The amount of land that has burned during Australia’s bushfire season is now roughly equivalent to the size of Nova Scotia.
And the impact of the fires on animal life is expected to be on a scale that’s difficult to comprehend.
Chris Dickman, an ecology professor with the University of Sydney, initially estimated that 480 million mammals, birds and reptiles have been affected by the wildfires in the state of New South Wales alone since September.
That was more than a week ago — and since then the “unprecedented” blazes have expanded, he said.
“We’re probably looking at much bigger numbers even than that,” he told Global News on Friday.
The 480 million figure was extrapolated from previous research on land clearing that looked at species density for a range of animals, he explained.
The animals face a range of outcomes — a lot will die immediately due to the heat and flames.
“These will be some of the more obvious ones, the koalas, kangaroos that are conspicuous,” he said.
“You can actually see the bodies after the fires have gone through.”
Species that can fly or burrow may have better chances for survival, at least initially.
“The problem for them is that they’ll come out into a landscape where food resources have been greatly reduced, shelter resources will be greatly reduced or non-existent,” he said.
Beyond limited options for food and shelter, he added, smaller animals will face the additional threat of red foxes and feral cats, which are invasive species.
After the bushfires, Dickman said, it will be difficult to accurately assess the state of wildlife because researchers don’t have great baseline data on animal populations.
The fires are a regular occurrence in Australia. This year’s season, however, kicked off early and has been fuelled by drought and extremely high temperatures.
Twenty four deaths have been linked to the fires, and almost 2,000 homes have been destroyed. Thousands have had to flee to safety.
In total, more than 5.25 million hectares have been burned. By comparison, the area of Nova Scotia is 5.29 million hectares.
Nearly 200 fires remain active — New South Wales and Victoria have been hardest hit overall.
Dickman said Australia needs to look at the options for how bushfires are managed in a world that’s “dramatically experiencing” the impacts of climate change.
In addition to policymakers, scientists should be part of the conversation, he said.
“We do seem to have been excluded from much of the decision-making in Australia over the last several years,” he said.
–With files from the Associated Press and Reuters