With the sky outside a menacing red, Nerilie Abram’s family is staying inside, with the windows shut and curtains drawn at their home in Canberra, Australia’s smoke-choked capital.
On their return from recent holiday travels, “the kids didn’t want us to open the curtains because outside it looked scary,” the professor and climate scientist at the Australian National University said.
Family friends who struggle with asthma have left town, she said, and most residents who do venture outside wear disposable masks — although the city, which had the world’s worst air quality for several days last week, is running out of those.
“We’re been really caught off-guard by these fires,” said Abram, who works with the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes.
“Scientifically, it’s not surprising. We totally expected that as the climate warmed, fires in Australia would get worse. But the scale of this disaster is something I couldn’t have imagined, and it’s the same for a lot of people in Australia,” she said.
Large swathes of the country are battling wildfires that have killed at least 27 people and torched more than 10 million hectares in the wake of the southern-hemisphere nation’s hottest and driest year on record.
The ferocious, fast-moving blazes have consumed more than 2,000 homes, blanketed major cities from Sydney to Melbourne in thick smoke, killed an estimated billion animals and pushed exhausted firefighters to their limits.
While summer bushfires are nothing new in Australia, scientists say these are different.
Their scale and ferocity raise questions about how nature will recover — and the fires are now affecting a much higher percentage of Australia’s population, the scientists say.
In the well-populated southeast, nearly a third of people are estimated to have been directly affected by this season’s fire and smoke.
In a nation of just 25 million, “most people know someone who’s been affected,” said Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a climate scientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
That might have political implications in a country that less than a year ago elected a conservative coalition government with close ties to the powerful coal industry and a record of dismissing action on climate change as too costly.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been verbally abused while visiting fire-hit areas after returning from an ill-timed Hawaii holiday, with angry residents saying his government has done too little to respond and prevent damage.
“People are deeply affected,” said Joe Fontaine, a lecturer in environmental science at Murdoch University in Perth, noting “a deep sense of loss and anxiety in society.”
However, it was “a little too early” to tell if the bushfire crisis was shifting views on climate change, he added.
Australia’s brutal fire season stems from a confluence of threats, scientists say.
Climate change is generally causing a long-term trend toward hotter and drier conditions, while Abram said that shifts in clouds and winds are gradually driving winter rain toward Antarctica.
This season, unusual cold in the eastern Indian Ocean has cut off moisture moving to Australia.
All that adds up to an extremely dangerous fire season — but it might not be the “new normal” some have dubbed it, Abram said.
Not every year will be this bad, although future years could possibly be much worse, she said.
This season’s runaway fires have occurred at 1.1°C of global warming compared with pre-industrial times.
However, the world is on track for more than 3°C of warming, even if current commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change are met.
“We’re on an upward trajectory,” Abram said. “How bad is this going to get? How bad are we willing to let it get?”
Perkins-Kirkpatrick’s husband, a volunteer firefighter and former Australian army firefighter, said the color of ash on the ground and dripping aluminum from melted car parts point to higher-than-usual temperatures in this season’s fires.
Those, and the rising frequency of bushfires in some areas, could make recovery increasingly difficult for Australia’s normally resilient forests, scientists predict.
“I’m skeptical that we will see things return to the way they were,” Fontaine said.
Those who argue nature will bounce back because Australia is fire-prone are “overlooking the interaction with climate change,” he said.
Some iconic Australian tree and plant species, like banksias with their flower spikes, might be on their way to disappearing as they struggle with more heat, drought and fires, he said.
Wildlife experts also estimate that as many as 30 percent of the country’s koalas could have died in the blazes.
The widespread destruction of this season’s fires similarly is expected to have implications for Australia’s insurance and tourism industries, as well as for healthcare.
Extended smoke and fire exposure might spur lingering physical and mental health problems, doctors and scientists fear, but whether those impacts will pressure politicians to take significant action on climate change remains in doubt, they said.
Previous dire warnings about climate change risks to the Great Barrier Reef had not worked, Abram said.
“I hope this [fire] threat affecting such a large proportion of the Australian population will be the catalyst to really take this seriously,” she said.
“That could be one of the only positive things that comes out of this experience — if it’s that wake-up call to see what climate change looks like,” she added.
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