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It’s time to start helping nature adapt for bushfire resilience

The Bushfire Royal Commission’s recent report makes for difficult reading, but the hardest part to swallow is that these compounding natural disasters that were last year unprecedented, are now our collective future.

The report forewarns of a future marked by extreme weather and back-to-back natural disasters, reinforced by the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO State of the Climate 2020 report. Intense bushfires, droughts, extreme temperatures, flooding and hailstorms are forecast as the new norm, and they will impact all parts of our society.

Mother Nature is tough, but the scale and pace of climate change means that in many cases the environment won’t be able to adapt on its own and the places that we love will be permanently altered, with flow-on impacts to local communities and economies. Our ability to help nature prepare for and respond to climate change will require a new scale of intervention and new technologies.

Importantly, it will also require new ways of thinking. As a society we need to break a long-established cycle of trying to recover our natural places by dwelling on what once was, and instead focus on practical climate change adaptation and mitigation solutions with a long-term view on what will be.

In the conservation sector we call this ecological renovation.

Inspired by nature, underpinned by science

Our collective approach to climate adaptation and ecological renovation must be science-led with a focus on conserving biodiversity, and it must draw on Traditional Owner knowledge of Australia’s unique landscapes.

With the support of research institutes, we can combine knowledge of climate future models with plant characteristics to better predict and prepare for change. We can then use this knowledge to deliver on-ground action and undertake replicated experiments across the country to understand the effectiveness of our climate actions and ‘learn by doing.’

Breaking the cycle

There are likely to be large areas where unparalleled fire heat from last summer’s bushfires combined with ongoing drought may have destroyed the biological mechanisms by which many plants are able to reestablish naturally.

For example, some tree species like our iconic Alpine Ash are adapted to fire and in traditional circumstances would release seed onto recently burnt soil to regenerate. However, these vegetation communities have been impacted by the increased frequency of fires to the extent that across thousands of hectares they can’t produce seed fast enough for that to happen.

A common restoration practice after fires is to re-seed with the same species to return nature to the pre-fire state. Whilst this is an effective short-term strategy, we know that these efforts may be lost in subsequent short interval fires. Instead, we need to start developing a renovation approach, for example by using seed collected from plants that flower and produce seed earlier, by using forms that are more fire tolerant like the lignotuber form from Tasmanian Alpine Ash populations, or consider new tree species that are better suited to increased fire frequency and changed climatic conditions.

Adaptation in practice

We can also restore landscapes with native trees that are better suited to the changing climate by using seed of the same species sourced from drier, hotter geographic regions within Australia. Greening Australia has undertaken a number of trials with universities across Australia to demonstrate that this is a viable solution to reduce species lost in many regions, such as Eucalyptus viminalis (Manna Gum or Tasmanian White Gum) in the Tasmanian midlands and in the NSW Monaro region.

Where the rate of climate change exceeds a plant or animals’ ability to adapt to the change, we should also consider creating insurance populations in safer locations or translocating plants and animals to new, better suited places like we’re doing with Eucalyptus morrisbyi with our Tasmanian partners.

This adaption work is supported by Climate Future Plots, which are areas of revegetated and restored land that contain plant genetics from climates that match the future climate, providing an opportunity to help us better understand the resilience of plants to climate change and to successfully execute interventions. With the support of citizen scientists and researchers we can see which plants are more resilient to climate change to distinguish between those that will thrive in a warmer climate and those that won’t.

Future focused

Last year’s fires burnt over 24 million hectares across Australia, much of which may require intervention to regenerate. While we don’t have all the answers, we do already have many of the solutions needed to reduce the impact of climate change on the plants and animals we care about and to increase nature’s resilience to extreme weather events for generations to come.

As we reflect on a year that has thrown unprecedented challenges at humanity and nature, we can no longer hide from the reality that the world as we know it is changing. Unfortunately, natural disasters such as last summer’s bushfires will happen again and again, with increasing frequency and severity.

But as the Bushfire Royal Commission report states, unprecedented is not a reason to be unprepared. Acting now with ecological renovation initiatives is essential if we want to keep our great Australian landscapes for generations to come.

 

 

 

 

 

Dr Elisa Raulings is a Science and Planning Manager at Greening Australia.