Tag Archives: Fire

A land of fire and water: Australia reflections part 3

Fire and water; those opposing elements have been our constant companions during this trip to Australia.  All the major international news media have been reporting on how serious the bush fire situation is in the south east of the continent.  In East Gippsland, Victoria, tens of thousands of residents and holiday makers have been advised to leave the area.  Four thousand of those who haven’t left were forced to spend last night on the beach, as fires got closer to the town of Mallacoota.  These are just the latest examples of climate change refugees in their own country, something I highlighted in a post about our visit to the USA earlier this year.  Of course, Australia is a continent that is used to bush fires, they are nothing new.  But what is new is the scale of these fires and the extended drought and high temperatures that are making the landscape more flammable than ever.

There’s currently a lot of media discussion in Australia about how landscapes were managed historically by Aboriginal peoples, whose selective and regular burning of the bush reduced fuel loads.  Karin and I have just returned from Port Macquarie where we enjoyed Christmas with an Australian branch of our family.  Several of them have spent a considerable amount of time working with remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.  We were told a story about an Aboriginal elder who asked one of our relatives to drive him out to an area of bush that had not been burned for over a decade.  It was that elder’s role to burn this land at regular intervals, a family tradition that went back generations.  Having driven for several hours along dirt roads, the elder asked to stop; he hopped out of the vehicle, went up to a patch of dry grass, and casually set fire to it with a small lighter he was carrying.  After pausing a few seconds to make sure that the flame had caught he hopped back into the car and said “Let’s get out of here”.  An hour back down the road the companions stopped and looked back.  The whole landscape was aflame, with a column of black smoke rising, I was told, in a mushroom cloud “like a nuclear explosion”.

This sounds extreme, but these areas are isolated and a long way from any human settlements or infrastructure.  Such activities have been part of toolbox of ways in which Aboriginal peoples have managed these landscapes for thousands of years.  By burning areas on a regular cycle the negative effects of large, out-of-control fires are reduced, and opportunities for seedling establishment and fresh foliage for animals to browse are created.  There’s more information about these practices here and here.

In the more heavily populated parts of Australia, and in the adjacent national parks, fires have long been suppressed, such that when they do occur they are much more violent conflagrations, over a greater area, than would normally be the case.

On one of our trips near Port Macquarie we came across an area of woodland that had burned recently, separated by a small road from an adjacent block that had not burned.  In the following set of images I’ve alternated the two blocks so you can see what the woodland looked like before and after burning.  But remember that this was not an especially intense fire; the trees are still living, and there is foliage in their crowns.  Once there’s been some rain and a chance for the vegetation to regrow, the previously burned block will look identical to the currently unburned area.  Indeed in one shot you can already see some green shoots emerging from the ground:

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So fire in itself is not a problem for these natural communities.  What is a problem, for nature and for the communities of people who live in and around these woodlands, is the intensity, the scale and the frequency of the fires that are currently occurring.  This morning Karin and I watched silently to a news report of yet another volunteer fire fighter who had lost his life overnight.  In this case he had been part of a crew whose 10 tonne fire truck had been lifted up and overturned by cyclone-strength winds created by the blaze itself – there’s a BBC news account of the tragedy here.  “Unprecedented” is a word we’re hearing a lot on ABC News.

Evidence for the number and size of the fires was everywhere in and around Port Macquarie, as we observed when we took a drive up to the peak of North Brother Mountain in Doorgan National Park.  From a height of about 470 m (1500 ft) we could see some amazing panoramic views of the region that also showed black fire scars on the landscape – this is looking south:

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Looking north there’s little evidence of the fires – some have occurred there but much smaller in scale.  But there is a lot of that second element, water.  We were able to explore some shallow coastal lagoons fringed with grey mangroves (Avicennia marina):

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Mangrove habitats are fascinating places that are ecologically important as nurseries for marine fish and invertebrates.  They also provide physical protection to coastlines, acting as a buffer to storm surges that would erode the land.  In recognition of this, a recent project around Port Macquarie has involved restoration of these mangrove areas and was instigated by commercial oyster farmers and a local fishing  society.  I’m particularly intrigued by the upward-pointing aerial roots of mangroves; termed pneumatophores, they function to provide oxygen to the trees, but also increase the physical complexity of the floor of the lagoon, providing habitats for small animals:

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But evidence of the drought in this part of the world is never far away.  On our seven-hour train trip back to Sydney we passed mile after mile of parched farmland, with dried-up waterholes and dust-filled streams.  The only thing stopping it from burning is the absence of vegetation:

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As I complete this blog post, it’s 31st December and we’re back in Coogee Bay, ensconced in the apartment of my colleagues Angela and Stephen.  They have headed to Stephen’s native Canada to visit family.  It’s going to be cold!  We’re very happy to house sit and see in the New Year in warmer climes.  Best wishes for 2020 to all of my readers: let’s hope that it’s the start of an environmentally more enlightened decade.

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Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Climate change, Ecosystem services

Ash on the beach, fire in the bush: Australia reflections part 1

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Although we’ve only been in Australia for less that two weeks, it feels as if we’ve been here forever; once we got over the jetlag and the weird sleeping patterns, Karin and I have easily settled into the life of a Southern Hemisphere summer.  It’s hard to believe that back home in the UK it’s cold, wet and (politically) miserable….

We’re based at Coogee Beach in the eastern suburbs of sprawling Sydney, just a short walk from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) where I’ve spent most of my time, and an even shorter walk from sand and surf.  It sounds idyllic but one of the recurring features of the past week has been the amount of ash and charred leaves washing up on the beaches from the bush fires that surround Sydney at the moment:

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The region is in the midst of an extended drought and this has worsened the fire season.  The Australian Government seems intent on denying that it’s anything to do with climate change, though recently one of the state ministers has broken ranks.  That’s going to be little consolation this year but may mark the start of some changes in policies.  Let’s see.

During our time here Karin and I have facilitated a workshop on “Writing for a non-academic audience” which was attended by 17 UNSW postgraduate researchers.  I’ve presented a lecture on “Macroecology and macroevolution of plant-pollinator interactions: pattern and process at large geographical and temporal scales”…..

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….and spent a lot of time chatting with staff and postgrads at UNSW.  In addition, Angela Moles, Stephen Bonser and I have made initial progress with a short paper that I’m hoping will be ready to submit before we head back to the UK in early February.

Time to actually get out and see some of the habitats and biodiversity of this part of Australia has been limited.  But we’ve done a couple of hikes north and south of Coogee Beach, along cliff-top trails and boardwalks through remnant coastal heathland habitat, enjoying the novelty of watching rainbow lorikeets visiting the inflorescences of native Banksia trees:

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Yesterday we went further afield with a bird watching trip down to the Royal National Park (RNP) with Kew/NRI scientist Phil Stevenson (who is in the country for a couple of weeks on a flying visiting to speak at a conference and meet with colleagues); and Graham Pyke from Macquarie University, whose work on foraging behaviour of pollinators I’ve known for many years, but whom I’d never met.  Leading our trip was Steve Anyon-Smith, a professional bird guide who literally wrote the book on birding in the RNP.  Steve was great, highly knowledgeable, and a mine of information about the Australian environment.  As well as seeing about 67 bird species we encountered a host of other wildlife, and I collected data on wind and animal pollination for another set of species.  Here’s some images from that day:

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An orchid – Dipodium punctatum.

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The bower of a male satin bower bird.

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Not a great shot – it’s an Eastern dwarf tree frog.

2019-12-13 13.14.41 This is better – a very confiding Eastern water dragon along a well-used coastal trail.

Along that trail we also saw two forms of Banksia serrata – an upright one and a prostrate form – growing quite close together:

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I’ve seen a lot of birds visiting the inflorescences of this species but it’s suggested that mammals might be the main pollinators – the flowers have a very thick, yeasty smell.  Perhaps it’s both?

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An Australian fringe-lily.

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This is Epacris longiflora – thanks to Ryan O’Donnell for the identification.

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And of course we saw a lot of the iconic laughing kookaburras.

Steve was really concerned that much of the forest and wildlife in the NPR may be destroyed over the summer.  None of it has yet burned and, with temperatures due to rise enormously by next week, much of this habitat could be lost to fire by summer’s end.  I sincerely hope not, it’s too precious and beautiful to lose.  Vegetation in relatively light burns can reestablish itself given time, as we encountered in one of the Coogee remnants that burned a few years ago:

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But the bigger, hotter, more intense fires that are currently sweeping the state are something else entirely, and are alien to these forests.  Aboriginal Australians carefully managed their environment using regular, small burns, a practice that has been lost in most areas.

Fire in Australia is a theme that I keep coming back to.  A few weeks ago, during one of my second-year undergraduate grassland ecology lectures, I was  discussing fire as a threat and a management tool in grasslands.  I mentioned the situation in Australia with respect to Aboriginal use of fire and I asked my students what the purpose of their burning the grasslands was.  Someone suggested that it might relate to their agriculture.  My response then was “no” because Australian Aborigines were nomadic hunter-gatherers who never developed agriculture, which is what the received wisdom has been for decades.  The answer I’d give now is: “yes, quite probably”.  As so often is the case in science, the received wisdom was wrong.

My colleague at the University of New South Wales, Angela Moles, has loaned me a book called Dark Emu which draws on early European settler accounts, Aboriginal oral tradition, and recent archaeological discoveries to turn our understanding of the ecology of pre-European Australia on its head.  In particular, it seems as though the (then) very large Aboriginal population was much more settled and had developed a sophisticated form of agriculture that included the creation and exploitation of huge areas of native grasses for their grains.  This was all destroyed by colonial European agriculture within a short time period, before it was fully understood.  One of the arguments in Dark Emu is that these native grasses are much more suitable to the Australian climate than wheat and may allow more sustainable agriculture in the future.

If you want to know more, here’s a link to a recent review and interview with the author, Bruce Pascoe:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/may/24/dark-emus-infinite-potential-our-kids-have-grown-up-in-a-fog-about-the-history-of-the-land

Strange as it might sound for a professor to say, I was happy to be wrong on this (or indeed any) occasion: scientific understanding only progresses by people being wrong and incorrect ideas being superseded by new knowledge.  I made a point of sending my students an email telling them about what I’d discovered.  It may well form a question on the test they have to take next term…..

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Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Birds, Climate change, Pollination