As temperatures rise, Australia becomes more monochrome. In the ocean, the reefs have been whitening. On land, the forests have been blackening. Successive heat waves have forced corals to expel their colorful, nutrient-providing algae; half of the Great Barrier Reef has died. A near-unprecedented drought and exceptional temperatures—December saw Australia’s two hottest days on record—triggered the unusually intense bushfires that have incinerated almost 18 million acres of land. These disasters are vivid testaments to the consequences of climate change and the homogenizing effect of heat. A colorful realm of flora and fauna, one of the world’s most unusual, is slowly turning into a world of bleached reefs, charred bark, and sooty air.
In many cases, the catastrophes have undone years of work spent protecting species that were already imperiled. The Kangaroo Island dunnart, for example, is a mouse-size carnivore that lives only on the western edge of one southern island. With fewer than 500 individuals remaining, it was already critically endangered. Researchers had made important strides in monitoring it and planning for its future. But on December 20, lightning ignited a fire that burned half of the island, including the dunnart’s entire range. At least one has survived, but the dunnart’s future looks bleaker than ever. “We were a little more optimistic about this species a year or so ago,” says Rosemary Hohnen from Charles Darwin University, who has been working to save the dunnart for almost three years. “To go back to square one has been really awful.”
“Part of me thinks: Should we have known?” she adds. “Climate-change predictions suggested that catastrophic fires were going to happen and were going to become more frequent. But they’ve just never happened before at this scale.” The island last saw major bushfires in 2007, but the recent blazes have burned an area more than 12 times greater. They’ve even torn across farms and short-grass lawns, which don’t usually carry fires well. “Nobody foresaw over half the island burning,” Hohnen says. “And maybe we should have.” [Continue reading…]