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Tuesday
10Feb

Wildfire in Australia

In his 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, University of California at Los Angeles anthropologist Jared Diamond examined what it was that led to the collapse of various socieities, historically-speaking.  He also examined several societies today that could be in trouble for a variety of reasons, including environmental ones.  One example was Australia.  Anyone following the news of late would know that brushfires have broken out there, in the middle of one of the hottest and dryest summers on record.  Even more galling is the idea that at least some of these were deliberately set.  As of this writing, the death toll is approaching 200 and the fires are threatening the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Australia's 2nd largest city and the capital of the Province of Victoria, which has been affected the most by the fires.

In Collapse, Diamond notes the multitude of problems facing Australia today, which include the likelihood of drought, an unstable and diminishing water supply, and a surfeit of arable land for a growing population.  Today, in reading the news, one is struck by how eerily prescient Diamond may have been.  Part of what is driving these fires, aside from human stupidity in setting them, is the climate.  It has been especially hot in Australia this summer, with temperatures upwards of 43 degrees celsius in Melbourne in early February.  Indeed, it has been so hot in the city that the railways have been literally melting. Wind and record low rainfall haven't helped, and neither has the fact that eucalyptus trees are especially flammable.  Altogether, this means that the fires have spread quickly across Victoria.

Jim Gould, who makes his living studying brush fires for the Australian government, thinks that while it's still too early to tell whether or not global warming is the cause of the tragedy, situations such as this might become more common in the future.  Meanwhile, the Australian Minister of Climate Change, Penny Wong, has stated that what has happened "conforms with... climate change scenarios and with what experts have predicted." 

At the very least, what's clear is that Australia is a fragile country in terms of its environmental security, and whether these brush fires have been helped along by global warming is a question worth exploring. 

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