Leading scientists working across Australia and Antarctica have described 19 ecosystems collapsing due to human impacts and warned that urgent action was needed to prevent their complete disappearance.
A breakthrough report – the work of 38 scientists from 29 universities and government agencies – detailing the degradation of coral reefs, arid inland deserts, tropical savanna, waterways in the Murray-Darling Valley, mangroves in the Bay of Carpentaria, and forests stretching from rainforest far north to Gondwana-era conifers in Tasmania.
The list of damaged ecosystems extends beyond the continent to include the sub-Antarctic tundra on World Heritage-listed Macquarie Island and a moss bed in eastern Antarctica.
The study’s lead author, Dr Dana Bergstrom of the Australian Antarctic Division, said 19 of the 20 ecosystems examined were subjected to potentially irreversible environmental changes, including the loss of species and the ability to perform important functions such as pollination.
Bergstrom said the collapse was the result of an ecosystem undergoing a lot of stress simultaneously. Some, such as the increase in mean temperature due to the climate crisis, loss of habitat and invasive species, are chronic. Others are short-term acute events, many of which are exacerbated by global warming. They include heat waves, fires and storms.
While the report paints a chilling picture, Bergstrom says the key message is that action now can still make a difference.
“None of the 19 ecosystems collapsed in the entire region, but for all the case studies there was documented evidence of ecosystem collapse in several areas,” he said.
“Urgent action will be essential to prevent the complete loss of one of these ecosystems.”
Previous in-depth study – including government environmental state report and last year a review of national environmental laws by former chief competition watchdog Graeme Samuel – have found that Australia’s natural heritage is in a dangerous and deteriorating state, but they have mostly not considered deeply what is happening in the ecosystem.
The new report, published in the journal Global Change Biology, involves collecting peer-reviewed scientific papers and other reports to gather empirical data on ecosystem health, and assessing the results against criteria to determine whether they have changed state.
All but one ecosystem were found to have a low probability of recovery and are headed for permanent destruction. The exception is subtropical rainforest on the coast of New South Wales, which has been slightly damaged.
The scientists recommend a new framework to try to prevent the ecosystem from collapsing completely which they call “3A”. It requires greater awareness of the value of ecosystems, better planning to anticipate risks, and quick action to reduce them.
Among the examples in the report is the alpine ash forests in Victoria, which were found to be hit so often by fire that they often did not have enough time to produce seeds. In response, scientists have started growing hybrid species that can better survive changing conditions.
Prof Euan Ritchie, from Deakin University and one of the authors, said the report is arguably the most comprehensive analysis of Australia’s environment to date. “It’s challenging and calming,” he said.
He cites examples of tropical savanna across northern Australia that have been degraded by frequent fires, overgrazing by livestock and wild animals, invasive species including gamba grass, feral cats and cane toads, and, increasingly, extreme weather events.
This means that once widespread native species such as the brush-tailed rats are now rare and found in some places where good habitat remains. “Improve fire management [and] Control of wildlife and weeds is an easy step we can take to protect this ecosystem and its extraordinary and unique species, which also have significant cultural and economic value, ”he said.
Bergstrom said while the idea that nature will take its own course is still pervasive, it is time “to really disturb nature because we lose too much if we don’t”.
He said it was important to recognize the work to support the environment that was taking place – from soil care and conservation groups and through actions supported by the federal and state governments, including indigenous safeguard programs – but the report indicated that a more urgent and targeted response was needed.
“People are talking about climate change as something in the future. “Climate change is here and collapse is coming,” he told Guardian Australia. “But we have the ability and we have the skills. We just need the will to make it happen.
“Protecting this iconic ecosystem isn’t just for the animals and plants that live there. Our economic livelihoods, and ultimately our survival, are inextricably linked with nature. “
The ecosystem report has been published as the government faces criticism for not acting immediately on many of the recommendations made in Samuel’s review of the national environmental law.
Samuel finds that the law is failing, and the government will accept the decline of celebrated environmental landmarks and the extinction of threatened animals, plants and ecosystems unless they embrace fundamental reforms.
The government has introduced laws for new national environmental standards as suggested by Samuel, but it has accused of only imitating existing laws and did nothing to strengthen the protection. “Bail commissioner” proposed to oversee the law will not have the power to investigate decisions about specific developments.
Meanwhile, official data shows that Australia has highest mammal extinction rate Over the past 200 years, most governments have rejected calls to increase spending on the environment.
Funding for environment departments and related programs was cut by more than a third after the Coalition was elected in 2013. Some were reinstated last year, mostly geared toward “congestion busters” – increasing the speed at which development proposals are assessed.
Alliance of more than 70 conservation, agriculture and land management organizations last year put forward a $ 4 billion plan to help improve the natural environment, said it could create 53,000 jobs and boost the regional economy after Covid-19. The government has expressed interest in the report, but has not accepted its suggestion.