Mountain Journal has often reported on the threats to remnant ancient forests in lutruwita/ Tasmania. Vegetation that dates back to the time when Australia was a part of the Gondwana super continent remain in mountain and low land areas in the centre and west of the state, and are under threat from climate change driven fire regimes.
For instance, this story reports on the drying trend that has been noted in south western Tasmania which has seen a steady increase in bushfires ignited by lightning, threatening the survival of Tasmania’s Gondwanan legacy.
A recent story from Zoe Kean, published on the Tasmanian Inquirer website (available here) highlights the threats to these vegetation communities.
Last summer was the driest in some parts of the south-west since records began, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. This is bad news for the region’s unique trees and sensitive ecosystems in part of the extensive world heritage area that covers about a fifth of the state.
Scientists fear the dry could have a significant impact on the south-western part of the world heritage area. Fire ecologist Dr Jenny Styger, adjunct researcher at the University of Tasmania, says the living history of the south-west, which stretches back to the time of the dinosaurs, made it particularly vulnerable to dry weather.
Many of Tasmania’s trees evolved on the supercontinent Gondwana before the state broke away from what is now Antarctica about 50 million years ago and began to drift north. Many plants unique to the island state – including King Billy pines, pencil pines, deciduous beech (known as fagus), and Huon pines – are still adapted to chilly Gondwanan conditions.
“They’re like dinosaur plants, they’re of an extremely ancient lineage,” Dr Styger says. “They evolved at a time when Tasmania was much cooler and wetter than it is now and as a result they are extremely fire sensitive – they can be killed by a single fire.”
Apart from being fire sensitive, some of these trees (for instance the Huon Pine) are sensitive to drought conditions, which provides an additional threat to individual trees as summer’s get longer and drier. While we can limit the impact of fire, dealing with hotter and drier summers at a landscape scale is impossible.
What can we do?
Zoe quotes Fire ecologist Dr Jenny Styger, adjunct researcher at the University of Tasmania, who suggests two things:
1/ First Nations people intentionally burned the landscape in a “regular and planned” way, focusing on coastal heaths and low button grass moorlands. By keeping fuel loads low, these fire regimes protected ancient rainforests in moist gullies, along rivers and in the shade of mountains.
2/ She says the south-west needs “serious action on climate change” by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but “on the micro scale there are immediate actions we can take, such as improving our land management practices”.
It is clear that we have a rapidly closing window of opportunity to act now to head off the threat of climate catastrophe. This means radically reducing local, national and global greenhouse gas pollution now.
3/ prepare for future fires.
There is a Fire Management Plan for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA), which has recently been updated to reflect the changes that are already obvious due to climate change. However groups like the Tasmanian National Parks Association recommend additional work be incorporated into the plan to ensure it is fit for purpose for the realities of the 21st century (brief update here).
4/ increase our capacity to fight fires. With more frequent lightning strikes it is essential that we have enough crews trained in remote area firefighting who can be deployed to put fires out before they turn into blazes. Tasmania has career firefighters who do a superb job of early attack on lightning strikes. Tasmania now also has a volunteer remote area team who work to support the efforts of career firefighters.
After the terrible fires of 2016, a senate inquiry recommended the establishment of a national remote area firefighting team. Member s of the inquiry from the Coalition opposed the proposal.
With a new national government, now is the time to reconsider establishing such a team, who could be deployed to Tasmania in bad fire seasons to support the efforts of Tasmanian remote area crews.
[IMAGES: south of Lake Mackenzie, Central plateau, lutruwita/ Tasmania]