Over 4 million hectares of land and its inhabitants have burned in Australia this past year. 2,500 kilometers away across the sea, clouds of smoke from the fires gloss over Aoraki (Mount Cook) in New Zealand. Looking out onto Lake Tekapo and Pukaki, it is surprisingly difficult to differentiate water and sky along the horizon, and pink discolored streaks permeate atop glaciers due to the heavier particles of smoke. Though most of the time the sun remains invisible, here it emerges from the red haze, where the dense layers of smoke act like a white-light filter to dampen the sun’s brightness.
Through Hooker Valley, it was astonishing just how much terrain remained indiscernible around us. Normally known for staggering views of the Southern Alps, the area was blanketed by a warm yellow haze, mountains blurry in the distance. The smoke from Australian bushfires had tainted the glaciers a strange pink-orange hue, and we noticed landslide-like contours from the ash percolating down. Back in Australia, runoff composed of ash and silt likewise washes through rivers and estuaries out to sea. Though land animals have experienced shocking population declines, it’s important to also remember that large-scale environmental changes inevitably have far-reaching effects— for instance on freshwater and marine ecosystems. The debris not only directly affects aquatic wildlife through blockage and ingestion, but physical obstruction of sunlight limits seagrass and seaweed growth, while the influx of nitrogen and phosphorus may promote algal blooms. CO2 released into the atmosphere from bushfires contributes to ocean acidification which creates harmful conditions for aquatic flora and fauna, especially mollusks and corals that rely on calcium carbonate skeletons. Although the damage may be less sudden and striking, it’s crucial to not turn a blind eye to ecosystems under the water’s surface.