Three years ago this week, Australia was burning. On 7 February 2009 — now known as Black Saturday — a massive firestorm consumed more than 400,000 hectares in southern Australia. At least 173 people died trying to outrun the fires, defend their homes or seek shelter.
That blaze was unusually fierce, but fires are a constant source of anxiety for Australia. The continent is extremely fire-prone, with a distinctive signature of oscillating fire activity that begins in the north during the winter, then moves south during the summer. Lately, the fires have been more intense and widespread, perhaps as a result of climate change — last year, around 5 per cent of the continent was burnt.
If only fires were Australia’s sole environmental concern. The continent is also overrun by invasive species. They fill holes created by a mass extinction event that occurred around 50,000 years ago during the Pleistocene, when the arrival of the first Australians coincided with a collapse in the continent’s megafauna, namely giant marsupials (some as large as hippopotamuses), reptiles and birds.
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Predictions for Australia’s population seem to be going up like bids at an auction.
Three years ago the Australian Bureau of Statistics predicted 28 million by 2050 and more recently Kevin Rudd has mentioned a figure of 35 million. Media reports in the last few days have put the figure at more like 40 million by 2050. Any advance on 40 million?
So where are these figures coming from? Many experts agree that the current focus on growing Australia’s population to 35 million or more by 2050 is not founded on sound science but on short term trends with a large dash of wishful thinking.
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