Human noise pollution is disrupting parks and wild places



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A red fox listening for prey under the snow in Yellowstone National Park. Noise can affect foxes and other animals that rely on their hearing when they hunt.
Neal Herbert/NPS

Rachel Buxton, Colorado State University

As transportation networks expand and urban areas grow, noise from sources such as vehicle engines is spreading into remote places. Human-caused noise has consequences for wildlife, entire ecosystems and people. It reduces the ability to hear natural sounds, which can mean the difference between life and death for many animals, and degrade the calming effect that we feel when we spend time in wild places.

Protected areas in the United States, such as national parks and wildlife refuges, provide places for respite and recreation, and are essential for natural resource conservation. To understand how noise may be affecting these places, we need to measure all sounds and determine what fraction come from human activities.

In a recent study, our team used millions of hours of acoustic recordings and sophisticated models to measure human-caused noise in protected areas. We found that noise pollution doubled sound energy in many U.S. protected areas, and that noise was encroaching into the furthest reaches of remote areas.

Pine siskin song as a car passes by, Rocky Mountain National Park.
Recorded by Jacob Job, research associate with Colorado State University and the National Park Service, Author provided268 KB (download)

Our approach can help protected area managers enhance recreation opportunities for visitors to enjoy natural sounds and protect sensitive species. These acoustic resources are important for our physical and emotional well-being, and are beautiful. Like outstanding scenery, pristine soundscapes where people can escape the clamor of everyday life deserve protection.

What is noise pollution?

“Noise” is an unwanted or inappropriate sound. We focused on human sources of noise in natural environments, such as sounds from aircraft, highways or industrial sources. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, noise pollution is noise that interferes with normal activities, such as sleeping and conversation, and disrupts or diminishes our quality of life.

Human-caused noise in protected areas interferes with visitors’ experience and alters ecological communities. For example, noise may scare away carnivores, resulting in inflated numbers of prey species such as deer. To understand noise sources in parks and inform management, the National Park Service has been monitoring sounds at hundreds of sites for the past two decades.

Estimating human-generated noise

Noise is hard to quantify at large-landscape scales because it can’t be measured by satellite or other visual observations. Instead researchers have to collect acoustic recordings over a wide area. NPS scientists on our team used acoustic measurements taken from 492 sites around the continental United States to build a sound model that quantified the acoustic environment.

National Park Service staff set up an acoustic recording station as a car passes on Going-to- the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana.
National Park Service

They used algorithms to determine the relationship between sound measurements and dozens of geospatial features that can affect measured average sound levels. Examples include climate data, such as precipitation and wind speed; natural features, such as topography and vegetation cover; and human features, such as air traffic and proximity to roads.

Using these relationships, we predicted how much human-caused noise is added to natural sound levels across the continental United States.

To get an idea of the potential spatial extent of noise pollution effects, we summarized the amount of protected land experiencing human-produced noise three or 10 decibels above natural. These increments represent a doubling and a 10-fold increase, respectively, in sound energy, and a 50 to 90 percent reduction in the distance at which natural sounds can be heard. Based on a literature review, we found that these thresholds are known to impact human experience in parks and have a range of repercussions for wildlife.

Few escapes from noise

The good news is that in many cases, protected areas are quieter than surrounding lands. However, we found that human-caused noise doubled environmental sound in 63 percent of U.S. protected areas, and produced a tenfold or greater increase in 21 percent of protected areas.

Map of projected ambient sound levels for a typical summer day across the contiguous United States, where lighter yellow indicates louder conditions and darker blue indicates quieter conditions.
Rachel Buxton, Author provided

Noise depends on how a protected area is managed, where a site is located and what kinds of activities take place nearby. For example, we found that protected areas managed by local government had the most noise pollution, mainly because they were in or near large urban centers. The main noise sources were roads, aircraft, land-use conversion and resource extraction activities such as oil and gas production, mining and logging.

We were encouraged to find that wilderness areas – places that are preserved in their natural state, without roads or other development – were the quietest protected areas, with near-natural sound levels. However, we also found that 12 percent of wilderness areas experienced noise that doubled sound energy. Wilderness areas are managed to minimize human influence, so most noise sources come from outside their borders.

Finally, we found that many endangered species, particularly plants and invertebrates, experience high levels of noise pollution in their critical habitat – geographic areas that are essential for their survival. Examples include the Palos Verdes Blue butterfly, which is found only in Los Angeles County, California, and the Franciscan manzanita, a shrub that once was thought extinct, and is found only in the San Francisco Bay area.

Of course plants can’t hear, but many species with which they interact are affected by noise. For example, noise changes the distribution of birds, which are important pollinators and seed dispersers. This means that noise can reduce the recruitment of seedlings.

F-4 fighter jets pass through ‘Star Wars Canyon’ in Death Valley National Park, a spot popular with military pilots.

Turning down the volume

Noise pollution is pervasive in many protected areas, but there are ways to reduce it. We have identified noisy areas that will quickly benefit from noise mitigation efforts, especially in habitats that support endangered species.

The ConversationStrategies to reduce noise include establishing quiet zones where visitors are encouraged to quietly enjoy protected area surroundings, and confining noise corridors by aligning airplane flight patterns over roads. Our work provides insights for restoring natural acoustic environments, so that visitors can still enjoy the sounds of birdsong and wind through the trees.

Rachel Buxton, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Colorado State University

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

Earth’s wildernesses are disappearing, and not enough of them are World Heritage-listed


James Allan, The University of Queensland and James Watson, The University of Queensland

Earth’s last intact wilderness areas are being rapidly destroyed. More than 5 million square km of wilderness (around 10% of the total area) have been lost in the past two decades. If this continues, the consequences for both people and nature will be catastrophic.

Predominantly free of human activity, especially industrial-scale activities, large wilderness areas host a huge range of environmental values, including endangered species and ecosystems, and critical functions such as storing carbon and providing fresh water. Many indigenous people and local communities, who are often politically and economically marginalised, depend on wilderness areas and have deep cultural connections to them.

Yet despite being important and highly threatened, wilderness areas have been almost completely ignored in international environmental policy. Immediate proactive action is required to save them. The question is where such action could come from.

In a paper published in Conservation Biology, we argue that the United Nations’ World Heritage Convention should expand the amount of wilderness included in its list of Natural World Heritage Sites (NWHS).

Wilderness areas are underrepresented among the 203 sites currently on the list. The World Heritage Committee’s meeting in Poland this week offers a good opportunity to redress the balance.

Whither wilderness?

The World Heritage Convention was adopted in 1972 by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to conserve the world’s most valuable natural and cultural sites – places of exceptional importance to all of humanity and future generations. Each one is unique and irreplaceable. Currently, 193 countries (almost the entire world) are parties to the convention, which has inscribed 203 natural sites around the world.

World Heritage Status is granted to places with “Outstanding Universal Value”, which is defined based on three pillars. First, a site must meet one of the four criteria for listing as natural World Heritage (aesthetic value, geological value, biological processes, and biodiversity conservation). Second, a site must have “integrity” and “intactness” of its values (in other words, it must be in excellent condition). Finally, a site must be officially protected by the national or subnational government under whose jurisdiction it falls.

Wilderness areas can be associated with all four of the natural criteria, as well as the integrity and intactness requirements. What’s more, a wilderness by definition cannot be recreated once it is lost. The argument for protecting wilderness areas by adding them to the NWHS list is therefore compelling.

We created the most up-to-date maps of terrestrial wilderness using recent maps of human pressure and assessed the World Heritage Convention’s current coverage of wilderness areas. We found that some 777,000 square km (around 2% of the total) are already protected in 52 Natural World Heritage Sites.

Very little of the world’s wilderness (green) is within natural World Heritage Sites (pink).
Author provided

For example, more than 90% of the World Heritage-listed Purnululu National Park in the Kimberley region of Western Australia can be defined as a wilderness area. Similarly, the Okavango Delta in Botswana features more than 18,000 square km of wilderness, containing many of the world’s most endangered large mammals.

Wilderness boosts heritage value

In these cases, wilderness areas are likely contributing to the Oustanding Universal Value of of these World Heritage Areas – which as explained above is a key consideration in how they are managed and protected.

One way to strengthen this protection further would be to redraw the boundaries of natural World Heritage Areas to include more wilderness. This would help to preserve the conditions that allow ecosystems and other heritage values to thrive.

Our study identified broad gaps in wilderness coverage by the World Heritage Convention. Some places are already protected by national governments and could therefore be added to UNESCO’s list, such as the Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve in Myanmar, which contains 4,000 square km of wilderness, and the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna Reserve in Bolivia, which has 9,000 square km.

The places we have identified, and others, could potentially be designated as new Natural World Heritage Sites if they meet the other strict criteria for Outstanding Universal Values and integrity.

The World Heritage Convention could better achieve its objectives and make a substantial contribution to the conservation of wilderness areas by doing these four things:

  1. formally acknowledge the Outstanding Universal Values of wilderness areas

  2. strengthen the current protection of wilderness within NWHS

  3. expand or reconfigure current NWHS to include more wilderness, and

  4. designate new NWHS in wilderness areas.

It’s up to national governments to submit sites for inscription as NWHS, and we urge them to consider wilderness when doing so. This will strengthen their applications, and provide wilderness areas with the extra protection they need.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s meeting in Poland this week will consider two sites with significant wilderness areas for World Heritage status: Qinghai Hoh Xil Nature Reserve in China and Los Alerces National Park in Argentina. We urge the committee to approve these sites, and use this to spur further opportunities to raise the profile of wilderness conservation worldwide. It is an obvious win-win.

The ConversationThe clock is ticking fast for our last wilderness areas and the biodiversity they protect. Immediate action is needed.

James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland and James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland

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

How our research is helping clean up coal-mining pollution in a World Heritage-listed river



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The Wollangambe River’s canyons are loved by adventurers.
Ben Green

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

The Wollangambe River in New South Wales is a unique gift of nature, flowing through the stunning Wollemi National Park, wilderness areas and the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains. It’s an adventure tourism hotspot, with thousands of people clambering through the river’s majestic canyons each year.

So it was with a sense of irony that bushwalkers noticed unnatural flow and discolouration in the river and suspected it was pollution. In 2012 they contacted Western Sydney University, which has since conducted ongoing investigations.

The pollution was traced back to the Clarence Colliery, owned by Centennial Coal. Our recent research confirms that this is one of the worst cases of coal mine pollution in Australia, and indeed the world.

For four years I and other researchers have been investigating the pollution and its impacts on the river. The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has verified our findings. In exciting news, the mine was in March issued a revised environmental licence, which we believe is the most stringent ever issued to an Australian coal mine.

This is appropriate given the conservation significance of the river and the current scale of the pollution. We are now hopeful that the pollution of the Wollangambe River may soon be stopped.

Water pollution damages the river and its ecology

The Clarence Colliery is an underground mine constructed in 1980. It is just a few kilometres from the boundary of the Blue Mountains National Park.

Clarence Colliery and Wollangambe River.
Ian Wright

Our research revealed that waste discharges from the mine cause a plume of water pollution at least 22km long, deep within the conservation area. The mine constantly discharges groundwater, which accumulates in underground mines. The water is contaminated through the mining process. The mine wastes contributed more than 90% of the flow in the upper reaches of the river.

The EPA regulates all aspects of the mining operation relating to pollution. This includes permission to discharge waste water to the Wollangambe River, provided that it is of a specified water quality.

Our research found that the wastes totally modified the water chemistry of the river. Salinity increased by more than ten times below the mine. Nickel and zinc were detected at levels that are dangerous to aquatic species.

We surveyed aquatic invertebrates, mostly insects, along the river and confirmed that the mine waste was devastating the river’s ecology. The abundance of invertebrates dropped by 90% and the number of species was 65% lower below the mine waste outfall than upstream and in tributary streams. Major ecological impacts were still detected 22km downstream.

We shared our early research findings with the NSW EPA in 2014. The authority called for public submissions and launched an investigation using government scientists from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. Their study confirmed our findings.

Progress was interrupted when tonnes of sediment from the mine were dislodged in 2015 after heavy rainfall and the miner and the EPA focused on cleaning the sediment from the river. This incident has resulted in the EPA launching a prosecution in the NSW Land and Environment Court.

We recently compared the nature and scale of pollution from this mine with other coal mine pollution studies. The comparison confirms that this is one of the most damaging cases of coal mine water pollution in Australia, or internationally.

Even 22km below the waste outfall, the Wollangambe is still heavily polluted and its ecosystems are still degraded. One of the unique factors is that this mine is located in an otherwise near-pristine area of very high conservation value.

New licence to cut pollution

The new EPA licence was issued March 1, 2017. It imposes very tight limits on an extensive suite of pollutant concentrations that the mine is permitted to discharge to the Wollangambe River.

The licence covers two of the most dangerous pollutants in the river: nickel and zinc. Nickel was not included in the former licence.

The new licence now includes a sampling point on the river where it flows into the World Heritage area, about 1km downstream from the mine. The licence specifies vastly lower concentrations of pollutants at this new sampling point.

For example, the permitted concentration of zinc has been reduced from 1,500 micrograms per litre in the waste discharge, in the old licence, to 8 micrograms per litre.

It can be demoralising to witness growing pollution that is damaging the ecosystems with which we share our planet. This case study promises something different.

The actions of the EPA in issuing a new licence to the mine provide hope that the river might have a happy ending to this sad case study. The new licence comes into effect on June 5, 2017.

The ConversationOur current data suggest that water quality in the river is already improving. We dream that improved water quality, following this licence, will trigger a profoundly important ecological recovery. Now we just have to wait and see whether the mine can improve its waste treatment to meet the new standards.

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

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

Tasmanian Wilderness Again Under Threat


The link below is to an article reporting on threats to the Tasmanian wilderness via logging.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/14/tasmanian-bill-to-extend-wilderness-logging-sparks-federal-intervention-call

The world’s vanishing wild places are vital for saving species


Bill Laurance, James Cook University

In science, it’s rare that a new idea comes along that stops people in their tracks. For ecologists, this has just happened, in a paper that found that species living in wild places have more genetic diversity than the same species living in areas dominated by people.

Why is this big news? For starters, it’s a completely new reason to worry about the decline of wilderness.

My colleagues and I showed recently that wilderness areas have shrunk by a tenth globally in just the past two decades. Large wild areas are now mostly confined to cold, dry or otherwise inhospitable parts of the planet such as the far north and big deserts. Biologically rich rainforests have been destroyed the fastest.

In Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, human activities are expanding while wilderness areas are shrinking. Shown here are changes in the Human Footprint over the past two decades.
O. Venter et al. (2016) Scientific Data

The traditional reasons for defending wilderness areas are that they store massive stocks of carbon, produce clean drinking water, limit destructive flooding, harbour countless rare species, generate billions of dollars for local communities via ecotourism, and provide a scientific basis for understanding how nature is supposed to function in a rapidly changing world. These are compelling enough.

But this new finding is a game-changer, because it shows that genetic variation, the raw fuel for evolution, relies on wilderness too.

Environmental armageddon

The history of life on Earth has been a lot like what soldiers experience in a war: long periods of relative stability and even boredom punctuated by sudden periods of stark terror. Right now, we are living in one of the scariest times since life arose at least 3.7 billion years ago.

Life on Earth today is being battered by massive habitat disruption, climate change, invasive species, foreign pathogens, pollution, overhunting, species extinctions and the disruption of entire ecological communities. And it’s all down to humankind, which currently dominates three-quarters of the planet, according to our recent estimate.

Faced with this environmental onslaught, which will surely worsen in the coming century as the Earth struggles to support up to 12 billion people, the options for species are frighteningly limited.

Change or die

As Charles Darwin argued more than a century ago, hidden within most species is a surprisingly large amount of genetic variation. Humans vary in height, weight, body shape, skin colour, physiology and biochemistry.

Wolves, first domesticated around 40,000 years ago, have since been bred into dog varieties ranging from tiny Pekinese to Great Danes.

The world’s hugely varied breeds of domestic dog all arose from a single species of wolf.
Shutterstock

For most organisms (except simple bacteria and other organisms that reproduce by cloning), there are two main sources of genetic variation: mutations and sex.

If life were a card game, then mutations create new cards. Most mutations are bad for the individual – such as those that cause the bleeding disease Haemophilia A – or are more or less neutral. But now and then a mutation generates a highly beneficial wild card.

While mutations create new cards, sex shuffles the deck, mixing our genes into new combinations. That’s important too, because by doing so one can discard bad cards. Individuals with bad cards tend to die or fail to reproduce, removing their dud genes from the population. And every once in a while a really good combination of genes pops up, like a Royal Flush, that can then spread rapidly through the population.

The ability of species to change and adapt, or evolve, is vital. We tend to think of evolution as an incremental process, requiring thousands or millions of years, but that’s not always so. When things get rough, species with lots of genetic variation can evolve surprisingly fast.

Evolution in action

Consider what happened when scientists introduced myxomatosis to Australia in 1950 to kill off introduced European rabbits, which were stripping the continent’s vegetation bare. At first, most of the rabbits died. But a few, which by random chance were more resistant to the pathogen, survived and reproduced. Within a few decades rabbits had evolved a far greater capacity to resist the disease.

And just as remarkably, myxomatosis evolved as well. It became less deadly. If you’re a pathogen, you don’t want to kill your host straight away because then you’ll die too.

Instead, you just want to make your host sick, or kill it very slowly. That way, you can spread to lots of other hosts. So while rabbits became more resistant, myxomatosis also became less virulent. And it all happened in just a couple of decades.

Something similar is happening with Tasmanian devils, which are being killed off by a bizarre contagious cancer that spreads when the notoriously scrappy marsupials fight with one another.

Recent studies show that genes which produce greater resistance to the cancer are rapidly increasing in the population. Unfortunately, the devils don’t have a lot of genetic variation but hopefully they’ll have enough variation remaining to get past the killer cancer.

A Tasmanian Devil suffering from facial tumour disease, a contagious cancer.
Menna Jones

Things are even scarier for the cheetah, the world’s fastest land animal. While built for speed on the African plains, cheetahs will have a hard time outrunning new environmental challenges. That’s because they have almost zero genetic variation.

Roughly 12,000 years ago, cheetahs went through a severe population bottleneck, eroding most of their genetic variation. The species is paying a price for this today, with reduced sperm quality, kinked tails, and palate deformities among other problems. These maladies arise both from low genetic variation and from inbreeding, which occurs because individual cheetahs are so similar genetically.

Sadly, this could make Cheetahs perilously vulnerable to an “extinction vortex”. The vortex starts with a population crash, perhaps from a newly-introduced disease, habitat loss or climate change. The remaining individuals are already so severely inbred and depleted of genetic variation that they reproduce and survive poorly. Their population dwindles and crashes into oblivion.

We need wilderness

That is why the new study is so significant: it shows that a particular species living in a wild area has more genetic variation than does the same species living in a place where humans abound. The study was based on over 4,500 different species of amphibians and mammals scattered across the planet and was published in one of the world’s best scientific journals. This gives us a lot of confidence in the strength of its conclusions.

The bottom line is that the world’s wilderness areas are under assault. We are not just losing wild places with clean air and water and beautiful vistas. We are losing the raw fuel of evolution and adaptation that has taken life millions of years to accumulate.

Given the breakneck pace at which we are currently changing the planet, eroding the capacity of species to adapt to new challenges is absolutely the last thing we want to be doing.

The sun sets over the wilds of the Western Ghats in southern India.
William Laurance

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.

The world’s carbon stores are going up in smoke with vanishing wilderness


James Watson, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, James Cook University; Brendan Mackey, Griffith University, and James Allan, The University of Queensland

The Earth’s last intact wilderness areas are shrinking dramatically. In a recently published paper we showed that the world has lost 3.3 million square kilometres of wilderness (around 10% of the total wilderness area) since 1993. Hardest hit were South America, which has experienced a 30% wilderness loss, and Africa, which has lost 14%.

These areas are the final strongholds for endangered biodiversity. They are also essential for sustaining complex ecosystem processes at a regional and planetary scale. Finally, wilderness areas are home to, and provide livelihoods for, indigenous peoples, including many of the world’s most politically and economically marginalised communities.

James Watson and James Allan explain their recent research.

But there’s another important service that many wilderness areas provide: they store vast amounts of carbon. If we’re to meet our international climate commitments, it is essential that we preserve these vital areas.

Many of the world’s biological realms now contain very low levels of wilderness.
http://www.greenfiresciene.com

Climate consequences

Large, intact ecosystems store more terrestrial carbon than disturbed and degraded ones. They are also far more resilient to disturbances such as rapid climate change and fire.

For instance, the boreal forest remains the largest ecosystem undisturbed by humans. It stores roughly a third of the world’s terrestrial carbon.

Yet this globally significant wilderness area is increasingly threatened by forestry, oil and gas exploration, human-lit fires and climate change. These collectively threaten a biome-wide depletion of its carbon stocks, considerably worsening global warming. Our research shows that more than 320,000sqkm of boreal forest has been lost in the past two decades.

Similarly, in Borneo and Sumatra in 1997, human-lit fires razed recently logged forests that housed large carbon stores. This released billions of tonnes of carbon, which some estimate was equivalent to 40% of annual global emissions from fossil fuels. We found that more than 30% of tropical forest wilderness was lost since the early 1990s, with only 270,000sqkm left on the planet.

Deforestation of Sumatra’s lowland rainforest.
Bill Laurance

How do we stop the loss?

All nations need to step up and mobilise conservation investments that can help protect vanishing wilderness areas. These efforts will vary based on the specific circumstances of different nations. But there is a clear priority everywhere to focus on halting current threats – including road expansion, destructive mining, unsustainable forestry and large-scale agriculture – and enforcing existing legal frameworks.

For example, most of the world’s remaining tropical rainforests are under an onslaught of development pressures. Much of sub-Saharan Africa is being opened up by over 50,000km of planned “development corridors” that criss-cross the continent. These will slice deep into remaining wild places.

In the Amazon, plans are being made to construct more than 300 large hydroelectric dams across the basin. Each dam will require networks of new roads for dam and powerline construction and maintenance.

In northern Australia, schemes are afoot to transform the largest savannah on Earth into a food bowl, jeopardising its extensive carbon stores and biodiversity.

We need to enforce existing regulatory frameworks aimed at protecting imperilled species and ecosystems. We also need to develop new conservation policies that provide land stewards with incentives to protect intact ecosystems. These must be implemented at a large scale.

For example, conservation interventions in and around imperilled wilderness landscapes should include creating large protected areas, establishing mega-corridors between those protected areas, and enabling indigenous communities to establish community conservation reserves.

In Sabah, Borneo, scientists from the UK’s Royal Society have been working with local government to establish networks of interlinked reserves stretching from the coast to the interior mountains. This provides a haven for wildlife that migrate seasonally to find new food sources.

Funding could also be used to establish ecosystem projects that recognise the direct and indirect economic values that intact landscapes supply. These include providing a secure source of fresh water, reducing disaster risks and storing vast quantities of carbon.

For example, in Ecuador and Costa Rica, cloud forests are being protected to provide cities below with a year-round source of clean water. In Madagascar, carbon funding is saving one of the most biodiversity-rich tropical forests on the planet, the Makira forest.

We argue for immediate, proactive action to protect the world’s remaining wilderness areas, because the alarming loss of these lands results in significant and irreversible harm for nature and humans. Protecting the world’s last wild places is a cost-effective conservation investment and the only way to ensure that some semblance of intact nature survives for the benefit of future generations.

The Conversation

James Watson, Associate professor, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University; Brendan Mackey, Director of the Griffith Climate Change Response Program, Griffith University, and James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

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

Fighting fire in the wilderness: learning from Tasmania


Ted Lefroy, University of Tasmania and Andrew Campbell, Charles Darwin University

The first images of the impact of fire on the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area were accompanied by claims from Tasmanian Greens Senator Nick McKim that state and federal governments had ignored warnings from climate scientists that this would happen, and that the fire service had been slow to act.

Some 70 fires were started by lightning on January 13 and a further 14 on January 27. They have so far burned around 100,000 hectares, 17,000 of which are in the southwest Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Remote area specialists were sent in early and more flown in from New Zealand. The Tasmanian Fire Service was well prepared, and has stated repeatedly that the government has promised whatever resources they need. However this event suggests more emphasis is required on remote area specialist fire fighting.

That’s the policy change this event might precipitate.

Fires in the wilderness

Fires in wilderness are not just a matter of out of sight, out of mind. Left to burn, they can have a devastating impact on the environment, and indeed on people.

On January 2, 2003, one of us (Andrew) on the 6:40 am Qantas flight from Canberra to Melbourne counted 42 tendrils of smoke curling benignly above the tree canopy in the crystal clear air of the Australian Alps, after overnight lightning strikes on the drought-parched bush. Sixteen days later, in much more severe fire weather, some of those fires had joined up and tore into Canberra, destroying 500 houses, killing 4 people and injuring 490.

On December 1, 2006, lightning started fires in the Victorian Alps that went on to burn for 69 days, the longest running in the state’s history. Rangers in the Victorian Alpine National Park counted dozens of small fires the next morning but as the terrain was inaccessible, they had to wait until either it rained or the fires reached country in which they could fight them. That Great Divide fire went on to burn 1.2 million hectares of mainly national park.

By 2013, 85% of the Australian Alps national parks in Victoria, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory had burnt in the space of a decade, seriously compromising the ability of sub alpine forests to regenerate and increasing the likelihood that they will be replaced by more fire tolerant vegetation from lower altitudes.

Bombs away

Both the Canberra and the Great Divide fires may have had different histories if water bombing helicopters and highly-trained and well-equipped helitack crews had been deployed the morning after the lighting strikes. While water bombing can never control an intense wildfire, used early with on-ground follow up from elite firefighting crews, it can stop them before they get to that stage.

Similar arguments have been made by experienced firefighters in the Institute of Foresters of Australia in calling for an independent inquiry into why the fires that caused such devastation to Wye River and Separation Creek on Christmas Day were not tackled more aggressively in more benign conditions, soon after they started from lightning strikes several days earlier.

This is not to be confused with the calls for more large water bombing aircraft, the Very Large Air Tankers, described by environmental historian Stephen Pyne as “primarily political theatre and only secondarily part of fire control”.

And it would take more than money and kit. It would first require a change in policy, a different attitude to land management and a different attitude to risk. With growing evidence of more frequent extreme fire weather, that change is likely to be good insurance.

Politicians of all stripes are very good at finding hundreds of millions of dollars after devastating disasters, but in times of concern over budget deficits, they appear less willing to find tens of millions for prevention and first response measures. The approach we are advocating here is having more nimble (to use a fashionable word) capabilities in aircraft and highly trained personnel, supported by state of the art scanning, sensing and communications capabilities, to be able to hit fires in remote bush very quickly, while they are small and tractable.

Fire-sensitive pencil pines have been killed in the fires.
Matthew Newton

Changing environment

We need a major rethink about wild fire, a story that played out over last century in Yellowstone, the world’s first national park. In the first decades of the twentieth century, naturally lit fires were jumped on as soon as they started. With growing environmental awareness in the 1960s and 70s, the policy changed to letting nature takes its course. That might have been fine, all other things being equal. But they weren’t.

Human intervention resulted in wildly fluctuating populations of elk and deer as wolves were removed and the deer and elk ate the country bare to such an extent the beavers up and left. Rivers changed course, cutting into valleys that formerly featured beaver dams, flooded meadows and riparian woodlands of poplar and aspen.

So the deer and elk were shot, and a series of wet years led to a massive build-up of fuel. Drought followed, and then in 1988 a series of wildfires burned 320,000 hectares over three months, 36% of the park.

It took that dramatic event for the attitude to land management and wildfire to be turned on its head. Wolves have been reintroduced, some beavers have returned, and while this story is still unfolding and there will still be wildfires, they are less likely to be as extensive and as damaging.

In Australia, the debate continues on what role land management has played in recent fires.

Time for change

Like the Port Arthur massacre which brought about gun law reform, the black box flight recorder and safety belts, it takes tragedy to bring about major changes in policy and practice. Abstract warnings in the form of models, predictions and forecasts are never enough on their own to produce major shifts in funding or attitudes.

A dramatic event is unfolding in Tasmania’s Central Highlands right now. Maybe it could be handled differently next time.

That depends on two things. First, the value we as a community place on the fire-sensitive vegetation that has survived in Tasmania in the absence of fire since the Cretaceous, over 65 million years ago, a major reason for south west Tasmania being listed on the World Heritage register.

And, second, the federal and state governments accepting their responsibility to protect those values by providing air support, training and resources for remote area fire fighters.

This article was updated on February 2.

The Conversation

Ted Lefroy, Director, Centre for Environment, University of Tasmania and Andrew Campbell, Director, Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University

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

Australia Wild: Issue 001 – May 2014


I have recently begun to use Flipboard to develop an online newspaper dealing with Australian wilderness news. It is really a curation web application that does a very good job. I plan to create a monthly issue of what I call ‘Australia Wild.’

The current issue can be found at:
Australia Wild: Issue 001 – May 2014

The archive (along with other online newspapers and magazines I have developed using Flipboard) can be found at:
https://flipboard.com/profile/particularkev