Dust storms batter bushfire-weary Australia | Daily News


Dust storms batter bushfire-weary Australia

A child running towards a dust storm in Mullengudgery in New South Wales. - Dust storms hit many parts of Australia's western New South Wales as a prolonged drought continues. - AFP
A child running towards a dust storm in Mullengudgery in New South Wales. - Dust storms hit many parts of Australia's western New South Wales as a prolonged drought continues. - AFP



AUSTRALIA: “Apocalyptic” dust storms swept across drought-stricken areas of Australia over the weekend, with thunder and giant hail battering the east coast, as extreme weather patterns collided in the bushfire-fatigued country.

The southern city of Melbourne was lashed by huge hailstones late Sunday and fire-ravaged parts of Victoria state overnight received heavy rainfall, prompting new extreme weather alerts.

Australia has since October been overwhelmed by an unprecedented bushfire season made worse by climate change.

Swathes of the country have burned, hundreds of millions of animals have died, more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed and at least 29 lives have been lost.

Dramatic images captured over the weekend from western New South Wales show a massive wall of dust rolling through outback towns. Locals reported being cast into darkness in the middle of the day.

“We are used to the ritual and rush of bringing in washing, turning air cons off, closing windows and doors, before a big dust storm hits,” Ashleigh Hull from the rural town of Dubbo told AFP.

This one was “more spectacular” than the typical dust storm, she added.

“It was honestly like an apocalyptic movie, a huge wave coming towards us, really quite impressive, but I just wish it actually brought a good amount of rain, not dust.” Violent hail storms pelted the capital Canberra Monday, with footage showing the storm ripping branches off trees.

Emergency services were warning people there to “move cars undercover and away from trees and power lines”.

The bureau of meteorology told people in the southeast of New South Wales to be “well prepared” for the approaching storm.

“Severe thunderstorms are likely to produce damaging, locally destructive winds, large, possibly giant hailstones and heavy rainfall that may lead to flash flooding in the warning area over the next several hours,” the bureau said.

In Victoria, where bushfires continue to smoulder, heavy rainfall overnight was welcomed in fire grounds in the north, but authorities said it also brought with it new dangers.

State Premier Daniel Andrews said the rain meant “much more dangerous conditions” for those operating heavy machinery to get into areas damaged by bushfires, while landslides complicated efforts to open up closed roads.

The wet weather has brought a reprieve for many fire grounds along the east coast, but authorities remain on high alert, warning that the bushfire season still has weeks to run.

Meanwhile, Australia's bushfires and other climate change effects are devastating the habitats of critically endangered species and driving the native platypus towards extinction, according to surveys highlighting the country's vulnerability to rising temperatures. The unprecedented blazes that have swept through an area the size of Portugal have claimed 29 lives but also tested Australia's rich and often unique wildlife, with experts warning up to one billion creatures may have perished in the inferno.

Even animals that survive the flames may take years to recover and experts have cautioned it is too early to assess the damage on the habitats of already endangered species.

The government's initial efforts to chart the impact showed the blazes had affected the habitats of 32 species defined as critically endangered -- those which face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.

These were mainly plant species, but the habitats of frogs, turtles and three types of birds were also hit, according to the preliminary list published on Monday by the Department of the Environment and Energy.

The survey showed 49 species had seen more than 80 percent of their known or likely habitat damaged in the fire zones. For a further 65 species, at least half of their habitat was affected.

But Sally Box, the Threatened Species Commissioner at the department, warned it was still too early to offer a definitive assessment.

"Some species are more vulnerable to fire than others and some areas were more severely burnt than others, so further analysis will be needed before we can fully assess the impact of the fires on the ground," she said.

Officials have warned that the effect of the fires, which have already burned for months, will be crippling for farmers, with the livestock toll exceeding 100,000 across Australia and the future difficult to predict.

Agronomist Daniel Pledge from Kangaroo Island off the coast of Adelaide in southern Australia has warned that the impact will stretch beyond the immediate agony of losing livestock to the flames.

In what he described to AFP as a "snowball effect", farmers will need to buy extra feed, re-seed burned paddocks and -- perhaps most worryingly -- the stress will make animals less likely to conceive, the expert said.

Farmers have already been battered by a prolonged drought, which is also pushing the unique platypus population towards becoming extinct, according to another study published on Monday.

The platypus, known for its duck-like bill, is already classed as "near threatened" and has vanished from up to 40 percent of its historical range on Australia's east coast due to drought, land clearing, pollution and dams.

But scientists from the University of New South Wales' Centre for Ecosystem Science said damage to river systems caused by years of little rainfall and high temperatures had worsened prospects for the animal.

Platypus numbers could fall up to 66 percent over the next 50 years. If projections about the accelerating rate of climate change are taken into account, this could rise to 73 percent.

The experts said there was an "urgent need" for a national risk assessment to decide whether to downgrade the platypus to "vulnerable" status and chart conservation steps to "minimise any risk of extinction".

In a rare piece of good news for Australia's charred landscape, it emerged last week that a secret operation by specialist firefighters had saved a group of prehistoric "dinosaur trees" from oblivion.

The Wollemi Pine, which grows up to 40 metres (130 feet) high, is believed to have existed since the Jurassic Period 200 million years ago but fewer than 200 remain.

As the fires approached, air tankers dropped fire retardant in a ring around the trees and firefighters were winched down to set up an irrigation system to protect the pines from encroaching flames.

Some of the trees were charred, but the unique grove survived.

"It's just been a phenomenal success story," said Matt Kean, environment minister for New South Wales state.


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