Major changes needed to protect species and ecosystems

Water availability in rivers, wetlands and surrounding landscapes is a critical ecological process in seasonally variable tropical savannas of northern Australia such as the area around 17 Mile Falls in Nitmiluk National Park. Photo: Adam Liedloff.

 

A landmark study has found that climate change is likely to have a major impact on Australia’s plants, animals and ecosystems that will present significant challenges to the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

The comprehensive study by CSIRO highlights the sensitivity of Australia’s species and ecosystems to climate change, and the need for new ways of thinking about biodiversity conservation.

“Climate change is likely to start to transform some of Australia’s natural landscapes by 2030,” lead researcher, CSIRO’s Dr Michael Dunlop said.

“By 2070, the ecological impacts are likely to be very significant and widespread. Many of the environments our plants and animals currently exist in will disappear from the continent. Our grandchildren are likely to experience landscapes that are very different to the ones we have known.”

Dr Dunlop said climate change will magnify existing threats to biodiversity, such as habitat clearing, water extraction and invasive species. Future climate-driven changes in other sectors, such as agriculture, water supply and electricity supply, could add yet more pressure on species and ecosystems.

“These other threats have reduced the ability of native species and ecosystems to cope with the impacts of climate change,” Dr Dunlop said.

One of the challenges for policy and management will be accommodating changing ecosystems and shifting species.

The study suggests the Australian community and scientists need to start a rethink of what it means to conserve biodiversity, as managing threatened species and stopping ecological change becomes increasingly difficult.

“We need to give biodiversity the greatest opportunity to adapt naturally in a changing and variable environment rather than trying to prevent ecological change,” Dr Dunlop said.

The study highlights the need to start focussing more on maintaining the health of ecosystems as they change in response to climate change, from one type of ecosystem to another.

‘This could need new expectations from the community, possibly new directions in conservation policy, and new science to guide management,” Dr Dunlop said.

“To be effective we also need flexible strategies that can be implemented well ahead of the large-scale ecological change. It will probably be too late to respond once the ecological change is clearly apparent and widespread.”

The study found the National Reserve System will continue to be an effective conservation tool under climate change, but conserving habitat on private land will be increasingly important to help species and ecosystems adapt.

The team of researchers from CSIRO carried out modelling across the whole of Australia, as well as detailed ecological analysis of four priority biomes, together covering around 80 per cent of Australia.

The study was funded by the Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency and the CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship.

More information and the reports are available from The implications of climate change for Australia’s biodiversity conservation and protected areas.



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