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Ecosystems and biodiversity

The most readily recognisable characteristics of eucalyptus species are the distinctive flowers and fruit.The capsules are roughly cone-shaped and have valves at the end which open to release the seedsManaging ecosystems and biodiversity – land and sea

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Australia’s ecosystems

Australia’s natural species and ecosystems are highly vulnerable to climate change and will have difficulty adapting to the rate and extent of projected changes. Many species are at risk because they are restricted in geographical and climatic range.

Alpine regions, south-western Australia, coral reefs and freshwater wetlands are likely to be particularly vulnerable. There are also likely to be significant changes to our marine ecosystems due to warmer water temperatures and the threat of ocean acidification.

To manage and conserve these ecosystems we need to be able to:

  • anticipate and measure the changes in species and ecosystems
  • understand their implications
  • design effective adaptation responses to minimise losses of species and services, and capture opportunities for positive change.

Value of Australia’s ecosystems

While attempts to value our ecosystems in financial terms are difficult, the role that natural ecosystems play in maintaining human life is currently irreplaceable and beyond price.

About 80 per cent of Australia’s vertebrate species and plant species are found nowhere else in the world.

The benefits of Australia’s biodiversity include direct utilitarian values (food, timber, fibre and medicines) and ecosystem services (example, maintaining water quality) as well as aesthetic, recreational, scientific, educational and spiritual values.

The value of tourism alone to Australia is in excess of A$80 billion per year, with many visitors coming to enjoy our unique environments, such as the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu National Park.

Australia’s biodiversity is also an important part of Earth’s life support system as about 80 per cent of Australia’s vertebrate and plant species are found nowhere else in the world.

Threats in a changing climate

Climate change poses a clear danger to Australia’s natural ecosystems with more than 310 species of native animals and over 1180 species of native plants already at risk of extinction from invasive alien species and altered habitat, as well as resource harvesting and other human activities.

The scale and complexity of the threat is difficult to measure as there are few, if any, ecosystems where all the species present have even been listed and probably no ecosystems where all the interactions between species are fully understood.

Anything that can be done to reduce the negative impacts of climate change will provide great environmental, social and financial benefits.

Research areas

To identify and manage the threats facing our biodiversity and ecosystems CSIRO researchers have been working in two key areas:

  1. Predicting the responses of natural ecosystems to climate change, and developing adaptation options to improve their resilience
  2. Reducing the threats posed by invasive species, bushfires and habitat loss through development of well prioritised response strategies.

CSIRO’s research is providing information for ecosystem managers and policy makers. By actively responding to requests from policy agencies, CSIRO is helping to improve how climate change adaptation is embedded into policy.

Responses and adaptation options

This area of work is developing improved models to predict the responses of species and ecosystems to climate change and help develop adaptation options to increase their resilience.

The work aims to provide managers, policy makers and researchers with better underpinning knowledge about how Australian species and ecosystems, both on land and in the ocean, will respond to climate change.

This includes assessing what changes can be expected, how naturally adaptable species might be, and the implications for ecosystem services as well as developing appropriate adaptation options.

Two key projects have examined likely impacts of climate change across the whole of Australia’s marine and terrestrial environments as well as identifying appropriate adaptation options:

Kata TjutaThe implications of climate change for Australia’s biodiversity conservation and protected areas

CSIRO’s landmark Australia-wide assessment of the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and the National Reserve System to inform future management of Australia’s protected areas.

SnowReport card shows Australia’s oceans are changing

The 2012 Marine Climate Change in Australia Report Card demonstrated that climate change is having significant impacts on Australia’s marine ecosystems.

Other projects that examined specific issues in more detail include:

  • Threats to ecosystems in the Wet Tropics due to climate change and implications for management: This project examined how different climate change scenarios may affect particular forest types, summarising knowledge of how plant species vary with altitude and providing a unique baseline for monitoring future climate impacts.
  • When might assisted colonisation – actively moving species to introduce them to different areas – be appropriate? This research aimed to develop a framework to evaluate the risks associated with assisted colonisation as a climate adaptation strategy.
  • Weed response to cyclones in the Wet Tropics rainforests, impacts and adaptation: The project team studied recruitment, growth and mortality of nearly 20 000 seedlings in ten plots in the wet tropics world heritage rainforest in north Queensland affected by Cyclone Larry in 2006.
  • An integrated assessment of the impacts of climate change on Victorian alpine ecosystems and investigating ways to detect and manage ecological change: This project sought to predict how plants, soils and small animals will respond to warming and the associated increased risk of bushfire.
  • How the boundaries of rainforests are changing over time: Rainforests are likely to be affected by changed temperature and rainfall patterns in the future, and impacts are most likely to be observed at their margins where conditions are currently least favourable for their persistence. This research was an Australian component of an international program of study looking at climate impacts on vegetation boundaries. The work looked at how these boundaries change over time and how we can manage these areas best to cope with climate change.
  • Developing an approach for evaluating changes in compositional biodiversity associated with management responses to climate change in the Great Eastern Ranges.

Reducing threatening processes

This area of work aims to develop adaptations to reduce the threats posed under climate change by bushfires, invasive species and habitat decline.

Bushfires

  • How climate change may affect bushfire risk, behaviour and fire weather.
  • Understanding bushfire behaviour: this work included field validation of the findings from the earlier Western Australian based Project Vesta and experimental fires in South Australia and New Zealand.
  • CSIRO researchers were involved with the Bushfire CRC’s Victorian Bushfires Research Taskforce. For example, CSIRO staff developed maps to reconstruct the spread of the Kilmore East fire.
  • Fire regimes and climate adaptation: how do different fire regimes affect our landscapes? The research team investigated the interactions between fire regimes and other disturbances such as weeds; the regional sensitivity of fire regimes to management actions such as prescribed burning; and the extent to which adaptive management of fire regimes may mitigate risks to people, property, and biodiversity.
  • Investigating the effectiveness of aerial fire-fighting for suppressing bushfires, for example the use of Very Large Aerial Tankers (VLATs) such as the DC-10 air tanker.
  • Testing of bushfire detection cameras and exploring how the data can be processed and included in warning systems.
  • Defining current boundaries of knowledge of the structural and compositional dynamics in key Australian vegetation types and identifying critical gaps in knowledge that are essential for an understanding of the long-term interactions between vegetation dynamics and bushfire behaviour.

A significant amount of the bushfire research carried out by CSIRO fed into the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC).

Invasive species

  • Climate change and invasive plants in South Australia: examined the potential impact of climate change on weeds in South Australia and adaptation options for weed management strategies.
  • Climate change implications for weed management in Western Australia: explored possible future weed distributions under climate change scenarios, with a risk assessment for the Northern Agricultural Region.
  • Plant invasions in Mediterranean climate ‘hotspots’ of Australia and South Africa: Can past invasions inform implications for future climate change?

Habitat decline

  • Developing a framework to help identify climate change impacts for biodiversity to integrate adaptation with other threats to biodiversity including biodiversity/production trade-offs, urbanisation, soil degradation and invasive species.
  • Applying this framework to the Great Western Woodlands of south-western Australia. This is the world’s largest remaining Mediterranean-climate woodland about 16 million hectares. In this relatively intact region, maintaining inherent resistance and resilience by preventing degradation through human activities was considered the highest priority and lowest risk.