Extreme weather caused by climate change has damaged 45% of Australia’s coastal habitat



Bleached staghorn coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Many species are dependent on corals for food and shelter.
Damian Thomson, Author provided

Russ Babcock, CSIRO; Anthony Richardson, The University of Queensland; Beth Fulton, CSIRO; Eva Plaganyi, CSIRO, and Rodrigo Bustamante, CSIRO

If you think climate change is only gradually affecting our natural systems, think again.

Our research, published yesterday in Frontiers in Marine Science, looked at the large-scale impacts of a series of extreme climate events on coastal marine habitats around Australia.

We found more than 45% of the coastline was already affected by extreme weather events caused by climate change. What’s more, these ecosystems are struggling to recover as extreme events are expected to get worse.




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There is growing scientific evidence that heatwaves, floods, droughts and cyclones are increasing in frequency and intensity, and that this is caused by climate change.

Life on the coastline

Corals, seagrass, mangroves and kelp are some of the key habitat-forming species of our coastline, as they all support a host of marine invertebrates, fish, sea turtles and marine mammals.

Our team decided to look at the cumulative impacts of recently reported extreme climate events on marine habitats around Australia. We reviewed the period between 2011 and 2017 and found these events have had devastating impacts on key marine habitats.

Healthy kelp (left) in Western Australia is an important part of the food chain but it is vulnerable to even small changes in temperature and particularly slow to recover from disturbances such as the marine heatwave of 2011. Even small patches or gaps (right) where kelp has died can take many years to recover.
Russ Babcock, Author provided

These include kelp and mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, and coral reefs, some of which have not yet recovered, and may never do so. These findings paint a bleak picture, underscoring the need for urgent action.

During this period, which spanned both El Niño and La Niña conditions, scientists around Australia reported the following events:

2011: The most extreme marine heatwave ever occurred off the west coast of Australia. Temperatures were as much as 2-4℃ above average for extended periods and there was coral bleaching along more than 1,000km of coast and loss of kelp forest along hundreds of kilometres.

Seagrasses in Shark Bay and along the entire east coast of Queensland were also severely affected by extreme flooding and cyclones. The loss of seagrasses in Queensland may have led to a spike in deaths of turtles and dugongs.

2013: Extensive coral bleaching took place along more than 300km of the Pilbara coast of northwestern Australia.

2016: The most extreme coral bleaching ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef affected more than 1,000km of the northern Great Barrier Reef. Mangrove forests across northern Australia were killed by a combination of drought, heat and abnormally low sea levels along the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria across the Northern Territory and into Western Australia.

2017: An unprecedented second consecutive summer of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef affects northern Great Barrier Reef again, as well as parts of the reef further to the south.

Heritage areas affected

Many of the impacted areas are globally significant for their size and biodiversity, and because until now they have been relatively undisturbed by climate change. Some of the areas affected are also World Heritage Areas (Great Barrier Reef, Shark Bay, Ningaloo Coast).

Seagrass meadows in Shark Bay are among the world’s most lush and extensive and help lock large amounts of carbon into sediments. The left image shows healthy seagrass but the right image shows damage from extreme climate events in 2011.
Mat Vanderklift, Author provided

The habitats affected are “foundational”: they provide food and shelter to a huge range of species. Many of the animals affected – such as large fish and turtles – support commercial industries such as tourism and fishing, as well as being culturally important to Australians.

Recovery across these impacted habitats has begun, but it’s likely some areas will never return to their previous condition.

We have used ecosystem models to evaluate the likely long-term outcomes from extreme climate events predicted to become more frequent and more intense.

This work suggests that even in places where recovery starts, the average time for full recovery may be around 15 years. Large slow-growing species such as sharks and dugongs could take even longer, up to 60 years.

But extreme climate events are predicted to occur less than 15 years apart. This will result in a step-by-step decline in the condition of these ecosystems, as it leaves too little time between events for full recovery.

This already appears to be happening with the corals of the Great Barrier Reef.

Gradual decline as things get warmer

Damage from extreme climate events occurs on top of more gradual changes driven by increases in average temperature, such as loss of kelp forests on the southeast coasts of Australia due to the spread of sea urchins and tropical grazing fish species.

Ultimately, we need to slow down and stop the heating of our planet due to the release of greenhouse gases. But even with immediate and effective emissions reduction, the planet will remain warmer, and extreme climatic events more prevalent, for decades to come.

Recovery might still be possible, but we need to know more about recovery rates and what factors promote recovery. This information will allow us to give the ecosystems a helping hand through active restoration and rehabilitation efforts.




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We will need new ways to help ecosystems function and to deliver the services that we all depend on. This will likely include decreasing (or ideally, stopping) direct human impacts, and actively assisting recovery and restoring damaged ecosystems.

Several such programs are active around Australia and internationally, attempting to boost the ability of corals, seagrass, mangroves and kelp to recover.

But they will need to be massively scaled up to be effective in the context of the large scale disturbances seen in this decade.The Conversation

Mangroves at the Flinders River near Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The healthy mangrove forest (left) is near the river while the dead mangroves (right) are at higher levels where they were much more stressed by conditions in 2016. Some small surviving mangroves are seen beginning to recover by 2017.
Robert Kenyon, Author provided

Russ Babcock, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Anthony Richardson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Beth Fulton, CSIRO Research Group Leader Ecosystem Modelling and Risk Assessment, CSIRO; Eva Plaganyi, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Rodrigo Bustamante, Research Group Leader , CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Increasing tree cover may be like a ‘superfood’ for community mental health



Imagine Hyde Park in Sydney without its tree cover … the impact on this space and the many people who spend time in it would be profound.
EA Given/Shutterstock

Thomas Astell-Burt, University of Wollongong and Xiaoqi Feng, University of Wollongong

Increasing tree canopy and green cover across Greater Sydney and increasing the proportion of homes in urban areas within 10 minutes’ walk of quality green, open and public space are among the New South Wales premier’s new priorities. Cities around Australia have similar goals. In our latest study, we asked if more of any green space will do? Or does the type of green space matter for our mental health?

Our results suggest the type of green space does matter. Adults with 30% or more of their neighbourhood covered in some form of tree canopy had 31% lower odds of developing psychological distress. The same amount of tree cover was linked to 33% lower odds of developing fair to poor general health.

We also found poorer mental and general health among adults in areas with higher percentages of bare grass nearby, but there’s likely more to that than meets the eye.




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Treed neighbourhoods have a natural appeal to people.
Tim Gouw/Unsplash

How did we do the research?

Our research involved tracking changes in health over an average of about six years, for around 46,000 adults aged 45 years or older, living in Sydney, Newcastle or Wollongong. We examined health in relation to different types of green space available within a 1.6 kilometre (1 mile) walk from home.

Our method helped to guard against competing explanations for our results, such as differences in income, education, relationship status, sex, and age. We also restricted the sample to adults who did not move home, because it is plausible that people who are already healthier (for instance because they are more physically active) move into areas with more green space.

So is the answer simply more trees and less grass? Not exactly. Let’s get into the weeds.




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Trees make it cool to walk

Imagine you’re walking down a typical street on a summer’s day in the middle of an Australian city. It’s full of right angles, grey or dark hard surfaces, glass structures, and innumerable advertisements competing for your attention. Then you turn a corner and your gaze is drawn upwards to a majestic tree canopy exploding with a vivid array of greens for as far as you can see.

A tree-lined street like Swanston Street in Melbourne is a more walkable street.
kittis/Shutterstock

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Walking down this green street, you may instantly feel some relief from the summer heat.

Studies are linking high temperatures with heat exhaustion and mental health impacts. Research has suggested trees, rather than other forms of green space, may be best at reducing temperatures in cities. It may also simply be more comfortable to walk outside in cooler temperatures – not to mention going for a run or bike ride, both of which are good for mental health.




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Feeling restored and alert

But as the minutes of walking beneath this natural umbrella of lush foliage accumulate, other things are happening too. The vibrant colours, natural shapes and textures, fresh aromas, and rustling of leaves in the breeze all provide you with effortless distraction and relief from whatever it was you might have been thinking about, or even stressing over.

Trees can provide a soothing sensory distraction from our troubles.
Jake Ingle/Unsplash

Studies back this up. Walks through green space have been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve mental acuity, boost memory recall, and reduce feelings of anxiety. The Japanese have a name for this type of experience: shinrin-yoku.

Friends, old and new

You walk past groups of people on the footpath taking time to catch up over coffee in the shade. Some research has found that tree cover, rather than green space more generally, is a predictor of social capital. Social capital, according to Robert Putnam, refers to the “social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness” that may have important influences on our life chances and health.

Dogs and trees both contribute to building healthy social relations.
Liubov Ilchuk/Unsplash

You walk further and a chorus of birdsong soars through the neighbourhood noise. Trees provide shelter and food for a variety of animals. Research suggests tree canopy tends to be more biodiverse than low-lying vegetation.

Increased biodiversity may support better mental health by enhancing the restorative experience and also via the immunoregulatory benefits of microbial “Old Friends” – microorganisms that helped shape our immune systems but which have been largely eliminated from our urban environments.

Green spaces with tree canopy are settings where communities can come together to watch birds and other animals, which can also be catalysts for new conversations and developing feelings of community belonging in the neighbourhoods where we live … just ask dog owners.




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So, what about the grass?

Our research did not show a mental health benefit from more bare grassed areas. This does not mean grass is bad for mental health.

Previous research suggests adults are less likely to wander in green spaces that are relatively plain and lacking in a variety of features or amenities.
This may also be partly attributable to preferences for green spaces with more complex vegetation, such as parks that mix grass with tree canopy.

Parks with a variety of vegetation, including trees and grass, may be more attractive for a wider range of outdoor activities than those with few trees.
Author

Furthermore, large areas of bare grass in cities can make built environments more spread-out and less dense. Without tree canopy to shield from the midday sun, this may increase the likelihood of people using cars for short trips instead of walking through a park or along a footpath. The result is missed opportunities for physical activity, mental restoration, and impromptu chats with neighbours. Previous work in the United States suggests this might be why higher death rates were found in greener American cities.

Grassed areas can occupy a large amount of space for surprisingly little mental health benefit.
chuttersnap/Unsplash

Large open areas of grass can be awesome for physical activity and sport, but let’s make sure there is also plenty of tree canopy too, while also thinking about ways to get more people outdoors in green spaces. Here are some suggestions.

Making Australia greener and healthier

As the density of Australian cities continues to increase and more of us live in apartments and/or work in high-rise office blocks, it is great to see strategies to invest in tree cover and urban greening more generally across Australia. Cities with such plans include Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Bendigo, Fremantle, and Wollongong.

You can get involved and have some fun at the same time too. Lots of evidence says gardening is really great for your mental health. So why not grab a mate and spend a couple of hours planting a tree on July 28 for National Tree Day!The Conversation

Both the act of planting a tree and its presence over the decades are good for us.
Amy Fry/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Thomas Astell-Burt, Professor of Population Health and Environmental Data Science, NHMRC Boosting Dementia Research Leadership Fellow, University of Wollongong and Xiaoqi Feng, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and NHMRC Career Development Fellow, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.