Was Tasmania’s summer of fires and floods a glimpse of its climate future?


Alistair Hobday, CSIRO; Eric Oliver, University of Tasmania; Jan McDonald, University of Tasmania, and Michael Grose, CSIRO

Drought, fires, floods, marine heatwaves – Tasmania has had a tough time this summer. These events damaged its natural environment, including world heritage forests and alpine areas, and affected homes, businesses and energy security.

In past decades, climate-related warming of Tasmania’s land and ocean environments has seen dozens of marine species moving south, contributed to dieback in several tree species, and encouraged businesses and people from mainland Australia to relocate. These slow changes don’t generate a lot of attention, but this summer’s events have made people sit up and take notice.

If climate change will produce conditions that we have never seen before, did Tasmania just get a glimpse of this future?

Hot summer

After the coldest winter in half a century, Tasmania experienced a warm and very dry spring in 2015, including a record dry October. During this time there was a strong El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean and a positive Indian Ocean Dipole event, both of which influence Tasmania’s climate.

The dry spring was followed by Tasmania’s warmest summer since records began in 1910, with temperatures 1.78℃ above the long-term average. Many regions, especially the west coast, stayed dry during the summer – a pattern consistent with climate projections. The dry spring and summer led to a reduction in available water, including a reduction of inflows into reservoirs.

Left: September-November 2015 rainfall, relative to the long-term average. Right: December 2015-February 2016 temperatures, relative to the long-term average.
Bureau of Meteorology, Author provided

Is warmer better? Not with fires and floods

Tourists and locals alike enjoyed the clear, warm days – but these conditions came at a cost, priming Tasmania for damaging bushfires. Three big lightning storms struck, including one on January 13 that delivered almost 2,000 lightning strikes and sparked many fires, particularly in the state’s northwest.

By the end of February, more than 300 fires had burned more than 120,000 hectares, including more than 1% of Tasmania’s World Heritage Area – alpine areas that had not burnt since the end of the last ice age some 8,000 years ago. Their fire-sensitive cushion plants and endemic pine forests are unlikely to recover, due to the loss of peat and soils.

Meanwhile, the state’s emergency resources were further stretched by heavy rain at the end of January. This caused flash flooding in several east coast towns, some of which received their highest rainfall ever. Launceston experienced its second-wettest day on record, while Gray recorded 221 mm in one day, and 489 mm over four days.

Flooding and road closures isolated parts of the state for several days, and many businesses (particularly tourism) suffered weeks of disruption. The extreme rainfall was caused by an intense low-pressure system – the Climate Futures for Tasmania project has predicted that this kind of event will become more frequent in the state’s northeast under a warming climate.

Warm seas

This summer, an extended marine heatwave also developed off eastern Tasmania. Temperatures were 4.4℃ above average, partly due to the warm East Australian Current extending southwards. The heatwave began on December 3, 2015, and was ongoing as of April 17 – the longest such event recorded in Tasmania since satellite records began in 1982. It began just days after the end of the second-longest marine heatwave on record, from August 31 to November 28, 2015, although that event was less intense.

Anatomy of a marine heatwave. Top left: summer sea surface temperatures relative to seasonal average. Top right: ocean temperature over time; red shaded region shows the ongoing heatwave. Bottom panels: duration (left) and intensity (right) of all recorded heatwaves; the ongoing event is shown in red.
Eric Oliver

As well as months of near-constant heat stress, oyster farms along the east coast were devastated by a new disease, Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome, which killed 100% of juvenile oysters at some farms. The disease, which has previously affected New South Wales oyster farms, is thought to be linked to unusually warm water temperatures, although this is not yet proven.

Compounding the damage

Tasmania is often seen as having a mild climate that is less vulnerable to damage from climate change. It has even been portrayed as a “climate refuge”. But if this summer was a taste of things to come, Tasmania may be less resilient than many have believed.

The spring and summer weather also hit Tasmania’s hydroelectric dams, which were already run down during the short-lived carbon price as Tasmania sold clean renewable power to the mainland. Dam levels are at an all-time low and continue to fall.

The situation has escalated into a looming energy crisis, because the state’s connection to the national electricity grid – the Basslink cable – has not been operational since late December. The state faces the prospect of meeting winter energy demand by running 200 leased diesel generators, at a cost of A$43 million and making major carbon emissions that can only exacerbate the climate-related problems that are already stretching the state’s emergency response capability.

Is this summer’s experience a window on the future? Further study into the causes of climate events, known as “detection and attribution”, can help us untangle the human influence from natural factors.

If we do see the fingerprint of human influence on this summer, Tasmania and every other state and territory should take in the view and plan accordingly. The likely concurrence of multiple events in the future – such as Tasmania’s simultaneous fires and floods at either end of the island and a heatwave offshore – demands that governments and communities devise new strategies and mobilise extra resources.

This will require unprecedented coordination and cooperation between governments at all levels, and between governments, citizens, and community and business groups. Done well, the island state could show other parts of Australia how to prepare for a future with no precedent.

The Conversation

Alistair Hobday, Senior Principal Research Scientist – Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Eric Oliver, Postdoctoral Fellow (Physical Oceanography and Climate), University of Tasmania; Jan McDonald, Professor of Environmental Law, University of Tasmania, and Michael Grose, Climate Projections Scientist, CSIRO

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

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This summer’s sea temperatures were the hottest on record for Australia: here’s why


Elaine Miles, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Claire Spillman, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; David Jones, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and David Walland, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

The summer of 2015-2016 was one of the hottest on record in Australia. But it has also been hot in the waters surrounding the nation: the hottest summer on record, in fact.

Difference in summer sea surface temperatures for the Australian region relative to the average period 1961-1990.
Australian Bureau of Meteorology

While summer on land has been dominated by significant warm spells, bushfires, and dryness, there is a bigger problem looming in the oceans around Australia.

This summer has outstripped long-term sea surface temperature records that extend back to the 1950s. We have seen warm surface temperatures all around Australia and across most of the Pacific and Indian oceans, with particularly warm temperatures in the southeast and northern Australian regions.

Last summer’s sea surface temperature rankings for Australia.
Australian Bureau of Meteorology

In recent months, this warming has been boosted – just like land temperatures – by natural and human-caused climate factors.

Why so warm?

These record-breaking ocean temperatures around Australia are somewhat surprising. El Niño events, such as the one we’re currently experiencing, typically result in cooler than normal Australian waters during the second half of the year. So what is the cause?

The most likely culprit is a combination of local ocean and weather events, with a substantial contributor being human-caused climate change.

In the north, the recent weak monsoon season played a role in warming surface waters. Reduced cloud cover means more sunshine is able to pass through the atmosphere and heat the surface of the ocean. Trade winds that normally stir up the water and disperse the heat deeper into the ocean have also remained weak, leaving the warm water sitting at the surface.

In the south, the East Australian Current has extended further south over the summer. This warm current flows north to south down Australia’s east coast. Normally it takes a left turn and heads towards New Zealand, but this year it extended down to Tasmania, bringing warm waters to the south east.

This current is also getting stronger, transporting larger volumes of water southward over time. This is due to the southward movement of high pressure systems towards the pole.

High pressure systems are often associated with clear weather in Australia, and when they move south they prevent rain. This southward movement over time has also been linked to climate changes in our region, meaning that changes in both rainfall and ocean temperatures are responses to the same global factors.

We’ve also seen high ocean temperatures in the Indian Ocean. Around 2010, temperatures in the region suddenly jumped, likely because of the La Niña event in the Pacific Ocean. The strong events during this period transferred massive amounts of warmth from the Pacific Ocean into the Indian Ocean through the Indonesian region.

The warmer waters in the Indian Ocean have persisted since and have influenced land temperatures. The five years since the 2010 La Niña are the five hottest on record in southwest Western Australia (ranked 2011, 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012).

What are the impacts?

The world’s oceans play a major role in global climate by absorbing surplus heat and energy. Oceans have absorbed 93% of the extra heat trapped by the Earth since 1970 as the greenhouse effect has increased. This has lowered the rate at which the atmosphere is warming – which is a good thing.

However, it also means the oceans are heating up, raising sea levels as well as leading to more indirect impacts, such as shifting rainfall patterns.

As a nation that likes to live by the coast as well as enjoy recreation activities and harvest produce from the sea, warmer-than-usual oceans can have significant impacts.

Australia derives a lot of its income from its oceans and while such impacts aren’t often seen immediately, they become apparent over time.

Warm sea temperatures this summer and in the past have seen declines in coral reef health, and strains on commercial fisheries and aquaculture. The Great Barrier Reef is currently experiencing coral bleaching amid very warm water temperatures.

Our neighbouring Pacific islands have also seen the impacts of these very high sea surface temperatures, with recent mass fish kills and coral bleaching episodes in Fiji.

The impacts of warmer ocean temperatures are also felt on land, as ocean temperatures drive climate and weather. Abnormally high sea surface temperatures may have contributed to the intensity of Cyclone Winston as cyclone potential intensity increases with ocean temperature.

What is the outlook?

The seasonal outlook from the Bureau of Meteorology shows El Niño weakening over the next few months. This typically means cooler weather and can mean more rain on land.

However, closer inspection shows surface temperatures over the entire Indian Ocean and coastal Australian waters will very likely continue to remain well above average for the next few months. There are currently signs that surface currents are moving warm El Niño waters from the eastern Pacific over to the western Pacific, towards Australia.

There is potential for the East Australian Current to continue to transport this warmth to southern waters as far as Tasmania. Warm water could also be transported through Indonesia and travel south along the Western Australian coast via the warm Leeuwin Current, potentially causing further warming of already record warm waters.

So for the near future, the waters are going to continue to be warm. That’s good news if you’re heading to the beach, but not so good for the environment.

The Conversation

Elaine Miles, Ocean Climatologist , Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Claire Spillman, Research Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; David Jones, Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and David Walland, , Australian Bureau of Meteorology

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

Four unusual Australian animals to spot in your garden before summer is out


Heather Neilly, James Cook University and Lin Schwarzkopf, James Cook University

Your lawn might not enjoy the summer, but there’s plenty of Australian wildlife that does. In urban backyards across the country, you can spot native wildlife that appreciates the hot weather.

Some visitors are conspicuous seasonal guests, while others require you to be a bit more observant. Here are a few to look out for before the temperatures cool off – although many are much easier to hear than to see, so keep your ears and eyes peeled.

Parasitic storm birds

Channel-billed cuckoo.
Bilby/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

If you live in the north or east of Australia you may have noticed migratory Channel-billed cuckoos (Scythrops novaehollandiae) or Common Koels (Eudynamys scolopacea) descending on your suburb. Often referred to as “storm birds”, they turn up in summer to breed, then head back to New Guinea and Indonesia around March.

Channel-billed cuckoos make their presence known with raucous, maniacal crowing and squawking at all times of the day and night. And the incessant, worried-sounding calling of the Common Koel doesn’t win many fans, especially if you have one camped outside your bedroom window!

The koel’s distinctive call.

Both birds are parasitic cuckoos, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests and then leaving the host bird to raise the cuckoo chicks as their own. Cuckoo chicks grow faster than the host’s brood, demanding all of the food, and the host chicks often starve. To avoid being discovered and kicked out of the nest, some cuckoo chicks have even evolved to look very similar to the young of their host. If all goes according to plan, the adult host birds will rear a healthy brood of fledglings … the only problem is, they’re not theirs.

Keep a close eye on any magpie, crow or currawong nests in your area and see if you can spot the imposters’ fledglings. And maybe buy some earplugs.

Carnivorous marsupials

Eastern Quoll.
Rexness/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In summer, newly independent (and hungry) quolls venture out on their own. These skilled nocturnal hunters feed on a variety of insects, frogs, small lizards and sometimes even possums and gliders. The backyard chicken coop also presents an attractive option to this cat-sized marsupial carnivore.

The particular species in your neighbourhood will depend on where you live. The Western quoll or chuditch (Dasyurus geoffroii) lives in Australia’s southwest; Northern quolls (D. hallocatus) are found in the tropics; Eastern quolls (D. viverrinus) are restricted to Tasmania; and along the east coast are the Tiger or Spotted-tail quolls (D. maculatus).

Unfortunately, and probably due to loss of habitat, predation by feral cats, and perhaps because some populations eat toxic cane toads, quolls have suffered severe range contractions. So if you are lucky enough to have these backyard visitors, it is truly a privilege.

While in some places they are maligned as cold-blooded poultry-killers, quoll-proofing your chicken coop with mesh wire should prevent raiding. To catch a glimpse, venture out quietly after dark with a torch.

Unassuming garden skinks

Blue-tongued lizard.
Esa/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Do you hear rustling sounds as you walk past a garden bed? Or see a metallic flash as something dives off a sunny rock into a pile of leaf litter?

During summer we’re inundated with snake warnings from the media. But all of our native reptiles (not just snakes) become more active as temperatures rise, and you probably have a variety of skinks in your backyard relishing the warmer weather.

Skinks are amazingly diverse, ranging from the multitude of small, garden skinks (such as Lampropholis) to the well-known Blue-tongued lizard (Tiliqua scincoides). You can find them scurrying through leaf litter, basking on rocks, and sitting on fences and tree trunks – but never too far from cover.

Striped skinks (Ctenotus) are fast, efficient predators of all kinds of invertebrates. In fact, skinks are largely insectivorous, and thus are great natural pest controllers.

Grab a reptile field guide to work out which skink species are in your area. If you want to entice more skinks into your backyard, add some clumping native grasses, rocks, logs and leaf litter to your garden.

Australia’s largest butterflies

Queenslanders might be able to spot Australia’s biggest butterfly in their backyard.
JJ Harrison/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In certain parts of Queensland, summer brings one of the most delicate, spectacular backyard visitors: the Birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera).

Far north Queensland is home to the Cairns Birdwing (O. priamus euphorion), the largest butterfly in Australia. From Maryborough to the New South Wales border you will find Richmond’s Birdwing (O. richmondia), which is slightly smaller but just as impressive.

Australia’s largest butterfly, the Cairns Birdwing.

Throughout summer you might witness a Birdwing’s mating dance, in which the female flies slowly from place to place and the male hovers above her. Females lay their eggs on the underside of native Dutchman’s pipe vines. If you have these plants in your garden, inspect them closely for short, fat caterpillars with insatiable appetites (they will probably eat all the leaves on your entire vine!). Make sure you have the native Dutchman’s pipe vine, as an introduced South American species called Aristolochia elegans is toxic to Birdwings.

These critters are just a few examples of the wildlife you might see in your yard. All kinds of native wildlife respond to the changing seasons. So if you’d like to find out what’s happening in your backyard this summer, get out there and take a look!

The Conversation

Heather Neilly, PhD Candidate, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change Navigation, James Cook University and Lin Schwarzkopf, Professor in Zoology, James Cook University

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

The best places to see Australian birds this summer


Rochelle Steven, Griffith University

So, you’re looking for something to do this holiday season that is outdoors but close to home and won’t cost the earth (literally and figuratively). But you want something more than the average stroll through a national park.

Did you know there are over 300 areas in Australia identified for having populations of birds that are significant in terms of their ecology and conservation?

The Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) network was established in Australia in 2009 by then Birds Australia (now BirdLife Australia). Australia joined the program in the wake of multiple other countries and regions that have joined BirdLife International in their quest to draw attention to key areas for bird conservation globally.

Sites are assessed for potential inclusion in the network based on the presence of trigger bird species at threshold population numbers.

About 50% of the Australian network overlaps with protected areas (e.g. national parks), and the remaining 50% falls in private and other public lands. Many are accessible for visitors in search of rewarding birdwatching (aka birding) experiences.

If you haven’t discovered the enjoyment to be had in picking up a pair of binoculars and challenging yourself to identify the birds you find in your view, you are missing out!

Australia has some of the most amazing birds in the world. Tim Low has written about the marvels of Aussie birds in his book Where Song Began (2014).

A Satin Bowerbird in Queensland.

There are books that have been published recently outlining numerous spots worth a visit (e.g. Finding Australian Birds by Dolby and Clarke; Best 100 Birdwatching Sites in Australia by Taylor).

Many sites can be found within a couple of hours drive or less of the big cities. You can go birding independently, or if you really want a fruitful day, you can hire a local bird tour guide who will happily share their skills and knowledge of birds in your area.

Bird tour operators can be found in all capital cities, and recent research published in PLOS ONE shows they visit important bird areas frequently during their tours. Without further ado, here is your guide to the best places for birding close to some of our main cities.

Sydney

Greater Blue Mountains and Richmond Woodlands IBAs provide the chances to see species like the Regent Honeyeater or Flame Robin. Other trigger species here include: Swift Parrot, Yellow-faced Honeyeater, Pilotbird, Rockwarbler and Diamond Firetail.

Diamond Firetail
David Cook/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Melbourne

Werribee and Avalon IBA is arguably Australia’s most popular birding destination among domestic birders. Access to the main birding site (the Western Treatment Plant) site requires a permit from Melbourne Water.

Cheetham and Altona IBA is open access via Altona Coastal Park and Point Cook Coastal Park. Both areas are winners for waterbirds and shorebirds.

Many shorebirds arrive in Melbourne’s wetlands from the Northern Hemisphere.
Rochelle Steven

Brisbane and Gold Coast

Moreton Bay and Pumicestone Passage IBA covers the extent of the coast from north Brisbane down the Gold Coast Broadwater. This IBA is an important site for migratory shorebirds that rest here after their epic journey flying from Alaska or Siberia.

Heading inland the Scenic Rim IBA overlaps with Lamington National Park and visitors to this IBA can be treated to excellent views of the Satin and Regent Bowerbirds. You might even get to see the Albert’s Lyrebird scurrying through the rainforest floor.

Satin Bowerbird
Rochelle Steven

Cairns

Daintree and the Coastal Wet Tropics IBAs provide rainforest experiences like no other. The list of trigger species for these IBAs is very long, but on the top is the Southern Cassowary.

You don’t see the cassowary, but the cassowary sees you.
Madeleine Deaton/Flickr, CC BY

Darwin

Alligator River Floodplains IBA and Adelaide and Mary River Floodplains IBA comprise the extensive river networks east of Darwin. Kakadu National Park overlaps with the former IBA, and Fogg Dam with the latter. At the very least, a trip to Fogg Dam is a must where Magpie Geese and Wandering Whistling Ducks gather in large flocks, giving awesome views.

Magpie geese congregate in huge flocks in the Top End.
Ewen Bell/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Perth

Bindoon-Julimar and Peel-Harvey Estuary IBAs overlap with numerous nature reserves, providing good access for day trippers. Shorebirds and ducks are in good numbers at Peel-Harvey, whereas Bindoon-Julimar provides the chance to see some woodland species such as Red-capped Parrot and Western Spinebill.

The Western Spinebill has a sweet tooth and feeds on nectar.
Julia Gross/Flickr, CC BY

Hobart

Bruny Island and South-east Tasmania IBAs are some of the best places to see birds found in Tasmania and nowhere else. The Forty-spotted Pardalote is a little bird that attracts big attention from birders, together with the Tasmanian Native-hen.

Spot the Forty-spotted Pardalote in southern Tasmania.
Francesco Veronesi/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Adelaide

There are fewer than 50 orange-bellied parrots in the wild: you’ll be lucky to see one.
Ron Knight/Flickr, CC BY

Lakes Alexandrina and Albert IBA is a great spot to see another sought after bird, the Cape Barren Goose. Large flocks of Australian Shelduck are also on offer here. If you are truly lucky you will see the Orange-bellied Parrot, but they are on the decline so be quick.

Kangaroo Island IBA is more than likely a weekend trip, but well worth it to see the waterbirds and shorebirds on offer. The Western Whipbird is an often heard but rarely seen resident and you have a good chance of seeing the Purple-gaped Honeyeater here also.

If you would like to take your birding to the next level, and get involved in bird conservation visit www.birdlife.org.au to find out more.

The Conversation

Rochelle Steven, Researcher – Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith School of Environment, Griffith University, Griffith University

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

Camping: 9 Ways to Transition from Summer to Fall


Girly Camping®

transition from summer to fall

9 Ways to Transition from Summer to Fall

As summer is coming to an end, its time to put our bathing suits away and bust out the warmer sleeping bags to prepare for camping in the Fall. With cooler weather, shorter daylight, and more sight seeing, here are 9 ways to transition from Summer to Fall:

Experience warmer climates- Camping in the desert may be too extreme the summer but with the temperature dropping, Spring and Fall are the ultimate seasons to go camping in warmer climates.

Sip hot cocoa-Cooler weather means colder nights and what better way to warm up than with hot cocoa around the campfire!

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