Australia is blessed with an amazing environment: from the alps to the mallee, tall forests to coral reefs, from rocky hills to fertile farmlands, from remote wilderness to urban parks. Nature at its best.

Our biologically diverse country is home to more than 1 million species of plants and animals, plus countless micro-organisms, many of which build our soils and purify our water.

These are the places where we live, work and seek respite; the natural areas we cherish and love. Our memories of the beach, a river, the bush and the farm make us who we are; they forge our sense of identity, of community and of place.

We all value nature, and for many different reasons. What would you miss the most, if it disappeared from your favourite natural area because of climate change?

Nature in a new climate

As climate change intensifies, many of these places will change – a lot. Some plants and animals will decline, others will increase, some may move elsewhere. Some forests may disappear, some grasslands may turn to shrublands.

As CSIRO scientists Michael Dunlop and Peter Brown put it, climate change will alter “the look, sound and smell of places we are familiar with”. The natural areas that our children and grandchildren will experience in 2050 will look and feel very different to the places that we have cherished.

This outlook poses a quandary for all of us. In a world that is set to be transformed by a changing climate, what can we do to leave the natural areas we value in the best condition possible?

What practical steps can we all take to help nature adapt to a new climate?

The new and the old

One surprising outcome – recognised by the scientists and land managers – is that many of the things we need to do to help nature adapt to a new climate are not new.

Most of the key actions have underpinned nature conservation and sustainable land management for decades. Things like working with the entire community; controlling threats, weeds and feral animals; creating secure conservation reserves; and enacting sound land-use plans, will always be important. Diverse, intact, healthy ecosystems will always fare better than neglected, damaged ones.

However, climate change has catalysed new actions and new ways of thinking about questions like, “which species should we plant in revegetation areas?”

Australia’s new climate

As you know, our world is getting hotter and, unfortunately, it’s going to keep getting hotter for the next 100 years. Future temperatures depend on how much greenhouse gas we pump into the atmosphere. To keep things cool, we need to reduce our emissions.

If we continue to emit high levels of greenhouse gases, our scientists predict big changes to Australia’s climate. Some of these changes are described below and you can learn more at the interactive Climate Change in Australia website.

The predictions are pretty gloomy. Australia is projected to see continued increases in average air temperatures. There will be fewer frosts and less snow. There will be more heat waves and heat waves will last longer. Sweltering days over 40°C – when birds and bats fall from trees – will be two to four times as common. There’ll be more dangerous fire weather days and a longer fire season for southern and eastern Australia.

In southern and eastern Australia, less rain will fall in winter and spring – likely meaning more time in drought. When the rains do come, they will be more intense and of shorter duration. In northern Australia there’ll be fewer tropical cyclones, but they’ll be more intense too.

Sea levels will continue to rise and low-lying areas around the coast will flood more often. Ocean temperatures and acidification will increase all around Australia, affecting our marine environments like kelp forests and the Great Barrier and Ningaloo reefs.

We can make things better – by reducing our carbon emissions.

A juvenile scalyfin. Photo credit John Gaskell.

Reshaping nature

This new climate will reshape nature in Australia. As things get warmer, some plants and animals will move and become common in places where they were once rarely seen. Many will be directly affected by extreme events: mammals and birds may die in heatwaves and trees will suffer in droughts.

Other plants and animals will be affected in indirect ways. There will be more fires in many places. More frequent fires will weaken some plants and promote others. When the plants change, the habitat they provide for animals will alter.

Each alteration will cascade across ecosystems in unpredictable ways. And, of course, many of the stresses caused by the new climate will be exacerbated as organisms compete with humans for space and resources, especially scarce resources like water.

Monitoring for freshwater vertebrates, Wonnangatta River, Alpine National Park

What can we do to help?

We can’t stop all of these changes, but we can control the degree of change – by reducing our emissions – and we can have a big influence on the types of changes that do occur.

In fact, there are many things we all can do to help nature adapt to a new climate. Here are 10 great ideas to begin with, all informed by science and inspired by nature.

We want all of these messages to get out in the world. You can also help by talking to others, by sharing on social media, or using any other way to communicate you might think of.

This content is adapted with permission from text written by Dr Ian Lunt for the VicNature2050 booklet 10 things we can all do to help nature adapt to a new climate.

VicNature2050 was organised by the Victorian National Parks Association, The Royal Society of Victoria and The University of Melbourne’s Bio21 Institute, and supported by the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and Parks Victoria.

Other organisations who have participated in the VicNature2050 partnership include La Trobe University; Deakin University; Greening Australia; and the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research.

More about VicNature2050