destruction that’s going on. So, these bush fires have really just elevated that,” De Vos explained.
Any animals that have survived the fire now face the challenge of combating invasive species and surviving on a limited food supply.
The ultimate threat to the kangaroos, koalas and many of the world's animals comes in the form of climate change. The future of South Florida plant and animal species isn’t much different than Australia’s.
“South Florida is actually a mirror of that when you look at us," said Zoo Miami's Ron Magill. "South Florida is really ground zero in the United States when it comes to climate change and what climate change can do to this incredible place that we live in.”
One of the most obvious examples of this in South Florida is the Key Deer.
"Here’s an animal that lives basically on a key that’s only a few feet above sea level," Magill said. "One foot rise in sea level could wipe out the entire population of key deer.”
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The Great Barrier Reef
It's easy to see the devastation of scorched land in the aftermath of brush fires, but damage to the beloved Great Barrier Reef is much harder to put into perspective.
Much like the kangaroo and koala, the majestic Great Barrier Reef is also an Australian icon that is being threatened by climate change.
The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef, making it one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The reef is home to more than 1,500 fish species and so expansive that it’s visible from space. Just as extreme heat threatens those on land, it also jeopardizes the reef.
Corals are sensitive to even the slightest changes in their environment. Therefore, as the global temperature increases, the oceans heat up. The warmer waters cause the corals to stress and could cause a mass die-off known as bleaching.
The bleaching causes a cascade of bigger issues for the ecosystem. After a die-off event, there is often a loss of fish and other species that depend on the reef. While bleaching is quick to occur, the bounce back of the reef can take decades.
The parallels between Australia’s underwater troubles and Florida’s rapid loss of corals aren’t difficult to see. Florida’s reeling reefs have the insult of another climate change-fueled culprit to contend with, stony coral tissue loss disease.
Coral reefs protect South Florida’s coastlines from storms, as well as other natural threats, including storm surge. And similar to Australia, reefs help pump money into the economy.
In South Florida, the reefs bring in an estimated $4.5 billion and account for 70,000 jobs.
Comparative to the Great Barrier Reef, part of Florida’s identity would be lost without its reef tract, not only for the present but for lasting generations.
“Curbing climate warming is critically important to try and save coral reefs. If we don’t achieve that, there’s very little hope for coral reefs,” said Prof. Madeline van Oppen, an ecological geneticist.
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The Politics of Climate Change
The massive fires in Australia may be under control, but anger from the summer still simmers across the country. The conservative party currently holds political leadership in Australia and many of the country’s citizens are upset with the governments downplay the threat of climate change.
“It’s kind of heartbreaking to see that they’re still not taking it seriously,” said Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a climate scientist with a focus on extreme weather events. “We’ve been talking about climate change for longer than I’ve been researching, maybe even longer than I’ve been alive, and it seems like it’s falling on deaf ears.”
There’s been no shortage of those in Australia in recent years.
Scott Morrison, Australia’s current prime minister, has been the target of much of the criticism during and after the climate change-fueled fires.
“I think recently there has been a lot of criticism of the prime minister for not taking leadership,” said climate science communicator David Holmes. “He went on holiday during one of the crucial times for the fires when he received a lot of criticism. And I think people link that rightly or wrongly to perhaps him not caring about what’s happening with climate change.”
The political landscape of climate change isn’t only changing in Australia but also the conversation is changing across the country – and in South Florida.
Curbelo remains optimistic in his party moving forward. However, not everyone is optimistic with the current United States administration rolling back numerous climate regulations and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement.
“Unfortunately, the current administration has shown no interest in acting on climate change and working with our international partners to solve this problem. Instead, Trump has filled his administration with fossil fuel and energy lobbyists who run their energy and environmental policy and it’s pretty clear that they have no interest in actually doing something about climate change,” said climate scientist Michael Mann .
Curbelo says at the end of the day “this is not a political issue. This is a human issue and we all have to solve it.”
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The Human Toll and the Future
Almost all of the fires are out in Australia, and according to the New South Wales Rural fire service, those that are still burning are contained.
In the aftermath of the fires, the country has come together to recover after the loss of lives, homes and precious wildlife. This recovery process has just begun but those in the midst of the disaster are not as worried for their own well-being as they are for what the future holds.
Michael Green and his family lived in a quaint home in Dargan, situated in Australia’s iconic Blue Mountains for over two decades. Green raised his children there and has spent years enjoying life with his wife. Each morning they would get up and drink coffee on their veranda surrounded by trees and listen to the birds. That veranda, the trees, and those birds are no longer there. The Greens lost their home of 22 years to the massive blazes last month.
“There’s definitely something happening. People deny it. They say there’s no climate change but there’s too much happening. Too many places. Too many records being broken,” Green said.
While the fires left the country scorched, it also forced those impacted and so many others to face off with the facts. More and more Australians are beginning to agree that climate change is a problem. However, the difficulty with combating it is that finding a solution to it will not be easy.
“If we want to avoid catastrophic warming of the plant, warming of about 3 degrees, we need to bring emissions down dramatically. We can’t wait,” said Climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann.
The renewable energy sector has picked up in Australia but experts say more of a transition toward it and away from fossil fuels is needed.
“What we also have an abundance of is a lot of wind and a lot of sunshine, so we could really be a renewable super power in Australia,” added climate change communicator David Holmes.
The question then turns to: how much climate change is uncertain at this time?
The impacts range from large to small scale. More ferocious and difficult fires will be possible but with those come the added issues of smoke overtaking cities. This ultimately causes people to question whether it is safe to go to work and eventually looking at impacts in their finances.
As Australia faces the reality of a recurrence of these extreme fires, Florida will soon brace for the reality of a new hurricane season. Storms in recent years have been so record breaking that researchers are considering adding an unprecedented category six.
With economics playing, will Florida and the rest of the country accept a move away from fossil fuels and the billions of dollars at play?
Former United States representative Carlos Curbelo says “we have to be realistic.”
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