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Steffen, W. Burbidge, L. Hughes, R. Kitching, D. Lindenmayer, W. Musgrave, M. Australia's biodiversity and climate change.

The Biodiversity Crisis and Adaptation to Climate Change: A Case Study from Australia's Forests

Poloczanska, E. Hobday and A. Skip to main content. In these and many other regions, climate change represents a threat to biodiversity and the regional communities and economies that depend upon it. Our unique biodiversity is shaped by the biogeographic history of the Australian continent: its soils, topography, and climate. These historical features, coupled with the human-changes to the environment, will greatly influence the magnitude of climate impacts in the future. Australian marine, terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity is already under stress from multiple threats, including habitat loss, coastal development, overharvesting, reduced river flows, soils degradation, and invasive species.

Biodiversity and ecological systems will be amongst the hardest hit by climate change, especially since adaptation measures in other sectors e. These impacts are expected to accelerate sharply through this century and will include rising extinction rates, transformation of ecological communities, and reduction of the ecosystem services than sustain human well-being and the Australian economy.

These measures include the expansion of the national protected area estate, improved management of existing threats, landscapescale focus on invasive species, water regimes and fire regimes, identification and protection of refugia, strategic improvements in connectivity, restoration of cleared and degraded landscapes, and multiple use planning for heavily exploited environments such as the ocean and inland floodplains. Adaptation and carbon sequestration are unlikely to be effective in reducing impacts in the absence of substantial emission reductions. Urgent and substantive abatement of greenhouse gas emissions, at both national and global levels, is critical if we are to avoid the dangerous impacts of global warming.


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Even a rise of 2 o C above pre-industrial levels will threaten many species and the integrity of ecosystems. These episodic climate events are extremely important in driving the structure and function of Australian terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems. Poleward flowing currents : warm water. Currents off the east and west coasts of Australia carry warm tropical waters to southern latitudes. Northern species may be able to move further south as waters warm, but in southern waters there is no shallow water habitat south of Australia for species that cannot cope with warming waters.

Infertile soils : Australian soils are some of the oldest and most nutrient-poor in the world. Nutrient limitations may constrain the responses of many Australian vegetation types to the fertiliser effect of rising atmospheric CO2 levels. In addition, significant soil changes over small distances and highly specific soil and nutrient requirements could limit establishment opportunities for many species dispersing to more climatically-suitable areas. Lack of topographic variability will limit the opportunity for many species to migrate to higher elevations as temperatures increase.

Role of fire : The combination of periodically low humidity, high winds and temperatures and flammable vegetation means that fire plays an important role in ecosystem structure and function in all but the wettest areas. Climate-associated changes in fire regimes may be one of the most significant drivers of ecosystem change in many regions. Thus, a range of marine species and habitats may be threatened by projected changes over the next century.

NCCARF - National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility

Coral reefs are also highly vulnerable to the impacts of increasing ocean acidity, rising sea levels, and increased intensity of tropical cyclones. Southwest Western Australia : supports large numbers of threatened endemic species and has been subject to substantial drying trends since the s.

Many of the unique plant species that characterise this region depend on winter rainfall for regeneration and are exposed to increasing risk of extinction as this continues to decline.


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Freshwater and estuarine wetlands are vulnerable in coastal regions to intrusion from saltwater as sea levels continue to rise e. Kakadu National park. Wetlands in areas such as the Coorong in the Murray Darling Basin are also threatened by reduced environmental flows and increasing salinity. Coastal development on populated coasts prevents landward movement of habitats as sea level rises.

Riparian ecosystems of inland Australia , including iconic river red gum forests and Coolabah woodlands, are in decline due to downward trends in water tables and flood frequencies that are essential for survival and regeneration. South-east Australia marine hotspot.

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Waters off the south-east coast of Australia are warming at approximately four times the global average. Movement of species to the south is changing community composition and fisheries e. Swamps and peatlands of the Great Divide and associated uplands, which have proved to be highly sensitive to variations in climatic moisture in recent history and which play key roles in sustained high quality flows in metropolitan and rural water supply catchments.

Earlier arrival and later departure times of migratory birds in Australian breeding and feeding grounds e. This system needs to be expanded as well as being integrated with more effective off-reserve conservation. An expanded system will help support increased population sizes of species currently under-represented in protected areas and reduce some of the existing threats such as over-exploitation of marine resources. Increased focus on identifying and protecting landscapes with the greatest environmental heterogeneity to maximise their capacity to support functional ecosystems.

A species-based focus needs to be increasingly expanded to address landscape-level conservation, to maximise the capacity for biodiversity to adapt.


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Acceleration of actions to control and reduce existing stressors to increase resilience to the growing stress of climate change. Increased resources are needed to better manage invasive species, soil and water degradation, reverse over-harvesting trends, manage risks of adverse fire regimes and ensure that no further clearing of remnant vegetation occurs. Monitoring of biodiversity trends , effectively integrated with flexible and adaptive management.

There is an urgent need for integrated, long-term ecological monitoring. Integrated regional biodiversity response strategies , tailored for regional differences in environments, climate change impacts and socio-economic trends need to be developed. Off the east coast of Australia, a sea urchin has moved south ahead of the rest of its community, resulting in habitat changes and reduced fishery catches. Flow-on effects to ecosystem services on which humans depend are services include production of food, fibre, and water; pollination of crops; pest control; purification of water; and biogeochemical nutrient cycling.

Many of the changes are expected to be non-linear and may accelerate suddenly when certain thresholds are exceeded. This behaviour inherently increases uncertainty in impact predictions. While all species and ecological communities will be affected by climate change, several regions can be identified as being of most immediate concern.

These include:. The impacts of climate change are already discernible at the genetic, species, community and ecosystem levels across the continent and in our marine environment. The availability of long-term biological datasets in the Northern Hemisphere has enabled extensive documentation of recent climate and biological trends.

Australia’s Biodiversity and Climate Change

There are fewer datasets from Australia, but they show that similar impacts are underway. The clearest evidence for such changes comes from observations of phenology mostly advances in life cycle events and geographic range shifts mostly polewards and to higher elevations. For example, some forty-five coastal fish species have exhibited major distributional shifts in south-east Australia. There is also evidence that some organisms are responding genetically to the strong selective pressures imposed by climatic changes. Many of these changes may also involve significant interactions and synergisms with non-climatic threats, and the precise roles of different factors are very difficult to quantify in most cases.

Observed changes likely to be driven, at least in part, by climate change include:. What is most noteworthy about these observations both in Australia and elsewhere is that in many cases, significant impacts are apparently occurring with extremely modest increases in temperature compared with those expected over coming decades.

The ESA welcomes the announcement of increased resources for protecting Australian biodiversity in the face of climate change under the new Biodiversity Fund. This announcement is an explicit recognition on the part of Government that an absolute increase in resources is needed, as well as fundamental changes in the way in which we approach conservation. Scientists acknowledge that some future uncertainty is unavoidable but that these uncertainties pertain principally to the magnitude of impacts, not to their likely eventuality or cause.

No-regrets adaptation decisions that are robust to a range of possible futures are urgently required. This adaptation planning needs to be flexible with clear 'signposts' - monitoring to assess the effectiveness of the actions relative to these signposts is critical. There is a limit above which biodiversity will become increasingly vulnerable to climate change even with the most effective adaptation measures possible.

Global average temperature increases of 1. Thus, the mitigation issue is central to biodiversity conservation under climate change. To avoid an inevitable wave of extinctions in the second half of the century, deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required by at the latest.

Australia's biodiversity: major features

By demonstrating its willingness to contribute to emission reduction, Australia will exert greater influence to promote similar actions in other countries. The more effectively the rate of climate change can be slowed and the sooner climate can be stabilised, the better are the prospects that biodiversity loss will be reduced. Hughes, L. Regional Environmental Change , 11, SS Terrestrial Biodiversity. Steffen, W.

Australia's biodiversity at breaking point – a picture essay

Burbidge, L. Hughes, R. Kitching, D. Lindenmayer, W. Musgrave, M. Australia's biodiversity and climate change. Poloczanska, E.

References

Hobday and A. Skip to main content. In these and many other regions, climate change represents a threat to biodiversity and the regional communities and economies that depend upon it. Our unique biodiversity is shaped by the biogeographic history of the Australian continent: its soils, topography, and climate.