State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Bushfires in Australia Continue to Devastate New Zealand Glaciers

Bushfires raging in Australia have taken their toll on New Zealand’s glaciers. Smoke and dust from the fires drifted across the Tasman Sea and settled on glaciers in New Zealand more than 1,300 miles away. Ash covering glaciers in New Zealand are visible in photos published to Twitter. In the images, the snow and ice appear to be a pinkish color.

Australia has experienced a severe bushfire season. At least 18 people have died, over 1,000 homes destroyed, millions of livestock lost, and over 15 million acres of land has burned. The smoke and dust-laden glaciers of New Zealand are representative of the second-order effects of the bushfires in Australia.

australia fires satellite imagery
Satellite imagery of southern Australia on July 24, 2019 (left), before the bushfires, versus on January 1, 2020 (right). Source: NASA

On January 1, the Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8 acquired a natural-color image (above, right) of thick smoke blanketing southeastern Australia along the border of Victoria and New South Wales. For comparison, the image on the left shows what the same area looked like under cloud- and smoke-free conditions on July 24, 2019.

The distance the smoke and ash have traveled and the extent to which they have blanketed glaciers in New Zealand speaks to the severity of the Australian bushfires. This coating of smoke and ash poses a significant threat to New Zealand’s glaciers. It settles as black carbon, which darkens glaciers’ snow and ice, absorbing heat and contributing to increased rates of melting and extending the melt season.

Zoë Klobus is a graduate student in Columbia University’s Master of Arts program in Climate and Society.

This post was originally published on GlacierHub on January 3. GlacierHub is managed by Ben Orlove, an anthropologist at the Earth Institute and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University.

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