A waterfall in the rugged Australian outback.

Water availability in rivers, wetlands and surrounding landscapes is a critical ecological process in seasonally variable tropical savannas of northern Australia such as the area around 17 Mile Falls in Nitmiluk National Park. (Image: Adam Liedloff)

Unnatural disaster for Australia’s ecosystems

A landmark study by CSIRO has found that climate change will lead to major ecological impacts across Australia, and recommends a review of the management of national biodiversity conservation and protected areas. (09:45)

  • 17 September 2012 | Updated 18 September 2012

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Learn more out more about The implications of climate change for Australia's biodiversity conservation and protected areas.


Glen Paul: G'day, and welcome to CSIROpod, I'm Glen Paul.  Since 1879 Australia has been setting aside national parks as protected areas to conserve biodiversity.  The National Reserve System, as it's now known, includes more 9,700 protected areas, covering 13.4% of the country, over 103 million hectares, and is made up of Commonwealth, State, and Territory reserves, Indigenous lands, and protected areas run by non-profit conservation organisations, through to ecosystems protected by farmers on their private working properties.

Based on a scientific framework, it's the nation's natural safety net against our biggest environmental challenges, of which climate change sits atop the list.  A new CSIRO report on the National Reserve System shows that even as soon as 2030 climate change will have had a significant impact on biodiversity.  Lead author for the report titled the Implications of climate change for biodiversity conservation and the National Reserve System, is CSIRO's Doctor Michael Dunlop, who joins me on the phone.

Michael, Australia is a big country, a diverse country, how much work was involved in putting a report of this type together?

Dr Dunlop: It was a big project.  We had three teams doing modelling exercises, different sorts of modelling exercises, and then another four teams doing case studies in different biomes around the country, which really covered actually most of the country, and then another group that was bringing all of that together to write a synthesis report, and then go through a process with policymakers, to pull out the key messages for them.

Glen Paul: And no doubt many other Government agencies involved there.

Dr Dunlop: Yes.  The work was originally commissioned by the Australian Government Department of Environment and Department of Climate Change, but it also had contributions from environment departments from all of the States through various inter-governmental processes, and of course a big contribution from CSIRO as well, the Climate Adaptation Flagship.

Glen Paul: Obviously a very big project.  Now 2030 isn't really that far away, so just how different will the landscape be at that time?

Dr Dunlop: Yeah, well it was a bit of a shock for us when the modelling results came through and we saw that the magnitude of the potential environmental changes that we might see by 2030, and one of the things that we did with the modelling was try to find a way of describing the magnitude of ecological change.  It's pretty hard to do, because there's lots and lots of different types of change of species moving around the place, ecosystems changing in the way they function, it's hard to quantify that, but we developed a couple of different indices, if you like, that measure on a scale sort of nought to one how significant ecological change might be for biodiversity, where one means that you might expect the biodiversity to be completely different in a place from the biodiversity that's there now.

And on that scale, certainly by 2070, most of the country has a change that was greater than .7 by our index, that by 2030 there were large parts of the country where significant change greater than a .5 level of change was widespread across the country.

Glen Paul: So does that mean some environments will disappear altogether and be replaced by others?

Dr Dunlop: Well that's one of the other things we could do with this modelling work, was look at whether or not we were facing a situation where environments were just shifting from one place to another, uphill, or southwards, as people often think about the issue, but what this work really showed us is that we're actually going to be seeing many environments completely disappear and being replaced by ones that are not found currently on the continent at all.  And so we can't think of this challenge for biodiversity as being one of keeping up with climate change, because there will be no place to go that's similar to the environments they currently experience.  So it's really going to be a big mixing up, a major process of mixing up of habitats and of places that might be suitable for different species, and we'll expect completely new ecological communities, maybe even new types of ecosystems that we aren't familiar with.

Glen Paul: So who do you think will do better overall – native or alien species?

Dr Dunlop: Oh look, that's a good question.  There's a lot of native species in Australia, and some of them will no doubt do very well.  There's probably some that will do so well that we might even start thinking of them as invasive and problem species, and that presents a completely new type of challenge to us, do we... how do we manage native species gone feral?

There'll be some alien species that do very well as well.  We tend to have quite a lot that do well in new environments, and do well when native species are not doing so well, and so for sure we should expect some of the exotic species to be able to disperse very rapidly and establish quickly in environments that become suitable for them.  So we should expect both a mixture of native species moving around the place, exotic species moving around the place, and then hopefully most of the native species will be able to move to some extent, or be able to survive in the regions they currently are in various ways, but you know, maybe it's going to be a battle between the natives and more and more exotic species.

Glen Paul: It's mind boggling when you start trying to get your head around it, and there are lot of variables, a lot of elements to it.  From all of that, what are the key recommendations of the report?

Dr Dunlop: Well the first one was that we actually need to have a real rethink of what it actually means to conserve biodiversity.  In a static climate it's pretty much a matter of keeping the species that you have in any one area, hoping that they can survive where they are, maintaining communities as their current types, and you might be able to do a fair bit of that with a reserve system that has ten or more percent of the country.  But if we are going to be seeing a lot of mixing up, moving around the place, changing of ecosystem types, then we need to rethink how we do that, it can't be a matter of caping(?) things in the same place, and so we've got to enable ecological processes to occur that allow species to move around the landscape, have connectivity, and in particular have new places to establish.

They might be fine where they are now, but if they're going to have to survive elsewhere then they need to have that habitat in a different environment, and so it's a matter of making sure we have a wide diversity of environments with native habitat on it.  And that's one of the great things about the Reserve System – the scientific process is based around getting a diversity of environments, and a diversity of habitats.  We probably need quite a lot more area in order to do the best we can to help species move around the place, and also to make sure that the ecosystems that are there, the habitats that are there, can evolve, and new species can come into them and keep them functional as they respond to climate change.

Glen Paul: Hmm.  And that comes back to policy, and the report also recommends developing new alliances between science and the policymakers.  How can that effectively be achieved?

Dr Dunlop: Well there's quite a few challenges potentially for policy.  The current policy regimes have largely evolved in a situation where we're experiencing a variable, but a reasonably sort of a stationary climate, so we're not expecting species to move around the place a lot, or ecosystems to change, and if they're going to be changing then it means that policy won't be particularly effective if it's based on the idea of communities staying the same in six places.  So there's a challenge there for eventually, maybe for policy to evolve to embrace the idea of communities changing.  But to support this science needs to come up with some new concepts and definitions, and new information base about what the new fundamentals of conservation might be, if we're not going to be able to use threatened species in communities anymore as the key element.

Glen Paul: And how do you translate that then to all parties concerned, including the general public, to take action on conservation strategies?

Dr Dunlop: Well I think the general public really needs to be a part of this conversation as well, about what the new objectives of conservation might be, what it is we're trying to conserve.  If we can't conserve all of our species because some of them are going to become extinct inevitably, then do we need to focus more on making sure that our ecosystems are healthy, rather than just making sure that our threatened species are protected?

This is a challenging issue; it's going to take some years of exploring the ideas, adding in more science, and bringing in lots of disciplines.  And then there's the whole question of once we have sorted out what our objectives might be, how best to achieve them, and again that requires new information about how we actually manage ecosystems, maintain their health as they change from one type of ecosystem to another, and how do we best support species, that if they're going to survive, potentially have to move across the landscape?  How do we enable that to actually move through landscapes that might not have much habitat, and make sure that there are suitable places for them to establish.

Glen Paul: Well hopefully the report will help facilitate answering those questions.  Thank you very much for discussing the report with us today, Michael.  Much appreciated.

Dr Dunlop: OK.  Thank you.

Glen Paul: Doctor Michael Dunlop.  And to find out more about the report, or to follow us on other social media, go to www.csiro.au.