Many of our plants and animals have adapted to fires, but now the fires are changing



Eucalypt seeds don’t fall far from the tree, meaning repopulating large areas of forest will be difficult.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Cris Brack, Australian National University

Australia is a land that has known fire. Our diverse plant and animal species have become accustomed to life with fire, and in fact some require it to procreate.

But in recent decades the pattern of fires – also known as the fire regime – is changing. Individual fires are increasingly hotter, more frequent, happening earlier in the season and covering larger areas with a uniform intensity. And these changes to the fire regime are occurring too fast for our native flora and fauna to adapt and survive.




Read more:
Some say we’ve seen bushfires worse than this before. But they’re ignoring a few key facts


Our fire-adapted plants are suffering

Many of Australia’s iconic eucalypts are “shade intolerant” species that adapted to exist within a relatively harsh fire regime. These species thrive just after a major fire has cleared away the overstory and prepared an ash bed for their seeds to germinate.

Some of our most majestic trees, like the alpine ash, can only regenerate from seed. Those seeds germinate only on bare earth, where the leaf litter and shrubs have been burnt away.

But if fire is so frequent the trees haven’t matured enough to produce seed, or so intense it destroys the seeds present in the canopy and the ground, then even these fire-adapted species can fail.

The current fires are re-burning some forests that were burnt only a decade ago. Those regenerating trees are too young to survive, but also too young to have started developing seed.

With the disappearance of these tree species, other plants will fill the gap. Acacias (wattles) are potential successors as they mature much earlier than alpine ash. Our tall, majestic forests could easily turn into shrubby bushland with more frequent fires.

Wattles mature early and could take over Eucalypts.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Even within a burnt area, there are usually some unburnt patches, which are highly valuable for many types of plants and animals. These patches include gullies and depressions, but sometimes are just lucky coincidences of the terrain and weather. The patches act as reserves of “seed trees” to provide regeneration opportunities.

Recent fires, burning in hotter and drier conditions, are tending to be severe over large areas with fewer unburnt patches. Without these patches, there are no trees in the fire zone to spread seeds for regeneration.

Eucalypt seed is small and without wings or other mechanisms to help the wind disperse it. Birds don’t generally disperse these seeds either. Eucalypt seed thus only falls within 100 – 200 metres of the parent tree. It may take many decades for trees to recolonise a large burnt area.

That means wind-blown or bird-dispersed seeds from other species may fully colonise the burnt area well before the Eucalypts. Unfortunately many of these windblown seeds will be weed species, such as African Love Grass, which may then cover the bare earth and exclude successful Eucalypt regeneration while potentially making fires even hotter and more frequent.

Animals have fewer places to hide

Young animals are significantly more vulnerable to disturbances such as fire than mature individuals. So the best time to give birth is a season when fire is rare.

Spring in the southern zones of Australia has, in the past, been wetter and largely free from highly destructive fires. Both flora and fauna species thus time their reproduction for this period. But as fire seasons lengthen and begin earlier in the year, vulnerable nestlings and babies die where they shelter or starve as the fires burn the fruits and seeds they eat.

Australian fauna have developed behaviours that help them survive fire, including moving towards gullies and depressions, climbing higher, or occupying hollows and burrows (even if not their own) when they sense fire.

Many native animals have learnt to sense fire and take cover, but with greater areas burning, there are fewer places to hide.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

But even these behaviours will fail if those refuges are uncharacteristically burning under hotter and drier conditions. Rainforest, marshes and the banks of watercourses were once safe refuges against fire, but we have seen these all burn in recent fires.




Read more:
Animal response to a bushfire is astounding. These are the tricks they use to survive


What can be done?

All aspects of fire regimes in Australia are clearly changing as a result of our heating and drying climate. But humans can have a deliberate effect, and have done so in the past.

Indigenous burning created a patchwork of burnt areas and impacted on the magnitude and frequency of fires over the landscape. These regular burns kept the understory under control, while the moderate intensity and patchiness allowed larger trees to survive.




Read more:
There’s no evidence ‘greenies’ block bushfire hazard reduction but here’s a controlled burn idea worth trying


There have been repeated calls of late to reintroduce Indigenous burning practices in Australia. But this would be difficult over vast areas. It requires knowledgeable individuals to regularly walk through each forest to understand the forest dynamics at a very fine scale.

More importantly, our landscapes are now filled with dry fuel, and shrubs that act as “ladders” – quickly sending any fire into tree canopies to cause very destructive crown fires. Given these high fuel conditions along with their potentially dangerous distribution, there may be relatively few safe areas to reintroduce Indigenous burning.

The changed fire conditions still require active management of forests, with trained professionals on the ground. Refuges could be developed throughout forests to provide places where animals can shelter and from which trees can recolonise. Such refuges could be reintroduced by reducing forest biomass (or fuel) using small fires where feasible or by mechanical means.

A Kangaroo Island landscape devastated by fire.
David Mariuz/AAP

Biomass collected by machines could be used to produce biochar or other useful products. Biochar could even be used to improve the soil damaged by the fires and excess ash.

Midstory species could be cut down to prevent the development of fire ladders to tree crowns. Even the overstory could be thinned to minimise the potential for crown fires. Seed could also be collected from thinned trees to provide an off-site bank as ecological insurance.

Such active management will not be cheap. But using machinery rather than fire could control biomass quantity and distribution in a much more precise way: leaving some biomass on the ground as habitat for insects and reptiles, and removing other patches to create safer refuges from the fires that will continue to come.The Conversation

Cris Brack, Associate Professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

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

Forest thinning is controversial, but it shouldn’t be ruled out for managing bushfires



Prescribed burning in thinned silver top ash forest. Forest thinning should be one way we tackle fire management and forest resilience, but we need more research to understand the best way to go about it.
Chris Weston, Author provided

Rod Keenan, University of Melbourne; Chris Weston, University of Melbourne, and Luba Volkova, University of Melbourne

Calls from industry and unions for increased thinning in forests to reduce bushfire risks have been met with concern from conservation scientists. They suggest forest thinning makes forests more fire prone.

So who’s right? Well, it’s complicated. The short answer is forest thinning is a good way to lower the risk of fire and is a widely-used strategy to improve forest health. However, there are potential downsides. Thinning needs to be carefully planned to avoid effects on soil, water or sensitive habitats.




Read more:
Yes, native plants can flourish after bushfire. But there’s only so much hardship they can take


Unlike clearfell logging and selection harvesting, mechanical thinning for timber involves felling about half the trees in even-aged, uniformly structured forests. Recently, forest managers are using the practice more for ecological outcomes.

If we look to the future, the recent fires have created conditions for forest regeneration on a large scale. These regenerating forests will thin naturally over time, creating more fuel and increased risk of more large-scale fires. Mechanical thinning can remove this potential flammable vegetation.

Forest thinning should be one of the ways we tackle fire management and forest resilience in future, but we need more research to understand the best way to go about it. Here’s what the evidence says.

What is thinning?

Thinning is a natural forest process, where tree numbers in most even-aged forests reduce through competition over time. For example, Mountain ash forests regenerating naturally after a severe fire might have hundreds of thousands of new seedlings per hectare that self-thin to a few thousand after 20 years, and a few hundred after 80 years.

Heavily stocked unthinned forest in East Gippsland. Thinning is increasingly being used for environmentally friendly reasons.
Rod Keenan

Mechanical thinning for producing timber is a long-standing commercial forestry practice that uses herbicides, chainsaws or mechanical harvesters. It reduces tree numbers and concentrates growth on fewer trees so they reach a valuable size more quickly. This is to improve commercial timber quality, or to more quickly remove trees that would die through natural thinning.

Thinning for ecological outcomes, on the other hand, is a relatively recent practice being tested in many parts of Australia. It can produce more rapid development of “old-growth” forest features, such as large trees, branches, hollows and coarse woody debris – all important wildlife habitats.




Read more:
Bushfires left millions of animals dead. We should use them, not just bury them


Forest managers are using thinning for other reasons, too. For example, to adapt to climate change by reducing stresses on individual trees from increased drought, heat, insects, disease or wildfire because, among other things, thinning takes away the added stress of competition.

Looking ahead, thinning combined with Indigenous cultural burning may even be a way to restore Australian forests to more open park-like conditions observed at the time of arrival of Europeans.

The case for thinning to reduce fire risk

Thinning to reduce fire risk is intended to slow the rate fire spreads, lower flame heights and improve recovery after wildfire hits. This was shown in a 2016 extensive review of US research, which found thinning and prescribed burning helped reduce fire severity, tree mortality and crown scorch. A 2018 study on Spanish pine forests had similar results.

A mechanically thinned eucalypt forest in East Gippsland.
Rod Keenan

Our own research on Australian forests also supported these findings. We found mechanical thinning plus burning in silver top ash reduces fire fuel hazard, with major reductions in dead trees, stumps and understory.

We compared thinned and unthinned alpine ash forests using computer modelling, simulating severe to extreme weather conditions. And we found modelled fire intensity decreased by 30% and the rate of fire spread and spot fires moving ahead of the main fire decreased by 20% with thinning.




Read more:
Some say we’ve seen bushfires worse than this before. But they’re ignoring a few key facts


Reducing tree density and fuel through thinning can also make it easier and safer for fire-suppression activities, like direct attack with fire hoses, litter raking or back burns, increasing our chances to control the size of wildfires.

Another study from 2015 in East Gippsland forests found that while overall fuel hazard was lower at thinned sites than nearby unthinned sites, larger woody debris from thinning persisted for 15 years or longer.

This is both a good and bad thing. More logs or woody debris may slow fire spreading, but can make it harder to completely extinguish fires after the fire front passes through.

The downsides

Thinning is potentially costly, but selling the wood or other organic matter may offset the cost. Timber harvesting machines can also disturb soils or wildlife habitat, but these can be minimised with modern equipment and careful planning.

What’s more, forests store carbon. Thinning can, in the short term, release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The overall effect on carbon emissions in the long term, however, depends on the extent thinning reduces fire risk and intensity. In some cases, we may need to accept decreased forest carbon storage in return for reduced risks.

A thinned river red gum forest. Thinning has the potential to disturb wildlife habitats and soil.

We’ve seen in the media arguments about using thinning to manage bushfire risks. It’s important conservation and bushfire scientists, the timber industry and government bodies understand all concerns and create space for inclusive dialogue to identify where thinning and prescribed burning are best practised.




Read more:
‘This crisis has been unfolding for years’: 4 photos of Australia from space, before and after the bushfires


In any case, whether you’re for or against the practice, more research is needed to determine how much we should use it. In 2017, the Federal Government funded mechanical fuel reduction trials in three states. But these trials must be expanded to a national program.

This can be done in using adaptive management – trialling the practice at larger scale and monitoring the outcomes.

The evidence from Australia and overseas is compelling, but we need careful planning and thoughtful discussion about how to use thinning to its full potential as part of our strategy in addressing the escalating risks of bushfires in a changing climate.The Conversation

Rod Keenan, Professor, University of Melbourne; Chris Weston, Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne, and Luba Volkova, Senior Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

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

Six million hectares of threatened species habitat up in smoke



At least 250 threatened species have had their habitat hit by fires.
Gena Dray

Michelle Ward, The University of Queensland; Aaron Greenville, University of Sydney; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Ayesha Tulloch, University of Sydney; Brooke Williams, The University of Queensland; Emily Massingham, The University of Queensland; Helen Mayfield, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Jim Radford, La Trobe University, and Laura Sonter, The University of Queensland

More than one billion mammals, birds, and reptiles across eastern Australia are estimated to have been affected by the current fire catastrophe.

Many animals and plants have been incinerated or suffocated by smoke and ash. Others may have escaped the blaze only to die of exhaustion or starvation, or be picked off by predators.



But even these huge losses of individual animals and plants do not reveal the full scale of impact that the recent fires have had on biodiversity.

Plants, invertebrates, freshwater fish, and frogs have also been affected, and the impact of the fires is likely to be disproportionately greater for threatened species.




Read more:
A season in hell: bushfires push at least 20 threatened species closer to extinction


To delve deeper into the conservation impact, we used publicly available satellite imagery to look at the burnt areas (up to January 7, 2020) and see how they overlapped with the approximate distributions of all the threatened animals and plants listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

We restricted our analysis to the mediterranean and temperate zone of south-east and south-west Australia.

The bad news

We found that 99% of the area burned in the current fires contains potential habitat for at least one nationally listed threatened species. We conservatively estimate that six million hectares of threatened species habitat has been burned.



Given that many fires are still burning and it is not yet clear how severe the burning has been in many areas, the number of species affected and the extent of the impact may yet change.

What we do know is that these species are already on the brink of extinction due to other threats, such as land clearing, invasive species, climate change, disease, or previous fires.

Approximately 70 nationally threatened species have had at least 50% of their range burnt, while nearly 160 threatened species have had more than 20% of their range burnt.

More threatened plants have been affected than other groups: 209 threatened plant species have had more than 5% of their range burnt compared to 16 mammals, ten frogs, six birds, four reptiles, and four freshwater fish.


Author supplied

Twenty-nine of the 30 species that have had more than 80% of their range burnt are plants. Several species have had their entire range consumed by the fires, such as the Mountain Trachymene, a fire-sensitive plant found in only four locations in the South Eastern Highlands of NSW.

Other species that have been severely impacted include the Kangaroo Island dunnart and the Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo. These species’ entire populations numbered only in the hundreds prior to these bushfires that have burned more than 50% of their habitat.

The Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo has had more than 50% its habitat impacted by fire.
Mike Barth

Glossy black cockatoos have a highly specialised diet. They eat the seeds of the drooping sheoak (Allocasuarina verticillata). These trees may take anywhere from 10 to 50 years to recover enough to produce sufficient food for the black cockatoos.

The populations of many species will need careful management and protection to give their habitats enough time to recover and re-supply critical resources.

The figures above do not account for cumulative impacts of previous fires. For example, the critically endangered western ground parrot had around 6,000 hectares of potential habitat burnt in these fires, which exacerbates the impact of earlier extensive fires in 2015 and early 2019.

Threatened species vary in their ability to cope with fire. For fire-sensitive species, almost every individual dies or is displaced. The long-term consequences are likely to be dire, particularly if vegetation composition is irrevocably changed by severe fire or the area is subject to repeat fires.

More than 50% of the habitat of several species known to be susceptible to fire has been burnt – these include the long-footed potoroo and Littlejohn’s tree frog.

The endangered long-footed potoroo has had more than 50% of its potential habitat impacted by fire.
George Bayliss

Some species are likely to thrive after fire. Indeed, of the top 30 most impacted species on our list, almost 20% will likely flourish due to low competition in their burnt environments – these are all re-sprouting plants. Others will do well if they are not burnt again before they can set seed.

Rising from the ashes

For fire-sensitive threatened species, these fires could have substantially increased the probability of extinction by virtue of direct mortality in the fires or reducing the amount of suitable habitat. However, after the embers settle, with enough investment and conservation actions, guided by evidence-based science, it may be possible to help threatened species recover.

For species on the brink of extinction, insurance populations need to be established. Captive breeding and release can complement wild populations, as occurs for the regent honeyeater.
Dean Ingwersen / BirdLife Australia

Protection and conservation-focussed management of areas that have not burned will be the single most important action if threatened species are to have any chance of persistence and eventual recovery.

Management of threatening processes (such as weeds, feral predators, introduced herbivores, and habitat loss through logging or thinning) must occur not just at key sites, but across the landscapes they sit in. Maintaining only small pockets of habitat in a landscape of destruction will lock many species on the pathway to extinction.

In some cases, rigorous post-fire restoration will be necessary to allow species to re-colonise burnt areas. This may include intensive weed control and assisted regeneration of threatened flora and specific food sources for fauna, installing nest boxes and artificial cover, or even targeted supplementary feeding.

Unconventional recovery actions will be needed because this unique situation calls for outside-the-box thinking.




Read more:
The science of drought is complex but the message on climate change is clear


Playing the long game

These fires were made larger and more severe by record hot, dry conditions. Global temperatures have so far risen by approximately 1°C from pre-industrial levels.

Current projections indicate that we are on track for a 3°C increase. What will that look like?

We are in a moment of collective grief for what has been lost. A species lost is not just a word on a page, but an entire world of unique traits, behaviours, connections to other living things, and beauty.

These losses do not need to be in vain. We have an opportunity to transform our collective grief into collective action.

Australians are now personally experiencing climate impacts in an unprecedented way. We must use this moment to galvanise our leaders to act on climate change, here in Australia and on the world stage.

The futures of our beloved plants and animals, and our own, depend on it.The Conversation

Michelle Ward, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland; Aaron Greenville, Lecturer in Spatial Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney; Brooke Williams, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland; Emily Massingham, PhD Student, The University of Queensland; Helen Mayfield, Postdoctoral Research Fellow School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Jim Radford, Principal Research Fellow, Research Centre for Future Landscapes, La Trobe University, and Laura Sonter, PhD Candidate in Global Environmental Change, The University of Queensland

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

Yes, native plants can flourish after bushfire. But there’s only so much hardship they can tak



Bulbine lilies flowering and eucalypts resprouting after fire in the Victorian high country.
Heidi Zimmer

Lucy Commander, University of Western Australia and Heidi Zimmer, Southern Cross University

In a fire-blackened landscape, signs of life are everywhere. A riot of red and green leaves erupt from an otherwise dead-looking tree trunk, and the beginnings of wildflowers and grasses peek from the crunchy charcoal below.

Much Australian flora has evolved to cope with fire, recovering by re-sprouting or setting seed. However, some plants are sensitive to fire, especially when fires are frequent or intense, and these species need our help to recover.




Read more:
Some say we’ve seen bushfires worse than this before. But they’re ignoring a few key facts


After announcing a A$50 million wildlife and habitat recovery package, the Morrison government recently met with Australia’s leading wildlife experts to steer recovery efforts.

Encouraging native flora to bounce back from these unprecedented fires requires targeted funding and actions to conserve and restore plants and ecological communities, including seed banking.

How do plants naturally recover from fire?

Many plants from fire-prone ecosystems have evolved strategies to survive, and even thrive, with fire. Some resprout after fire, with green shoots bursting from blackened stems. For others, fire stimulates flowering.

Some species are able to resprout from blackened stems following a fire.
Lucy Commander, Author provided

Fire can also trigger seed germination of hundreds of species, as seeds respond to fire “cues” like heat and smoke.

Seeds may wait in woody fruits stored on the plant. The fruits’ hard capsules shield the seeds from the fire, but the heat opens the capsules, releasing seeds into the soil below.

We can capitalise on this natural recovery by not disturbing the soil where the seeds are scattered, not clearing “dead” plants which may resprout and provide shelter for remaining wildlife, including perches for birds who may bring in seeds.

We should also stop vegetation clearing, especially unburnt vegetation home to threatened species and communities.

Some species, like this Banksia, have woody fruits that protect the seeds, then open after fire to release them.
Lucy Commander, Author provided

When do we need to intervene?

While Australian plants and ecosystems have evolved to embrace bushfires, there’s only so much drought and fire they can take.

Many plants and ecosystems, including alpine and rainforest species, are not resilient to fire, especially if drought persists or they have been burnt too frequently. Too frequent fires deplete the seed bank and put recovery at risk.

Fires which are intense and severe will outright kill other plants, or the plants will be very slow to recover – taking years or decades to reach maturity again. We need comprehensive monitoring to detect which species are not returning, with systematic field surveys starting immediately, and continuing after the first rains to identify which species emerge from the soil.

Some ecosystems are adapted to fire, with trees resprouting and seeds germinating from the soil seed bank. Even so, fencing and weed control may be required.
Lucy Commander, Author provided

Invasive plants such as blackberry or veldt grass can also impede recovery after a fire by out-competing the natives. Feral herbivores – such as rabbits, goats and horses – can overgraze the native regrowth. So controlling the weeds and feral grazers with, for instance, temporary fencing and tree guards, is a priority post-fire.

And when ecosystems aren’t able to repair themselves, it’s up to us to intervene. For instance, land managers, supported by volunteer community groups, could sow seeds or plant seedlings in fire-affected areas. This act of restoring ecosystems can be an important healing process for those affected by the fires.

Do we have enough seeds?

But for that to happen, we need enough seeds to supply restoration efforts. With millions of hectares already burnt, few areas may be left for seed collection.

This means unburnt areas are at risk of over-collection from commercial and volunteer seed collectors. Stopping this from happening is possible, however. The agencies giving out permits for seed collection must record where seeds are being sourced and how much is collected. This ensures areas aren’t stripped of seeds, rendering them less resilient.




Read more:
The sweet relief of rain after bushfires threatens disaster for our rivers


Another, more controversial issue, is whether seeds should be collected locally (perhaps within 20km or within the catchment), or from somewhere much further away and more suited to a potential future climate.

And what should we do if we lose a population of a threatened plant species? Establishing a new population or replacing a lost one using translocation is one option. Similar to capture-and-release or zoo breeding programs for reintroduction of threatened animals, translocation refers to deliberately moving plants or seeds to a new location.

How can we better prepare for next time?

With potentially more unprecedented bushfire seasons in our future, it’s important land managers are prepared.

They need data on the distribution of species and the fire frequency, severity and season they can tolerate. A nationwide database could identify which species and ecosystems are most at risk, and could be incorporated into fire and restoration planning – including seed collecting – to ensure plant material is available if species fail to recover.




Read more:
‘Plant blindness’ is obscuring the extinction crisis for non-animal species


Botanic gardens have a special role to play as many already have conservation seed banks of threatened species, and their living collections provide additional genetic material. Across Australia there is already a network of seed banks collaborating through the Australian Seed Bank Partnership that collect, store and undertake research to better support plant conservation.

A restoration seed bank in Utah, USA. These banks hold huge amounts of seeds, but the Australian equivalents operate on a smaller scale.
Lucy Commander

However, restoration seed banks operate on a much larger scale than botanic gardens, and it’s important both approaches are conducted collaboratively. We need more ongoing investment in seed banks, particularly for threatened species and ecosystems least likely to recover from repeat fires like rainforests. Investment in skilled staff to run them is also critical, as well as national guidelines for seed use and training programs for staff and volunteers.

The recent bushfires will push many plant species to their limits. If we want to keep these species around – and the animals depend on them for food and habitat – we need to monitor their recovery and intervene where necessary.The Conversation

Lucy Commander, Adjunct Lecturer, University of Western Australia and Heidi Zimmer, Research associate, Southern Cross University

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

You’re not the only one feeling helpless. Eco-anxiety can reach far beyond bushfire communities



Rolling images and stories of bushfire devastation can take a toll.
From shutterstock.com

Fiona Charlson, The University of Queensland and James Graham Scott, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

You’re scrolling through your phone and transfixed by yet more images of streets reduced to burnt debris, injured wildlife, and maps showing the scale of the fires continuing to burn. On the television in the background, a woman who has lost her home breaks down, while news of another life lost flashes across the screen.

You can’t bear to watch anymore, but at the same time, you can’t tear yourself away. Sound familiar?

We’ve now been confronted with these tragic images and stories for months. Even if you haven’t been directly affected by the bushfires, it’s completely normal to feel sad, helpless, and even anxious.

Beyond despairing about the devastation so many Australians are facing, some of these emotions are likely to be symptoms of “eco-anxiety”.




Read more:
The rise of ‘eco-anxiety’: climate change affects our mental health, too


If you’re feeling down, you’re not alone

Research on previous bushfire disasters shows people directly affected are more likely to suffer mental health consequences than those who have not been directly affected.

After Black Saturday, about one in five people living in highly affected communities experienced persistent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or psychological distress.

Recognising this as a critical issue, the Australian government has announced funding to deliver mental health support to affected people and communities.

But living in an unaffected area doesn’t mean you’re immune. In addition to contending with rolling images and stories of devastation, we’ve seen flow-on effects of the bushfires reach far beyond affected areas.

For example, schools and workplaces have been closed, people have been forced to cancel their summer holidays, and sports matches and community events have been called off. This disruption to normal activities can result in uncertainty and distress, particularly for children and young people.

What is eco-anxiety?

Distress around the current fires may be compounded by – and intertwined with – a pervasive sense of fear and anxiety in relation to climate change-related events.

The American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.

While concern and anxiety around climate change are normal, eco-anxiety describes a state of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale, complexity and seriousness of the problems we’re facing. It can be accompanied by guilt for personal contributions to the problem.




Read more:
Rising eco-anxiety means we should address mental health alongside food security


The Australian bushfires may have signalled a “tipping point” for many people who held a passive attitude towards climate change, and even many who have held a more active view of climate denialism. In the face of current circumstances, the crisis of climate change now becomes almost impossible to ignore.

While eco-anxiety is not a diagnosable mental disorder, it can have significant impacts on a person’s well-being.

Whether you think you’re suffering from eco-anxiety or more general stress and depression about the bushfires, here are some things you can do.

We’re pretty resilient, but support helps

We’re now living with the environmental consequences of a changing climate, and this requires people to adapt. Fortunately, most of us are innately resilient and are able to overcome stress and losses and to live with uncertainty.

We can enhance this resilience by connecting with friends and family and positively engaging in our communities. Making healthy choices around things like diet, exercise and sleep can also help.

Further, supporting those who are vulnerable has benefits for both the person giving and receiving assistance. For example, parents have a critical role in listening to their children’s concerns and providing appropriate guidance.




Read more:
Babies and toddlers might not know there’s a fire but disasters still take their toll


Become part of the solution

Seeking to reduce your own carbon footprint can help alleviate feelings of guilt and helplessness – in addition to the positive difference these small actions make to the environment.

This might include walking, cycling and taking public transport to get around, and making sustainability a factor in day-to-day decisions like what you buy and what you eat.

Seeking support from friends and family can help.
From shutterstock.com

Joining one of the many groups advocating for the environment also provides a voice for people concerned about the changing climate.

Finally, there are many ways you can provide assistance to bushfire relief efforts. The generosity shown by Australians and others internationally has provided a sense of hope at a time when many are facing enormous hardship.

Seeking professional help

Some people, particularly those living with unrelated psychological distress, will find it harder to adapt to increased stress. Where their emotional resources are already depleted, it becomes more difficult to accommodate change.

Although we don’t yet have research on this, it’s likely people with pre-existing mental health problems will be more vulnerable to eco-anxiety.

If this is you, it’s worthwhile seeking professional help if you feel your mental health is deteriorating at this time.




Read more:
How to donate to Australian bushfire relief: give money, watch for scams and think long term


Whether or not you have a pre-existing mental health disorder, if you’re feeling depressed or anxious to a degree it’s affecting your work, education or social functioning, you should seek advice from a health professional.

Evidence-based psychological interventions like cognitive behavioural therapy reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, improving mental health and well-being.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.The Conversation

Fiona Charlson, Conjoint NHMRC Early Career Fellow, The University of Queensland and James Graham Scott, Professor of Psychiatry and Head of Mental Health, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

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

Bushfires left millions of animals dead. We should use them, not just bury them


Emma Spencer, University of Sydney; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Philip Barton, Australian National University, and Thomas Newsome, University of Sydney

Bushfires this season have left an estimated 1 billion dead animals in their wake, their carcasses dotting the blackened landscape.

Adding to the toll, farmers are being forced to euthanise injured and starving livestock and there are also calls to cull feral animals in fire-affected areas, including by aerial shooting.

The carcasses have already been flagged as a potential biosecurity threat, and the Australian Defence Force is tasked with collecting and burying the dead in mass graves.




Read more:
Australia’s bushfires could drive more than 700 animal species to extinction. Check the numbers for yourself


There’s logic in this. Carcasses can harbour nasty diseases such as botulism that threaten human, livestock and wildlife health. They also provide food for invasive pests like feral cats and red foxes.

But carcasses can play a positive role as landscapes recover from fire, providing rich nutrients for other native animal, microbial and plant species.

Carcasses provide important food sources to native animals, such as the lace goanna.

The Morrison Government has announced a A$50 million package to help wildlife and habitat recover from the fires, and yesterday met leading wildlife experts and environment groups to get advice on the recovery process.

We suggest this process should examine carcass disposal methods other than burial, such as composting – effectively “recycling” the dead. It should also involve monitoring the carcasses that remain to understand both their positive and negative roles in fire-ravaged areas.

The positives: carcasses feed the living

Carcasses feed a range of native animals, including goannas, wedge-tailed eagles and dingoes. Post-fire, they can provide an alternative source of food for struggling native predators and pollinators. And feeding hungry predators with carcasses could redirect them away from vulnerable prey.

Carcasses also feed insects such as flies, ants, beetles, and their larvae, and support important ecological processes such as pollination.

As they decompose, nutrients leach from carcasses into the surrounding environment and create “halos” of greenery in the landscape, where vegetation thrives around carcass sites. Their influence on soil and plant communities can last for years.

Vegetation growth ‘halo’ around a kangaroo carcass. When animals die their nutrients can influence the landscape for years.

The negatives: spreading disease and sustaining feral animals

Carcasses are home to bacteria that help break down animal tissues. But some carcasses also harbour harmful pathogens that bring disease.

For a disease outbreak to happen, the animal must generally have already been carrying dangerous infectious agents, like Anthrax or the Hendra virus, before they died. And many of these pathogens will not survive long on dead hosts.




Read more:
Predators get the advantage when bushfires destroy vegetation


Leaving carcasses out in the open can also feed introduced predators such as feral cats and red foxes, putting small native animals at risk. Some weeds thrive in the nutrient-rich soils around carcasses too.

Introduced insects like the European wasp, which appeared en masse following fires in Kosciuszko National Park, also take advantage of carcass resources. These wasps are highly aggressive and attack and kill other native insects.

How long does a carcass stick around?

We know very little about the ecological role of carcasses in fire-affected areas, and it’s important that more research is carried out.

We know burnt animals can decompose faster than other carcasses and harbour different types of insect scavengers.

However the recent fires are likely to have wiped out entire scavenger communities, including larger scavengers like dingoes and eagles, that help to clean our landscapes of dead animals.

The effects of this are unknown, but could mean that carcasses stick around in the environment for prolonged periods, even months.

A feral cat scavenging on an animal carcass. Animal carcasses could increase the number of feral predators.

Finding the right solution to a grisly problem

As climate change accelerates the number of natural disasters and mass animal deaths, more thought and planning must be put into carcass management.

In Australia, carcasses are often dealt with by not dealing with them: they’re left to rot. This happened for almost 100 feral horses that died last year at an empty water hole during a heatwave.

Animals culled in national parks and on farmlands are also often left to decay, untouched, as are the many dead animals that commonly line our country roads. But in landscapes where feral species are common, or where livestock or people are likely to encounter carcasses, leaving them alone isn’t the best option.




Read more:
A season in hell: bushfires push at least 20 threatened species closer to extinction


Carcasses are more often buried following disease outbreaks or when livestock die. We saw this during the 2019 Queensland floods, where thousands of drowned cattle were buried in mass graves.

Burial is a relatively inexpensive, fast and effective method of dealing with the dead. But it must be done carefully to avoid polluting groundwater sources and causing nutrients like nitrogen to build up.

Burying carcasses can also be compared to sending rubbish to the tip. Breakdown will be slow, and no useful end product is created.

A more useful option

An alternative option is to “recycle” carcasses by composting them. Composting can accelerate the decomposition of animal tissues and is environmentally friendly, capturing nutrients.




Read more:
Animal response to a bushfire is astounding. These are the tricks they use to survive


Composting kills most pathogens, whereas burial just moves the problem underground. It also suppresses smelly odours and doesn’t attract scavengers. The usable organic material resulting from the composting can also be applied to nutrient-poor soil.

Getting used to the ‘yuck’ factor of carcasses.

Composting can be time-consuming and hard to get right. It requires careful monitoring of temperature and moisture content to ensure all disease-causing pathogens are killed, and odours are suppressed.

There’s also a “yuck” factor and the public would probably need convincing for the method to be widely adopted.

But whatever option we choose, it’s clear there’s more we can do with carcasses than simply burying them.The Conversation

Emma Spencer, Ph.D. student, University of Sydney; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Philip Barton, Honorary Senior Lecturer, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, and Thomas Newsome, Lecturer, University of Sydney

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

Might the bushfire crisis be the turning point on climate politics Australian needs?



The bushfire crisis is big enough to change the government’s emissions policy, but it swill need more.
Shutterstock

John Daley, Grattan Institute and Emily Millane, Grattan Institute

Countries have long periods in which policies change little, and only by increments.

Occasionally there are turning points, when previously intractable policy problems are suddenly resolved, recasting policy for the long term.

Many are asking whether this summer’s environmental catastrophe might be such a turning point – a Port Arthur moment or Australia’s Sandy Hook, Chernobyl or Pearl Harbour.

The short answer is: it is too soon to tell, but the early signals from the federal government are not good.

Crises can provide a window for big policy changes. In such times, the normal political constraints are relaxed, although not for long.

Crisis can beget change

The need for revenue during World War I opened the way for the federal government to levy a national income tax. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 stimulated many changes concerned with national security.

Typically, a crisis only leads to substantial policy changes if there is also a broader understanding about the need to act, and the shape of the change needed.

The economic theories of John Maynard Keynes provided the basis for policies that ensured full employment during and after World War II.

The monetarist theories of Milton Friedman provided the means to limit inflation in the 1970s and 1980s.

A library of pre-existing publications on national security directed policy in the wake of 9/11.

Theory is needed as well

Crisis and economic theory were essential to some of the big reforms under the Hawke and Keating governments, including a new approach to Australian retirement incomes.

Superannuation had been a patchwork of individual employer arrangements since before federation.

The stagflation crisis of simultaneous unemployment and inflation in the 1970s created the conditions for a new approach. Inflation rose to 15%, unemployment to 6%. It led to government-union Accords and deferred wage increases that were the basis for Australia’s universal employee superannuation scheme.




Read more:
Australian politics explainer: the Prices and Incomes Accord


Many see the 1986 Chernobyl disaster as a turning point in ending the cold war and dismantling the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev acted decisively in the midst of a disaster that created a groundswell of support for change bringing in an system (capitalism) which had deep theoretical underpinnings.

Not every crisis leads to change

US President Obama hugs Mark Barden, whose seven year old son Daniel was shot and killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack in 2012.
MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA

For decades, gun control has been contentious in the United States, where gun-related homicides are ten times the rates elsewhere. 26 people, including 20 children aged 6 and 7, in a gun massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

President Obama was personally committed to, and moved fast after the crisis to call for, tighter gun control. But change was stymied by powerful stakeholders.

By contrast, John Howard was successful in moving quickly after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre to tighten gun controls.

The Australian gun lobby lacked the political sophistication of America’s National Rifle Association, and Australia’s political system has fewer veto points than in the US.

The attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 brought World War II to America, mobilising huge levels of public support for American involvement. Within days, Roosevelt declared war on Japan.

The nation might not be ready

There are high levels of public support for action climate change in Australia, but can we say it is the same as “war fever”?

Australia’s emissions policy has been stuck for a long time. Australia was recently ranked as having the worst climate policy in the world, and some of the worst outcomes.

Australia’s annual emissions are not expected to change much between 2020 and 2030 – which doesn’t give Australia much chance of getting to near zero emissions by 2050, which is generally regarded as what’s needed to avoid runaway climate change.

Many in public policy have spent years developing credible policy responses to climate change. But Australia has repealed or failed to implement five versions of climate policy since 2007.




Read more:
The good, the bad and the ugly: the nations leading and failing on climate action


There are reasons to believe the summer bushfire crisis won’t be any different.

No-one has accused the Prime Minister of moving too fast or too far in responding to the fires. In his interview with ABC at the weekend, he did not commit to tightening, or even reviewing, Australia’s carbon emissions targets in light of the fires.

Powerful stakeholders continue to deny the need for significant policy change: last month the federal resources minister, Matt Canavan, referred to the “bogeyman of climate change” as a distraction from “shortcomings in managing our land.”

Fake news on social media and in some sections of the mainstream media about an arson emergency has blunted the chance of a broad-based popular groundswell.

There’s hope, but not much

The proposed royal commission might be a means to find a way forward on climate change. But by the time it reports, the fires will be out, and the moment of crisis will have passed.

For now, the fires smoulder on. It’s not too late for the federal government to seize the opportunity for substantial change. State governments may well use the aftermath of the fires to coordinate their responses to climate change – possibly without the Commonwealth. For the moment, they are understandably preoccupied with responding to an ongoing emergency.




Read more:
Bushfires won’t change climate policy overnight. But Morrison can shift the Coalition without losing face


There is a real possibility that Australia will have to wait for another crisis – with different leadership, and more public consensus – before there is significant change on emissions policy.

The bushfire smoke that chokes 10 million people in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and elsewhere will no doubt contribute to changing attitudes, and it might even shift the media’s coverage of climate change, but there’s no guarantee that it will be the policy turning point we need.The Conversation

John Daley, Chief Executive Officer, Grattan Institute and Emily Millane, Senior Associate, Grattan Institute

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