Paving the way for climate change adaptation

By Dr Alistair Hobday May 28th, 2019

In the face of climate change, how do we support terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems to adapt, while accelerating decision-making to create sustainable pathways for the future?

As we face global threats to marine and terrestrial ecosystems, novel approaches to climate change adaptation will be needed. Image: CSIRO / Christopher Doropoulos

“The health of the ecosystems on which we and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

So says Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, in reference to a recent UN report that reveals 1 million species are at risk of extinction.

The report brought together 145 scientists from 50 institutions. It describes serious and sobering predictions on how our world is changing and how this will impact animals, plants and humans. Importantly, it calls for urgent action from individuals, researchers and government, to accelerate decision-making for climate change adaptation.

Climate change is bringing unprecedented change

Climate change mitigation efforts have an aspirational target of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, however, environmental change is already happening. In Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost state, we’ve already seen around 100 fish species arrive from more northern waters. Fisheries are being impacted and marine heatwaves are causing tremendous stress and threatening global biodiversity. It’s predicted that by 2100, every day in the ocean will be considered a marine heatwave, relative to today’s ocean temperatures.

One of Australia’s greatest natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef, is experiencing considerable change. Following climate change-related mass bleaching in 2016 and 2017, coral cover and reproduction is declining and the repeated bleaching is making recovery difficult.

Marine species’ mortality is being impacted by new disease outbreaks and threats from marine pollution, such as plastics increasing mortality in turtles and seabirds, which compound the problems that climate change creates. Increases in air temperature during heatwaves have seen animals like bats and cockatoos falling from the trees.

Change to natural environments will continue, even as greenhouse gas mitigation efforts occur. We need to prepare for a world that won’t be like it is now. Adaptation strategies are already underway but we need to accelerate decision-making and create systematic change. We are seeing some adaptation successes in agriculture – there’s drought resistant wheat, biodegradable polymer films that retain soil moisture, and planting trees to increase shade for livestock that reduces exposure to heat. So how can we prepare to best manage changes to help habitats and species cope with climate change, and maximise how the Australian community can benefit from a healthy environment?

A crystal ball for future scenarios

Modelling provides an extensive toolbox to explore future scenarios, test possible actions, and then to prepare for changes to natural ecosystems.

We’ve applied effective modelling tools for fisheries management that includes statistical distributions, trophic levels, size traits, species distributions and hybrid models. For 2020-2025, we predict relative stability for fishing stocks, however, species are already on the move, and 70 per cent of wild fishery species are vulnerable to climate change at longer time scales.

Modelling capabilities are being used to understand how climate change will impact fish species to ensure effective fisheries management. Image: Annie Spratt

Whilst Australian fisheries are already some of the best-managed fisheries globally, this modelling will assist with ongoing management planning – not only to identify the threats and responses, but also the opportunities.

Modelling isn’t fail safe. But it does provide researchers and decision-makers with useful guidance about future situations, which is a necessary place to start when developing adaptation strategies.

Human intervention using novel solutions

For threatened species that cannot adapt to climate change on their own, human intervention will be critical. This will raise ethical considerations, such as where and what species to relocate as their local environment changes beyond their coping range.

The shy albatross found on Albatross Island off the coast of Tasmania faces climate-related threats to its population. They are long-lived (to approx. 40-50 years) and return to the island where they were born to breed from the age of six. They lay one egg per year and stay within Australian waters.

We have created artificial nests to assist with breeding to give chicks a better chance of survival. This is one example of human intervention to assist with conservation.

Threatened species may need human intervention to assist with conservation, like these artificial nests for Shy Albatross.

In Western Australia, a collaborative effort is underway to save the Western swamp turtle by moving the species from their existing habitat into a new one. As few as 100 swamp turtles are believed to currently exist in the wild. Relocation could be the only way to support the recovery of the species, and trials are underway to locate suitable areas.

The question of choosing which species get help, and hence applying resources to assist adaptation efforts, is a challenging one. A strong understanding of the system-wide impacts of an intervention action also must be taken into account. Choosing endangered species is logical, but what about important prey species?

Innovative research in genomics can provide insight on population structure and evolution for species. This is useful for studying local adaptation by identifying genes and traits that can assist with future recovery. Perhaps we can also identify which individuals might survive best when translocated to a new environment.

Managing the Great Barrier Reef is a team effort

The Australian and global community recognises the high natural and economic value of the Great Barrier Reef – and rightly so. The Great Barrier Reef spans 348,000 square kilometres and stretches 2,300 kilometres. It generates around $5.2 billion annually, provides a home for 1,500 species of fish, hundreds of types of coral, and 30 species of marine mammal. It’s generally accepted that we will need to apply a range of interventions to manage climate threats.

Industrial techniques are being trialled to harvest coral larvae to help coral restoration for the Great Barrier Reef.

One such novel solution is trialling new technology to harvest coral larvae using an industrial 50,000 litre on-board aquaculture set-up. So far, the results are showing great potential to restore coral, not just on individual reefs but across large regions of the Reef.

The Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program is a whole-of-reef approach involving CSIRO and other leading research and government departments to promote resilience and facilitate the recovery of the Great Barrier Reef. The program is an effective way to apply long-term, co-designed solutions, and highlights the benefits of collaboration.

Connecting science, policy and investment

Governance frameworks will be essential to support future climate change adaptation. This is already underway for novel climate interventions such as cloud seeding and carbon dioxide removal technologies.

Our Biodiversity Knowledge Bank informs government on Natural Resource Management and sets a benchmark for long-term research infrastructure to support conservation in the face of climate change. But we will also need to ask ourselves – how far will we go to protect natural systems as we know them, and could our interventions interfere with natural processes of adaptation?

Climate change adaptation will require a portfolio of action integrating scientific, policy, legal and industry perspectives, underpinned by support from the Australian community.

These are complex questions, and will require mixing scientific knowledge with our values and rules. They can’t be answered by the scientific community alone – it will demand a portfolio of action integrating scientific, policy, legal and industry perspectives, underpinned by support from the Australian community.

An integrated approach will help accelerate decision-making and foster behaviour change to address both mitigation and adaptation challenges. It’s only then that we will transform reactive responses into proactive approaches built on shared governance that will provide a sustainable future.


Dr Alistair Hobday is a CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere science principal research leader. He recently attended Charting the adaptation pathway for Australia’s socio-ecological systems, a CSIRO Cutting Edge Symposium that brought together representatives from research organisations, local, state and federal governments, and NGOs.

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