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3 graphics reveal the unimaginable scale of Australia's fires

Aylin Woodward , Business Insider US
 Jan 08, 2020, 12:53 PM
Cattle stand in a field under a red sky caused by bushfires in Greendale on the outskirts of Bega, in Australia's New South Wales state on January 5, 2020.
  • Since September, bushfires have razed an estimated 25 million acres in Australia. That's an area larger than South Korea, and it's 7 million more acres than burned in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest last year.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate and more than one billion animals perished.
  • Drought conditions and record-breaking temperatures contributed to the fires' unprecedented size and intensity.
  • Three graphics show the devastating scale of Australia's bushfire crisis.
  • For more visit Business Insider South Africa.

More than half of Australia is choking on smoke, and skies across the country glow orange as bushfires continue to ravage the continent.

Since the start of the bushfire season in September, an estimated 25.5 million acres have burned, according to Reuters, and at least 25 people have died. More than 1 billion animals have perished, and an estimated 2,000 homes have been destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate.

Australia experiences fires during its summer, which runs from December to March, but this year's crisis - which comes on the heels of a heat wave and prolonged drought - is unprecedented. The fires that plagued the Brazilian Amazon this year, by comparison, burned through 17.5 million acres of rainforest.

The smoke plume from Australia's blazes is nearly unfathomable in size: 1.3 billion acres of sky are engulfed in ash and smoke that can be seen from space. That's an area three times the size of Mexico, half the size of Canada, and bigger than the 11 biggest US states combined.

In December, an official in New South Wales said the state was experiencing the "longest" and "most widespread" period of poor air quality in the state's history.

"I looked out into smoke-filled valleys, with only the faintest ghosts of distant ridges and peaks in the background," Michael Mann, a US climate scientist who is on sabbatical in Sydney, wrote in the Guardian on January 2.

Dry conditions in Australia's bushland, wooded areas, and Blue Mountain National Park have made the land ripe for sparks. Australia experienced its driest spring ever in 2019. December 18 was the hottest day in the country's history, with average temperatures hitting 105.6 degrees Fahrenheit (40.9 degrees Celsius).

In the last 15 years, Australia has experienced eight of its 10 warmest years on record. Winter rains, which can help reduce the intensity of summer fires, have declined significantly, The Sydney Morning Herald reported. That meant that when the fire season started, it was savage and seemingly unstoppable.

"We used to see hundreds of thousands of hectares burned in bushfires, but now we are seeing millions on fire," Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project, told the Herald.

These three graphics that reveal the unimaginable scale of the Australia fires.

Compared to other recent fires (and even to the US' worst blaze ever), Australia's bushfire crisis tops the list.

Shayanne Gal/Insider

Last year was a year of fire. Blazes cut through 6.4 million acres of the Siberian tundra over the summer, while 2.5 million acres of Alaskan wilderness went up in smoke. More than 100,000 fires started over the course of 10 August days in the Amazon rainforest.

But Australia's bushfires dwarf all of those events. In fact, this season obliterates the country's previous record for worst wildfire season; that was in 2009, when the Black Saturday bushfires razed 1.1 million acres.

Added up, the burned land in Australia as of January 7 is about the size of the US state of Virginia.

Shayanne Gal/Insider

The radius of the resulting smoke - 1.3 billion acres - is equal to the area of Alaska, Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon, Wyoming, and Michigan combined.

Nearly 70% of Australia is covered by a haze of smoke.

Shayanne Gal/Insider

If that smoke cloud hung over Europe, it would engulf half of the continent.

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