Songwriter Joni Mitchell in 1982 recommended “50/50 fire and ice” as the best response to a crisis. That isn’t working for either Icelandic horses or koalas.
REYKJAVIK, Iceland; SYDNEY, Australia––Eco-disasters afflicting Icelandic horses and Australian koalas starkly illustrate extreme and contrasting effects of global warming as 2019 comes to an end.
Hundreds of Icelandic horses, reputedly the hardiest of equines, found themselves helplessly buried in snow and ice amid one of the worst blizzards that the North Atlantic island nation of Iceland has endured in 1,145 years of settlement.
At least 80 horses died in Húnavatn County, in the far northwest of Iceland, with at least 100 more missing. Fewer horses were lost in the other seven counties of Iceland, but the nation was still digging out two weeks after the blizzard hit.
Halfway around the world
More than 2,000 koalas, meanwhile, are believed to have been trapped in the most devastating wildfires Australia has experienced since the First Fleet arrived in 1787 to found the penal colony that became the most arid nation in the English-speaking world.
Few inhabited land masses are farther apart than Iceland and Australia. The straight-line distance from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Sydney, Australia, as airliners fly and crows don’t, is 10,233 miles, more than 40% of the total 24,901-mile circumference of earth.
Few inhabited land masses are more different than Iceland and Australia, respectively among the northernmost and southernmost of nations.
The hottest temperature ever recorded in Reykjavik was 87 degrees Fahrenheit; the January mean temperature in Sydney is 79 degrees Fahrenheit.
Little in common but fur & veggie diet
The ancestors of the first Icelandic horses were brought to Iceland by Vikings circa 960 A.D., less than one human generation after first settlement.
Koalas emerged as a species about 25 million years ago, having descended from other marsupials who had been isolated from relatives from anywhere but Australia for about 20 million years even then.
Icelandic horses and koalas have accordingly evolved with little in common except fur-covered bodies and plant-based diets––and vulnerability to climatic instability that can simultaneously make most of the world warmer, make the coldest regions colder, and turn the hottest, driest places into tinderboxes.
“Horses were completely out of sight”
Reported Ragnar Tómas for RUV, the Icelandic national public service broadcasting company, on December 19, 2019, “Around the country, dozens of horses kept outside during last week’s storm perished. Many of the surviving horses are suffering from extreme exhaustion. For the past few days, the rescue association Blanda in Blönduós has responded to 15 calls for help involving horses.”
Said Icelandic government veterinarian Sigríður Björnsdóttir, “There was no way to reach these horses for two or three days. The horses were completely out of sight. In such conditions, there’s nothing you can do, the horses being without food or water for all this time.”
“Deadliest natural disaster for Iceland’s horses in decades”
“According to Sigríður,” wrote Tómas, “last week’s storm was the deadliest natural disaster to have befallen Iceland’s horses in decades.”
“Yes, I think it’s possible to assert that,” confirmed Tómas. “I have worked in this field for 25 years,” Tómas said, “and this is a unique event during this period, at least. We could not have expected this.”
“These are traumatic events for the farmers,” Sigríður added, “and I would like to emphasize that it’s not a matter of the farmers being unprepared. There’s nothing to suggest that. We see that a few horses have died on many farms, as opposed to many horses dying on a few farms. This is happening to experienced people. It isn’t a question of negligence. It’s simply the result of unprecedented weather conditions.”
Agreed Húnavatn County veterinarian Ingunn Reynisdótttir, “The farmers are exhausted, both physically and mentally. They are just completely spent, and to make matters worse, they’ve been accused of animal cruelty on all of the media websites.”
West Húnavatn county farmer Magnús Ásgeir Elíasson, who lost four horses but saved many more, told the news broadcast Kastljós that he had slept only five hours in five days while trying to find, feed, and rescue horses who had been buried in snow.
Cattle too suffered
Cattle too suffered, partly from the weather itself, partly because farmers had difficulty milking dairy herds by hand during many days without electricity.
Veterinarian Þóra J. Jónasdóttir and farmers’ union chief Guðrún Tryggvadóttir told media that farmers should be required to keep back-up generators, as most do in other nations with harsh winter climates
Altogether, there are believed to be about 70,000-80,000 horses and 30,000 cattle in Iceland, along with 800,000 sheep, whose thick wool coats protect them much better from the elements than the relatively thin coats of the horses and cattle––albeit that the horses and cattle are among the most densely coated of their species.
Pigs and poultry are also raised in Iceland, but on a limited scale, in conventional metal-sheathed barns.
Horses raised for meat
Many Icelandic horses roam free in feral bands. Others are raised for meat. Historically about 9,300 Icelandic horses per year are rounded up for slaughter, including to export horse meat to continental Europe and Japan, but demand for horse meat has reportedly dropped in recent years.
Icelandic horses, sheep, and cattle normally live outdoors all year long. About 25% of Iceland was wooded in early Viking times, when all of the mammals now native to Iceland except Arctic foxes were introduced, and barns and stables were built, but by the mid-20th century less than 1% of Iceland remained forested. Despite decades of reforestation efforts, only about 1.5% of Iceland is covered with thin birch woods now.
As wood for building was unavailable, unless imported at high cost, farmers long ago took to leaving their animals outside, with only snow walls for protection against fierce winter winds.
But the horses brought to Iceland were exceptionally hardy in the first place, tracing ancestry back to Mongol horses imported from Russia by Swedish traders during the Dark Ages.
Descendants of those horses left in other remote habitats by Viking settlers became the Fjord, Exmoor, Scottish Highland, Shetland and Connemara breeds, most of which are called “ponies” because of their diminutive size.
Wikipedia recounts that, “About 900 years ago, attempts were made to introduce eastern blood into the Icelandic, resulting in a degeneration of the stock. In 982 AD the Icelandic Althing (parliament) passed laws prohibiting the importation of horses into Iceland, thus ending crossbreeding.”
600 years of hard times
Wikipedia also mentions that “From 1300 to 1900, the climate was often severe and many horses and people died. Between 1783 and 1784, around 70% of the horses in Iceland were killed by volcanic ash poisoning and starvation,” after the eight-month eruption of the volcano Lakagígar, which “covered hundreds of square miles with lava, and rerouted or dried up several rivers.”
Around a quarter of the human population of Iceland died from starvation during the same two years.
About 2,000 Icelandic horses were exported to Britain in 1877-1878 to work as pit ponies in coal mines. Those Icelandic horses who survived contributed to the genetic diversity of the feral Exmoor pony population, several hundred of whom persist in Devon and Somerset, England.
As the first roads for wheeled vehicles in Iceland were not built until 1881, Icelandic horses remained in common use for transportation until well into the 20th century.
Koalas at risk even before wildfires
At the opposite end of the world, koalas were already known to be a species at risk even before the unprecedentedly severe 2019 fire season ringed every major Australian city with wildfires.
The Queensland government in late 2018 appointed a Koala Advisory Council, after learning that 80% of the koala population along the so-called Koala Coast had died out between 1996 and 2014.
While there are still as many as 43,000 koalas scattered along the eastern Australian coast, according to the Australian Koala Foundation, half the number claimed by government sources, the AKF alleges that of 128 historical koala habitats on federally protected land, only 41 still had any koalas going into 2019. Many of those are likely to have lost their koala populations now, since the eucalyptus forests upon which koalas rely for food and shelter have been razed to charcoal.
Disease, roadkill, dog attacks
The major threats to koalas in recent decades were disease, spread mainly by koalas among themselves; roadkill; and dog attacks, especially by pit bulls.
Roadkills of koalas have increased exponentially, parallel to coastal cities expanding outward into formerly wooded habitat. As dense eucalyptus forest patches are ever farther apart, slow-moving and mostly nocturnal koalas are forced more and more to travel on the ground.
But as vulnerable as koalas are to speeding cars, the fast-growing Australian pit bull population has since 2008 posed a parallel threat, for the same reasons, compounded because koalas are practically defenseless against any dog, and free-roaming pit bulls hunt them deliberately.
Wildfires, however, may now be killing more koalas than all other causes combined, along with destroying the habitat they need if they are to recover as a species.
“Hotspots in every state”
“Hundreds of bushfires are raging across Australia, with hotspots in every state,” reported Time correspondent Amy Gunia on December 20, 2019, but acknowledging that koalas are experiencing critical habitat loss would oblige the Australian government to retreat from a posture of climate change denial.
“Despite the bushfire crisis,” Gunia wrote, “Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has argued that there is no direct link between Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and the severity of the fires burning across the country. However, he acknowledged that climate change could be impacting bushfires. Australia is one of the highest per capita emitters of carbon dioxide in the world, according to Climate Analytics, an advocacy group that tracks climate data.”
“Ongoing declines from this point forward”
On December 9, 2019, according to The Daily Mail, the upper house of the New South Wales legislature “held an urgent hearing into the state’s koala population and habitat. Nature Conservation Council ecologist Mark Graham on Monday told the inquiry that koalas in most instances ‘really have no capacity to move fast enough to get away’ from fast-moving crown fires.”
Said Graham, “We’ve lost such a massive swathe of known koala habitat that I think we can say without any doubt there will be ongoing declines in koala populations from this point forward. The fires have burnt so hot and so fast that there has been significant mortality of animals in the trees, but there is such a big area now that is still on fire and still burning that we will probably never find the bodies.”
North East Forest Alliance president Dailan Pugh testified that more than 2,000 koalas may have died in the 2019 fires, which have razed as much as a third of New South Wales koala habitat.
“Port Macquarie Koala Hospital president Sue Ashton in October estimated at least 350 koalas died in a bushfire in Crestwood, on the state’s mid-north coast, based on a predicted 60% mortality rate,” the Daily Mail said.
Explained BBC News, “Koalas are typically slow-moving and their normal danger-avoidance strategy––curling into a ball atop a tree––has left them trapped in extreme fires. For anyone within earshot, there is one clear indicator that an animal is in trouble.”
Said Sydney University ecology professor Chris Dickman, “Koalas don’t make noise much of the time. Males only make booming noises during mating season. Other than that, they’re quiet animals. So hearing their yelps is a bad sign that things are going catastrophically wrong for these animals.”