Open data shows lightning, not arson, was the likely cause of most Victorian bushfires last summer



Tracy Nearmy/AAP

Dianne Cook, Monash University

As last summer’s horrific bushfires raged, so too did debate about what caused them. Despite the prolonged drought and ever worsening climate change, some people sought to blame the fires largely on arson.

Federal Coalition MPs were among those pushing the arsonist claim. And on Twitter, a fierce hashtag war broke out: “#ClimateEmergency” vs “#ArsonEmergency”.

Fire authorities rejected the arson claims, saying most fires were thought to be caused by lightning.

We dug into open data resources to learn more about the causes of last summer’s bushfires in Victoria, and further test the arson claim. Our analysis suggests 82% of the fires can be attributed to lightning, 14% to accidents and 1% to burning off. Only 4% can be attributed to arson.

Lightning in the sky
Lightning, not arson, caused most Victorian bushfires last summer.
Twitter

What we did

We started with hotspots data taken from the Himawari-8 satellite, which shows heat source locations over time and space, in almost real time. We omitted hotspots unlikely to be bushfires, and used a type of data mining called “spatiotemporal clustering” – where time dimension is introduced to geographic data – to estimate ignition time and location.

We supplemented this with data from other sources: temperature, moisture, rainfall, wind, sun exposure, fuel load, as well as distance to camp sites, roads and Country Fire Authority (CFA) stations.




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Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) holds historical data on bushfire ignition from 2000 to the 2018-19 summer. The forensic research required to determine fire cause is laborious, and remotely sensed data from satellites may be useful and more immediate.

By training our model on the historical data, we can more immediately predict causes of last summer’s fires detected from satellite data. (Note: even though we were analysing events in the past, we use the term “predict” because authorities have not released official data.)

DELWP’s data attributes 41% of fires to lightning, 17% to arson, 34% to accidents and 7% to hazard reduction or back burning which escaped containment lines (which our analysis refers to as burning off).

Causes of fires from 2000-2019. Lightning is most common cause. The number of fires is increasing, and this is mostly due to accidents.
Own work

To make predictions for the 2019-20 bushfires, we needed an accurate model for causes in the historical data. We trained the model to predict one of four causes – lightning, accident, arson, burning off – using a machine learning algorithm.

The model performed well on the historical data: 75% overall accuracy, 90% accurate on lightning, 78% for accidents, and 54% for arson (which was mostly confused with accident, as would make sense).

The most important contributors to distinguishing between lightning and arson (or accident) ignition were distance to CFA stations, roads and camp sites, and average wind speed.

As might be expected, smaller distances to CFA stations, roads and camp sites, and higher than average winds, meant the fire was most likely the result of arson or accident. In the case of longer distances, where bush would have been largely inaccessible to the public, lightning was predicted to be the cause.

Spatial distribution of causes of fires from 2000-2019, and predictions for 2019-2020 season.
Own work

What we found

Our model predicted that 82% of Victoria’s fires in the summer of 2019-2020 were due to lightning. Most fires were located in densely vegetated areas inaccessible by road – similar to the historical locations. (The percentage is double that in the historical data, though, probably because the satellite hotspot data can see fire ignitions in locations inaccessible to fire experts).

All fires in February 2020 were predicted to be due to lightning. Accident and arson were commonly predicted causes in March, and early in the season. Reassuringly, ignition due to burning off was predicted primarily in October 2019, prior to the fire restrictions.

Spatio-temporal distribution of cause predictions for 2019-2020 season. Reassuringly, fires due to burning off primarily occurred in October, prior to fire restrictions. February fires were all predicted to be due to lightning.
Own work

Quicker fire ignition information

Our analysis used open-data and open-source software, and could be applied to fires elsewhere in Australia.

This analysis shows how we can quickly predict causes of bushfires, using satellite data combined with other information. It could reduce the work of fire forensics teams, and provide more complete fire ignition data in future.

The code used for the analysis can be found here. Explore the historical fire data, predictions for 2019-2020 fires, and a fire risk map for Victoria using this app.


This analysis is based on thesis research by Monash University Honours student Weihao Li. She was supervised by the author, and former Principal Inventive Scientist at AT&T Labs Research, Emily Dodwell. The Australian Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers supported Emily’s travel to Australia to start this project. The full analysis is available here.

The Conversation

Dianne Cook, Professor of Business Analytics, Monash University

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

Before and after: 4 new graphics show the recovery from last summer’s bushfire devastation



Airborne Research Australia, Author provided

Jorg Michael Hacker, Flinders University

Two days before Christmas last year, a fire reached our heritage-protected bush property in the Adelaide Hills, and destroyed our neighbour’s house. For the next two weeks we were on constant alert to keep the fire in check.

Green shoots of grass trees after bushfire
Grass trees are some of the first plants to regrow after a bushfire.
Wikimedia, CC BY

A few weeks later, I flew over fire-affected areas in the Adelaide Hills and had my first aerial view of the devastation. Fighting fires around my home, and what I saw on this flight, convinced me to get involved with helping recovery in the aftermath of the fires.

In the past year, I’ve taken high-resolution aerial data to monitor the recovery of fire-affected areas and help with post-fire efforts. This work includes clearing access tracks into burnt forests, locating unburnt areas within burnt forests to serve as refuges for wildlife, or simply documenting the degree of destruction.

I now have a unique dataset – a combination of very high-resolution and detail from three sensors: aerial photography, airborne Lidar (a way to measure distances with laser light) and hyperspectral imaging (looking at the landscape and vegetation with hundreds of narrow wavelengths).

Flying at just 250 metres above the ground, it’s possible to generate complete three-dimensional views and animations of the landscape and its features at resolutions in the 10cm-range.

Usually such airborne data is only available to government agencies, industry and sometimes researchers, but rarely to the general public. So we decided to make the data publicly available, so anyone can download it. It will help you appreciate the level of destruction, and how it varied for different landscapes.

My property, for example, is showing strong regrowth, but most of our neighbour’s block burnt so intensely that even now, after nearly one year, there’s very little regrowth even in terms of ground cover.

Here are a few examples of the landscape’s recovery around Kangaroo Island, generated from our data.



Bushfires decimated almost half of Kangaroo Island. The image sequence above shows a small area on Kangaroo Island before the fires and about one, three and nine months afterwards.

Before the fires, the landscape was dominated by dense bushland, which the fires nearly completely destroyed. The first signs of regrowth were visible after three months, and even more so after nine months.

The imagery is so detailed you can inspect the regrowth even for individual trees and scrubs. And in the slider below, you can more clearly compare how well the bushland regrew between February and October this year.

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Much of Australia’s native flora have evolved to cope with fire. Grass trees are among the first species to recover, and the Lidar data below demonstrates just how dramatic this recovery is.

Thousands of grass trees (“yuccas”) on Kangaroo Island grew up to seven metre-high flowers in the months after the fires. This is a typical phenomenon for this species after fire, and we were lucky enough to see this first hand on our bushland property, too.


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The video below shows the regrowth in and around a tree plantation on Kangaroo Island, directly after the fires and then after nine months. You can clearly see the intense regrowth on the ground and near the bottom of the burnt trees.

Usually firegrounds are observed via satellite imagery, imagery captured from high-flying survey aircraft and, more recently, using unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). None of these observations can map the landscape at the exceptionally high detail over large areas and with the combination of sensors as we have flown.

High-resolution aerial photographs at pixel sizes as small as five centimetres can be put together in a mosaic, covering many square kilometres. Combined with Lidar, and the hyperspectral scanner, we get detailed animations, such as those in the video, which can zero in on various intricate aspects, such as vegetation health.



How these datasets can help bushfire recovery

With a some moderate funding, we can continue these regular mapping flights next year and beyond to learn how these areas develop. We can put this into context with other factors, such as burn severity, soil structure and vegetation type.

Such detailed datasets would assist researchers assessing flammability and fuel load (dried vegetation) which, in turn, would help prevent and even fight future fires.




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Flammability and fuel load, alongside the slope of the landscape, are key parameters in computer simulations of fire behaviour. High resolution datasets depicting landscapes before and after bushfire can verify the simulation results, and help to improve the performance of the models.

Our datasets can also be useful for people needing to access areas directly after the fires, such as identifying where burnt trees have fallen, or are just about to do so.

For our own bushland block in the Adelaide Hills, these detailed imagery and datasets means we can study the regrowth from the Cudlee Creek Fire almost a year ago, as well as from previous fires. For example, some areas were burnt in the 2015 Sampson Flat Fire and had already regrown over the four years — only to be burnt again.

Continuing such flights would require a comparatively low amount of funding. However, this is currently not available in the standard government grant system. You can download data from the mapping flights over Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island.




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The Conversation


Jorg Michael Hacker, Chief Scientist at Airborne Research Australia (ARA); and Professor, Flinders University

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

Marine protection falls short of the 2020 target to safeguard 10% of the world’s oceans. A UN treaty and lessons from Antarctica could help



John B. Weller, Author provided

Natasha Blaize Gardiner, University of Canterbury and Cassandra Brooks, University of Colorado Boulder

Two-thirds of the world’s oceans fall outside national jurisdictions – they belong to no one and everyone.

These international waters, known as the high seas, harbour a plethora of natural resources and millions of unique marine species.

But they are being damaged irretrievably. Research shows unsustainable fisheries are one of the greatest threats to marine biodiversity in the high seas.

According to a 2019 global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services, 66% of the world’s oceans are experiencing detrimental and increasing cumulative impacts from human activities.

In the high seas, human activities are regulated by a patchwork of international legal agreements under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But this piecemeal approach is failing to safeguard the ecosystems we depend on.




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Empty pledges

A decade ago, world leaders updated an earlier pledge to establish a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) with a mandate to protect 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020.

But MPAs cover only 7.66% of the ocean across the globe. Most protected sites are in national waters where it’s easy to implement and manage protection under the provision of a single country.

In the more remote areas of the high seas, only 1.18% of marine ecosystems have been gifted sanctuary.

The Southern Ocean accounts for a large portion of this meagre percentage, hosting two MPAs. The South Orkney Islands southern shelf MPA covers 94,000 square kilometres, while the Ross Sea region MPA stretches across more than 2 million square kilometres, making it the largest in the world.

Weddell seal pup and mother
Currently, the world’s largest marine protected area is in the Ross Sea region off Antarctica.
Natasha Gardiner, CC BY-ND

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is responsible for this achievement. Unlike other international fisheries management bodies, the commission’s legal convention allows for the closing of marine areas for conservation purposes.

A comparable mandate for MPAs in other areas of the high seas has been nowhere in sight — until now.




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A new ocean treaty

In 2017, the UN started negotiations towards a new comprehensive international treaty for the high seas. The treaty aims to improve the conservation and sustainable use of marine organisms in areas beyond national jurisdiction. It would also implement a global legal mechanism to establish MPAs in international waters.

This innovative international agreement provides an opportunity to work across institutional boundaries towards comprehensive high seas governance and protection. It is crucial to use lessons drawn from existing high seas marine protection initiatives, such as those in the Southern Ocean, to inform the treaty’s development.

The final round of treaty negotiations is pending, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and significant detail within the treaty’s draft text remains undeveloped and open for further debate.

Lessons from Southern Ocean management

CCAMLR comprises 26 member states (including the European Union) and meets annually to make conservation-based decisions by unanimous consensus. In 2002, the commission committed to establishing a representative network of MPAs in Antarctica in alignment with globally agreed targets for the world’s oceans.

The two established MPAs in the high seas are far from an ecologically representative network of protection. In October 2020, the commission continued negotiations for three additional MPAs, which would meet the 10% target for the Southern Ocean, if agreed.

But not a single proposal was agreed. For one of the proposals, the East Antarctic MPA, this marks the eighth year of failed negotiations.

Fisheries interests from a select few nations, combined with complex geopolitics, are thwarting progress towards marine protection in the Antarctic.

Map of marine protected areas around Antarctica.
CCAMLR’s two established MPAs (in grey) are the South Orkney Islands southern shelf MPA and the Ross Sea region MPA. Three proposed MPAs (hashed) include the East Antarctic, Domain 1 and Weddell Sea proposals.
C. Brooks, CC BY-ND

CCAMLR’s progress towards its commitment for a representative MPA network may have ground to a halt, but the commission has gained invaluable knowledge about the challenges in establishing MPAs in international waters. CCAMLR has demonstrated that with an effective convention and legal framework, MPAs in the high seas are possible.

The commission understands the extent to which robust scientific information must inform MPA proposals and how to navigate inevitable trade-offs between conservation and economic interests. Such knowledge is important for the UN treaty process.




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As the high seas treaty moves closer to adoption, it stands to outpace the commission regarding progress towards improved marine conservation. Already, researchers have identified high-priority areas for protection in the high seas, including in Antarctica.

Many species cross the Southern Ocean boundary into other regions. This makes it even more important for CCAMLR to integrate its management across regional fisheries organisations – and the new treaty could facilitate this engagement.

But the window of time is closing with only one round of negotiation left for the UN treaty. Research tells us Antarctic decision-makers need to use the opportunity to ensure the treaty supports marine protection commitments.

Stronger Antarctic leadership is urgently needed to safeguard the Southern Ocean — and beyond.The Conversation

Natasha Blaize Gardiner, PhD Candidate, University of Canterbury and Cassandra Brooks, Assistant Professor Environmental Studies, University of Colorado Boulder

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

After Biden’s win, Australia needs to step up and recommit to this vital UN climate change fund


Jonathan Pickering, University of Canberra

Now Joe Biden is on track to be the next US president, there has been plenty of speculation about what this means for Australia’s policies on climate change.

Biden promises to achieve a 100% clean energy economy and reach net-zero emissions in the US no later than 2050. This puts Australia — which is ranked among the worst of the G20 members on climate policies — under pressure to revisit its paltry greenhouse gas emissions targets for 2030 and to commit to reaching net-zero by 2050 as well.




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But emissions targets are only part of the story. Another important area where the US election could make a difference involves climate finance: when rich countries like Australia channel money to help low-income countries deal with climate change and cut their emissions.

Biden’s win could be the perfect opportunity for Australia to save face and rejoin the UN Green Climate Fund, the main multilateral vehicle for deploying climate finance.

Australia’s initial commitment to the Green Climate Fund

Under the Paris Agreement, developed countries, including Australia, have committed to mobilise US$100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020.

Of this, US$20 billion has been formally pledged to the UN Green Climate Fund. The rest of what countries have committed so far is spread across a range of bilateral partnerships (typically through aid programs), other multilateral channels such as the World Bank, and private investment.

In 2014 Obama committed US$3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, but only transferred the first US$1 billion before President Trump cancelled the remainder in 2017. Biden has pledged to fulfil Obama’s original commitment.

Australia, under the Abbott government, eventually decided to support the fund, initially contributing A$200 million in 2014 and co-chairing its board for much of its early stages.

Then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop meets with Vice-President Joe Biden at the White House.
The Abbott government joined the fund in 2014.
The Office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs

When the fund called for new commitments in 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced over talkback radio that Australia would not “tip money into that big climate fund”. Australia lost its board seat at the end of 2019.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne elaborated at the time:

it is our assessment that there are significant challenges with [the fund’s] governance and operational model which are impacting its effectiveness.

Australia steps back

Australia stood by — and even exceeded — its overall pledge to provide A$1 billion in climate finance over five years to 2020, but it opted to provide this assistance through other channels, mainly bilateral partnerships with governments in neighbouring countries, including A$300 million for the Pacific.




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Even so, Australia’s stepback from the fund was condemned by Pacific island countries, whose populations are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and who are strong supporters of the fund.

Former President of Kiribati Anote Tong commented on the decision in 2018:

I think we are coming to the stage where some countries don’t care what their reputation in the international arena is. It seems [Australia] is heading in that direction.

The cast has changed – will the script say the same?

Our 2017 research on Australia’s climate finance commitments found pressure from the US — not least during Obama’s visit to Australia in 2014 — and other countries ultimately served as a catalyst for Prime Minister Tony Abbott to overcome his reluctance to contribute.

Obama on climate change at the University of Queensland.

Subsequently, the Trump administration’s recalcitrance on climate change appears to have given the Morrison government cover to resist international pressure and pull out of it.

Now that the cast has changed again, can we expect Australia to rejoin the fund?

There are signs Morrison’s rhetoric on climate change has shifted compared to Abbott’s. But this hasn’t translated into a major policy shift, and he still faces intense pressure from the coalition’s right wing to do as little as possible.




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However, as one of the more moderate members of the Liberal Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne can be expected to appreciate the diplomatic value of recommitting to the Green Climate Fund.

After the government’s recent audit of multilateral organisations, Payne observed that mulilateralism through strong and transparent institutions “serves Australia’s interests”. Recommitting to the Green Climate Fund would be consistent with this message.

Global momentum on climate action

Two other key variables are how the fund and the broader global context have evolved.

In 2014, the fund hadn’t yet delivered any money to developing countries. Since then, work on the ground has got underway, but the fund has faced criticism around its governance and slow disbursement.

Progress has been hampered by recurring disagreements between board members from developed and developing countries over the direction of the fund.

While on the fund’s board, Australia was a persistent advocate for robust decision-making processes. But it won’t be in a position to shape the fund’s governance for the better unless it recommits.




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In any case, a number of contributing countries, such as France, Germany, Norway and the UK, have doubled their previous commitments.

This is a vote of confidence in the fund’s capacity to deliver results and leverage private resources more efficiently than dozens of bilateral funding channels.

And it shows how pressure on Australia from Biden will be backed up by the global momentum for climate action, which has built up since the Obama administration.

The COVID-19 wild card

While Australia has pledged a further A$500 million for the Pacific from 2020 onwards, its overall A$1 billion commitment, which extends across the Indo-Pacific and beyond, expires this year. Many countries are also due to update their emissions targets under the Paris Agreement ahead of a major summit in 2021.

But COVID-19 is a wild card. It has placed new demands on development assistance programs and national budgets in Australia and elsewhere.

Still, Australia has fared much better in the pandemic than many other countries so far, while also running an aid budget lower than many of its peers. This means Australia can hardly justify going slow on funding when climate change poses a growing threat.

Ramping up its overall commitment to climate finance — and renewing its support for the leading multilateral fund in this area — will be an important sign that Australia is ready to play its part.




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The Conversation


Jonathan Pickering, Assistant Professor, Canberra School of Politics, Economics and Society, University of Canberra

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

Prepare for hotter days, says the State of the Climate 2020 report for Australia



Shutterstock/wilsmedia

Michael Grose, CSIRO and Lynette Bettio, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

The Australian State of the Climate 2020 report reveals a picture of long-term climate trends and climate variability.

The biennial climate snapshot draws on the latest observations and climate research from the marine, atmospheric and terrestrial monitoring programs at CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology.

We are all still dealing with the lasting impacts of Australia’s hottest and driest year on record in 2019. It was a year of intensifying drought over eastern Australia, high temperature records and the devastating bushfires of summer 20192020.

State of the Climate 2020 puts all these events into the longer-term context of climate change trends and key climate drivers.

Australia’s hottest year on record

Using the best available data, the Bureau of Meteorology estimates Australia has warmed on average by 1.44℃ (±0.24℃) between 1910 and 2019.




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Global rates of warming are lower due to the inclusion of the oceans in the global average, with the oceans experiencing a relatively slower rate of warming than continental areas.

The long-term warming trend increases the likelihood of extreme events beyond our historical experience. In 2019, natural climate phenomena that drive our weather, including a strong Indian Ocean Dipole and a negative Southern Annular Mode, added to the local warming trend, setting a record for the Australian average annual temperature.

This annual temperature for Australia is similar to what we might expect in an average year if the world reaches the +1.5℃ warming since pre-industrial times.

The long-term warming trend is also increasing the frequency of extreme warm days. We have seen a rise in the number of days when the Australian average temperature is within the top 1% ever recorded.

A graph showing rising mean temperatures for Australia
Extreme daily mean temperatures are the warmest 1% of days for each month, calculated for the period from 1910 to 2019.
CSIRO/BoM, Author provided

The long-term temperature trend is also lowering the frequency of cooler years. The annual mean temperatures of Australia in the seven years from 2013 to 2019 all rank in the nine warmest years since national records began in 1910.

Barring unpredictable events such as major volcanic eruptions, projections show Australia’s average temperature of 2020-2040 is very likely to be warmer than the average in 2000-2020, as the climate system continues to warm in response to greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere.

What’s driving our changing climate?

Australia’s Cape Grim atmosphere monitoring station, in north-west Tasmania, is one of several critical global observing sites for detecting changes in the gas concentrations that make up our atmosphere.

An aerial view of the testing station at Cape Grim, Tasmania.
The Bureau and CSIRO’s atmospheric monitoring station at Cape Grim, Tasmania.
CSIRO, Author provided

The increase in greenhouse gas concentrations has been the predominant cause of global climate warming over the last 70 years.

In 2019 the global average CO₂ concentration reached 410ppm, while all greenhouse gases combined reached 508ppm CO₂-equivalent, levels not seen for at least 2 million years.

Emissions of CO₂ from burning fossil fuels are the major source of the increase, followed by emissions from changes to land use. While the ocean and land have absorbed more than half the extra CO₂ emitted, the rest remains in the atmosphere.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced fossil fuel CO₂ emissions in many countries, including Australia.

Over the first three months of 2020, global CO₂ emissions declined by 8% compared to the same three months in 2019. But CO₂ is still increasing in the atmosphere.

Recent reductions in emissions due to COVID-19 have only marginally slowed the current rate of CO₂ accumulation in the atmosphere, and are barely distinguishable from natural variability in the records at sites such as Cape Grim.

Oceans warming and sea levels rising

Similar to surface temperatures over the continents, the State of the Climate report says sea surface temperatures are showing a warming trend that is contributing to an increase in marine heatwaves and the risk of coral bleaching.

State of the Climate 2020 report cover.

CSRIO/BoM, Author provided

Important changes are also happening below the ocean’s surface. The global oceans have a much higher heat capacity than either the land surface or atmosphere. This means they can absorb much more of the additional energy from the enhanced greenhouse effect, while warming at a relatively slower rate.

Currently, the oceans are absorbing around 90% of the excess energy in the Earth system associated with increasing greenhouse gases. The related increase in total heat content provides another important way to monitor long-term global warming.

Warmer temperatures cause the water in our global oceans to expand. This expansion, combined with the additional water from melting ice sheets and glaciers, is causing sea levels to rise.

Total global average sea level has now risen around 25cm since 1880, with half of this rise occurring since 1970. The rate of sea level rise varies around Australia, with larger increases observed in the north and the southeast.

A map of Australia showing areas where sea level is rising.
The rate of sea level rise around Australia measured using satellite data, from 1993 to 2019.
CSIRO/BoM, Author provided

The oceans are also acidifying due to changes in the chemistry of seawater, related to excess CO₂. The effect of this pH change is detectable in areas such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Southern Ocean.

The wetter and drier parts of Australia

The State of the Climate report shows the trend in recent decades has been for less rainfall over much of southern and eastern Australia, particularly in the cooler months of the year.

The longer-term drying trend is likely to continue, particularly in the southwest and southeast of the continent. Most areas of northern Australia have had an increase in average rainfall since the 1970s.

Natural variability has always been, and will continue to be, part of Australia’s rainfall patterns.

A flooded road in the Northern Territory with a flood marker.
Floods are a regular hazard in Australia.
Greg Stonham/Shutterstock

Fire seasons: longer and more intense

The fires of 2019-20 are still very much on everyone’s minds, and the State of the Climate report puts the weather component of fire risk into a longer-term perspective.

Since the middle of last century there has been a significant increase in extreme fire weather days, and longer fire seasons across many parts of Australia, especially in southern Australia.

Map of Australia showing areas where there is a risk of increased fire days.
There has been an increase in the number of days with dangerous weather conditions for bushfires.
CSIRO/BoM, Author provided

The 2020 report highlights many recent changes in Australia’s climate. Most are expected to continue and include:

  • warmer air and sea temperatures
  • increased numbers of very hot days
  • ongoing sea level rise
  • more periods of dangerous fire weather
  • longer and warmer marine heatwaves.

When these extremes occur consecutively within a short timeframe of each other, or when multiple types of extreme events coincide, the impacts can compound in severity.




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Understanding these climate risks and how they might affect us will help to ensure the future well-being of our Australian communities, ecosystems and economy.

Hotter, wetter, drier and more bushfires.

State of the Climate 2020 can be read on either the Bureau of Meteorology or CSIRO websites. The online report includes an extensive list of references and useful links.The Conversation

Michael Grose, Climate Projections Scientist, CSIRO and Lynette Bettio, Senior Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

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

3 billion animals were in the bushfires’ path. Here’s what the royal commission said (and should’ve said) about them


Ashleigh Best, University of Melbourne; Christine Parker, University of Melbourne, and Lee Godden, University of Melbourne

The Black Summer bushfires were devastating for wildlife, with an estimated three billion wild animals killed, injured or displaced. This staggering figure does not include the tens of thousands of farm animals who also perished.

The bushfire royal commission’s final report, released on October 30, recognised the gravity of the fires’ extraordinary toll on animals.




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It recommended governments improve wildlife rescue arrangements, develop better systems for understanding biodiversity and clarify evacuation options for domestic animals.

While these changes are welcome and necessary, they’re not sufficient. Minimising such catastrophic impacts on wildlife and livestock also means reducing their exposure to these hazards in the first place. And unless we develop more proactive strategies to protect threatened species from disasters, they’ll only become more imperilled.

What the royal commission recommended

The royal commission recognised the need for wildlife rescuers to have swift and safe access to fire grounds.

In the immediate aftermath of the bushfires, some emergency services personnel were confused about the roles and responsibilities of wildlife rescuers. This caused delays in rescue operations.

To address this issue, the royal commission sensibly suggested all state and territory governments integrate wildlife rescue functions into their general disaster planning frameworks. This would improve coordination between different response agencies.




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Another issue raised by the commission was that Australia does not have a comprehensive, central source of information about its native flora and fauna. This is, in part, because species listing processes are fragmented across different jurisdictions.

For example, a marsupial, the white-footed dunnart, is listed as vulnerable in NSW, but is not on the federal government’s list of threatened species.

To better manage and protect wild animals, governments need more complete information on, for example, their range and population, and how climate change threatens them.

As a result, the royal commission recommended governments collect and share more accurate information so disaster response and recovery efforts for wildlife could be more targeted, timely and effective.

A wildlife rescuer holds a koala with burnt feet in a burnt forest
Adelaide wildlife rescuer Simon Adamczyk takes a koala to safety on Kangaroo Island.
AAP Image/David Mariuz

Helping animals help themselves

While promising, the measures listed in the royal commission’s final report will only tweak a management system for wildlife already under stress. Current legal frameworks for protecting threatened species are reactive. By the time governments intervene, species have often already reached a turning point.

Governments must act to allow wild animals the best possible chances of escaping and recovering on their own.

This means prioritising the protection and restoration of habitat that allows animals to get to safety. As a World Wildlife Fund report explains, an animal’s ability to flee the fires and find safe, unburnt habitat — such as mesic (moist) refuges in gullies or near waterways — directly influenced their chances of survival.




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Wildlife corridors also assist wild animals to survive and recover from disasters. These connect areas of habitat, providing fast moving species with safe routes along which they can flee from hazards.

And these corridors help slow moving species, such as koalas, to move across affected landscapes after fires. This prevents them from becoming isolated, and enables access to food and water.

Hazard reduction activities, such as removing dry vegetation that fuels fires, were also a focus for the royal commission. These can coexist with habitat conservation when undertaken in ecologically-sensitive ways.

As the commission recognised, Indigenous land and fire management practices are informed by intimate knowledge of plants, animals and landscapes. These practices should be integrated into habitat protection policies in consultation with First Nations land managers.

The commission also suggested natural hazards, such as fire, be counted as a “key threatening process” under national environment law. But it should be further amended to protect vulnerable species under threat from future stressors, such as disasters.




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Governments also need to provide more funding to monitor compliance with this law. Another new World Wildlife Fund report warns that unless it is properly enforced, a further 37 million native animals could be displaced or killed as a result of habitat destruction this decade.

And, as we saw last summer, single bushfire events can push some populations much closer to extinction. For example, the fires destroyed a large portion of the already endangered glossy black-cockatoo’s remaining habitat.

What about pets and farm animals?

Pets and farm animals featured in the commission’s recommendations too.

During the bushfires, certain evacuation centres didn’t cater for these animals. This meant some evacuees chose not to use these facilities because they couldn’t take their animals with them.

To guide the community in future disasters, the commission said plans should clearly identify whether or not evacuation centres can accommodate people with animals.




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Evacuation planning is crucial to effective disaster response. However, it is unfortunately not always feasible to move large groups of livestock off properties at short notice.

For this reason, governments should help landholders to mitigate the risks hazards pose to their herds and flocks. Researchers are already starting to do this by investigating the parts of properties that were burnt during the bushfires. This will help farmers identify the safest paddocks for their animals in future fire seasons.

Disasters are only expected to become more intense and extreme as the climate changes. And if we’re to give our pets, livestock and unique wildlife the best chance at surviving, it’s not enough only to have sound disaster response. Governments must preemptively address the underlying sources of animals’ vulnerability to hazards.




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The Conversation


Ashleigh Best, PhD Candidate and Teaching Fellow, University of Melbourne; Christine Parker, Professor of Law, University of Melbourne, and Lee Godden, Director, Centre for Resources, Energy and Environmental Law, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne

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

How much the budget undervalued conservation: 16 World Heritage sites received less than Sydney Harbour



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

The proportion of Earth’s surface designated as “protected” has expanded over the past decade. But new findings show these areas have failed to improve the state of the environment, casting doubt on government commitments to biodiversity conservation.

Our global research published in Nature yesterday found between 2010 and 2019, protected areas expanded from covering 14.1% to 15.3% of global land and freshwater environments (excluding Antarctica), and from 2.9% to 7.5% of marine environments.




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However, 78% of known threatened species and more than half of all ecoregions on land and sea remain without adequate protection. In Australia, we found nearly half of land-based ecoregions and threatened species have inadequate protections.

“Adequate” protection is different for individual species, but typically requires 10-100% of a species’ geographic range to be under some form of protection.

The Coalition government’s federal budget allocated A$233.4 million to six Commonwealth-run national parks — but most will be spent on tourism infrastructure upgrades. What’s needed is more staff and equipment to restore, enrich and maintain natural ecosystems, and to secure our most iconic natural places.

The best and worst performing countries

Our global assessment examined how nations are tracking a decade after committing to UN targets for area-based conservation: at least 17% of land and 10% of ocean must be protected by 2020.

Best-performing countries include Botswana, Hungary and Thailand. Botswana’s protected area estate adequately covers 86% of its ecoregions and 83% of its threatened species.

Chobe National Park in Botswana covers 1,170,000 hectares of savannah, woodland and marsh ecosystems. It was designated in 1968.
Sean Maxwell, Author provided

The worst performing countries — such as Indonesia, Canada and Madagascar — have a long way to go to meet these targets. For example, only 3% of Canada’s ocean waters are under formal protection.

But there are alarming and consistent problems with management. Globally, as much as 90% of marine protected areas have inadequate or below optimum on-site staff capacity. On land, some 47% of protected areas suffer from inadequate staff and budget resources. And the global budget shortfall for protected areas likely exceeds the multi-billion dollar mark.

Threatened species in Australia

Australia’s protected area estate is not immune to these management shortfalls. Between 1997 and 2014, there were more than 1,500 legal changes in Australia that eased restrictions, reduced boundaries or eliminated legal protections in protected areas.

Our research also showed less than 1% of the geographic ranges of the orange-bellied frog (Geocrinia vitellina), carpentarian dunnart (Sminthopsis butleri) and upriver orange mangrove (Bruguiera sexangula) — all threatened species — are protected.




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Many of Australia’s savanna ecoregions also have poor levels of protection, including the Mitchell grass downs (less than 3% of its range is protected), Brigalow tropical savanna (less than 5% protected) and southeast Australian temperate savannas (less than 4% protected).

But it’s not all bad news. We found around 36% of Australia’s oceans are protected and 76% of our marine ecoregions have adequate protection.

Protected areas cover 19% of Australia’s land and 36% of its oceans.
Sean Maxwell, Author provided

Previous studies also suggest protected areas governed by Indigenous Australians and local communities effectively reduce deforestation pressure and support similar numbers of species to those inside nationally designated protected areas.

How should funds be used?

Protecting our wild places will not come cheap. One estimate suggests an effective global land-based protected area network would cost US$76 billion annually.

This level of investment would ensure each protected area has sufficient staff, resources and equipment to conserve local species and ecosystems. The spending is justified, given the direct value generated by visits to protected areas around the world is valued at US$600 billion per year.




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In Australia, effective conservation typically requires mimicking land and sea use practices that were in place before Europeans arrived, which involves actively managing disturbances such as fire and invasive species.

Funds should also be used to track the biodiversity outcomes of protected areas to make sure they’re meeting their objectives.

Beyond budgets, national governments around the world must be more ambitious when negotiating the next round of international environmental targets, due in mid-2021. These negotiations will define national conservation agendas for the next decade.

Governments must adopt policies that make biodiversity conservation a greater part of broader land and sea management plans. They can, for example, embrace new models for land and sea stewardship that reward good behaviour by farmers, developers and miners.

Budget breakdown

In Australia, most national parks are funded and run by state governments. The federal government, through Parks Australia, is responsible for Kakadu, Uluru-Kata Tjuta, Christmas Island, Pulu Keeling, Booderee and Norfolk Island.

The Commonwealth also plays a key role in funding and managing Australia’s 16 natural World Heritage sites, including K’gari and the Ningaloo Coast.

Of the A$329.2 million allocated in the budget to protect iconic places, A$233.4 million (71%) is set aside for tourism infrastructure in non-World Heritage national parks in Australia.




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We calculate this provides about A$18,000 for every hectare of Booderee National Park and national parks on Christmas Island, Norfork Island and Pulu Keeling. Most of this will likely be spent on improving visitor amenities or ensuring nearby businesses can stay open, rather than directed to measures such as invasive species control or fire management.

Australia’s 16 natural World Heritage sites will receive just A$33.5 million — less than the $40.6 million promised to maintain and restore historical sites across Sydney Harbour.

Kakadu National Park
Australia’s 16 natural World Heritage sites will receive just A$33.5 million.
Shutterstock

A further $23.6 million was promised for compliance, enforcement and monitoring activities across Australia’s marine parks. Enforcing no-take marine protected areas improves species populations and biomass, but this funding boost is grossly inadequate. It equates to just 1 cent for every hectare of Commonwealth-run marine parks.

It’s hard to see how these measures will prevent further ecosystem degradation or species extinctions, when conservation of Australia’s biodiversity heavily relies on protected areas.




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In response to this article, a spokesperson for federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said investment in protecting national parks went beyond infrastructure spending, however infrastructure did assist people to “access parks in a responsible manner”.

Ley’s spokesperson said protecting biodiversity was “a core aspect of park operations” and included eradicating invasive species, and interaction with the National Environmental Science Program and the office of the threatened species commissioner.

In addition to national parks, Australia “also has the world’s largest network of Indigenous protected areas, which the government is already in the process of expanding,” the spokesperson said.The Conversation

Sean Maxwell, Research 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.

‘Backwards’ federal budget: Morrison government never fails to disappoint on climate action



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John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

When it comes to action on climate change, Tuesday’s federal budget delivered by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was a real – though not unexpected – disappointment which favoured polluting technologies over a clean energy future.

It included money to upgrade a coal-fired power station in New South Wales, and confirmed A$50 million previously announced to develop carbon capture and storage. The government will also spend A$52.9 million expanding Australia’s gas industry.

But investment in renewable energy was largely shunned. Notably, the government allocated just A$5 million for electric vehicles. It confirmed funding for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) for another decade, but the money is far less than what’s needed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen the Morrison government abandon long-held dogma on debt and deficits. However, the federal budget shows when it comes to climate and energy, the government is singing from the same old songbook.

Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg
On climate policy, the Morrison government is singing from the same old songbook.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

A techno-fix

The budget doubled down on the Morrison government’s rhetoric of “technology, not taxes”, by choosing preferred technologies for investment.

This “picking winners” approach would have some chance of addressing climate change if it were based on a comprehensive analysis of the best path to zero emissions. But instead, the government has largely made offerings at the altars of technologies worshipped by the conservative side of politics.

The government will spend an as-yet undisclosed sum, possibly A$11 million, to refurbish the Vales Point coal-fired power station. The commitment to this coal infrastructure, co-owned by prominent Liberal party donor Trevor St Baker, is a disgraceful misuse of public money. It will also do little to halt the steady decline of coal-fired power generation.




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As previously announced, the government will spend A$52.9 million to support the gas industry, which Frydenberg says will lower prices and support more manufacturing jobs. It includes money for gas infrastructure planning and to open up five gas basins, starting with Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory.

The budget confirms A$50 million for carbon capture and storage (CCS) to fund projects to cut emissions from industry. But proving the viability of large-scale CCS projects is extremely difficult, as experience in the United States and Canada has shown. In this context, allocating just A$50 million to get the technology off the ground is simply laughable.

History suggests the spending offers little return on investment. Research by the Australia Institute in 2017 revealed federal governments have spent A$1.3 billion in taxpayers’ money on CCS projects, with very little to show for it.

Vales Point coal plant
The budget contained spending to upgrade the Vales Point coal plant.
NSW Health/AAP

Renewables snubbed

Meanwhile, last night’s budget largely shunned investment in renewable energy.

The budget confirmed A$1.4 billion in ARENA funding for a further ten years, including a pretty paltry A$223.9 million over the next four years. Separately, the government will also seek to pass legislation to change ARENA’s investment mandate, enabling it to fund gas and carbon capture projects.

The government has allocated a tiny A$5 million towards electric vehicle development, including money towards a manufacturing facility in South Australia. It’s good to see electric vehicles on the government’s radar. But the commitment is dwarfed by investment overseas, including a reported US$300 billion set aside by global car makers over the next decade to bring electric vehicles to mass production.




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The measly spending on clean energy technology does not make economic sense. The renewable energy sector is standing by to slash emissions and deliver lower energy prices – if only the right policy environment existed.

The budget was also an opportunity for the government to ditch its irrational opposition to carbon pricing. Recent research has comprehensively shown carbon pricing slows growth in greenhouse gas emissions.

Vehement carbon pricing critics, such as conservatives Tony Abbott, Craig Kelly and Barnaby Joyce, are now either discredited or out of parliament altogether. And scores of countries around the world have implemented some form of price on carbon.

A global outlier

Most obviously, the budget was an opportunity to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050, as many developed countries have done.

The Morrison government has already used dodgy accounting tricks to meet Australia’s Paris Agreement commitment – reducing emissions by 26% on 2005 levels. The absence of a net-zero target suggests the government intends to allow emissions to grow indefinitely after 2030.

This approach is out of step with many of Australia’s international peers. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, now the clear favourite to win the US election in November, is campaigning on what has been described as “the most aggressive climate platform” ever put forward by a presidential nominee.




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Biden wants the US to produce net-zero emissions by 2050. His US$2 trillion plan includes huge investments in clean energy research and development, and low-emissions infrastructure such as public transport and energy-efficient buildings. He has also promised a border tax levied on imports from countries without a carbon price.

Europe is well on the way to phasing out coal, and forging ahead with new carbon-free technologies to produce steel, cement and ammonia. The European Union has also said any free trade deal with Australia is contingent on our commitment to deep emissions abatement.

And in China, President Xi Jinping recently announced his nation will reach net-zero emissions by 2060.

Joe Biden
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has an ambitious climate agenda.
Patrick Semansky/AP

We have no choice

The budget was a chance to reset Australia’s failed climate policy – an opportunity enhanced by the stimulus spending brought on by COVID-19.

Instead, we got a string of backward-looking gestures including subsidies for coal, another go at the failed technology of carbon capture storage and a continued push for gas.

Sooner or later, Australia will have to join the rest of the world in ending our reliance on carbon-based energy. The catastrophic bushfires of last summer proved this. And if we refuse to move, the rest of the world will force our hand.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

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

Need a mood lift? We’ve tracked 4 ways Australia’s environment has repaired itself in 2020



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Albert Van Dijk, Australian National University

When the clock ticked over to 2020, Australia was in the grip of a brutal drought and unprecedented bushfires. But in the months since, while many of us were indoors avoiding the pandemic, nature has started its slow recovery. That is the message of our new analysis released today.

Every year, my colleagues and I collate a vast number of measurements made by satellites, field sensors and people. We process the data and combine them into a consistent picture of the state of our environment.

Our 2019 report documented a disaster year of record heat, drought, and bushfires. We repeated the analysis after the first half of 2020, keen to see how our environment was recovering.

It’s not all good news. But encouragingly, our results show most of the country has started to bounce back from drought and fire. Here are four ways that’s happening.

1. Rain

Whether a region is in drought depends on the measure used: rainfall, river flows, reservoir storage, soil water availability or cropping conditions. On top of that, Australia is a vast country with large differences between regions.

By most measures, and for most of the country, wetter weather in 2020 helped ease drought conditions – although with caveats and notable exceptions.

Halfway through January, rain-blocking conditions in the Indian Ocean finally relented. This allowed the long-awaited monsoon to reach northern Australia, and encouraged more rainfall across the rest of the continent. February and March brought much needed rains in southeast Australia.

A young girl checks a rain gauge
A young girl checks a rain gauge as her mum watches on at the family farm in February this year. Recent rainfall has eased drought conditions in parts of Australia.
Peter Lorimer/AAP

2. Water availability

Across the continent, the volume of water flowing into rivers in the first half of 2020 was almost four times greater than the previous year – although still below average. Good rains fell in the northern Murray-Darling Basin. Some made it into the town and irrigation water supplies that ran empty during the drought, and storage levels showed a modest improvement by the end of June to 17% of capacity.

The flows were also enough to fill wetlands such as Narran Lakes and the Paroo and Bulloo River wetlands, west of Bourke. There were enough flood waters left to send a modest flood pulse down the Darling River in March for the first time since 2016.

Maximum measured daily flow in the Darling River at Wilcannia (left) and the maximum extent of wetland inundation in the 12 months up to June 2020, compared to the period 2000–2019.

Reservoir water storage across the entire the Murray-Darling Basin improved from 36% of capacity at the end of June 2019 to 44% a year later. Even so, by June 2020 dry conditions still persisted in the tributaries and wetlands of the middle and southern Murray-Darling Basin.

Storage in urban water supply systems increased for Sydney (52% to 81%) and Melbourne (50% to 64%) while remaining stable for Brisbane (66%), Canberra (55%) and Perth (41%).

Meanwhile, lake and wetland extent across much of Western Australia remained at record or near-record low levels. Due to the poor northern monsoon, Lake Argyle – the massive dam lake supplying the Ord irrigation scheme in northern Australia – shrank to 38% of capacity, a level not seen for several decades.




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3. Soil moisture

Soil moisture acts like a bank account: rainfall makes deposits and plant roots make withdrawals. This makes soil moisture a useful measure of drought condition.

Average soil water availability across the country was far below average at the start of 2020, but returned closer to average conditions from March 2020 onwards. Very to extremely low soil water availability across most of northwest and southeast Australia had eased by June 2020.

By the end of June, rains had also improved growing conditions in southeast Queensland, western New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. However, recovery in these regions is, literally, shallow. Soil water remains low in the deeper soil layers and groundwater from which trees and other drought-tolerant vegetation draw their water. Drought conditions also persist in the dry inland of Australia.

Average soil water availability and vegetation condition by local government area at the end of June 2020 in comparison to 2000−2019 conditions.

4. Vegetation growth

Vegetation condition is measured by estimating leaf area from satellite observations. National leaf area reached its lowest value in December 2019 due to drought and bushfires, but improved once the rains returned from February onwards. It’s remained very close to average since.

Autumn rains also brought the best growth conditions in many years across much of the eastern wheat and sheep belt. But in the Western Australian wheat belt, which did not see much rain, cropping conditions are average or below average.

We separately measured vegetation recovery across areas in southeast Australia burnt at different times during the 2019-20 fire season.

In the central and northern NSW regions which burnt earlier in the fire season and received plentiful rains, recovery was relatively swift – more than 63% of lost leaf area had returned by June 2020.

Recovery of vegetation leaf area in areas burnt in Sept/Oct and Nov/Dec 2019 and in Jan/Feb 2020, respectively.

But in the areas burnt in early 2020, recovery has been slow. The burnt forests in the far south of NSW and East Gippsland did not receive good rains until very recently. Also, much of areas burnt in early 2020 are found in the mountains of the NSW-Victoria border region, where cool autumn and winter temperatures have paused plant growth until spring.

Leaf area recovery is not a good measure of biodiversity. Much of the increase will have been due to rapid leaf flush from fire tolerant trees and undergrowth, including weeds. Some damage to ecosystems and sensitive species will take many years to recover, while some species may well be lost forever.

Blackened tree trunks and shoots of green
Australia’s environment is bouncing back from a horrendous 2019.
Marta Yebra/ANU

Climate change: the biggest threat

Rainfall after June has been average to good across much of Australia, and La Niña conditions are predicted to bring further rain. So there is reason to hope our environment will get a chance to recover further from a horrendous 2019.

In the long term, climate change remains the greatest risk to our agriculture and ecosystems. Ever-increasing summer temperatures kill people, livestock and wildlife, dry out soil and vegetation, and increase fire risk. In 2020, high temperatures also caused the third mass coral bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef in five years.

Decisive climate action is needed, in Australia and worldwide, if we’re to protect ourselves and our ecosystems from long-term decline.




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The Conversation


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.

From Kangaroo Island to Mallacoota, citizen scientists proved vital to Australia’s bushfire recovery


Alan Finkel, Office of the Chief Scientist and Erin Roger, CSIRO

Following the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, many people throughout Australia, and across the world, wanted to know how they could help in response to the environmental disaster.

Hundreds contacted the Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA), Australia’s peak citizen science body, for guidance on how to participate in relevant scientific projects.

It was a golden opportunity to show that science can be, and is, done by all kinds of people – not just those working in labs with years of training and access to high-powered instruments. A scientist can be you, your children or your parents.

And this recognition led to the establishment of the Citizen Science Bushfire Project Finder, a key outcome from the bushfire science roundtable, which was convened in January by Federal Science Minister Karen Andrews.

To establish the project finder database, ACSA partnered with the CSIRO and the Atlas of Living Australia to assist the search for vetted projects that could contribute to our understanding of post-bushfire recovery.

Five months on, the value is evident.

Science as a way of thinking

In response to the bushfires, one citizen science project set up was the Kangaroo Island Dunnart Survey. A record number of citizen scientists answered the call to assist in recovery efforts for this small marsupial.

The Kangaroo Island dunnart was already listed as endangered before the fires, with population estimates between 300-500 individuals. And initial post-fire assessments indicated a significant further decline in its population, highlighting the importance of tracking the species’ recovery.

Meanwhile, nearly 1,500 kilometres away from Kangaroo Island, a local resident set up “Mallacoota After Fires” in the small community of Mallacoota, Victoria – a region hit hard by the bushfires.

This has enabled the community to record and validate (via an app and website) how the fires impacted the region’s plants and animals.

So far, the project has documented the existence of a range of flora and fauna, from common wombats to the vulnerable green and golden bell frog. It has also captured some amazing images of bush regeneration after fire.

Science does not just belong to professionals. As eminent US astronomer Carl Sagan noted, “science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge”.

This suggests that, when properly enabled, anyone can actively participate. And the output goes beyond the rewards of personal involvement. It contributes to better science.




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The need for ongoing engagement

Citizen science is significantly contributing observations and expertise to bushfire research. Across southeast New South Wales and the ACT, several hundred citizen scientists have:

  • conducted targeted landscape-wide surveys of threatened species, or new weed or pest incursions
  • collected specified data from plot locations stratified against fire history
  • assessed whether wildlife actually use water and feed stations established by communities after a fire has been through. (Data suggests the use of the stations is limited).

And it’s not just in local communities. Platforms such as DigiVol have enabled citizen scientists from around the world to review thousands of camera trap images deployed post-fire to monitor species survival and recovery.

Still, there is much more to do. Australia is a vast continent and as we saw last summer, the fire footprint is immense.

But there is also a huge community out there that can help support the implementation of science and technology, as we adapt to our changing climate.

Reaching out at the right time

In January, Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked the CSIRO, supported by an expert advisory panel chaired by one of us (Alan Finkel), to develop recommendations for practical measures that would increase Australia’s disaster and climate resilience.

The report on Climate and Disaster Resilience gives due emphasis to the importance of citizen science in complementing traditional research-led monitoring campaigns and sharing locally specific advice. One component of the response also brought together national stakeholders, to develop a series of more detailed recommendations regarding the critical role of citizen science.

Citizen scientists can be involved in important data collection and knowledge building. They can collaborate with disaster response agencies and research agencies, to develop additional science-based community education and training programs.

Also, citizen science is a way to collect distributed data beyond the affordability and resources of conventional science.

With that in mind, the task now is to better marry the “professional” scientific effort with the citizen science effort, to truly harness the potential of citizen science. In doing so, we can ensure environmental and societal approaches to disaster recovery represent a diversity of voices.

The role of the community, particularly in developing resilience against environmental disaster, can be a most useful mechanism for empowering people who may otherwise feel at a loss from the impact of disaster. Furthermore, by working with communities directly affected by bushfires, we can help measure the extent of the impact.

We call on our professional scientist colleagues to actively collaborate with citizen science groups. In doing so, we can identify priority areas with critical data needs, while also informing, enriching and engaging with diverse communities in science.

Equally, we encourage citizen scientists to share and tell their stories across social and political settings to demonstrate the impact they continue to have.

The beneficiary will be science.




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The Conversation


Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Office of the Chief Scientist and Erin Roger, Citizen Science Program Lead, CSIRO

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