Why climate change will dull autumn leaf displays



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Autumnal displays may be dimmed in the future.
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Matthew Brookhouse, Australian National University

Every autumn we are treated to one of nature’s finest seasonal annual transitions: leaf colour change and fall.

Most of the autumn leaf-shedding trees in Australia are not native, and some are declared weeds. Nevertheless, Australia has a spectacular display of trees, from the buttery tresses of Ginkgo biloba to the translucent oaks, elms and maples.

Autumn colour changes are celebrated worldwide and, when the time is right, autumn leaves reconnect us to nature, driving “leaf-peeping” tourist economies worldwide.

However, recent temperature trends and extremes have changed the growing conditions experienced by trees and are placing autumn displays, such as Canberra’s, at risk.

Autumn leaf colour changes and fall are affected by summer temperatures.
Shutterstock

This year, Canberra, like the rest of Australia, endured its hottest summer on record. In NSW and the ACT, the mean temperature in January was 6°C warmer than the long-term average. So far, autumn is following suit.

These extremes can interrupt the ideal synchronisation of seasonal changes in temperature and day length, subduing leaf colours.

In addition, hotter summer temperatures scorch leaves and, when combined with this and the previous years’ low autumn rainfall, cause trees to shed leaves prematurely, dulling their autumn leaf displays.




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The subtlety of change

We learnt in childhood autumn colour change follows the arrival of cooler temperatures. Later we learnt the specifics: seasonal changes in day length and temperature drive the depletion of green chlorophyll in leaves. Temperature can also affect the rate at which it fades.

In the absence of chlorophyll, yellows and oranges generated by antioxidants in the leaf (carotenoids) as well as red through to purples pigments (anthocyanins), synthesised from stored sugars, emerge. Temperature plays a role here too – intensifying colours as overnight temperatures fall.

We’ve also come to understand the role of a leaf’s environment. Anthocyanin production is affected by light intensity, which explains why sunny autumns produce such rich colours and why the canopies of our favourite trees blush red at their edges while glowing golden in their interior.

However, early signs show this year’s autumn tones will be muted. After the record-breaking heat of summer and prolonged heat of March, many trees are shrouded in scorched, faded canopies. The ground is littered with blackened leaves.

Of course, we’ve seen it before.

During the Millennium Drought, urban trees sporadically shed their leaves often without a hint of colour change. Fortunately, that was reversed at the drought’s end.

But we’re kidding ourselves if we believe this last summer was normal or recent temperature trends are just natural variability. If this is a sign of seasons future, we need to prepare to lose some of autumn’s beauty.




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Lost synchronicity

Long-term and experimental data show that the sensitivity of autumn colour change to warmer temperatures varies widely between species. While large-scale meta-analyses point to a delay in the arrival of autumn colours of one day per degree of warming, individual genera may be far more sensitve. Colour change in Fagus is delayed by 6-8 days per degree.

Warming temperatures, then, mean the cohesive leaf-colour changes we’re accustomed to will break down at landscape scales.

In addition, as warm weather extends the growing season and deep-rooted trees deplete soil moisture reservoirs, individual trees are driven by stress rather than seasonal temperature change and cut their losses. They shed leaves at the peripheries of their canopies.

The remainder wait – bronzed by summer, but still mostly green – for the right environmental cue.

For years, careful species selection and selective breeding enhanced autumn colour displays. This rich tapestry is now unravelling as hotter summers, longer autumns and drought affect each species differently.




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Paradoxes and indirect effects

It seems logical warmer temperatures would mean shorter and less severe frost seasons. Paradoxically, observations suggest otherwise – the arrival of frost is unchanged or, worse, occurring earlier.

When not preceded by gradually cooling overnight temperatures, frosts can induce sudden, unceremonious leaf loss. If warm autumn temperatures fail to initiate colour change, autumn displays can be short-circuited entirely.

At the centre of many urban-tree plantings, our long association with elms faces a threat. Loved for the contrast their clear yellow seasonal display creates against pale autumn skies, elm canopies have been ravaged by leaf beetles this year. Stress has made trees susceptible to leaf-eating insects, and our current season delivered an expanse of stressed, and now skeletal, trees.

Autumn leaf displays drive tourism.
Norm Hanson/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA



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Change everywhere?

This dulled image of autumn is far from universal. Climates differ between locations. So too will the climate changes we’ve engineered and their impact on autumn displays.

Increased concentration of anthocyanins associated with warmer summers has, for example, created spectacular leaf displays in Britain’s cooler climates.

Of course, we’ll continue to experience radiant autumn displays too.

In years of plentiful rain, our trees will retain their canopies and then, in the clear skies of autumn, dazzle us with seasonal celebrations. However, that too may be tempered by the increased risk of colour-sapping pathogens, such as poplar rust, favoured by warm, moist conditions. And there are also negative consequences for autumn colour associated with elevated carbon dioxide concentrations.

Of course, we need to keep it in perspective – the dulling of autumn’s luminescence is far from the worst climate change impacts. Nevetheless, in weakening our link with nature, the human psyche is suffering another self-inflicted cut as collective action on climate change stalls.The Conversation

Matthew Brookhouse, Senior lecturer, Australian National University

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

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The sexy gum: a love story



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Dr Michael Whitehead is campaigning to rename the Gimlet Gum to the Sexy Gum.
Author provided (No reuse)

Michael Whitehead, University of Melbourne

It is perhaps poetic that a region most famous for its lack of trees lies so close to one of Australia’s greatest tree-based spectacles. The Nullarbor Plain, our famous, flat, featureless expanse is literally named for its absence of trees (“arbor” being Latin for tree).

And if you ever get to drive west along the longest stretch of dead-straight road across this iconic landscape, you will come to know the highlights that characterise the experience: the cliff-top views of the Great Australian Bight and the idiosyncratic roadhouses.




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Then finally, a landscape of low shrubs gives way to mallee trees and woodland vegetation. Somewhere between Caiguna and Fraser Range you’ll see your first Eucalyptus salubris, also known as a gimlet gum, or joorderee by the Ngadju people.

It was on a recent botanical research trip chasing scraggly emu bushes that I stumbled upon, and fell in love with, Eucalytpus salubris. The trunks were what instantly caught my eye, slender with graceful twists, all the more observable for the brilliantly shining coppery bark.



The Conversation

The sexy gum

The tree first appears in European record during early explorations crossing east of the Darling Range. Then, it was called “cable gum” after the gently twisting grooves in the trunks.

Later the tree was given the common name of “gimlet” after a form of hand drill. Unfortunately this name stuck and today the species remains “gimlet” – a wholly unattractive moniker for such a splendid tree.

But our imaginations need not be held hostage by the stubborn colonialists who named our flora after such dreary things.




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That’s why I’m campaigning to update the common name to something more universal, more marketable, something truer to its sensual twists and smooth, glowing bronze surface.

Eucalytpus salubris is the Sexy Gum.

Love goes where my eucalypt grows

E. salubris is a dominant species forming woodlands on deep soils east of the Darling Range. And while much of its former range in the Wheatbelt of Western Australia has been cleared, extensive populations of E. salubris remain in the astonishing stronghold of the Great Western Woodlands.

Those who have walked in a mature woodland understand the pleasure of wandering unimpeded in the shade of widely spaced trees.

Widely spaced trees of the Great Western Woodlands.
Keren Gila/Wikimedia, CC BY

The Great Western Woodlands offers this experience on a grand scale. At around 16 million hectares they are the largest tracts of intact temperate woodlands on Earth, occupying an area larger than England and Wales combined.

And it is not just size that is impressive about these woodlands.

The Great Western Woodlands are a renowned hotspot for eucalypt diversity, home to around 30% of Australia’s eucalypt species in just 2% of its land area.

As one of the more common species throughout the area, E. salubris plays a critical ecological role, providing habitat for several threatened bird species including the rotund and charismatic Mallee fowl.




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Due to its remoteness and unreliable rainfall, the Great Western Woodlands has avoided the widescale grazing and clearing that has degraded neighbouring areas to the south and west.

But despite the value of this untouched landscape, most of the area is “orphan country” with no formal management policies in place. Some 60% of the Great Western Woodlands is unallocated crown land, unmanaged and open access.

This is a plus for visitors wanting to experience it now, but raises important concerns about the long-term security of the area.

While remote, threats to the Great Western Woodlands do exist. Chief among them is the increasing frequency and intensity of bush fires.

Most eucalypts are resprouters with the ability to regenerate burned canopies from buds under the bark. There are, however a number of species, such as Mountain Ash, that will die following canopy fires and can only regenerate from the soil seedbank (called “reseeders”).




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E. salubris, the sexy gum, is one such reseeder. While the traditional occupants of the land used fire as a land management tool, they also knew E. salubris woodland took hundreds of years to regenerate and were careful to never burn the canopy of old growth forests.

The eye-pleasing spectacle of mature open Eucalytpus salubris woodland above red soil and blue-bush therefore exists today thanks to careful management from this era, and deserves careful handling to ensure its ongoing future.

An ambassador for the Great Western Woodlands

Late in the day, when the Sun’s glancing rays light up the bark of E. salubris, punctuating a pastel blue-green woodland with glowing streaks like molten metal, it’s hard to not stop for at least a moment and be impressed.

And while E. salubris’ role as keystone species might be important ecologically, I think the Sexy Gum can be similarly important as ambassador and draw-card for the Great Western Woodlands.

Its golden tones and metallic lustre conjures just the appropriate impression for the WA Goldfields. It is totally Instagram-able, and I don’t think it’s a hard sell to convince people E. salubris is a spectacle worth getting off the beaten track for.The Conversation

Michael Whitehead, Research Fellow in Evolutionary Ecology, University of Melbourne

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

A detailed eucalypt family tree helps us see how they came to dominate Australia



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In Australia you can have any tree you want, as long as it’s a eucalypt.
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Andrew Thornhill, James Cook University

Eucalypts dominate Australia’s landscape like no other plant group in the world.

Europe’s pine forests consist of many different types of trees. North America’s forests change over the width of the continent, from redwood, to pine and oak, to deserts and grassland. Africa is a mixture of savannah, rainforest and desert. South America has rainforests that contain the most diversity of trees in one place. Antarctica has tree fossils.

But in Australia we have the eucalypts, an informal name for three plant genera: Angophora, Corymbia and Eucalyptus. They are the dominant tree in great diversity just about everywhere, except for a small region of mulga, rainforest and some deserts.

My research, published today, has sequenced the DNA of more than 700 eucalypt species to map how they came to dominate the continent. We found eucalypts have been in Australia for at least 60 million years, but a comparatively recent explosion in diversity 2 million years ago is the secret to their spread across southern Australia.

Hundreds of species

The oldest known Eucalyptus macrofossil, from Patagonia in South America, is 52 million years old. The fossil pollen record also provides evidence of eucalypts in Australia for 45 million years, with the oldest specimen coming from Bass Strait.

Despite the antiquity of the eucalypts, researchers assumed they did not begin to spread around Australia until the continent began drying up around 20 million years ago, when Australia was covered in rainforests. But once drier environmental conditions kicked in, the eucalypts seized their chance and took over, especially in southeastern Australia.

Eucalypts are classified by their various characteristics, including the number of buds.
Mary and Andrew/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

There are over 800 described species of eucalypts. Most of them are native only to Australia, although some have managed to naturally escape further north to New Guinea, Timor and Indonesia. Many eucalypts have been introduced to other parts of the world, including California, where Aussie eucalypts make cameos in Hollywood movies.

Eucalypts can grow as tall trees, as various multi-trunk or single-trunk trees, or in rare cases as shrubs. The combination of main characteristics – such as leaf shape, fruit shape, bud number and bark type – provided botanists with enough evidence to describe 800 species and estimate how they were all related to each other, a field of science known as “taxonomy”.

Since the 1990s and early 2000s, taxonomy has been slightly superseded by a new field called “phylogenetics”. This is the study of how organisms are related to each other using DNA, which produces something akin to a family tree.

Phylogenetics still relies on the species to be named though, so there is something to sample. New scientific fields rely on the old. There have been a number of eucalypt phylogenetic studies over the years, but none have ever sampled all of the eucalypt species in one phylogeny.




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Our new paper in Australian Systematic Botany aimed to change that. We attempted to genetically sample every described eucalypt species and place them in one phylogeny to determine how they are related to each other. We sampled 711 species (86% of all eucalypts) as well as rainforest species considered most closely related to the eucalypts.

We also dated the phylogeny by time-stamping certain parts using the ages of the fossils mentioned above. This allowed us to estimate how old eucalypt groups are and when they separated from each other in the past.

Not so ancient

We found that the eucalypts are an old group that date back at least 60 million years. This aligns with previous studies and the fossil record. However, a lot of the diversification in the Eucalyptus genus has happened only in the last 2 million years.

Gum trees are iconic Australian eucalypts.
Shutterstock

Hundreds of species have appeared very recently in evolutionary history. Studies on other organisms have shown rapid diversification, but none of them compare to the eucalypts. Many species of the eucalypt forests of southeastern Australia are new in evolutionary terms (10 million years or less).

This includes many of the tall eucalypts that grow in the wet forests of southern Australia. They are not, as was previously assumed, ancient remnants from Gondwana, a supercontinent that gradually broke up between 180 million and 45 million years ago and resulted in the continents of Australia, Africa, South America and Antarctica, as well as India, New Zealand, New Guinea and New Caledonia.

The eucalypts that grow natively overseas have only made it out from Australia in the last 2 million years or less. Other groups in the eucalypts such as Angophora and Corymbia didn’t exhibit the same rapid diversification as the Eucalyptus species.




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What we confirmed with the fossil record using our phylogeny is that until very recently, and I mean in terms of the Earth being 4 billion years old, the vegetation of southeastern Australia was vastly different.

At some point in the last 2-10 million years the Eucalyptus arrived in new environmental conditions. They thrived, they most likely helped spread fire to wipe out their competition, and they then rapidly changed their physical form to give us the many species that we see today.

Very few other groups in the world have made this amount of change so quickly, and arguably dramatically. The east coast of Australia would look very different if it wasn’t dominated by gum trees.

The next time you’re in a eucalypt forest, take a look around and notice all of the different types of bark and gumnuts and leaves on the trees, and know that all of that diversity has happened quite recently, but with a deep and long link to trees that once grew in Gondwana.

They have been highly advantageous, highly adaptable and, with the exception of a small number of species, are uniquely Australian. They are, as the press would put it, “a great Australian success story”.The Conversation

Andrew Thornhill, Research botanist, James Cook University

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

The swamp foxtail’s origin is hidden in its DNA



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Swamp foxtail is prized in ornamental gardens across Australia.
John Tann/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Roderick John Fensham, The University of Queensland

Sign up to the Beating Around the Bush newsletter here, and suggest a plant we should cover at batb@theconversation.edu.au.


Swamp foxtail (Cenchrus purpurascens) is a delightful grass that forms a neat tussock up to a metre tall with a distinctive fluffy spikelet that resembles a fox’s tail.

Foxtails are widely used in horticulture. The purple forms are particularly popular in ornamental gardens and some have even become invasive weeds.

The foxtail grasses are more commonly seen in these cultivated settings, which has led to much confusion about swamp foxtails’ origins in Australia. The species is simultaneously an exotic weed from Asia, the dominant grass in an endangered Australian ecosystem and a rare native species in isolated desert springs.



The Conversation

Is it native?

It was uncertain for a while whether swamp foxtail is actually native to Australia. Although Europeans collected it near Sydney, it was possible the seeds had come with livestock on the early ships.

This theory was put to rest by genetic studies that found small populations have existed in inland Queensland for hundreds of thousands of years.

The species spread southward and was first recorded in Victoria in the 1970s.

European records

Robert Brown, the botanist who accompanied Matthew Flinders as he circumnavigated the continent, made the the earliest European collections of the swamp foxtail near Sydney in 1802.

Despite the early date of the collections, it is feasible that the swamp foxtail was brought to Sydney within 14 years of settlement as a byproduct among grain or hay. However, while the species occurs naturally in Asia, the Javanese ports were not on the typical travelling route from Europe.




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The intrepid adventurer Ludwig Leichardt later collected this species near the Gwydir River region. This collection provides more convincing evidence the swamp foxtail is native to Australia. It seems unlikely that, in the early years of colonisation, the swamp foxtail had been transported overland with the squatters who were spreading out from their successful properties in the Hunter Valley.

The spread southward

The history of herbarium records, from collections in the late 1800s and early 1900s, suggests swamp foxtail might have been native to Queensland and New South Wales.

Collections south of these locations happened after 1940. The species was not recorded in Victoria until the 1970s. It seems almost certain the swamp foxtail spread southward during the 20th century, in some places as an undesirable weed.

Unusual and isolated habitats

Aboriginal fire management possibly maintained natural grassy openings among the northern NSW rainforests. The curious “grasses”, as they were named, are well documented on early survey plans of the Big Scrub country. Many a place name, Howards Grass Road and Lagoon Grass Road among them, bear testament to their existence.

An extremely isolated population of the swamp foxtail at Elizabeth Springs in western Queensland.
Rod Fensham

The surveyors provided detailed recordings of the dominant grass on the valley floors: the “foxtail”. The swamp foxtail is now rather rare on the valley floors of the Richmond and the Tweed River valleys, replaced by crops on prime agricultural land. It managed to survive in a few locations west of Murwillumbah and on springs, but large expanses of the foxtail grasslands have succumbed to the plough.

A particularly unusual habitat for the swamp foxtail is the artesian springs that feed permanent wetlands in the semi-deserts of inland Queensland. The swamp foxtail occurs there in very local populations separated by hundreds of kilometres.

This raises the question: is the swamp foxtail a recent arrival on these tiny, strange and isolated ecosystems, or are these ancient populations?

Genetic studies have provided conclusive evidence of an ancient origin. The oldest lineage is the population at Elizabeth Springs to the south of Boulia. Its molecular signature suggests this population has been isolated for hundreds of thousands of years.

Where swamp foxtail does occur at springs, it is always accompanied by rare species that are seen only in those unusual wetlands.




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Crossing continents and climates

Swamp foxtail demonstrates the complexity of defining a species’ origin. This species probably evolved in Asia, because this is where most of its relatives are found. It found its way to Australia, possibly through a migratory bird that dropped a seed in a desert spring.

It then had a second migration, either from the springs or from a repeat dispersal from Asia, and found a niche in the valley floors of subtropical landscapes. It was abundant in these moist and fertile habitats when Europeans colonised the continent in 1788.

Since then, the swamp foxtail has spread to temperate climates where it has become invasive and, in some situations, a minor pest. Quite a journey.The Conversation

Roderick John Fensham, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland

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

Old man’s beard is a star climber for Australian gardens



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John Tann/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Gregory Moore, University of Melbourne

Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.


Clematis aristata is a gem of a native climbing plant. Commonly known as Australian clematis, goatsbeard or old man’s beard, these names and the species name aristata (Latin for bearded) all refer to the bristle-like appendages to the fruit.

Although there are more than 300 Clematis species worldwide, only six are native to Australia. Old man’s beard’s flowers are a little more modest than its cousins.




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Clematis aristata is widely distributed in southeastern Australia and has been recorded in all of the eastern mainland states, as well as in Tasmania and South Australia. There is a record of it in Western Australia from around a century ago, but this has not been confirmed in recent times.

With such a wide natural range, it is not surprising that in occurs in many different habitats and soil types. Herein lies one of the great attributes of C. aristata: it has many local forms and is easy to propagate and grow in almost any climate or soil type.



The Conversation, CC BY

Its flowers are white or cream-coloured, and while they are only 2-3cm across they occur in such great numbers they make a fine show. As a climber, they do have the capacity to smother a host, but more often than not the two plants live long lives together without doing harm. In the garden, with a little careful management and pruning, old man’s beard can grow for decades without causing problems while putting on a fine floral display each spring.

One of the wonders of seeing old man’s beard in it natural habitat is the diverse places and spaces it occupies. In the tall wet forests of the east coast you can see it flowering high in the canopies of 60-metre eucalypts, but on the clays of the windswept basalt plains, it appears as flowering orb growing over a shrubby acacia or grevillea. You can also find it growing on an old fence, a rocky outcrop, or simply growing as a scrambler.




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In some parts of Australia, the roots of the species were used as a food source by Indigeneous communities. Its sinuous branches were used like string or laces by some early settlers, and it is hard to imagine that Indigenous people did not use it in this way on some occasions. However, it breaks easily and becomes quite brittle as it dries, and so is useful only in short lengths and for short periods.

It is easy to propagate from seed, and in some places it self-seeds readily and young seedlings can be dug up and grown on with good success rates. It can also be grown from semi-hardwood cuttings in a good propagating mix and a little shelter. You may have heard old man’s beard likes cool roots, good sun and moist soil, but this depends on where you source your plants and seeds.

Clematis aristata growing in Werribee Gorge State Park, Victoria.
Rexness/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Different populations of old man’s beard have adapted to their local environments and so it is always worth getting your plants and seeds from your local native nursery.

The old man’s beard from the temperate forest of the east coast does not do well on the basalt plains, but then again the plants from the basalt plains do not grow well on good soils in cooler, rainy sites. One of the joys of working with old man’s beard is that if you use locally indigenous plants, they will grow quickly without the need for much care and they are usually free of pests and disease. In the poorly structured clay soils of the great basalt plain, with the annual rainfall often below 600mm, it is amazing to see it grow so well without the need for irrigation.




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Like most plants, if you are growing old man’s beard in garden beds it will benefit from a 75-100mm layer of organic mulch containing both fine and coarse material – a mix of native plant leaf litter and twigs will do nicely. Once they have flowered, they can look a bit untidy and some people do not like the look of the bristly fruits as they dry, so a bit of light pruning can be beneficial. Annual pruning will also keep old man’s beard growing where you want it and ensure it is not causing problems to other plants in your garden.

So if you want a native climbing plant that will give you years of spectacular and worry-free flowering, give C. aristata some thought. All you have to do is get hold of a locally growing variant, plant it, and step back before it starts growing over you!


Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.. Read previous instalments here.The Conversation

Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, University of Melbourne

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

Are more Aussie trees dying of drought? Scientists need your help spotting dead trees



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As climate change threatens Australian trees, it’s important to identify which are at risk.
Nicolás Boullosa/flickr, CC BY-SA

Belinda Medlyn, Western Sydney University; Brendan Choat, Western Sydney University, and Martin De Kauwe, UNSW

Most citizen science initiatives ask people to record living things, like frogs, wombats, or feral animals. But dead things can also be hugely informative for science. We have just launched a new citizen science project, The Dead Tree Detective, which aims to record where and when trees have died in Australia.

The current drought across southeastern Australia has been so severe that native trees have begun to perish, and we need people to send in photographs tracking what has died. These records will be valuable for scientists trying to understand and predict how native forests and woodlands are vulnerable to climate extremes.




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Understanding where trees are most at risk is becoming urgent because it’s increasingly clear that climate change is already underway. On average, temperatures across Australia have risen more than 1℃ since 1910, and winter rainfall in southern Australia has declined. Further increases in temperature, and increasing time spent in drought, are forecast.

How our native plants cope with these changes will affect (among other things) biodiversity, water supplies, fire risk, and carbon storage. Unfortunately, how climate change is likely to affect Australian vegetation is a complex problem, and one we don’t yet have a good handle on.

Phil Spark of Woolomin, NSW submitted this photo to The Dead Tree Detective project online.
Author provided

Climate niche

All plants have a preferred average climate where they grow best (their “climatic niche”). Many Australian tree species have small climatic niches.

It’s been estimated an increase of 2℃ would see 40% of eucalypt species stranded in climate conditions to which they are not adapted.

But what happens if species move out of their climatic niche? It’s possible there will be a gradual migration across the landscape as plants move to keep up with the climate.




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It’s also possible that plants will generally grow better, if carbon dioxide rises and frosts become less common (although this is a complicated and disputed claim.

Farmers have reported anecdotal evidence of tree deaths on social media.
Author provided

However, a third possibility is that increasing climate extremes will lead to mass tree deaths, with severe consequences.

There are examples of all three possibilities in the scientific literature, but reports of widespread tree death are becoming increasingly commonplace.

Many scientists, including ourselves, are now trying to identify the circumstances under which we may see trees die from climate stress. Quantifying these thresholds is going to be key for working out where vegetation may be headed.

The water transport system

Australian plants must deal with the most variable rainfall in the world. Only trees adapted to prolonged drought can survive. However, drought severity is forecast to increase, and rising heat extremes will exacerbate drought stress past their tolerance.

To explain why droughts overwhelm trees, we need to look at the water transport system that keeps them alive. Essentially, trees draw water from the soil through their roots and up to their leaves. Plants do not have a pump (like our hearts) to move water – instead, water is pulled up under tension using energy from sunlight. Our research illustrates how this transport system breaks down during droughts.

Lyn Lacey submitted these photos of dead trees at Ashford, NSW to The Dead Tree Detective.
Author provided

In hot weather, more moisture evaporates from trees’ leaves, putting more pressure on their water transport system. This evaporation can actually be useful, because it keeps the trees’ leaves cool during heatwaves. However if there is not enough water available, leaf temperatures can become lethally high, scorching the tree canopy.

We’ve also identified how drought tolerance varies among native tree species. Species growing in low-rainfall areas are better equipped to handle drought, showing they are finely tuned to their climate niche and suggesting many species will be vulnerable if climate change increases drought severity.

Based on all of these data, we hope to be able to predict where and when trees will be vulnerable to death from drought and heat stress. The problem lies in testing our predictions – and that’s where citizen science comes in. Satellite remote sensing can help us track overall greenness of ecosystems, but it can’t detect individual tree death. Observation on the ground is needed.

These images show a failure of the water transport system in Eucalyptus saligna. Left: well-watered plant. Right: severely droughted plant. On the right, air bubbles blocking the transport system can be seen.
Brendan Choat, Author provided

However, there is no system in place to record tree death from drought in Australia. For example, during the Millennium Drought, the most severe and extended drought for a century in southern Australia, there are almost no records of native tree death (other than along the rivers, where over-extraction of water was also an issue). Were there no deaths? Or were they simply not recorded?

The current drought gripping the southeast has not been as long as the Millennium Drought, but it does appear to be more intense, with some places receiving almost no rain for two years. We’ve also had a summer of repeated heatwaves, which will have intensified the stress.




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We’re hearing anecdotal reports of tree death in the news and on twitter. We’re aiming to capture these anecdotal reports, and back them up with information including photographs, locations, numbers and species of trees affected, on the Dead Tree Detective.

We encourage anyone who sees dead trees around them to hop online and contribute. The Detective also allows people to record tree deaths from other causes – and trees that have come back to life again (sometimes dead isn’t dead). It can be depressing to see trees die – but recording their deaths for science helps to ensure they won’t have died in vain.The Conversation

Belinda Medlyn, Professor, Western Sydney University; Brendan Choat, Associate Professor, Western Sydney University, and Martin De Kauwe, Senior Research Fellow, UNSW

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