Climate change is bringing a new world of bushfires


Dale Dominey-Howes, University of Sydney

Spring has barely arrived, and bushfires are burning across Australia’s eastern seaboard. More than 50 fires are currently burning in New South Wales, and some 15,000 hectares have burned in Queensland since late last week.

It’s the first time Australia has seen such strong fires this early in the bushfire season. While fire is a normal part of Australia’s yearly cycle and no two years are alike, what we are seeing now is absolutely not business as usual.




Read more:
Grim fire season looms but many Australians remain unprepared


And although these bushfires are not directly attributable to climate change, our rapidly warming climate, driven by human activities, is exacerbating every risk factor for more frequent and intense bushfires.

The basics of a bushfire

For some bushfire 101, a bushfire is “an uncontrolled, non-structural fire burning in grass, scrub, bush or forest”. This means the fire is in vegetation, not a building (non-structural), and raging across the landscape – hence, uncontrolled.

For a bushfire to get started, several things need to come together. You need fuel, low humidity (which also often means the fuel itself has a low moisture content and is easier to burn), and oxygen. It also helps to have an unusually high ambient temperature and winds to drive the fire forward.

In Australia, we divide bushfires into two types based on the shape and elevation of the landscape.

First are flat grassland bushfires. These are generally fast-moving, fanned by winds blowing across flattish open landscapes, and burn through an area in 5–10 seconds and may smoulder for a few minutes. They usually have low to medium intensity and can damage to crops, livestock and buildings. These fires are easy to map and fight due to relatively straightforward access.




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Second are hilly or mountainous bushfires. These fires are slower-moving but much more intense, with higher temperatures. As they usually occur in forested, mountainous areas, they also have more dead vegetation to burn and are harder to access and fight.

They burn slowly, passing through an area in 2-5 minutes and can smoulder for days. Fires in upper tree canopies move very fast. Mountainous bushfires actually speed up as they burn up a slope (since they heat and dry out the vegetation and atmosphere in front of the fire, causing a runaway process of accelerating fire movement).

Climate change and bushfire risk

To be clear, as previously reported, the current bushfires are not specifically triggered by climate change.

However, as bushfire risk is highest in warm to hot, dry conditions with low humidity, low soil and fuel load moisture (and are usually worse during El Niño situations) – all factors that climate change in Australia affects – climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and intense bushfires.

Widespread drought conditions, very low humidity, higher than average temperatures in many places, and strong westerly winds driven by a negative Southern Annular Mode (all made worse by human-induced climate change) have collided right now over large areas of the eastern seaboard, triggering extremely unusual bushfire conditions – certainly catching many communities unawares before the start of the official bushfire season.




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Different regions of Australia have traditionally experienced peak bushfire weather at different times. This has meant that individual households, communities and the emergency services have had specific periods of the year to prepare. These patterns now seem to be breaking down, and bushfires are happening outside these regular places and times.

Map of bushfire seasons.
Bureau of Meteorology

New challenges for the emergency services

While experts recently forecast a worse-than-average coming bushfire season, the current emergency has essentially exploded out of nowhere.

Many Australian communities do know how to prepare but there is always some apathy at the start of bushfire season around getting households and communities bushfire-ready. When it’s still relatively cold and feeling like the last whisps of winter are still affecting us, bushfire preparation seems very far off.

Compounding our worsening bushfire conditions, we are increasingly building in bushfire-prone areas, exposing people and homes to fire. This tips the scales of risk further in favour of catastrophic losses. Sadly too, these risks always disproportionately affect the most vulnerable.




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With such extensive fires over wide areas, the current emergency points to an extremely frightening future possibility: that emergency services become more and more stretched, responding to fires, floods, storms, tropic cyclones and a myriad other natural hazards earlier in each hazard season, increasingly overlapping.

Our emergency services do an amazing job but their resources and the energy of their staff and volunteers can only go so far.

Regularly the emergency services of one area or state are deployed to other areas to help respond to emergencies.

But inevitably, we will see large-scale disasters occurring simultaneously in multiple territories, making it impossible to share resources. Our emergency management workforce report they are already stressed and overworked, and losing the capacity to share resources will only exacerbate this.

Immediate challenges will be to continue funding emergency management agencies across the nation, ensuring the workforce has the necessary training and experience to plan and respond to a range of complex emergencies, and making sure local communities are involved in actively planning for emergencies.The Conversation

Dale Dominey-Howes, Professor of Hazards and Disaster Risk Sciences, University of Sydney

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

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The Great Barrier Reef outlook is ‘very poor’. We have one last chance to save it



Tourists snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, the outlook for which has been officially rated “very poor”.
AAP

Terry Hughes, James Cook University

It’s official. The outlook for the Great Barrier Reef has been downgraded from “poor” to “very poor” by the Australian government’s own experts.

That’s the conclusion of the latest five-yearly report from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, released on Friday. The report assessed literally hundreds of scientific studies published on the reef’s declining condition since the last report was published in 2014.

The past five years were a game-changer. Unprecedented back-to-back coral bleaching episodes in 2016 and 2017, triggered by record-breaking warm sea temperatures, severely damaged two-thirds of the reef. Recovery since then has been slow and patchy.

Fish swimming among coral on the Great Barrier Reef.
AAP

Looking to the future, the report said “the current rate of global warming will not allow the maintenance of a healthy reef for future generations […] the window of opportunity to improve the reef’s long-term future is now”.

But that window of opportunity is being squandered so long as Australia’s and the world’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

The evidence on the reef’s condition is unequivocal

A logical national response to the outlook report would be a pledge to curb activity that contributes to global warming and damages the reef. Such action would include a ban on the new extraction of fossil fuels, phasing out coal-fired electricity generation, transitioning to electrified transport, controlling land clearing and reducing local stressors on the reef such as land-based runoff from agriculture.




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But federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s response to the outlook report suggested she saw no need to take dramatic action on emissions, when she declared: “it’s the best managed reef in the world”.

Major coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 have devastated the reef.

The federal government’s lack of climate action was underscored by another dire report card on Friday. Official quarterly greenhouse gas figures showed Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have risen to the highest annual levels since the 2012-13 financial year.

But rather than meaningfully tackle Australia’s contribution to climate change, the federal government has focused its efforts on fixing the damage wrought on the reef. For example as part of a A$444 million grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the government has allocated $100 million for reef restoration and adaptation projects over the next five years or so.

Solutions being supported by the foundation include a sunscreen-like film to float on the water to prevent light penetration, and gathering and reseeding coral spawn Separately, Commonwealth funds are also being spent on projects such as giant underwater fans to bring cooler water to the surface.

But the scale of the problem is much, much larger than these tiny interventions.




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Climate change is not the only threat to the reef

The second biggest impact on the Great Barrier Reef’s health is poor water quality, due to nutrient and sediment runoff into coastal habitats. Efforts to address that problem are also going badly.

This was confirmed in a confronting annual report card on the reef’s water quality, also released by the Commonwealth and Queensland governments on Friday.

The Great Barrier Reef attained world heritage status in the 1980s.
AAP

It showed authorities have failed to reach water quality targets set under the Reef 2050 Plan – Australia’s long-term plan for improving the condition of the reef.

For example the plan sets a target that by 2025, 90% of sugarcane land in reef catchments should have adopted improved farming practices. However the report showed the adoption had occurred on just 9.8% of land, earning the sugarcane sector a grade of “E”.

So yes, the reef is definitely in danger

The 2019 outlook report and other submissions from Australia will be assessed next year when the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meets to determine if the Great Barrier Reef should be listed as “in danger” – an outcome the federal government will fight hard to avoid.

An in-danger listing would signal to the world that the reef was in peril, and put the federal government under greater pressure to urgently prevent further damage. Such a listing would be embarrassing for Australia, which presents itself as a world’s-best manager of its natural assets.

Environment activists engaged in a protest action to bring attention to the dangers facing the Great Barrier Reef.
AAP

The outlook report maintains that the attributes of the Great Barrier Reef
that led to its inscription as a world heritage area in 1981 are still intact, despite the loss of close to half of the corals in 2016 and 2017.

But by any rational assessment, the Great Barrier Reef is in danger. Most of the pressures on the reef are ongoing, and some are escalating – notably anthropogenic heating, also known as human-induced climate change.




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And current efforts to protect the reef are demonstrably failing. For example despite an ongoing “control” program, outbreaks of the damaging crown-of-thorns starfish – triggered by poor water quality – have spread throughout the reef.

The federal government has recently argued that climate change should not form the basis for an in-danger listing, because rising emissions are not the responsibility of individual countries. The argument comes despite Australia having one of the highest per capita emissions rates in the world.

But as Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise – an outcome supported by government policy – the continued downward trajectory of the Great Barrier Reef is inevitable.The Conversation

Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University

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

Nice try Mr Taylor, but Australia’s gas exports don’t help solve climate change



Energy Minister Angus Taylor has sought to downplay quarterly figures showing Australia’s emissions are still rising, attributing the result to the production of gas for export.
AAP

Tim Baxter, University of Melbourne

The latest report card on Australia’s greenhouse gas production is the same old news: emissions are up again. We’ve heard it before, but the news should never stop being confronting.

It’s 2019. The first assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which outlined the serious consequences of unmitigated climate change, was released the better part of 30 years ago. But Australia is still going backwards.

Emissions from one of the sunniest and windiest countries on the planet, blessed with every possible advantage when it comes to emissions reduction potential, are still rising. How do you justify that?




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Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor.
AAP

Energy and Emission Reduction Minister Angus Taylor tried to justify it by blaming gas. He said if you ignore the greenhouse gases released when producing gas for export, Australia is doing well because emissions in the March quarter fell by 0.3%.

It’s a bit like suggesting that if you ignore the cancer, smoking is completely fine. It’s untrue, and ignores the bigger part of the problem.

How does producing gas for export release fossil fuel emissions?

A mammoth share of the coal and gas that Australia produces goes to the international market.

The combustion of these fuels is not counted in Australia’s ledger, though.
This is because the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change counts emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels in the country where they are burned.

A protest sign at the site of a proposed liquid natural gas plant at James Price Point in Broome.
AAP

But climate change is unconcerned with our accounting rules. And Australia is the fifth largest contributor to climate change in terms of fossil fuels extracted.

But the extraction process itself also releases fossil fuels in Australia’s backyard, both through the energy used in the extraction and through leaks. These emissions are included on Australia’s ledger.

Gas is principally made up of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30-80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. When it leaks, it has an outsized impact on the climate – and these emissions are growing fast.

Putting our gas emissions in perspective

It is disingenuous to use the production of gas exports to explain away Australia’s poor performance on emissions reduction.

In the 2018 financial year, around one in seven tonnes of greenhouse gas emitted from Australia was released in the process of making even more greenhouse gas, from both gas and coal extraction.

That means that six in every seven tonnes of greenhouse gas Australia emits can largely be attributed to the the total absence of a national climate policy.

Author supplied.
Data source: DoEE, Australia’s Emissions Projections 2018
Author supplied.
Data source: DoEE, Australia’s Emissions Projections 2018

This policy failure has big implications. Article 4.1 of the Paris Agreement says the world must reach net-zero emissions over the entire period from 2050 to 2100. (And the IPCC says emissions must come down even faster than that if planetary warming is to stay below the critical 1.5℃ threshold).

Even if, disregarding export gas production, Australia cut emissions by 0.3% a year, at that rate net-zero emissions won’t be reached for another 333 years.

So while fossil fuel extraction is making things worse, our emissions elsewhere are hardly able to reach the net zero goal in the Paris agreement.




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Gas is not the silver bullet for any other nation

The minister and his department also made much of the idea that our gas is reducing emissions overseas. The quarterly report even contained a “special topic” talking up the benefits of Australia’s gas exports.

The logic is that by exporting gas, which is allegedly cleaner than coal, we are replacing a high emitting source with a relatively low emitting source. That logic does not hold and is not scientifically robust.

First, and most obviously, Australia exports massive amounts of coal as well as gas. We are responsible for one-fifth of the world’s thermal coal exports and more than one-half of the world’s metallurgical coal exports. It is talking out both sides of your mouth to suggest that we are reducing worldwide emissions because we are responsible for almost a quarter of the world’s exported gas, while we simultaneously export a massive amount of coal.

Origin Energy’s Australia Pacific liquefied natural gas facility at Curtis Island in north Queensland.
AAP

Second, the department and Mr Taylor relied heavily on a study by the CSIRO’s Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA) to talk up the relative benefits of our gas exports. That study, a life-cycle assessment of the emissions from Curtis Island’s liquified natural gas processing facilities, expressly avoided testing the assumption that our gas is in fact replacing coal overseas.

We may not know the whole story, but we do know it is not true in one of the largest purchasers of Australian gas, Japan. Since the Fukushima accident in 2011 took much of Japan’s zero-emissions nuclear energy out of the mix, it has been replaced by Australian gas, which is far worse for the climate.

Third, even if our gas is substituting coal, the benefits are very small. The same GISERA study indicated that “climate benefits of natural gas replacing coal are lost where fugitive emissions [leaking gas] … are greater than 3%”.

Readers might remember this apparent example of fugitive emissions in Australia. The video shows former New South Wales Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham setting fire to the Condamine River in 2016.

Former NSW MP Jeremy Buckingham sets the Condamine River on fire.

It burned because of methane bubbling up through it, purportedly from nearby unconventional gas extraction. These emissions, the result of leaks through natural fractures in the Earth, are difficult to predict and model. They are not accurately measured in Australia, and may make gas far worse for the climate than even coal.

Even if the results of all this uncertainty come out in favour of gas, limiting global warming requires that we urgently stop burning both coal and gas. While there are substantial proven reserves around the world, much of this will have to remain unburned if we hope to avoid the worst of climate change.

The evidence of climate change is increasingly clear, yet Australia’s emissions continue to increase. Our political leaders are spinning the data and failing to act, putting our children’s future, our economy and the natural environment at risk.The Conversation

Tim Baxter, Fellow – Melbourne Law School; Senior Researcher – Climate Council; Associate – Australian-German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne

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

Grim fire season looms but many Australians remain unprepared



Burnt out cars in Tingha, New South Wales, in February 2019.
AAP/Dave Hunt

Richard Thornton, Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC

Bushfires are predicted to be worse than normal across much of Australia this summer but research shows many people, especially those in high-risk areas, remain unprepared.

The latest Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook shows the 2019-20 fire season has the potential to be an active season across the country, following a very warm and dry start to the year.

The east coast of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, as well as parts of southern Western Australia and South Australia, face above-normal fire potential. It means communities in those areas, and across Australia, should start planning their emergency fire response.

The ingredients for a bad fire season

Above-normal bushfire potential refers to the ability of a large fire to take hold. It takes into account recent and predicted weather for a particular area, the dryness of the land and forests, and recent fire history.

The year to date has been unusually warm and dry for large parts of Australia. In fact it has been the fifth-driest start to the year on record, and the driest since 1970. Some areas, such as New South Wales into southeastern Queensland, are into their third year of dry conditions.

Vast areas of Australia, particularly the east coast, have an above-normal fire potential this season.
BNHCRC

The warming trend means that above average temperatures now tend to occur in most years, and 2019 has followed this pattern. These high temperatures further dry the landscape and vegetation.




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An early start to the fire season has been declared in many areas across eastern Australia. The dry landscape means that any warm and windy conditions are likely to see elevated fire risk. However in some drought-affected areas, poor growth of grass and annual plants means that vegetation loads are reduced, which may lower the fire risk.

The climate outlook for the next few months is also a crucial factor. Of particular interest are the future tendencies of Pacific sea surface temperature associated with the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, as well as the Indian Ocean Dipole, major climate drivers over Australia.

Climate change doesn’t create bushfires, but can make them worse

Heat, drought, flood and fire are not new phenomena for Australia. What is different now is that there is an underlying 1℃ increase in average temperatures since industrial times began – the result of climate change – which means that the variability of normal events sits on top of that. So climate change alone doesn’t create a bad fire season, but can make the weather conditions conducive to very large and destructive fires.

A bushfire threatened homes near Lake Macquarie in August this year.
AAP/Darren Pateman

Weather records are routinely being broken and all indications are that temperatures will continue to increase.

We cannot be sure what this means for extreme hazards like bushfire. This is an area in critical need of further research into weather prediction, land planning, infrastructure development, population trends and community awareness.

Firefighting resources are finite

The distribution and readiness of firefighting resources are also considered when calculating fire potential.

In Victoria’s East Gippsland, for example, forests have been extremely dry for many years. If a fire were to start under bad conditions, there is a high likelihood it would grow too large for local resources, and they would need to call for extra support from elsewhere.




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Fire seasons are lengthening and overlapping across states, and indeed across the globe. So we need to think of new ways of dealing with bushfires, floods, cyclones, and heatwaves. The old ways of sharing resources such as aerial firefighting equipment, and fire fighters between Australian states and other countries, may not always be possible. So we need to discover better ways to manage all our resources.

Overlapping fire seasons means the sharing of fire crews and equipment between states may not always be possible.
AAP

Be prepared, and get your kids involved

Research has identified significant trends of vulnerability linked to demographic changes, such as a growing and ageing population. For example, the population of those aged over 85 is predicted to double in the next 25 years. The general population is also increasingly shifting into traditionally hazard-prone areas such as forested or coastal rural areas.

Our research is consistently showing that many Australians, especially those in high risk areas, are not sufficiently ready for fire and have not established fire plans well ahead of time. For example, people may underestimate the risks to life and property if the fire danger is not rated as “catastrophic”. The research showed many properties were under-insured and some people overestimated the response capacity of fire services.

Experts say all Australians, not just those in high-risk areas, should prepare for the bushfire season.
AAP

So, make sure you’ve got a plan, talk about it with your family and ensure you have back up plans B, C and D. Include your children in planning to help them prepare, and don’t forgot about your pets and animals too.

Backed by the research, emergency warnings to people under the threat of a fire have been transformed in recent years. But do not wait for a warning, as it might be too late. Everyone should be aware of their surroundings.

The latest outlook report is the work of the Bureau of Meteorology and fire and land management agencies around the country, brought together by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.

For more information on how to prepare and be ready for the fire season, consult your local fire service website.The Conversation

Richard Thornton, Chief Executive Officer, Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC

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

The winter was dry, the spring will likely be dry – here’s why


Jonathan Pollock, Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Andrew B. Watkins, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Winter still has a few days to run, but it’s highly likely to be one of Australia’s warmest and driest on record. While final numbers will be crunched once August ends, this winter will probably rank among the top ten warmest for daytime temperatures and the top ten driest for rainfall.

While it was drier than average across most of the country, it was especially dry across South Australia, New South Wales and southern Queensland. Small areas of South Australia and New South Wales are on track for their driest winter on record.




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In contrast, parts of southern Victoria, western Tasmania and central Queensland were wetter than usual.

Preliminary winter 2019 rainfall deciles.
Bureau of Meteorology

Thirsty ground

Soil moisture normally increases during winter (except in the tropics, where it’s the dry season), and while we saw that in parts of Victoria, for most of Queensland and New South Wales the soil moisture actually decreased.

Dry soils leading into winter have soaked up the rain that has fallen, resulting in limited runoff and inflows into the major water storages across the country.

A glass half empty

Sydney’s water storages dropping below 50% received considerable public attention, and unfortunately a number of other regional storages in New South Wales and the Murray Darling Basin are much lower than that.

The winter ‘filling’ season in the southern Murray Darling Basin has been drier than usual for the third year in a row, and storages in the northern Murray Darling basin are extremely low or empty with no meaningful inflows.

Some rain in the west

Some regions did receive enough rainfall to grow crops this cool season. However, northern New South Wales and southern Queensland didn’t see an improvement in their severe year-to-date rainfall deficiencies over winter.

In fact, the area of the country that is experiencing year-to-date rainfall in the lowest 5% of historical records expanded.

In better news, the severe year-to-date deficiencies across southwest Western Australia shrank during winter.

Indian Ocean Dipole the culprit

Sustained differences between sea surface temperatures in the tropical western and eastern Indian Ocean are known as the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). The IOD impacts Australian seasonal rainfall and temperature patterns, much like the more well known El Niño–Southern Oscillation.

Warm sea surface temperatures in the tropical western Indian Ocean and cool sea surface temperatures in the eastern Indian Ocean, along with changes in both cloud and wind patterns, have been consistent with a positive Indian Ocean Dipole since late May.

International climate models, some of which forecast the positive IOD as early as February, agree that it is likely to continue through spring.

Typically, this means below average rainfall and above average temperatures for much of central and southern Australia, which is consistent with the current rainfall and temperature outlook from the Bureau’s dynamical computer model. The positive IOD is likely to be the dominant climate driver for Australia during the next three months.

Comparison of international climate model forecasts of the IOD index for November 2019.
Models from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Canadian Meteorological Centre, European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, Meteo France, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (USA) and the Met Office (UK)

A dry end to 2019 likely

Chances are the remainder of 2019 will be drier than normal for most of Australia. The exceptions are western Tasmania, southern Victoria and western WA, where chances of a wetter or drier than average end to the year are roughly equal.

The spring 2019 outlook showing low chances of above average rainfall for most of the country.
Bureau of Meteorology

Warmer than average days are very likely (chances above 80%) for most of the country except the far south of the mainland, and Tasmania.

Nights too are likely to be warmer than average for most of the country. However, much of Victoria and Tasmania, and southern parts of South Australia and New South Wales have close to an even chance for warmer than average minimum temperatures.

Due to the warm and dry start to the year, the east coast of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, as well as parts of southern Western Australia, face above normal fire potential this coming bushfire season.

More outlooks more often

The term weather describes conditions over shorter periods, such as from minutes to days, while the term climate describes the more slowly varying aspects of the atmosphere.

From today, the Bureau of Meteorology is closing the forecast gap between weather and climate information with the release of weekly and fortnightly climate outlooks.

For the first time, rainfall and temperature outlooks for the weeks directly after the 7-day forecast are available. One- and two-week outlooks have been added to complement the existing 1-month and 3-month outlooks.




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The new outlook information for the weeks ahead also features how much above or below average temperatures are likely to be, and the likelihood of different rainfall totals.

The Bureau’s outlook videos explain the long-range forecast for the coming months.
Bureau of Meteorology


You can find climate outlooks and summaries on the Bureau of Meteorology website here.The Conversation

Jonathan Pollock, Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Andrew B. Watkins, Manager of Long-range Forecast Services, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

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

Waratah is an icon of the Aussie bush (and very nearly our national emblem)



Waratah flowers stand out vividly in the bush.
Tim J Keegan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Jacob Krauss, UNSW

On one of my first field trips as a young student, searching in sweltering September heat for banksia trees in the bush around Sydney, my eye was caught by a flash of remarkable crimson. Trudging over the red dust, we saw the beautiful waratah flower.

The cone-shaped flower sat upon a green leaf throne, sepals facing upward towards the heavens. The sun lit the red petals just right, and I felt a sense of awe for the flower emblem of New South Wales.




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The rounded flower head and the green razored leaves are iconic. The long stem that can grow up to 4 metres tall allows it to stand above the other vegetation.

The waratah’s long stem lifts it high in the bush understory.
Margaret Donald/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

There are five species of waratah flowers, although the species chosen for NSW’s emblem, Telopea speciosissima, is simply known as the New South Wales waratah.

These grow across southeastern Australia along the central coast and up the mountains from the Gibraltar range north of Sydney to Conjola in the south.




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Robert Brown named the genus Telopea in 1810, which derives from the Greek word for “seen from afar” – just as I was able to spot the striking red flowers in the bush. (There is even a botanical journal named Teleopea, after the flower.)

This flower thrives in the shrub understory of open forest and survives despite sandstone soils and volcanic rock. Delicate, the flowers need lots of rainfall. There is also a rare white morph called “Wirrimbira white.” This form was found in the Robertson, NSW near the Kangaloon water catchment.

A beautiful white variation in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens.
Royal Botanic Garden Sydney/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Warratahs have a lignotuber in their root system that allows them to store energy and nutrients. They can regenerate within two years after a wildfire destroys the main flower.

It flowers from September to November, though flowering is highly variable and is sensitive to the environment. The flower is pollinated by birds that feed on its sweet nectar. The plant releases brown leathery pods with large, winged seeds, which germinate readily – making it a popular garden ornament.




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A lovely first alternate for national flower

The waratah flower is a cultural symbol, adorning Australiana ranging from stamps to the state flag of New South Wales. Because it was so common, it helped play a role in developing a colonial Australia’s cultural identity. In fact, it almost beat out the golden wattle as the national emblem back in the 1900s.

There was heated debate, but ultimately the waratah’s bias towards coastal habitat – which meant it was only found on the east coast of Australia and Tasmania – led to its loss. However, in 1962 the flower was proclaimed the official floral emblem of New South Wales.

The wonga pigeon is linked to the waratah in Indigenous Dreamtime stories.
Bernard DUPONT/Flickr, CC BY-SA

There is a rich aboriginal history regarding the flower as well. Gulpilil’s Stories of the Dreamtime tells a story explaining how the white warratah became red. In the story, a female wonga pigeon flew above the tree canopy looking for her lost mate. She was caught by a hawk but broke free, tearing her breast. She landed on a white warratah and her flowing blood stained it red. As she flew from flower to flower, the blood from the wounds drenched all the flowers red.




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If you stick your finger in the flower when it is in bloom you’ll see the “blood” of the pigeon on your finger. The red nectar is sweet, and a medicinal tonic can be made from the red blooms.

It also made a striking impression on European artists in the 18th and 19th centuries. The flower can be seen on collections ranging from vases to statues and stained-glass windows.

An inflatable light installation in Vivid Sydney.
Ashley/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

In 1915, Australian botanist R.T. Baker wrote, “The entire plant…lends itself to such a boldness of artistic ideas in all branches of Applied Art that it has few compeers amongst the representatives of the whole floral world.”




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I first spotted the flower on one of my first experiences in the bush near Sydney, hunting banksia for a professor who studies the unique fire ecology of Australian plants in Royal National Park. It is one of my favourite Australian flowers, made even more special by the memory when I first encountered it on that sunny, September day.


Do you love native plants? Sign up to The Conversation’s Beating Around the Bush Facebook group.The Conversation

Jacob Krauss, Graduate Student, UNSW

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