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Australian ecosystems left vulnerable in wake of bushfire catastrophe

Firefighters in Australia are finally getting some help from nature, in the form of lower temperatures and rain. But many fires are still burning, and millions of acres have been lost. The blazes have also caused tremendous damage to the surrounding ecosystems and wildlife -- some of which don’t exist anywhere else in the world. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Firefighters in Australia are finally getting some help this week from nature, in the form of rain and thunderstorms. But many fires are still burning.

    Millions of acres have been lost, adding up to a combined area as large as the state of Virginia. And the brushfires have done tremendous damage to Australian ecosystem and to wildlife.

    Our science correspondent, Miles O'Brien, is there for us, as well as for the weather app MyRadar.

    Miles joins us now from the southeastern part of the country. He's in Sarsfield, Australia.

    Miles, hello to you.

    First of all, just bring us up to date. What is the latest on the situation there?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, Judy, the weather is a little bit better here. There's been a little bit of rain. Humidity is a little higher. The temperatures have fallen.

    They have had just record heat here. So there is a bit of a respite. But we're now 55 days into this epic fire season. It's by no means over. There are 17 fires still uncontained in the state of Victoria, where I'm standing, just to the north in New South Wales, another 30 fires.

    And that's two sections of Southeast Australia. There are fires all across this country. It has damaged and destroyed 25 million acres.

    Just look at the scene here, Judy. It's almost like I'm standing at the bottom of a barbecue at the end of a night, yes, all the chroma kind of removed. It's almost a moonscape. Multiply that over the scope of this, at 24 million acres, and you get just a slight idea of how epic this fire season has been already.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It just looks like a wasteland of ash.

    Miles, we have been hearing so much about the loss of not just human life — I guess 28 or 29 people have died — but the loss of wildlife in Australia, where there are so many precious animals and others.

    What have you learned about that?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, that's an important point.

    Australia, being a continent and island, is home to many species that are nowhere else on the planet, and many of those species are really facing an onslaught. We have seen just those gut-wrenching pictures of some of these marsupials. Koalas in particular are very vulnerable in this case.

    They're very slow-moving. They're very finicky eaters. When a fire comes to the forest, what's their natural instinct to do? They climb up a tree. That's not a good place to be.

    By some estimates, 30 percent of the koala population in this country may have already been killed. One scientist in Sydney ventured to guess that there might have been a billion animals killed already. That's a difficult number to verify, obviously, and this is a very dynamic situation.

    But the scientists I have talked to remind us that you have to remember what we're dealing with right now is just the beginning. After all, these animals have to come back to this. Their home, their food, the food system, the ecosystem, the food chain has all been disrupted.

    And so the deaths that are — they're dealing with now, the injuries they're dealing with now, they fear, may be just the beginning.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Miles, you were telling us you have also been talking to the scientists who are experts in climate change, looking at what has happened to Australia.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, it's a complicated picture. It's never simple, but climate change is a big player in all of this.

    There are some significant owns currents. It's sort of like El Nino, La Nina. They call it the Indian Dipole, which has exacerbated drought conditions in Australia. Another factor, there was some warm weather over Antarctica which has changed the wind patterns, causing it to be much windier this year.

    But at the base of it all is climate change. As the temperatures rise, these forests just dry out. The dries get dryer, the wets get wetter. This is compelling evidence that climate change is at root here.

    And it factors in, of course, Judy, to a political debate which rages on here, as well as in the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you were also telling us you have been looking at how public opinion may have been shifting. You have been talking to some folks who've been advocating for more public awareness.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, it's — this is a country which is a huge fossil fuel exporter, coal and oil.

    It's the number three exporter of coal and oil in the world, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. So when you talk about climate change, it immediately gets into a conversation about jobs and the economy.

    And so this is a country where the political leadership, the prime minister has been a climate denier, moving into climate skepticism. But through all of this, given the tremendous impact that all of this has had, the emotional impact and the devastating losses, Mr. Morrison is now saying his views are evolving.

    And that is a significant moment for Australian politics. Much of the news here is dominated by the News Corporation, run by Rupert Murdoch, strictly, almost strictly anti-climate change views, climate denial views, but even that is changing.

    Some of the tabloids are starting to address this issue. And, of course, very publicly just the other day, the son of Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch, openly split with his family and said that the News Corporation should be addressing this issue more directly.

    On top of all of this, what is troubling, Judy, is, this is really just the beginning of the traditional fire season here. February and March are oftentimes where the real fires begin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Miles O'Brien, reporting from Victoria state in Australia, so hard to believe that, until you see it up close like this.

    Thank you, Miles.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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