Helping nature adapt to climate change

By Mary-Lou ConsidineSeptember 17th, 2021

How is the science of ecology helping our ecosystems adapt to climate change and other human pressures? ECOS put the question to Dr Suzanne Prober, leader of CSIRO’s Adaptive Ecosystem Management team.
Trees in a desert, where there is evidence of resprouting and regrowth.

Many Australian ecosystems are renowned for their resilience but climate change is pushing their capacity to survive drought, fire and other pressures to the limit.

In a recent landmark study published in Global Change Biology, scientists concluded that 19 Australian ecosystems – from the Great Barrier Reef and tropical savannahs in the north, to Antarctica and Macquarie Island in the south – are at risk of irreversible ecological collapse as a result of climate change and other human pressures.

For ecologists and others working to understand and protect the environment, it’s become an all-too-familiar story, one that may bring feelings of sadness and hopelessness – a phenomenon known as ecological grief or eco-grief.

But in the face of global threats like climate change and extensive land-clearing, ecologists are pressing on with the work of understanding ecosystems – how they work, how they’re changing, which species or parts of ecosystems are at risk, and how these might be saved, or assisted to adapt to climate change.

We spoke with senior CSIRO ecologist and co-author of the Global Change Biology study, Dr Suzanne Prober, about her work – in partnership with other researchers and environmental stakeholders in government agencies, non-government organisations and the community – to better target ecological research for conservation action.

What’s the key challenge facing ecologists in the fight to protect ecosystems and biodiversity from climate change?

The greatest challenge is really to find on-ground and policy solutions to help biodiversity and ecosystems adapt to a changing climate, so that we can minimise the loss of the many things – biological, cultural and economic – that we value about our natural ecosystems.

A first step towards this is having long-term monitoring and surveillance data on the impact of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystems.

Then we could comprehensively and accurately detect changes happening or about to happen, and whether the main drivers of these changes are climate-related or land-use-related or seasonal.

Tree ferns seen resprouting amidst a charred landscape

Tree ferns recovering after the devastating 2019-20 fires in East Gippsland: ecologists are helping conservation managers set up a national network to monitor post-fire recovery after the Black Summer fires.

Can you talk more about the value of long-term monitoring in understanding how nature is adapting to climate change?

Ecological restoration is remarkably complex, and after 30 years of investing in intensive restoration in Australia, environmental managers know very little about how effective these efforts have been, because they haven’t been evaluated in a consistent way.

There have been a few effective national ecosystem monitoring initiatives, like TERN, Australia’s ecosystem observatory infrastructure, spanning the continent.

But we need more temporal biodiversity monitoring – monitoring ecosystems every year or at regular intervals so you can distinguish seasonal variations from long-term trends.

If we go back a step, there are two types of ecological monitoring and evaluation. One is surveillance monitoring – having a system in place to detect ecological changes.

Then there’s monitoring of management effectiveness – measuring how an intervention in nature is actually improving things or whether it’s making the situation worse.

Here in Western Australia, we’re doing a three-year pilot project of temporal biodiversity monitoring using the surveillance approach, so we can better understand what happens in from less arid to more arid environments over space and time.

The project – a partnership between CSIRO, TERN, University of Western Australia, Edith Cowan University and the WA Government – could provide the basis for a national temporal biodiversity monitoring system Australia-wide, effectively helping us to understand how nature is adapting to climate change.

What other management initiatives are underway?

We’re working with policy makers and practitioners to trial a pilot network to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of conservation projects. It’s called the Monitoring, Evaluation and Research (MER) network platform.

The network includes CSIRO, TERN and Regional Land Partnerships service providers, traditional owners, Natural Resource Management (NRM) groups and the Australian Government Department of Agriculture Water and Environment, among other state and national stakeholders.

We embed small, well-designed monitoring plots within ecological restoration project sites being carried out under different funding programs. We’ve got consistent monitoring protocols, so everyone’s measuring similar things under the same design at their local sites.

When you add it up across all the sites within a network, and across all the networks nationally, you’ve got a comparable dataset from across the country.

The first MER pilot network is focused on post-fire recovery and the related problem of weed invasion, because after the 2019-20 bushfires, this was seen as the area of greatest need.

You’ve also tapped into local knowledge to help compensate for the lack of long-term monitoring data…

Yes, I was part of a team of scientists who carried out a web-based survey to document local perceptions of environmental change.

We targeted people with a long-term connection to a landscape – birdwatchers, field naturalists, members of Landcare groups, farmers, NRM officers, beekeepers, ecologists and so on.

No matter what sort of ecosystem it was, we asked the same questions. Have you noticed more plants and animals dying in your area? More pests or plant or animal diseases? Any noticeable changes in species life cycles – plants flowering or birds nesting earlier or later, for example? Any species that seem to have disappeared or newcomers appearing?

The overarching pattern that emerged is that people are noticing more climate change ‘losers’ – usually native species – than ‘winners’ in local ecosystems adapting to climate change.

For us, the survey showed that targeted gathering of local ecological knowledge about climate change offers a valuable way to complement data-derived knowledge.

Two camels walking through a scrubby landscape.

Controlling exotic plants and pests, such as feral camels in arid areas, can help those ecosystems become more resilient in the face of climate change.

And your study also touched on eco-grief?

The results raised the question of how people’s well-being is being affected by what they are witnessing. For example, in Tasmania’s Central Highlands, one participant mentioned a local landholder who’d moved from the area because they felt too saddened knowing there was nothing they could do to save the local Miena cider gums under a changing climate.

Can you talk about the idea of shifting focus from restoring ecosystems to ‘renovating’ them?

This concept was outlined in our paper on options for renovating nature under climate change.

We use the term ecological renovation to describe ecological management and nature conservation actions that actively allow for environmental change. It’s about shifting the paradigm from humans as restorers of an earlier world, to renovators who can help nature better adapt to climate change.

But that doesn’t imply an ‘anything goes’ approach: “We can’t have what we had, so anything goes”. Rather, our approach is, while we can’t restore everything, we can support aspirations to conserve as many of the historical values of our ecosystems as we can.

In the study, we identified a set of adaptation options that range from ‘low-regret’ interventions like planting mangroves to reduce coastal erosion – options we know make ecosystems more resilient and are good to do anyway – to specific, climate-targeted approaches to adaptation, such as genetically engineering corals in the Great Barrier Reef or installing sprinklers in Tasmania’s fire-sensitive, ancient rainforests and peatlands.

View of Lake Rhona in Tasmania's wilderness, showing discolouration and areas of fire damage.

Sprinklers proved a successful climate-targeted intervention in south-west Tasmania’s wilderness area during bushfires in January 2019, with irrigated areas escaping fire damage. Credit: Parks and Wildlife Service, Tasmania.

Some of those climate-targeted options seem far-fetched, but we’re already doing them and they work! When it came to the crunch, they put sprinklers out in the Tasmanian wilderness before the last major bushfires and they made a difference.

We can’t solve all our ecological problems with our limited investments, so we’re going to have to ask, “What are the things we really can’t afford to lose, what do we really value, and is there more we can do for them?”.

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