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.




Read more:
Recent Australian droughts may be the worst in 800 years


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.




Read more:
How the warming world could turn many plants and animals into climate refugees


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.




Read more:
Is Australia’s current drought caused by climate change? It’s complicated


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.

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2018-19 was Australia’s hottest summer on record, with a warm autumn likely too


File 20190228 150702 1t8sa4f.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Dirty water from Queensland’s historic flooding, triggered by weeks of exceptional monsoon rains earlier in the year.
NASA Worldview/EPA

David Jones, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Lynette Bettio, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Skie Tobin, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Australian summers are getting hotter. Today marks the end of our warmest summer on record, setting new national temperature records. Worsening drought, locally significant flooding, damaging bushfires, and heatwaves capped a summer of extremes.

As we look to autumn, warmer temperatures overall and below average rainfall – especially in eastern parts of the country – are likely.

Australian summer mean temperature anomalies against the 1961–1990 average.
Bureau of Meteorology



Read more:
The stubborn high-pressure system behind Australia’s record heatwaves


Very hot…

The starkest feature of this summer was the record warmth. The national average temperature is expected to be about 2.1℃ above average, and will easily beat the previous record high set in summer 2012-13 (which was 1.28℃ warmer than average).

Very low rainfall accompanied the record heat of summer. At the national scale, each month was notably dry, and total summer rainfall was around 30% below average; the lowest for summer since 1982–83. The monsoon onset was delayed in Darwin until the 23rd of January (the latest since 1972–73) and typical monsoonal weather was absent for most of summer.

Preliminary summer 2018–19 mean temperature deciles.
Bureau of Meteorology

In December 2018 Australia saw its highest mean, maximum and minimum temperatures on record (monthly averages, compared to all other Decembers). Notable heatwaves affected the north of Australia at the start of the month, spreading to the west and south during the second half of December. Temperatures peaked at 49.3℃ at Marble Bar in Western Australia on the 27th, with mid-to-high 40s extending over larger areas.

The heat continued into January, which set a national monthly mean temperature record at 2.91℃ above the 1961–1990 average. Heatwave conditions which had emerged in December persisted, with a prolonged warm spell and numerous records set. Eight of the ten hottest days for the nation occurred during the month, while a minimum temperature of 36.6℃ at Wanaaring (Borrona Downs) in western New South Wales on the 26th set a new national minimum temperature record.

Temperatures moderated a little in the east of the country for February, partly in response to flooding rainfall in tropical Queensland. Even so, the national mean temperature will come in around 1.4℃ above average, making this February likely to be the fourth or fifth warmest on record.

…and very dry

Australia has seen dry summers before and many of these have been notably hot. The summers of 1972–73 and 1982–83 – which featured mean temperatures 0.90℃ and 0.92℃ above average, respectively – both came during the latter stages of significant droughts, and were both records at the time.

As the State of the Climate 2018 report outlines, Australia has warmed by just over 1℃ since 1910, with most warming occurring since 1950. This warming means global and Australian climate variability sits on top of a higher average temperature, which explains why 2018-19 was warmer again.

A major rain event affected tropical Queensland during late January to early February, associated with a slow-moving monsoonal low. Some sites had a year’s worth of rain in a two-week period, including Townsville Airport which had 1,257mm in ten days. Many Queenslanders affected by this monsoonal low went from drought conditions to floods in a matter of days. Flooding was severe and continues to affect rivers near the Gulf of Carpentaria, as well as some inland rivers which flow towards Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre.

Preliminary summer 2018–19 rainfall deciles.
Bureau of Meteorology

The outlook for autumn

Spring 2018 saw a positive Indian Ocean Dipole which faded in early summer. At the start of summer sea surface temperature anomalies in the central Pacific exceeded 0.8℃, which is the typical threshold for El Niño affecting the oceans, but these declined as summer progressed. Combined with a lack of coupling between the atmosphere and ocean, the El Niño–Southern Oscillation remained neutral, though normal rainfall patterns shifted to oceans to the north and east, leaving Australia drier as a result.

As we move into autumn, the El Niño–Southern Oscillation and Indian Ocean Dipole tend to have less influence at this time of year. The onset of new Indian Ocean Dipole or El Niño/La Niña events typically happens in late autumn or winter/spring.

Over recent years, autumn rainfall has also become less reliable, with declines in cool season rainfall in the southeast and southwest. Temperatures are also rising, in a local expression of the global warming trend.




Read more:
Explainer: El Niño and La Niña


The Bureau’s outlook for autumn shows high probabilities that day and night-time temperatures will remain above average for most of the country. We expect to see continued below-average rainfall in much of the east, where drought is currently widespread.

Looking to the winter, the Bureau’s ENSO Wrap-Up suggests the Pacific Ocean is likely to remain warmer than average. The potential for an El Niño remains, with approximately a 50% chance of El Niño developing during the southern hemisphere autumn or winter, twice the normal likelihood.

Rainfall outlook for autumn 2019.
Bureau of Meteorology


For more information watch BOM’s March–May 2019 Climate and Water Outlook video and subscribe to receive Climate Information emails.The Conversation

David Jones, Climate Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Lynette Bettio, Senior Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Skie Tobin, Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

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

How climate change can make catastrophic weather systems linger for longer


Steve Turton, CQUniversity Australia

Many parts of Australia have suffered a run of severe and, in some cases, unprecedented weather events this summer. One common feature of many of these events – including the Tasmanian heatwave and the devastating Townsville floods – was that they were caused by weather systems that parked themselves in one place for days or weeks on end.

It all began with a blocking high – so-called because it blocks the progress of other nearby weather systems – in the Tasman Sea throughout January and early February.

This system prevented rain-bearing cold fronts from moving across Tasmania, and led to prolonged hot dry northwesterly winds, below-average rainfall and scorching temperatures.




Read more:
Dry lightning has set Tasmania ablaze, and climate change makes it more likely to happen again


Meanwhile, to the north, an intense monsoon low sat stationary over northwest Queensland for 10 days. It was fed on its northeastern flank by extremely saturated northwesterly winds from Indonesia, which converged over the greater northeast Queensland area with strong moist trade winds from the Coral Sea, forming a “convergence zone”.

Ironically, these trade winds originated from the northern flank of the blocking high in the Tasman, deluging Queensland while leaving the island state parched.

Unusually prolonged

Convergence zones along the monsoon trough are not uncommon during the wet season, from December to March. But it is extremely rare for a stationary convergence zone to persist for more than a week.

Could this pattern conceivably be linked to global climate change? Are we witnessing a slowing of our weather systems as well as more extreme weather?

There does seem to be a plausible link between human-induced warming, slowing of jet streams, blocking highs, and extreme weather around the world. The recent Tasman Sea blocking high can be added to that list, along with other blocking highs that caused unprecedented wildfires in California and an extreme heatwave in Europe last year.

There is also a trend for the slowing of the forward speed (as opposed to wind speed) of tropical cyclones around the world. One recent study showed the average forward speeds of tropical cyclones fell by 10% worldwide between 1949 and 2016. Meanwhile, over the same period, the forward speed of tropical cyclones dropped by 22% over land in the Australian region.

Climate change is expected to weaken the world’s circulatory winds due to greater warming in high latitudes compared with the tropics, causing a slowing of the speed at which tropical cyclones move forward.

Obviously, if tropical cyclones are moving more slowly, this can leave particular regions bearing the brunt of the rainfall. In 2017, Houston and surrounding parts of Texas received unprecedented rainfall associated with the “stalling” of Hurricane Harvey.

Townsville’s floods echoed this pattern. Near the centre of the deep monsoon low, highly saturated warm air was forced to rise due to colliding winds, delivering more than a year’s worth of rainfall to parts of northwest Queensland in just a week.

The widespread rain has caused significant rises in many of the rivers that feed into the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Great Barrier Reef lagoon, and some runoff has made it into the Channel Country and will eventually reach Lake Eyre in South Australia. Unfortunately, little runoff has found its way into the upper reaches of the Darling River system.

Satellite images before (right) and after (left) the floods in northwest Queensland.
Courtesy of Japan Meteorological Agency, Author provided

Huge impacts

The social, economic and environmental impacts of Australia’s recent slow-moving weather disasters have been huge. Catastrophic fires invaded ancient temperate rainforests in Tasmania, while Townsville’s unprecedented flooding has caused damage worth more than A$600 million and delivered a A$1 billion hit to cattle farmers in surrounding areas.

Townsville’s Ross River, which flows through suburbs downstream from the Ross River Dam, has reached a 1-in-500-year flood level. Some tributaries of the dam witnessed phenomenal amounts of runoff, reliably considered as a 1-in-2,000-year event

Up to half a million cattle are estimated to have died across the area, a consequence of their poor condition after years of drought, combined with prolonged exposure to water and wind during the rain event.




Read more:
Queensland’s floods are so huge the only way to track them is from space


Farther afield, both Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island – located under the clear skies associated with the blocking high – have recorded exceptionally low rainfall so far this year, worsening the drought conditions caused by a very dry 2018. These normally lush subtropical islands in the Tasman Sea are struggling to find enough water to supply their residents’ and tourists’ demands.

Many parts of Australia have tolerated widespread extreme weather events this year, including some records. This follows a warm and generally dry 2018. In fact, 9 of the 10 warmest years on record in Australia have occurred since 2005, with only 1998 remaining from last century with reliable records extending back to 1910. Steady warming of our atmosphere and oceans is directly linked to more extreme weather events in Australia and globally.

If those extreme weather events travel more slowly across the landscape, their effects on individual regions could be more devastating still.The Conversation

Steve Turton, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography, CQUniversity Australia

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

Ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica predicted to bring more frequent extreme weather



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A new climate model combines data on ice loss from both polar regions for the first time.
Mark Brandon, CC BY-ND

Nick Golledge, Victoria University of Wellington

Last week, rivers froze over in Chicago when it got colder than at the North Pole. At the same time, temperatures hit 47℃ in Adelaide during the peak of a heatwave.

Such extreme and unpredictable weather is likely to get worse as ice sheets at both poles continue to melt.

Our research, published today, shows that the combined melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is likely to affect the entire global climate system, triggering more variable weather and further melting. Our model predictions suggest that we will see more of the recent extreme weather, both hot and cold, with disruptive effects for agriculture, infrastructure, and human life itself.

We argue that global policy needs urgent review to prevent dangerous consequences.




Read more:
We finally have the rulebook for the Paris Agreement, but global climate action is still inadequate


Accelerated loss of ice

Even though the goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep warming below 2℃ (compared to pre-industrial levels), current government pledges commit us to surface warming of 3-4℃ by 2100. This would cause more melting in the polar regions.

Already, the loss of ice from ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland, as well as mountain glaciers, is accelerating as a consequence of continued warming of the air and the ocean. With the predicted level of warming, a significant amount of meltwater from polar ice would enter the earth’s oceans.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is considered more vulnerable to melting, but East Antarctica , once thought to be inert, is now showing increasing signs of change.
Nick Golledge, CC BY-ND

We have used satellite measurements of recent changes in ice mass and have combined data from both polar regions for the first time. We found that, within a few decades, increased Antarctic melting would form a lens of freshwater on the ocean surface, allowing rising warmer water to spread out and potentially trigger further melting from below.

In the North Atlantic, the influx of meltwater would lead to a significant weakening of deep ocean circulation and affect coastal currents such as the Gulf Stream, which carries warm water from the tropics into the North Atlantic. This would lead to warmer air temperatures in Central America, Eastern Canada and the high Arctic, but colder conditions over northwestern Europe on the other side of the Atlantic.

Recent research suggests that tipping points in parts of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may have already been passed. This is because most of the ice sheet that covers West Antarctica rests on bedrock far below sea level – in some areas up to 2 kilometres below.




Read more:
How Antarctic ice melt can be a tipping point for the whole planet’s climate


Bringing both poles into one model

It can be a challenge to simulate the whole climate system because computer models of climate are usually global, but models of ice sheets are typically restricted to just Antarctica or just Greenland. For this reason, the most recent Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) assessment used climate models that excluded ice sheet interactions.

Global government policy has been guided by this assessment since 2013, but our new results show that the inclusion of ice sheet meltwater can significantly affect climate projections. This means we need to update the guidance we provide to policy makers. And because Greenland and Antarctica affect different aspects of the climate system, we need new modelling approaches that look at both ice sheets together.

When the edges of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet start to recede, they retreat into deeper and deeper water and the ice begins to float more easily.
Mark Brandon, CC BY-ND

Seas rise as ice melts on land

Apart from the impact of meltwater on ocean circulation, we have also calculated how ongoing melting of both polar ice caps will contribute to sea level. Melting ice sheets are already raising sea level, and the process has been accelerating in recent years.

Our research is in agreement with another study published today, in terms of the amount that Antarctica might contribute to sea level over the present century. This is good news for two reasons.

First, our predictions are lower than one US modelling group predicted in 2016. Instead of nearly a metre of sea level rise from Antarctica by 2100, we predict only 14-15cm.

Second, the agreement between the two studies and also with previous projections from the IPCC and other modelling groups suggests there is a growing consensus, which provides greater certainty for planners. But the regional pattern of sea level rise is uneven, and islands in the southwest Pacific will most likely experience nearly 1.5 times the amount of sea level rise that will affect New Zealand.

While some countries, including New Zealand, are making progress on developing laws and policies for a transition towards a low-carbon future, globally policy is lagging far behind the science.

The predictions we make in our studies underline the increasingly urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It might be hard to see how our own individual actions can save polar ice caps from significant melting. But by making individual choices that are environmentally sustainable, we can persuade politicians and companies of the desire for urgent action to protect the world for future generations.The Conversation

Nick Golledge, Associate Professor of Glaciology, Victoria University of Wellington

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

Dry lightning has set Tasmania ablaze, and climate change makes it more likely to happen again


Nick Earl, University of Melbourne; Peter Love, University of Tasmania; Rebecca Harris, University of Tasmania, and Tomas Remenyi, University of Tasmania

Every year Tasmania is hit by thousands of lightning strikes, which harmlessly hit wet ground. But a huge swathe of the state is now burning as a result of “dry lightning” strikes.

Dry lightning occurs when a storm forms from high temperatures or along a weather front (as usual) but, unlike normal thunderstorms, the rain evaporates before it reaches the ground, so lightning strikes dry vegetation and sparks bushfires.

Dangerous, large fires occur when dry lightning strikes in very dry environments that are full of fuel ready to burn. Cold fronts in Tasmania, which often carry fire-extinguishing rain, have recently been dry, making these fires worse. The fronts draw in strong hot, dry northerly winds, fanning the flames.




Read more:
Fires in Tasmania’s ancient forests are a warning for all of us


Research has found that as climate change creates a drier Tasmania landscape, dry lightning – and therefore these kinds of fires – are likely to increase.

History and detection in Tasmania

Lightning has always started fires across Tasmania. Fire scars and other paleo evidence across Tasmania show large fires are a natural process in some places. However, frequent large, intense fires were rare. Now such fires are being fought almost every year.

Contrary to anecdotal belief, our recent preliminary work suggests that lightning activity has not increased over recent decades. So why do fires started by lightning appear to be increasing?

As temperatures rise, evaporation rates are increasing, but current rainfall rates are about the same. In combination this means the Tasmanian landscape is drying. The landscape is more often primed, waiting for an ignition source such as a dry-lightning strike. In such conditions, it only takes one.

When dry lighting strikes

Lightning struck just such a landscape in late December 2018, starting the Gell River bushfire in southwest Tasmania. This uncontrollable fire burnt about 20,000 hectares in the first half of January and is still burning. These large fires deplete the state’s resources, fatigue our volunteer and professional fire fighters and can have disastrous effects on natural systems.

With no significant rain falling over Tasmania since mid-December, the island is breaking dry spell records and thousands of dry lightning events have occurred. On January 15 alone over 2,000 lightning strikes sparked more than 60 bushfires.

Most of these were controlled rapidly, a credit to Tasmania’s emergency responders. One of the worst-hit areas was the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, where many bushfires continue to burn in inaccessible locations.

This is putting some of Tasmania’s most pristine and valuable places in danger of being lost. The state stands to lose its most remarkable old-growth forests, like Mount Anne, which is home to some of the world’s largest King Billy Pines, a species endemic to Tasmania.

Increasing dry area

Ongoing climate change is making dry spells longer and more frequent, increasing the fire-prone area of Tasmania. Almost the whole state is becoming vulnerable to dry lightning.

Some regions of the west coast of Tasmania used to have very little to no risk of bushfires as they were always damp. However, this is no longer the case, resulting in species coming under threat.

Unlike most of Australia’s vegetation, many of Tasmania’s alpine and subalpine species evolved in the absence of fire and therefore do not recover after being burnt. Endemic species like Pencil Pine, Huon Pine and Deciduous Beech may be wiped out by one fire.

So what does the future hold? Using data from Climate Futures for Tasmania, we can peek into the future. Our models indicate that climate change is highly likely to result in profound changes to the fire climate of Tasmania, especially in the west.

Climate change already playing a role

With a warming climate, the rain-producing low-pressure systems are moving south and many storms that used to hit Tasmania are drifting south, leaving the island drier. This, combined with increasing evaporation rates, result in rapid drying of some areas. Areas that historically rarely experienced fire will become increasingly prone to burn. The drying trend is projected to be particularly profound throughout western Tasmania.

By the end of the century, summer conditions are projected to last eight weeks longer. This drying means that lightning events (and therefore dry lightning) will become an ever-increasing threat and the impact of these events will become more significant.

Higher levels of dryness will mean when bushfires occur the potential for these to burn into the rainforest, peat soils and alpine areas will be significantly increased.




Read more:
How far away was that lightning?


These changes are already happening and will get progressively worse throughout the 21st century. Climate change is no longer a threat of the future: we are experiencing it now.The Conversation

Nick Earl, Postdoctoral associate, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne; Peter Love, Atmospheric Physicist, University of Tasmania; Rebecca Harris, Climate Research Fellow, University of Tasmania, and Tomas Remenyi, Climate Research Fellow, Climate Futures Group, Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC, University of Tasmania

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

When extreme weather wipes out wildlife, the fallout can last for years


Sean Maxwell, The University of Queensland and James Watson, The University of Queensland

The recent heatwaves have proved deadly to many Australian animals, from feral horses to flying foxes.

And it’s not just heatwaves that can cause mass die-offs. Last year, flooding rain wiped out entire Antarctic penguin colonies, while drought has previously caused mass mangrove diebacks around the Gulf of Carpentaria.

These events generate headlines, but what about the aftermath? And are these catastrophic events part of a wider pattern?




Read more:
Killer climate: tens of thousands of flying foxes dead in a day


Our research describes how species have responded to extreme weather events over the past 70 years. These responses can tell us a great deal about how species are likely to cope with change in the frequency and intensity of extreme events in coming years.

We reviewed 517 studies, dating back to 1941 and conducted throughout the world, that examined how birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates or plants have responded to droughts, cyclones, floods, heatwaves, and cold snaps.

We found more than 100 cases of dramatic population declines. In a quarter of these cases, population numbers showed no sign of recovery long after the event. And in most cases, extreme events reduced populations of common species that play an important role in maintaining ecosystem integrity.

For example, extreme drought in the 2000s drove massive population declines of invertebrate freshwater species across Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin, and populations of buffalo, waterbuck, and kudu along the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe suffered severe and persistent declines following droughts in the 1980s.

We also found 31 cases of populations completely disappearing after an extreme event. Large populations of lizards and spiders were eradicated after Hurricane Lilli struck the Bahamas in 1996, for example. These populations had begun to recover one year after Lilli, but in half of all the cases of local population extinction, the species was still absent years or decades after exposure to an extreme event.

Negative responses were the most commonly reported, and also included habitat loss, declines in species numbers, and declines in reproductive fitness after an extreme event. These impacts clearly pose a serious risk to the longevity of many species, and to threatened species in particular. Kosciuszko National Park, for example, is a stronghold for the endangered northern corroboree frog, but 42% of its breeding sites in the park were rendered unusable by severe drought conditions throughout the 2000s.

Is there an upside?

Alongside the many negative impacts, we also found a larger‐than‐expected number of positive or neutral responses to extreme events (21% of all responses). This is a reminder that natural disturbances from extreme events often play a crucial role in the natural dynamics of an ecosystem.

Unfortunately, however, in many cases it was invasive species that benefited from extreme events. Flooding in southern Minnesota in 2004, for example, led to the rapid incursion of invasive green sunfish into streams, and cyclones accelerated the invasion of sweet pittosporum in Jamaican rainforests in the 1990s.

Cases of extreme events benefiting threatened species were uncommon, but included rainforest frogs becoming less susceptible to a fungal pathogen, chytrid fungus, after cyclones reduced rainforest canopy cover.

We also identified a range of “ambiguous” responses, including changes in diet or foraging behaviour, and changes in the types of species inhabiting a study area. Changes in invertebrate communities were particularly prevalent (87 cases). In 18 of these cases, the changes were long-lasting. However, most of the studies we reviewed lasted less than one year, and did not monitor for long-term recovery following an extreme event. This limits our ability to assess the long-term implications of extreme events on the species composition of ecosystems.

Avoiding future impacts

The one failsafe option for helping species cope with extreme events is to retain intact habitats, as these are the places where species are most resilient to extreme events. Intact habitats are contiguous areas of water or native vegetation that often span various altitudes, temperatures and rainfall patterns. These places can also act as important refuges for species that rely on long breaks between extreme events to recover.

Where intact habitat protection is not possible, restoring land or seascapes can also help species to adapt to extreme events. For example, long-term restoration efforts (that is, those that will be effective for at least 15 years) in brackish marshes help plant and animal communities cope with drought events.

Ecological restoration that helps species to adapt to extreme events can also benefit humans too. For instance, coastal communities can use oyster reefs or seagrass beds to guard against flooding.




Read more:
Ecosystems across Australia are collapsing under climate change


Climate change has already increased the intensity and frequency of extreme events across the world, and the trend is expected to accelerate in the future. Recognising the importance of planning for extreme events is essential for helping species cope with climate change. Building resilience to extreme events may also provide an opportunity to reduce the vulnerability of humans too.

Governments, local councils, and local communities are under increasing pressure to plan for extreme climate events. We now need similar recognition of the importance of extreme events in threatened species planning efforts. Right now, this planning is virtually non-existent, and that needs to change.The Conversation

Sean Maxwell, Postdoctoral fellow, The University of Queensland and James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland

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

To predict droughts, don’t look at the skies. Look in the soil… from space


Siyuan Tian, Australian National University and Albert Van Dijk, Australian National University

Another summer, another drought. Sydney’s water storages are running on empty, and desalinisation plants are being dusted off. Elsewhere, shrunken rivers, lakes and dams are swollen with rotting fish. Governments, irrigators and environmentalists blame each other for the drought, or just blame it on nature.

To be sure, Australia is large enough to usually leave some part of our country waiting for rain. So what exactly is a drought, and how do we know when we are in it?

This question matters, because declaring drought has practical implications. For example, it may entitle those affected to government assistance or insurance pay-outs.

But it is also a surprisingly difficult question. Droughts are not like other natural hazards. They are not a single extreme weather event, but the persistent lack of a quite common event: rain. What’s more, it’s not the lack of rain per se that ultimately affects us. The desert is a dry place but it cannot always be called in drought.

Ultimately, what matters are the impacts of drought: the damage to crops, pastures and environment; the uncontrollable fires that can take hold in dried-up forests and grasslands; the lack of water in dams and rivers that stops them from functioning. Each of these impacts is affected by more than just the amount of rain over an arbitrary number of months, and that makes defining drought difficult.




Read more:
Is Australia’s current drought caused by climate change? It’s complicated


Scientists and governments alike have been looking for ways to measure drought in a way that relates more closely to its impacts. Any farmer or gardener can tell you that you don’t need much rain, but you do need it at the right time. This is where the soil becomes really important, because it is where plants get their water.

Too much rain at once, and most of it is lost to runoff or disappears deep into the soil. That does not mean it is lost. Runoff helps fill our rivers and waterways. Water sinking deep into the soil can still be available to some plants. While our lawn withers, trees carry on as if there is nothing wrong. That’s because their roots dig further, reaching soil moisture that is buried deep.

A good start in defining and measuring drought would be to know how much soil moisture the vegetation can still get out of the soil. That is a very hard thing to do, because each crop, grass and tree has a different root system and grows in a different soil type, and the distribution of moisture below the surface is not easy to predict. Many dryland and irrigation farmers use soil sensors to measure how well their crops are doing, but this does not tell us much about the rest of the landscape, about the flammability of forests, or the condition of pastures.

Not knowing how drought conditions will develop, graziers face a difficult choice: sell their livestock or buy in feed?
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Soils and satellites

As it turns out, you need to move further away to get closer to this problem – into space, to be precise. In our new research, published in Nature Communications, we show just how much satellite instruments can tell us about drought.

The satellite instruments have prosaic names such as SMOS and GRACE, but the way they measure water is mind-boggling. For example, the SMOS satellite unfurled a huge radio antenna in space to measure very specific radio waves emitted by the ground, and from it scientists can determine how much moisture is available in the topsoil.

Even more amazingly, GRACE (now replaced by GRACE Follow-On) was a pair of laser-guided satellites in a continuous high-speed chase around the Earth. By measuring the distance between each other with barely imaginable accuracy, they could measure miniscule changes in the Earth’s gravitational field caused by local increases or decreases in the amount of water below the surface.

By combining these data with a computer model that simulates the water cycle and plant growth, we created a detailed picture of the distribution of water below the surface.

It is a great example showing that space science is not just about galaxies and astronauts, but offers real insights and solutions by looking down at Earth. It also shows why having a strong Australian Space Agency is so important.




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The lessons we need to learn to deal with the ‘creeping disaster’ of drought


Taking it a step further, we discovered that the satellite measurements even allowed us to predict how much longer the vegetation in a given region could continue growing before the soils run dry. In this way, we can predict drought impacts before they happen, sometimes more than four months in advance.

Map showing how many months ahead, on average, drought impacts can be predicted with good accuracy.
author provided

This offers us a new way to look at drought prediction. Traditionally, we have looked up at the sky to predict droughts, but the weather has a short memory. Thanks to the influence of ocean currents, the Bureau of Meteorology can sometimes give us better-than-evens odds for the months ahead (for example, the next three months are not looking promising), but these predictions are often very uncertain.

Our results show there is at least as much value in knowing how much water is left for plants to use as there is in guessing how much rain is on the way. By combining the two information sources we should be able to improve our predictions still further.

Many practical decisions hinge on an accurate assessment of drought risk. How many firefighters should be on call? Should I sow a crop in this paddock? Should we prepare for water restrictions? Should we budget for drought assistance? In future years, satellites keeping an eye on Earth will help us make these decisions with much more confidence.The Conversation

Siyuan Tian, Postdoctoral fellow, Australian National University and Albert Van Dijk, Professor, Water and Landscape Dynamics, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

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