The descriptions and images coming out of the inferno have been both heart-breaking and terrifying. As the Los Angeles Times, whose Southern California readers know all to well the risks of wildfire, put it, the wildfires are so fierce that "they incinerated people trying to flee in their cars, sent towering walls of flames sweeping through small towns and sparked a new debate over whether homeowners should be allowed to stay to try to protect their property."
The wildfires are so big, they're visible from space.
The wildfires have struck a region suffering through the Big Dry, a multi-year period marked by drought and heat waves that has led many Australians to a new and immediate understanding of climate change. Even before the wildfires hit this summer (it's the height of the Southern Hemisphere summer, but the Northern Hemisphere winter has produced its own signs of global warming in the Arctic) several people had died as temperatures in and around Adelaide topped 114 degrees (F).
The NASA map below shows the land surface temperature anomaly across Australia between Jan. 25 and Feb. 1, 2009. The darkest reds and the darkest blues show a 10-degree (C) differential from normal (white).
In the United States, a deadly and destructive increase in western wildfire frequency and intensity over the past several years has already been attributed in large part to global warming. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared the end of a "wildfire season," as the risk continues year round, and he's directly tied the death and destruction to global warming. As snowpack decreases, the landscape dries out, insect infestations weaken trees and frequent short but strong storms unleash lightning that can spark new wildfires. The recipe is similar in this part of Australia: higher temperatures mean greater evaporation, and high heat in a tinder-dry landscape leaves the region just waiting for a spark.
In the case of Australia, several of the wildfires appear to have been set by arsonists, in an act that one official dubbed "mass murder."
Australia, with per capita greenhouse gas emissions rivaling that of the United States, and the rest of the industrialized world set the stage for the "crime."
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