PHOTO: Native animals like koalas often stand little chance against the severity of Australia’s bushfires (M Fillinger: IFAW)
What effect will climate change have on Australia’s animal and plant species? This is the fourth of a five-part series in which environment reporter Sarah Clarke sets out to provide answers.
koala in aftermath of bushfire
The severity and pace of the current bushfires across Australia’s east coast has meant thousands of animals have had little chance.
Colleen Wood has spent 17 years caring for koalas and runs the Southern Ash Wildlife Shelter in Victoria.
She says the fires in 2009 were the worst.
AUDIO: Climate change threatens Australian wildlife (AM)
“During the Black Saturday fires we had just over 100 koalas but prior to that we had 40 or 50 koalas at a time,” she said.
“Obviously they are directly impacted by fire, by the flames, and indirectly impacted later with limited feed source.”
She says the sheer intensity and the number of recent fires means there has not been enough time for the habitat to return to good health.
“It takes ages for the habitat to restructure itself and for the actual leaf to come back,” she said.
“It takes like five to 10 years before you are going to get any animals to be able to reside in that vicinity.”
With a forecast of more hotter days, longer dry periods, and more intense bushfires, climate scientists are warning some of Australia’s rare and threatened species could be at significant risk.
Lesley Hughes, who is from Macquarie University and is a member of the Climate Commission, says some species in particular are at risk.
“So species that have already shrunk to just occurring in a few locations, but also those species that are in the alpine zone,” she said.
“Because by the end of the century if we get [an increase of] between four and six degrees, it will be very unlikely that we will have any snow left in our alpine zones.
“So all the species that rely on snow will be increasingly threatened and those species that live on the tops of mountains, up in the wet tropics that are in places that are a little bit cooler than the surrounding areas, will also be at risk.
“Those species that live on the coast that suffer a loss of habitat from rising sea levels.
Species, ecosystems, landscapes will all be affected. So we really need to re-imagine what it’s like to conserve biodiversity.
CSIRO researcher Michael Dunlop
“They’re the sorts of species we are most worried about.”
Globally, the United Nations chief science body says up to 30 per cent of plant and animal species assessed are at an increased risk of extinction if temperatures increase by three degrees.
Few Australian species have been studied in enough detail to make credible projections.
But the CSIRO says by 2030 some of Australia’s natural landscapes will have been transformed, and by 2070, some may disappear from the continent.
Michael Dunlop, a lead researcher with the CSIRO, says Australia’s landscape may look, smell and sound different.
“What we might expect is for the ecosystems that we are familiar with, over time, to look quite different from what they do now, to sound different, different birds there, they might even smell different with the different sorts of decomposition happening,” he said.
“So quite large changes to the essence really of ecosystems that we are familiar with.
“All species will be affected. Species, ecosystems, landscapes will all be affected. So we really need to re-imagine what it’s like to conserve biodiversity.”
This is the third in a five-part series by Sarah Clarke on climate impacts.
Part 1: How will rising seas affect Australia’s homes and infrastructure
Part 2: What effect will climate change have on agriculture and food production?
Part 3: What effect will climate change have on health in the Pacific?
Still to come:
Story by environment reporter Sarah Clarke