Wildfires Are Burning Some of World's Oldest Trees

Tasmania's rainforests are burning up in the wake of its most severe two-year drought on record. Continue reading →

Northwest Tasmania is home to part of the Gondwana forest. It's a stretch of primeval-looking temperate rainforest, much like the one found in the Pacific Northwest's Olympic National Park. Trees more than 1,000 years old tower above ancient ferns, forming a connection to the distant past. It's why the region has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But that connection is being broken by climate change. Fueled by extremely dry conditions that stretch back two years, major bushfires have raged across the region, sending a millenia of history up in smoke. As the world gets hotter and drier, it's likely that the connection to the past could be even more tenuous.

More than 89,000 acres have burned since lightning ignited around 100 bushfires early last week. They were sparked in the wake of the driest spring on record for the region. El Niño likely played a role in that record as the climate phenomenon usually dries out Tasmania and the eastern part of Australia.

However, rainfall deficits stretch back much further. This is the tail end of the driest 24-month period ever recorded in the region where the fires are burning. Since January 2014, up to 47 inches of rainfall has gone missing. That's the equivalent of half a year's rain.

There's also a background signal of decreasing rainfall since 1970 across Tasmania, further impacting ecosystems. Those rainfall deficits both have little to do with El Niño, which only really got ramped up this year.

This is the background that has created favorable fire conditions, the likes of which are rarely seen in a rainforest. Temperatures have been 3.6°F (2°C) above average over the past month, further drying out fuels. It's all these layers that have created extreme fire conditions in a place known more for extreme rainfall.

"I am of the view this is climate change," David Bowman, a forest ecologist at the University of Tasmania, said in an email.

Because fire is so rare in these temperate rainforests, the trees that live there are ill-adapted to deal with large blazes. So when the current fires lit up, they attacked a forest with few natural defenses, like a bully coming for your lunch money.

When the fires die down to embers, they'll leave behind a landscape vastly different than the one before it. Trees like the King Billy Pine and fagus - a beech tree and the only winter-deciduous tree in Australia - could be burned out of their range on Tasmania.

These trees have spent millions of years adapting to slow climate changes. But the current rate of change is unlikely anything the world has seen in millions of years.

Temperatures could rise up to 9°F (5°C) by the end of the century if human greenhouse gas emissions aren't slowed. That rate would be faster than the climate has changed in at least 65 million years and would leave not just Tasmania but the rest of the world's ecosystems forced to cope with a radical new normal.

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MODIS imagery shows smoke from Tasmania's bushfires.

The winners are in from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's "Weather in Focus" photo contest, picked from more than 2,000 entries taken between Jan. 1, 2014 and March 31, 2015. "From rainbows and sunsets to lightning and tornadoes, the winning photos aren’t just captivating to look at, but inspire us to look at the world in different ways," said Douglas Hilderbrand, NOAA's contest judge and Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador Lead. "It was difficult to pick winners from so many good entries." In first place, from the category "Science in Action," is "Green Bank Telescope in WV" by Mike Zorger, Falls Church, Va.

Photos: It's the Crazy-Extreme Weather Season

All 16 winning images will be displayed in a

Gateway to NOAA

exhibit located on the NOAA campus in Silver Spring, Md., starting in July. Second place in "Science in Action" went to "Photographer captures the aurora" by Christopher Morse, Fairbanks, Alaska.

In third place: "Atmospheric Research Observatory" by Joseph Phillips, Boulder, Colo.

Photo: NASA's Extreme Weather Photo Contest

And honorable mention also went to Joseph Phillips, Boulder, Colo. for "Atmospheric Research Observatory."

In the category "Weather, Water & Climate," first place went to "Snow Express" by Conrad Stenftenagel, Saint Anthony, Ind.

Photos: Lake Effect Snow Buries Buffalo

In second place was "Proton arc over Lake Superior" by Ken William, Clio, Mich.

"With a Bang" by Bob Larson, Prescott, Ariz., won third place in the "Weather, Water & Climate" category.

Top 10 Worst Weather Disasters

Honorable mention went to Alana Peterson, Maple Lake, Minn. for "Raindrops on a Leaf."

A second honorable mention was won for "Fire in the Sky over Glacier National Park" by Sashikanth Chintla, North Brunswick, N.J.

Sunsets and Other Sky Wonders

In the category "In the Moment," first place went to "Smoky Mountains" by Elijah Burris, Canton, N.C.

Second place went to "Spring Captured: Freezing rain attempts to halt spring" by Mike Shelby, Elkridge, Md.

Unexplained Mysteries of 2014 and Into 2015

And third place went to "Rolling clouds in Lake Tahoe" by Christopher LeBoa, San Leandro, Calif.

Of course the professionals had their own category. First place was won by Brad Goddard, Orion, Ill., for "Stars behind the storm."

Awesome Images Make You Feel Amazing

Brad Goddard pretty much cleaned up this category, winning second (and third) place with "A tornado churns up dust in sunset light near Traer, IA."

Third place went for "A tornado crosses the path, Reinbeck, IA" by Brad Goddard.

Must-See Planet Pics: Earth Day 2015 Edition

“Fog rolls in from the ocean on a hot summer day, Belbar, N.J.” by Robert Raia, Toms River, N.J., won honorable mention in the pro category.

To see all of the images on NOAA's website, go here.