New Horizons in Science

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Firestorms in the outback, taiga, and tundra: damage to Indigenous communities, wildlife, permafrost and the climate by extreme wildfires in Australia and the far North

Topic: Climate Change
Satellite images of wildfires in Eastern Australia and southeaster Siberia, Russia in 2017.
Tuesday, October 20, 2020 -
4:00pm to 4:30pm


This past summer, nearly 100,000 square kilometers of land went up in flames in the Australian bushfires—a fire event larger than any in the past 10,000 years on that continent. The devastation released some 400 million tons of CO2, killed perhaps a billion animals, and damaged many Aboriginal Australian communities.

Then in June, as temperatures soared into triple digits north of the Arctic Circle, fires swept through the taiga and tundra of Siberia and within a month surpassed the record-setting summer of 2019, raising concerns that already vulnerable peatlands and permafrost could be lost. A continuation of this trend could have dire consequences for Arctic ecosystems and some Indigenous communities, as well as worrisome climate impacts.

In this session, two Aboriginal Australian scientists and a wildlife ecologist who has done extensive surveys of the burned area will present new results from their research on the paleohistoric significance of this year's bushfires, the misguided logging and forest-management practices that fueled the fires, the far-reaching damage the mega-fires wreaked on wildlife habitats, and ways that Aboriginal cultural land-management practices should be brought back to reduce the risk of recurrence.

Then the director of the University of Colorado's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research will update us on the fire situation in Siberia, Alaska, and Canada and her research on how forest fires are interacting with climate change and Arctic warming, permafrost, peatlands, and taiga and tundra ecology in ways that threaten Alaska Native and First Nations peoples and the ecosystems on which they—and all of us—depend.


  • Michael Shawn-Fletcher (Speaker) Assistant dean (Indigenous); associate professor of geography, University of Melbourne
  • Michelle Ward (Speaker) PhD Candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland
  • Bhiamie Williamson (Speaker) Research associate & PhD candidate, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University
  • Merritt Turetsky (Speaker) Director, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research; associate professor, ecology and evolutionary biology, University of Colorado Boulder
  • W. Wayt Gibbs (Moderator) New Horizons in Science program director, CASW


Satellite images of wildfires in eastern Australia (left) and southeastern Siberia, Russia in 2017 (right). Left image Antti Lipponen (CC BY 2.0); right image European Space Agency (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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