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Australia's raging fires will create big problems for fresh drinking water

In the wake of the enormous fires that have razed huge swathes of drought-stricken Australia, scientists fear that when rains eventually fall, they will wash charred debris into rivers, dams, and the ocean, killing wildlife and even tainting the drinking supplies of major cities, such as Sydney.

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For many weeks, ash, soot, and blackened gum tree leaves have collected along the shorelines of Sydney’s beaches, clogging the waves and lapping in the tide. Originating in fires blazing in forested areas to the west, the debris has been carried on the breeze along with the pungent bushfire smoke that blanketed Australia’s largest city for much of December.

But what has carried on the wind is just a taste of the huge quantities of debris that are likely to wash into rivers once there are heavy downpours. As of press time, more than 26 million acres—an area bigger than Portugal—have now burned, mostly in the continent’s southeast. That includes areas of land known as catchments—also called watersheds—where rainfall begins its earthly journey into specific rivers, lakes, and dams.

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It is an ecological disaster unprecedented in Australia’s history, and that spells trouble for drinking water supplies, coastal ecosystems, and the freshwater rivers that support iconic Australian wildlife, such as the platypus. (Australia's flying foxes are already dying en mass due to the extreme heat.)

 

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“Disturbance on this scale is almost certainly going to impact biodiversity. I’m remarkably worried about the effects on freshwater ecosystems,” says Ross Thompson, a freshwater ecologist at the University of Canberra

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“Given the severity of the fires, pretty much everything [in burned landscapes] is gone, so one of the big issues is that when we do get some rain, a lot of that ash and crap, nothing is going to stop it running in our catchments,” adds Ricky Spencer, a conservationist and ecologist at the University of Western Sydney in New South Wales (NSW).

Posted on  January 12, 2020

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