The global road-building explosion is shattering nature


Bill Laurance, James Cook University

If you asked a friend to name the worst human threat to nature, what would they say? Global warming? Overhunting? Habitat fragmentation?

A new study suggests it is in fact road-building.

“Road-building” might sound innocuous, like “house maintenance” – or even positive, conjuring images of promoting economic growth. Many of us have been trained to think so.

But an unprecedented spate of road building is happening now, with around 25 million kilometres of new paved roads expected by 2050. And that’s causing many environmental researchers to perceive roads about as positively as a butterfly might see a spider web that’s just fatally trapped it.

A Malayan tapir killed along a road in Peninsular Malaysia.
WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong

Shattered

The new study, led by Pierre Ibisch at Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development, Germany, ambitiously attempted to map all of the roads and remaining ecosystems across Earth’s entire land surface.

Its headline conclusion is that roads have already sliced and diced Earth’s ecosystems into some 600,000 pieces. More than half of these are less than 1 square kilometre in size. Only 7% of the fragments are more than 100 square km.

Remaining roadless areas across the Earth.
P. Ibisch et al. Science (2016)

That’s not good news. Roads often open a Pandora’s box of ills for wilderness areas, promoting illegal deforestation, fires, mining and hunting.

In the Brazilian Amazon, for instance, our existing research shows that 95% of all forest destruction occurs within 5.5km of roads. The razing of the Amazon and other tropical forests produces more greenhouse gases than all motorised vehicles on Earth.

Animals are being imperilled too, by vehicle roadkill, habitat loss and hunting. In just the past decade, poachers invading the Congo Basin along the expanding network of logging roads have snared or gunned down two-thirds of all forest elephants for their valuable ivory tusks.

Deforestation along roads in the Brazilian Amazon.
Google Earth

Worse than it looks

As alarming as the study by Ibisch and colleagues sounds, it still probably underestimates the problem, because it is likely that the researchers missed half or more of all the roads on the planet.

That might sound incompetent on their part, but in fact keeping track of roads is a nightmarishly difficult task. Particularly in developing nations, illegal roads can appear overnight, and many countries lack the capacity to govern, much less map, their unruly frontier regions.

One might think that satellites and computers can keep track of roads, and that’s partly right. Most roads can be detected from space, if it’s not too cloudy, but it turns out that the maddening variety of road types, habitats, topographies, sun angles and linear features such as canals can fool even the smartest computers, none of which can map roads consistently.

The only solution is to use human eyes to map roads. That’s what Ibisch and his colleagues relied upon – a global crowdsourcing platform known as OpenStreetMap, which uses thousands of volunteers to map Earth’s roads.

Therein lies the problem. As the authors acknowledge, human mappers have worked far more prolifically in some areas than others. For instance, wealthier nations like Switzerland and Australia have quite accurate road maps. But in Indonesia, Peru or Cameroon, great swathes of land have been poorly studied.

A quick look at OpenStreetmap also shows that cities are far better mapped than hinterlands. For instance, in the Brazilian Amazon, my colleagues and I recently found 3km of illegal, unmapped roads for every 1km of legal, mapped road.

A logging truck blazes along a road in Malaysian Borneo.
Rhett Butler/Mongabay

What this implies is that the environmental toll of roads in developing nations – which sustain most of the planet’s critical tropical and subtropical forests – is considerably worse than estimated by the new study.

This is reflected in statistics like this: Earth’s wilderness areas have shrunk by a tenth in just the past two decades, as my colleagues and I reported earlier this year. Lush forests such as the Amazon, Congo Basin and Borneo are shrinking the fastest.

Road rage

The modern road tsunami is both necessary and scary. On one hand, nobody disputes that developing nations in particular need more and better roads. That’s the chief reason that around 90% of all new roads are being built in developing countries.

On the other hand, much of this ongoing road development is poorly planned or chaotic, leading to severe environmental damage.

For instance, the more than 53,000km of “development corridors” being planned or constructed in Africa to access minerals and open up remote lands for farming will have enormous environmental costs, our research suggests.

Orangutans in the wilds of northern Sumatra.
Suprayudi

This year, both the Ibisch study and our research have underscored how muddled the UN Sustainable Development Goals are with respect to vanishing wilderness areas across the planet.

For instance, the loss of roadless wilderness conflicts deeply with goals to combat harmful climate change and biodiversity loss, but could improve our capacity to feed people. These are tough trade-offs.

One way we’ve tried to promote a win-win approach is via a global road-mapping strategy that attempts to tell us where we should and shouldn’t build roads. The idea is to promote roads where we can most improve food production, while restricting them in places that cause environmental calamities.

Part of a global road-mapping strategy. Green areas have high environmental values where roads should be avoided. Red areas are where roads could improve agricultural production. And black areas are ‘conflict zones’ where both environmental values and potential road benefits are high.
W. F. Laurance et al. Nature (2014)

The bottom line is that if we’re smart and plan carefully, we can still increase food production and human equity across much of the world.

But if we don’t quickly change our careless road-building ways, we could end up opening up the world’s last wild places like a flayed fish – and that would be a catastrophe for nature and people too.

The Conversation

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Half the world’s ecosystems at risk from habitat loss, and Australia is one of the worst


James Watson, The University of Queensland; Eve McDonald-Madden, The University of Queensland; James Allan, The University of Queensland; Kendall Jones, The University of Queensland; Moreno Di Marco, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland

Habitat loss is the most insidious of all threats facing land-living wildlife, and protected areas like national parks are one of the best ways to combat the destruction. But in research published recently in Conversation Letters, we show that in some places the pace of protected areas isn’t keeping up with the losses.

We found that since 1992, an area of natural habitat two-thirds the size of Australia has been converted to human use (such as farms, logging or cities). Half of the world’s land area is now dominated by humans.

When we looked at specific habitats (or “ecoregions”), we found that in almost half of them, more habitat has been lost than has been protected. Of developed nations, Australia is performing the worst.

This week, 196 signatory nations of the Convention of Biological Diversity, including Australia, are meeting in Cancun, Mexico, to discuss their progress towards averting the current biodiversity crisis.

While topics will vary widely from dealing with climate change, invasive species and illegal wildlife trade, a chief issue will likely be one that has been central to the convention since its ratification at Rio in 1992: how best to deal with habitat loss.

The view from space

Human activity affects the planet on a scale so vast it can be easily seen from space. Whether it’s deforestation in the Amazon, urban development in Asia, or mining in the Arctic, humans have modified Earth’s land area dramatically.

For almost all wild species on Earth, once the places they live have been dramatically altered, they are unable to survive in the long term. The number of vertebrate species extinctions has been 53 times higher than normal since 1900, and the majority of them are associated with direct habitat loss.

The best tool we have at our disposal to combat habitat loss, alongside strict land regulation, is the creation of large, well-connected protected areas, especially in places that are likely to be at risk of future destruction.

When well managed and strategically placed, protected areas work at protecting biodiversity from destructive actives such as agriculture, mining and urbanisation.

In the two and a half decades since the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, there has been a dramatic increase in protected areas. Now 15% of the land is placed under protection – an area greater than South and Central America combined.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that it may not be enough.

Half Earth

Using the latest update of the global human footprint, we discovered that while 75% of the world has a clear human footprint, more than 50% of the world’s land area has been significantly converted to human dominated land uses.

The degree of degradation varies across the major ecosystems. Some areas such as the tundra have been only slightly modified. Other ecosystems have been decimated: 90% of mangroves and sub-tropical forests have been converted to human uses.

Concerningly, since the convention was ratified in 1992, an extra 4.5 million square kilometres of land has been converted from natural habitat to human land uses. And much of this loss occurred in areas that already faced considerable losses in the past.

As a consequence, almost half of the world’s 800 ecoregions – those places that have distinct animal and plant communities – should be classified at very high risk, where 25 times more land has been converted than protected.

Forty-one of these ecoregions are in crisis, where humans converted more than 10% of the little remaining habitat over the past two decades and there is almost nothing left to protect.

41 of the world’s ecoregions are in crisis.

These crisis ecoregions are concentrated in Southeast Asia (Indonesia and Papua New Guinea), and Africa (Madagascar, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola). It’s crucial that we establish protected areas in these places, but conflict and corruption make them some of the hardest places for conservation to work.

Australia: world expert in land clearing

While crisis ecoregions are mostly confined to the developing world, arguably the most concerning outcome of our research is that in many developed countries, like the United States and Canada, the proportion of protected areas to habitat loss is slipping.

And Australia is the worst performing developed nation of them all. Habitat loss greatly outpaced protection in 20 of Australia’s most wildlife-rich ecoregions. The most threatened ecoregions now include savannas in the southeast and southwest of Australia, and southeast temperate forest ecosystems.

Our analysis shows massive habitat loss occurred in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia during the past two decades, driven by land clearing for pasture, agriculture and urbanisation.

Australia has extremely high land-clearing rates and is the only developed nation now containing a deforestation front.

Arguably, things will continue to get worse without land-clearing law reform, but this is challenging, as shown by the recent failure of Queensland’s vegetation law changes and the poor vegetation-offset reforms in New South Wales.

Time for global action

As nations meet in Mexico to discuss their progress towards the Convention of Biological Diversity’s 2020 strategic plan, it is now time for them to undertake a full, frank and honest assessment on how things are progressing.

This means recognising that the current situation, where nations only report on protected area expansion, clearly tells half the story – and it is jeopardising the chance for halting the biodiversity crisis.

Australia must take the lead. It is time for this nation – one of the most wildlife-rich in the developed world – to account fully for both conservation gains and losses, and as such formally report on how much habitat is being destroyed. This is the necessary first step to identify ways to mitigate these losses and prioritise conservation actions in those regions that are at risk.

At the same time, all nations must recognise that the integrity of habitat within existing protected areas must be maintained, especially in those areas that contain imperilled species. Allowing activities which cause habitat loss to occur in protected areas is a backwards step for conservation, and governments must enforce their own environmental policies to stop this.

A good example is Springvale Station in Queensland, where mining is being considered within a newly purchased protected area, clearly threatening its biodiversity.

We need to change how we report on, and deal with, habitat loss, otherwise the mission of the convention – to stop the global extinction crisis – will fail.

The Conversation

James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland; Eve McDonald-Madden, Senior lecturer, The University of Queensland; James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Kendall Jones, PhD candidate, Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Moreno Di Marco, Postdoctoral Researcher in Conservation Biology, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller, Associate professor, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Climate change will create new ecosystems, so let’s help plants move


Ary Hoffmann, University of Melbourne

Australia’s ecosystems are already showing the signs of climate change, from the recent death of mangrove forests in northern Australia, to the decline in birds in eastern Australia, to the inability of mountain ash forests to recover from frequent fires. The frequency and size of these changes will only continue to increase in the next few years.

This poses a major challenge for our national parks and reserves. For the past 200 years the emphasis in reserves has been on protection.

But protection is impossible when the environment is massively changing. Adaptation then becomes more important. If we are to help wildlife and ecosystems survive in the future, we’ll have to rethink our parks and reserves.

A weedier world

Climate change is predicted to have a substantial effect on our plants and animals, changing the distribution and population of species. Some areas will become unfavourable to their current inhabitants, allowing other, often weedy, species to expand. There will likely be widespread losses in some ecosystems as extreme climate events take their toll, either directly by killing plants and animals, or indirectly by changing fire regimes.

While we can model some of these changes, we don’t know exactly how ecosystems will respond to climate change.

Australia has an extensive natural reserve system, and models suggest that much of this system is expected to be altered radically in the next few decades, resulting in the formation of totally new ecosystems and/or shifts in ecosystems.

Yet with rapid climate change, it is likely that ecosystems will fail to keep up. Seeds are the only way for plants to move, and seeds can only travel so far. The distribution of plants might only shift by a few metres a year, whereas the velocity of climate change is expected to be much faster.

As a result, our ecosystems are likely to become dominated by a low diversity of native and exotic invasive species. These weedy species can spread long distances and take advantage of vacant spaces. Yet the exact nature of changes is unknown, particularly where evolutionary changes and physiological adaptation will assist some species but fail others.

Conservation managers are concerned because with increasing weediness will come a loss of biodiversity as well as declines in the overall health of ecosystems. Plant cover will decrease, triggering erosion in catchments that provide our water reservoirs. Rare animal species will be lost because a loss of plant cover makes them more susceptible to predators. A cascade of changes is likely.

From conservation to adaptation

While climate change threats are acknowledged in reports, we continue to focus on conserving the state of our natural environments, devoting scarce resources to keeping out weedy species, viewing vegetation communities as static, and using offsets to protect these static communities.

One way of preparing for the future is to start the process of deliberately moving species (and their genes) around the landscape in a careful and contained manner, accepting that rapid climate change will prevent this process from occurring quickly enough without some intervention.

Overseas plots covering several hectares have already been established that aim to achieve this at a large scale. For instance, in western North America there is a plot network that covers 48 sites and focuses on 15 tree species planted across a three-year period that covers temperature variation of 3-4°C.

In Australia, a small section of our reserve system, preferably areas that have already been damaged and/or disturbed, could be set aside for such an approach. As long as these plots are set up at a sufficiently large scale, they can act as nursery stock for the future. As fire frequency increases and exceeds some plants’ survival capabilities, the surviving genes and species in these plots would then serve as sources for future generations. This approach is particularly important for species that set seed rarely.

Our best guesses about what will flourish in an area in the future will be wrong in some cases, right in others, but ongoing evolution by natural selection in the plots will help to sort out what really can survive at a particular location and contribute to biodiversity. With a network of plots established across a range of natural communities, our protected areas will become more adaptable for a future where many species and communities (along with the benefits they provide) could otherwise be lost entirely.

As in the case of North America, it would be good to see plots set up along environmental gradients. These might include from wet to dry heading inland, and from cold to warm heading north-south or with changing altitude.

One place to start might be the Australian Alps. We could set aside an area at higher altitude and plant low-altitude grasses and herbs. These may help current plants compete against woody shrubs that are expected to move towards our mountain summits.

Lower down, we might plant more fire-tolerant species in mountain ash forests. Near the coast, we might plant species from further inland that are better at handling drier conditions.

The overall plot network should be seen as part of our national research infrastructure for biodiversity management. In this way, we can build a valuable resource for the future that can serve the general community and complement our current ecosystem monitoring efforts.

The Conversation

Ary Hoffmann, Australian Laureate Fellow, Department of Genetics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Here’s a good news conservation story: farmers are helping endangered ecosystems


David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; Chloe Sato, Australian National University; Dan Florance, Australian National University, and Emma Burns, Australian National University

There a many reasons to be unhappy about the state of the environment. But we’ve recently found some good news: a conservation program that works.

You probably haven’t heard of the Environmental Stewardship Program (ESP). It was a market-based agri-environment program that ran between 2007 and 2012, which funded farmers to conserve threatened ecosystems on their property. Land managers were given contracts for up to 15 years to deliver results.

Overall, 297 land managers will receive about A$152 million over roughly 18 years to implement their conservation management plans. The last of these contracts will end in 2027. No new funding rounds are expected.

There’s been a variety of market-based programs for conservation on farmland in Australia, but we don’t know what the total investment is to date. And we are not aware of scientific monitoring that demonstrates their impact.

A property conserving box gums as part of the program.
Author provided

Endangered ecosystems

The box gum grassy woodlands of eastern Australia are home to several hundred species of native birds, including the iconic superb and turquoise parrots, thousands of native plants (such as the chocolate lily that leaves a deliciously rich and sweet aroma in native pastures), and beautiful mammals like the squirrel glider.

Box gum grassy woodlands have been 95% to 99% cleared for wheat and sheep grazing and are listed as nationally critically endangered.

Box gum grassy woodland is found across eastern Australia.
Author provided.

Under the ESP, more than 150 farmers from southern New South Wales to southeast Queensland have been funded to conserve the box gum grassy woodland ecosystem. This is one of the largest projects of its type in the world.

Farmers undertake controlled grazing by livestock in woodland remnants, replant native woodland, avoid firewood harvesting, cease bushrock removal, and control weeds and feral animals.

But we can’t know if a conservation program is working unless we monitor it. Fortunately, soon after it started, the Australian National University was commissioned to design a monitoring program for the ESP. We have now been monitoring these efforts for six years – and the results are exciting.

Better for wildlife…

So far, the data show that the farmers are doing a good job and it is money very well spent.

To find out if the program is working, we have to compare managed (conserved) areas with “control patches” – patches where land owners haven’t done anything. This comparison shows that funded management patches have fewer environmental weeds, greater native plant species richness, more natural regeneration of native plants, smaller areas of erodible bare ground, and more species of woodland birds.

In the space of six years, the Australian government, in concert with Australian farmers (through modest investment), has generated significant, positive environmental changes on farms. In fact, the box gum project can set the bar for many other conservation programs.

…better for farmers

The positive impacts go beyond improvement of the environment, because there have been notable social benefits too.

A bearded dragon, one of the species found in grassy woodlands.
CM, Author provided

Farmers are now highly motivated to deliver better environmental outcomes on their farms and showcase the integration of the multiple objectives of agricultural production and conservation.

The income stream they received also helped some survive the almost unprecedented hardships associated with the Millennium Drought in the mid- to late 2000s.

More generally, regular feedback and discussions between ANU field ecologists and landholders over the past six years has provided anecdotal evidence that farmers engaged in successful environmental programs suffer fewer problems with mental illness. This landholder goodwill and change in attitude towards land management is something that will far outweigh the 15-year investment in the program.

A model for conservation

Despite its success, the program has not been without detractors who see the policy and monitoring as over-engineered or boutique. This is primarily because its design, implementation, and monitoring standards are politically and bureaucratically inconvenient. They are not well suited to a reactive, short-term focused society.

In the case of monitoring, some considered it wasteful to establish and monitor control sites (areas where there has been no management). Yet without the controls, we couldn’t tell this positive story.

This is an exciting example of successful private-public land conservation and how it can be integrated with agricultural production (the primary land use of much of Australia’s land surface).

The long-term funding model is a more sensible approach than one-off payments, and provides a realistic timeframe to achieve results.

The Australian government should be congratulated and encouraged to invest in more programs of this type. It has worked because it was designed specifically to link farmers, scientists and policy makers.

Billions of dollars are expended on the environment in Australia every year. Landscape recovery will span multiple governmental cycles and every dollar must be spent wisely. Programs like ESP give some guidance on how large-scale environmental programs can be more successful.

For further information on conservation programs like the Environmental Stewardship Program, see our new e-book

The Conversation

David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Chloe Sato, Postdoctoral fellow in applied vegetation ecology, Australian National University; Dan Florance, Research officer, Fenner School of Environment & Society ANU College of Medicine, Australian National University, and Emma Burns, Executive Director, Long Term Ecological Research Network; Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can ‘reset’ Earth’s damaged ecosystems


Martin Breed; Andrew Lowe; Nick Gellie, and Peter Mortimer, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Earth is in a land degradation crisis. If we were to take the roughly one-third of the world’s land that has been degraded from its natural state and combine it into a single entity, these “Federated States of Degradia” would have a landmass bigger than Russia and a population of more than 3 billion, largely consisting of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people.

The extent and impact of land degradation have prompted many nations to propose ambitious targets for fixing the situation – restoring the wildlife and ecosystems harmed by processes such as desertification, salinisation and erosion, but also the unavoidable loss of habitat due to urbanisation and agricultural expansion.

In 2011, the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration, a worldwide network of governments and action groups, proposed the Bonn Challenge, which aimed to restore 150 million hectares of degraded land by 2020.

This target was extended to 350 million ha by 2030 at the September 2014 UN climate summit in New York. And at last year’s landmark Paris climate talks, African nations committed to a further 100 million ha of restoration by 2030.

These ambitious goals are essential to focus global effort on such significant challenges. But are they focused on the right outcomes?

For restoration projects, measuring success is crucial. Many projects use measures that are too simplistic, such as the number of trees planted or the number of plant stems per hectare. This may not reflect the actual successful functioning of the ecosystem.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale are projects that shoot for outcomes such as “improve ecosystem integrity” – meaningless motherhood statements for which success is too complex to quantify.

One response to this problem has been a widespread recommendation that restoration projects should aim to restore ecosystems back to the state they were in before degradation began. But we suggest that this baseline is a nostalgic aspiration, akin to restoring the “Garden of Eden”.

Beautiful, but not particularly realistic.
Wenzel Peter/Wikimedia Commons

An unrealistic approach

Emulating pre-degradation habitats is unrealistic and prohibitively expensive, and does not acknowledge current and future environmental change. While a baseline that prescribes a list of pre-degradation species is a good place to start, it does not take into account the constantly changing nature of ecosystems.

Instead of a “Garden of Eden” baseline, we suggest that restoration projects should concentrate on establishing functional ecosystems that provide useful ecosystem services. This might be done by improving soil stability to counter erosion and desertification, or by planting deep-rooted species to maintain the water table and reduce dry land salinity, or by establishing wild pollinator habitats around pollinator-dependant crops such as apples, almonds and lucerne seed.

Natural ecosystems have always been in flux – albeit more so since humans came to dominate the planet. Species are constantly migrating, evolving and going extinct. Invasive species may be so prevalent and naturalised that they are impossibly costly to remove.

As a result, land allocated for restoration projects is often so altered from its pre-degradation state that it will no longer serve as habitat for the species that once lived there. Many local, native species can be prohibitively difficult to breed and release.

And present-day climate change may necessitate the use of non-local genotypes and even non-local native species to improve restoration outcomes. Newer, forward-thinking approaches may result in the generation of novel gene pools or even novel ecosystems.

Projects should focus on targets that are relevant to their overarching goals. For example, if a restoration project is established to improve pollination services, then the abundance and diversity of insect pollinators could be its metric of success. As we argue in correspondence to the science journal Nature, restoration should focus on helping to create functional, self-sustaining ecosystems that are resilient to climate change and provide measurable benefits to people as well as nature.

An excellent example of a successful, large-scale restoration project with targeted outcomes is Brazil’s ongoing Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact. This has committed to restoring 1 million hectares of Atlantic forest by 2020 and 15 million hectares by 2050.

This project has clear objectives. These include restoring local biodiversity (for conservation and human use, including timber and non-timber forest products); improving water quality for local communities; increasing carbon storage; and even creating seed orchards that can be either sustainably harvested or used to provide more seeds for sowing as part of the restoration.

This project has clear social objectives as well as ecological ones. It has created new jobs and income opportunities. Local communities are contributing to seed collection and propagation, while the project gives landowners incentives to abide by laws against deforestation. For forests, this is the kind of pragmatic approach that will bear the most fruit.

The Conversation

Martin Breed, ARC DECRA Fellow; Andrew Lowe, Professor of Plant Conservation Biology; Nick Gellie, PhD Candidate, and Peter Mortimer, Associate professor, Chinese Academy of Sciences

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The best way to protect us from climate change? Save our ecosystems


Tara Martin, CSIRO and James Watson, The University of Queensland

When we think about adapting humanity to the challenges of climate change, it’s tempting to reach for technological solutions. We talk about seeding our oceans and clouds with compounds designed to trigger rain or increasing carbon uptake. We talk about building grand structures to protect our coastlines from rising sea levels and storm surges.

However, as we discuss in Nature Climate Change, our focus on these high-tech, heavily engineered solutions is blinding us to a much easier, cheaper, simpler and better solution to adaptation: look after our planet’s ecosystems, and they will look after us.

Biting the hand that feeds us

People are currently engaged in wholesale destruction of the systems that shelter us, clean our water, clean our air, feed us and protect us from extreme weather. Sometimes this destruction is carried out for the purpose of protecting us from the threats posed by climate change.

For example, in Melanesia’s low-lying islands, coral reefs are dynamited to provide the raw building materials for seawalls in an attempt to slow the impact of sea-level rise.

A seawall built using coral in Papua New Guinea
J.E.M Watson

In many parts of the world, including Africa, Canada and Australia, drought has led to the opening up of intact forest systems, protected grasslands and prairies for grazing and agriculture.

Similarly, the threat of climate change has driven the development of more drought-tolerant crops that can survive climate variability, but these survival abilities also make those plant species more likely to become invasive.

On the surface, these might seem like sensible ways to reduce the impacts of climate change. But they are actually likely to contribute to climate change and increase its impact on people.

Sea walls and drought-tolerant crops do have a place in adapting to climate change: if they’re sensitive to ecosystems. For example, if storm protection is required on low-lying islands, don’t build a seawall from the coral reef that offers the island its only current protection. Bring in the concrete and steel needed to build it.

How ecosystems protect us

Intact coral reefs act as barriers against storm surges, reducing wave energy by an average of 97%. They are also a valuable source of protein that support local livelihoods.

Similarly, mangroves and seagrass beds provide a buffer zone against storms and reduce wave energy, as well as being a nursery for many of the fish and other marine creatures that our fishing industries are built on.

Intact forests supply a host of valuable ecosystem services that are not only taken for granted, but actively squandered when those forests are decimated by land clearing.

There is now clear evidence that intact forests have a positive influence on both planetary climate and local weather regimes. Forests also provide shelter from extreme weather events, and are home to a host of other valuable ecosystems that are important to human populations as sources of food, medicine and timber.

Forests play a key role in capturing, storing and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, a role that will likely become increasingly important in avoiding the worst of climate change. Yet we continue to decimate forests, woodlands and grasslands.

Northern Australia is home to the largest savannah on earth, containing enormous carbon stores and influencing both local and global climate. Despite its inherent value as a carbon store, there has been discussion around whether these northern regions might be opened up to become Australia’s new food bowl, putting those extensive carbon stories in jeopardy.

Cheaper than techno-solutions

In Vietnam, 12,000 hectares of mangroves have been planted at a cost of US$1.1 million, but saving the US$7.3 million per year that would have been spent on maintaining dykes.

Planting mangroves in the Philippines to restore forests.
Trees ForTheFuture/Flickr, CC BY

In Louisiana, the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 led to an examination of how coastal salt marshes might have reduced some of the wave energy in the hurricane-associated storm surges.

Data have now confirmed that salt marshes would have significantly reduced the impact of those surges, and stabilised the shoreline against further insult, at far less cost than engineered coastal defences. With this data in hand, discussions are now beginning around how to restore the Louisiana salt marshes to insulate against future extreme weather events.

US foreign aid in Papua New Guinea has also encouraged the restoration and protection of mangroves for the same reason.

Instead of turning cattle to graze on native grasslands and savannah during times of drought, farmers struggling to sustain livestock in marginal areas could instead be funded to farm carbon and biodiversity by restoring or preserving these ecosystems. This might involve reducing the number of cattle, or in some cases even removing cattle entirely. Australia is very well-informed about the carbon value of its many and varied ecosystems, but is yet to fully put that knowledge into practice.

The cost of adapting to climate change using largely technological solutions has been put at a staggering US$70-100 billion per year. This is small change compared to current global energy subsidies estimated by the International Monetary Fund for 2015 at US$5.3 trillion per year.

Protecting ecosystems reduces the risk to people and infrastructure, as well as the degree of climate change: a win-win.

There is no doubt that technological solutions have a role to play in climate adaptation but not at the expense of intact functioning ecosystems. It is time to set a policy agenda that actively rewards those countries, industries and entrepreneurs who develop ecosystem-sensitive adaptation strategies.

The Conversation

Tara Martin, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO and James Watson, Associate professor, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Extinction means more than a loss of species to Australia’s delicate ecosystems


Matthew McDowell, Flinders University

European settlement of Australia, and the exotic predators and herbivores they brought with them, caused rapid widespread biodiversity loss. As a result, for the past 200 years Australia has had the highest mammal extinction rate in the world.

Humans wiped out the Thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian Tiger.
Wikimedia

Some extinct species were deliberately persecuted, such as the Tasmanian Tiger, Thylacinus cynocephalus, and some were neglected, such as the recently extinct Bramble Cay Mosaic-tailed Rat, Melomys rubicola.

Others, such as Gilbert’s Potoroo, Potorous gilbertii, appear to have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not yet extinct, but considered the most endangered marsupial in the world, it lost 90% of its natural habitat to a bushfire in late 2015.

When a species is lost from a community, the processes and functions it performed are also lost. All species contribute to the maintenance of their community ecology, but few contribute more than fossorial (digging) species such as bettongs, potoroos and bandicoots.

Part of the cycle

Bettongs are particularly important because most species mainly eat hypogeal fungi (truffles) and spread fungal spores wherever they dig.

As all Eucalyptus plants form a symbiotic relationship with hypogeal fungus during at least part of their life, spreading spores is one of the most important ecosystem services a mammal can perform.

Bettongs also facilitate seedling germination and establishment, soil aeration, incorporate organic matter and improvement moisture infiltration.

Before European settlement, at least five species of bettongs lived on mainland Australia, now (excluding the Rufous Bettong, Aepyprymnus rufescens, a similar beast but not of the genus Bettongia) only Bettongia tropica remains, and it’s listed as endangered.

The almost total loss of these ecosystem engineers from mainland Australia has far-reaching implications that may ultimately lead to vegetation succession, the gradual replacement of one plant community by another. In this case, it will be an impoverished one.

An incomplete skull and jaws are all that remains of the only individual of Bettongia anhydra ever to be found alive. The rest of the animal probably went into the cooks pot!
Matthew McDowell, Author provided

Last year, I published a description of the Desert Bettong (Bettongia anhydra) in the Journal of Mammalogy based on the skull and jaws of an animal that was collected alive near the southwestern corner of the Northern Territory in 1933.

Until now, it has been considered synonymous with its morphologically similar cousin the Burrowing Bettong, Bettongia lesueur. Sadly, the newly-identified Desert Bettong has never been encountered alive since. How many other native mammals have been lost without being recognised or have their remains resting in museum cabinets just waiting for the right person to look at them?

Recent breakthroughs in DNA research have shown that what were once considered wide-ranging species are in many cases species complexes. For example, molecular research on the Dusky Antechinus, Antechinus swainsonii, has revealed a complex of five species.

The good and the bad news

The good news is Australia’s biodiversity is richer than we thought. But the bad news is we’re still losing species at an alarming rate. So what can we do to reduce further loss of our unique mammals beyond protecting pristine areas?

Before attempting a restoration project, we really need to know what it is we want to restore. Many native mammals became locally extinct before historical records were compiled. As a result, Holocene (<10,000 year old) fossils provide better evidence of species distribution and habitat preferences than historical records.

Unfortunately, conservation and natural resource managers rarely consult the fossil record. If they did, they’d see that the modern distributions of many species poorly reflect their fossil distributions.

For example the Broad-toothed rat, Mastacomys fuscus, presently lives in alpine regions, but the fossil record shows that less than 1,000 years ago, it lived near sea level on the Fleurieu Peninsula and the Coorong.

Evidence-based restoration

The Mulligans Flat restoration project, in north-eastern ACT, is a great example where Holocene fossils were used to make evidence-based conservation decisions.

The research team used fossil and other evidence to identify species that once lived in their study area. Then, they prioritised the order of species reintroduction based on the range of ecological services each species performed.

Releasing Eastern or Tasmanian Bettongs, Bettongia gaimardi, was their first priority. Their reintroduction appears to be improving soil quality profoundly. I believe the practices used at Mulligans Flat should be applied to all future restoration projects.

The Eastern Bettong is considered secure on Tasmania and the Northern Bettong, Bettongia tropica, still persists naturally on mainland Australia.

All other surviving bettongs live on small islands. This affords protection from predators but limits population size, genetic diversity and reintroduction potential.

If we can’t restore original faunas, I think we have to seriously consider building novel, self-sustaining communities even if they lack present or past analogues. They may even need to include exotic species. Though it sounds extreme, it may be the only way to achieve lasting protection against extinction for what remains of Australia’s unique fauna.

The Conversation

Matthew McDowell, Postdoctoral Researcher, Flinders University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Unique Australian wildlife risks vanishing as ecosystems suffer death by a thousand cuts


Ayesha Tulloch, Australian National University; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Ringma, The University of Queensland; Megan Barnes, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland

Australia is renowned globally for its vast expanses of untouched wilderness. But for anyone who has travelled across its breadth, the myth of Australia’s pristine wilderness is quickly debunked as evidence of human impact spreads before the eye.

Most ecosystems have suffered huge losses. In a recent study, we looked at the magnitude of land clearing since European settlement. Some ecosystems have been devastated.

There are 75 major terrestrial ecosystems or vegetation communities in Australia, each of which are composed of hundreds of smaller communities of plants and animals. As you can see from the map below, many have been cleared extensively.

Much of Australia’s vegetation communities have been extensively cleared – the worst hit ecosystems occur in the south-west and east.
Ayesha Tulloch

Six of these 75 terrestrial ecosystems have lost 50% or more of their original extent which, combined, originally added to almost a million square kilometres. The worst hit are some of the mallee ecosystems in southern Australia, suffering up to 97% loss.

The temperate eucalypt woodlands of south-east Australia previously covered more than a million square kilometres. Now there are less than half that, having been cleared for agriculture and urban development.

Among these areas are some of the most biodiverse woodland communities on Earth, including the critically endangered Box-Gum Grassy Woodland, which has been reduced to less than 10% of its pre-1750 extent.

The critically endangered Box-gum Grassy Woodlands near Young in south-eastern Australia are now largely made up of small patches.
Ayesha Tulloch

The loss hasn’t been confined to trees. Temperate grasslands have lost 80%. Even the open woodland habitats across the north – which have a fraction of the people of the east and are considered the last great savannah wilderness on Earth – have lost 20-30% of their extent largely as a result of pastoral activities.

First cleared, then cut to pieces

But that’s not the worst of it.

As well as the declines in the extent of almost every vegetated ecosystem in Australia, most ecosystems are increasingly fragmented. That is, the ecosystem occurs in smaller and smaller patches surrounded by agriculture, urbanisation, and corridors such as roads and railways.

Many Australian vegetation communities now occur in small patches. Startlingly, one in five Australian vegetation communities have more than half of their remaining extent in patches smaller than 10 square kilometres. This has serious consequences for the species inhabiting these systems.

Most ecosystems in Australia (such as this temperate eucalypt woodland near Gundagai) have been fragmented through clearing from large, adjoining patches of vegetation into thousands more smaller patches.
Ayesha Tulloch

The brigalow forests and woodlands of Queensland contain the only remaining populations of a number of unique species, including the endemic Retro Slider, Brigalow Scaly-foot and Golden-tailed Gecko. Brigalow previously covered almost 100,000 square kilometres of inland Queensland – bigger than Tasmania.

Brigalow has been affected by the double jeopardy of high loss (87%) and high fragmentation. Two-thirds of its remaining extent is in patches smaller than 50 square kilometres.

The Golden-tailed Gecko is a habitat specialist dependent on Brigalow that has been extensively cleared and fragmented.
Jeremy Ringma

In the far north, the Mahogany Glider, one of Australia’s most threatened tree-dwelling mammals, is dependent on lowland tropical rainforest for its survival.

Lowland rainforest is highly vulnerable to loss of small patches – half of its remaining extent consists of patches smaller than 15 square kilometres. The continuous erosion of small patches of rainforest will certainly lead to the extinction of the Mahogany Glider, as well as declines in and extinctions of many other species surviving in small patches around Australia.

Time for new way of thinking

Current environmental policy means we continue to degrade nature at a rapid pace. Clearing of remnant vegetation in Queensland alone nearly doubled from 520 square kilometres in 2012-13 to 950 square kilometres in 2013-14, and nearly quadrupled since 2009-10. The Queensland Labor government has vowed to reform land clearing laws that contributed to this increase.

Patches smaller than five hectares can be routinely cleared without permits. Small patches such as these are mostly ignored by conservation activities, and instead, policies in fragmented landscapes largely focus on keeping remaining large patches intact. This will not be enough to save some ecosystems.

Well over 1,100 square kilometres of remnant vegetation patches have been approved for clearing for High Value Agriculture in Queensland. On a single property in the north, almost 580 square kilometres was recently cleared to make way for high-value agriculture such as sorghum and soy beans.

Patches smaller than 50 square kilometres comprise up to half of the remaining extent of many of the vegetation communities around Australia and are still being cleared. White areas represent no remaining vegetation
Ayesha Tulloch

These cleared ecosystems contained vulnerable and endangered birds such as the Red Goshawk. Satellite analysis has detected unexplained, possibly illegal, broadscale clearing of small vegetation patches in many parts of Queensland that are still mapped as regulated remnant. Much of this clearing is occurring in places where we identified high vulnerability to loss of small patches, such as the tropical rainforests in the far northeast of Australia.

The Red Goshawk is a habitat specialist and Australia’s rarest bird of prey. Land clearing in northern and eastern Australia is a major threat to the species.
James Watson

Policies urgently need to change at state and federal levels. We need to stop the clearing of vegetation communities and fragments. For example, the arbitrary five hectare threshold for land clearing in Queensland needs to be re-evaluated. These thresholds should instead be tailored to each ecosystem.

Globally we need to stop thinking only about the total amount of vegetation loss and consider size and number of remaining fragments. This will be crucial for assessing the health of ecosystems and protecting remnants.

Since most remaining vegetation is on private land, landholders will need incentives to retain small patches, and developers will need a way of choosing between two patches to ensure economic growth and resource consumption needs can still be met.

The long-term consequences of policy inaction is the slow, inevitable decline of remaining vegetation communities, and further loss of the species dependent on them: a death by a thousand cuts.

The Conversation

Ayesha Tulloch, Research Fellow, Australian National University; James Watson, Associate professor, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Ringma, PhD Candidate, Conservation Biology, The University of Queensland; Megan Barnes, PhD Student in Conservation Science, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller, Associate professor, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Climate Change and the World’s Ecosystems


The link below is to an article that looks at the way climate change will impact on the world’s ecosystems.

For more visit:
http://inhabitat.com/over-80-percent-of-earths-ecosystems-are-at-risk-unless-climate-action-is-taken/