Last year was the worst on record for Australia's environment

A farmer inspects a dry dam on his family's drought affected property near Dirranbandi in southwest Queensland. Source: AAP

A major study by the Australian National University found drought and bushfires contributed to the country’s worst environmental conditions ever recorded.

Raging bushfires and a devastating drought were just two of the main factors that lead to Australia recording its poorest ever environmental conditions on record, according to a major study.

The Australia’s Environment in 2019 report from the Australian National University found the country’s vital environmental indicators, such as forest cover, river flows and soil quality fell to their lowest level since the study began in the year 2000.

Lead researcher Professor Albert van Dijk said while they only have 20 years of data, last year may have been the worst for the environment for a much longer period.

Fire fighting crews battle a bushfire encroaching on properties near Lake Tabourie on the New South Wales South Coast.
The bushfire season started early last year.

“The worst in terms of forest lost to fires, the worst in terms of biodiversity, the worst in terms of cropping conditions, almost anything you can think of it was a really bad year,” he told SBS News.

The study ranked Australia’s environmental indicators out of 10, with the overall condition of the environment decreasing 2.3 points to just 0.8 out of 10 in 2019. That’s compared to almost eight points in the study’s first recorded year of 2000.

The study heavily relies on satellite imaging data which was not widely available before the year 2000.

Australia's devastating 2019-2020 bushfire season saw more than 18 million hectares lost, about 3,500 homes destroyed and killed 34 people. Its estimated up to one billion animals also perished in the fires. 

The report noted that while March and December were especially hot, "unseasonably warm conditions occurred throughout the year, contributing to extended fire seasons".

"The number of days exceeding 35 degrees Celsius was the highest on record. Nationally there were an average of 106 hot days: 36 per cent or 28 days more than the 2000–2018 average," the report states. 

The report also noted that 40 animal species were added to the threatened species List, the largest single-year growth since the study began. 

"The total number of species declared extinct rose to 91. Half of the six species extinctions recognised since 2000 occurred in the last two years," the report said. 

Professor Van Dijk said climate change was clearly a major driving factor behind the environment's decline in 2019, being responsible for the hot drought conditions and lower rainfall.

“This is not going to return to previous conditions by itself, mainly because of climate change, but also because of our continuing destruction of the environment,” he said.

“But it is also not the new normal that we can just get used to, because it’s just going to get worse as long as we continue emitting greenhouse gases and continue to destroy the environment. It will get worse from here on unless we actually do something about it,” Professor Van Dijk added.

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