Fire has always been a part of life here in Australia (well, at least for the last 60 million years). And as a result much of our vegetation is fire reliant or fire adapted. But climate change is changing fire seasons, making them longer and more intense. And this is having a terrible impact on many fire sensitive vegetation communities. The Alpine Ash is one of these.

After a series of fires in the early 21st century, the Victorian government had to intervene to ensure the survival of Alpine Ash communities through a ‘forest recovery program’ (source). Since 2002, more than 85% of the Alps bioregion has been burnt by several very large fires. Alpine Ash require around 20 years between intense fires in order for regrowth to be able to produce seed (source), and more frequent blazes are threatening the viability of this vegetation community across the Alps.

This restoration initiative has been an effective program which sources seed and then aerial sows areas which have been devasted by wildfire.

However, the program is being stretched by more regular fires and a review of the 2019/20 fires found that it doesn’t have enough seed stock to deal with bad fire seasons.

Now, Greening Australia and Minderoo Foundation have joined together to find ‘super seeds’ from the Alpine Ash which are suited to a changing climate.

According to a statement from Minderoo:

The three year project will combine climate models with knowledge of populations exhibiting resilience to hotter, drier climates and repeated fires, and seek to understand the genetic inheritance of their beneficial ‘climate-adjusted’ traits. Seeds from plants exhibiting these traits will be sown in an experimental network of climate-adjusted seed provenance plots across Victoria and New South Wales.

The results of this work will help to identify which ‘super seeds’ will reduce the risk of local extinction of Alpine Ash communities as the climate changes.

Elisa Raulings, Science & Planning Manager at Greening Australia, said

In the time it takes for Alpine Ash to mature and produce seed, large areas of Alpine Ash in our snowfields have been burnt multiple times, which has driven large-scale local extinctions. To give these Alpine Ash communities the best chance of survival, we need to increase genetic flexibility into regenerating populations so they can adapt faster to our changing climate,” Ms Raulings said.

Greening Australia will partner with the University of Melbourne and Edith Cowan Universities to conduct glasshouse and genetic trials to identify plants with climate-adjusted traits and test the genetic makeup of their seeds to inform optimal seed sourcing strategies. This will allow identification of the best seed to use for restoration after fires and to better prepare Alpine Ash forests to survive future fires. It will include hand planting and drone seeding of 12,000 plants in up to 24 different trial locations.

Madelon Willemsen, Healthy Landscapes Missions Lead at Minderoo Foundation, said her team were proud to partner with Greening Australia on this important project.

“We look forward to applying the insights from testing different climate-adjusted plant traits in different environments so that we can strengthen other vegetation communities in landscapes that are at risk of fires and floods across Australia with our network of partners,” Ms Willemsen said.

Alpine Ash trees play an important role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere, maintaining supplies in Melbourne’s water catchments and preserving the valuable and biodiverse ecosystem of subalpine forests. Alpine Ash trees also deliver high quality hardwood timber and are a feature of Victoria’s alpine tourist areas such as the Snowy Mountains.

Greening Australia has been working with Parks Victoria, DELWP and Melbourne University researchers to better predict the potential loss of key forests as a consequence of climate change and increased fire frequency, and to explore what interventions may be effective in reducing their loss. This project is an extension of this founding research.