WE ARE MAKING THE DRIEST INHABITED CONTINENT DRIER AND HOTTER THOUGH OUR FARMING METHODS AND MANAGEMENT OF LANDSCAPES – IT’S NOT JUST CLIMATE CHANGE

Australia can’t be drought-proofed and we can’t just keep trying to get more water from other sources to grow unsustainable crops – we need to live within our natural means and get a whole lot smarter about how we use our natural resources.

All the catastrophic fire reports refer to the tinder dry conditions, lack of rain and lack of soil moisture – all symptoms of the effects of 200 years of applying European farming methods to a very different continent and failing to understand its limitations. Research shows that 50% of the decline in regional rainfall is due to our farming methods, with climate change effects coming on top of the drying of our landscapes.

In his book ‘Collapse’, published in 2005, Jarrod Diamond says Australia will be the first, First World country to face economic and social collapse because of over-exploitation of natural resources. He notes that Australia has uniquely impoverished soils and associated low nutrients in our marine ecosystems, as well finite, limited water resources. Almost all natural nutrients were tied up in the standing crop of native vegetation cover, and once this was removed, remaining nutrients were quickly depleted by the first crops. Current crops are heavily reliant on supplementary fertilisers.

Bureau of Meteorology charts show a very significant decline in rainfall across agricultural areas since the 1970s, accompanied by a very dramatic increase in temperature over the same period. The cumulative effect of past management of Australian landscapes has increased the drying out of already dry and impoverished soils. Clearance of vast tracts of vegetation has in fact decreased rainfall, instead of the popular myth that ‘the rain follows the plough’.

National Soil Advocate Michael Jeffery says we need to declare Australia’s soil, water and vegetation as national strategic assets and that our national priority should be to focus on soil and water security, to underpin social stability and security (Jeffery 2017).

Former Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, presenting at a National Press Club debate on ‘Re-booting Democracy’, called for an over-arching vision for where our country is going and leadership from politicians on how to get there.

It would be a good start to have a vision of re-vegetating large areas of landscapes, to increase soil moisture, to retain carbon, to shade the soil surfaces to reduce temperatures and increase habitats for insect-eating birds, among many benefits. We also need a vision of how to manage a landscape with such large variability in water availability and temperature, to develop sustainable farming techniques which do not continue to deplete resources and can support farming communities through drought.

Australia needs a new attitude of stewardship of our natural resources and living within our resource means. We have been nominated as one of six international hotspots which should undertake mass revegetation, to help to re-sorb carbon from the atmosphere. We urgently need a re-set on how we manage our landscapes and natural resources. The poster below tells the story.

Jensen Digital Poster

Posted in bushfires, caring for our planet, climate change, conservation, drought, ecosystem services, environment, native vegetation, rainfall, soil conservation, sustainable natural resources management, water conservation | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Australia is burning!

Adelaide is sweltering through the fourth day of a record-breaking heat wave in the first month of summer, with a total fire ban over the southern half of the state and catastrophic fire conditions declared. After three days of scorching heat but thankfully almost no wind, Nature has saved it all up for today, with gusty winds, warm, tinder-dry grass and ripe wheat crops, and a change coming late afternoon with gusty changeable winds and dry lightning!!!

Overnight temperatures did not fall below 32 ˚C (90 ˚F) and peaked at 44 ˚C (111 ˚F) both in Adelaide and astoundingly on the (usually cool) south coast at Victor Harbor. Adelaide is covered by a brown smoke haze, smoke blown all the way from the fires on the east coast north and south of Sydney, more than 1500 km away! In the Murray River Valley, Riverland towns have all recorded their hottest-ever temperatures, in the high 40s ˚C.

Extra resources were brought in from interstate, including ‘Elvis’, the massive helicopter water tanker, which arrived at 10 am. At 5 pm this afternoon, there are five emergency level (= ‘too late to leave, take shelter in a solid building!!’) fires in South Australia (see images in the link), including two on Kangaroo Island. One of great concern in the Adelaide Hills threatening Lobethal and Woodside. As the weather front is moving in, there are pictures of short bursts of rain and hail accompanying thunder and the threat of dry lightning igniting new fires. Fighting this fire is very difficult, with inaccessible hills and gullies, with visibility very much reduced by thick black smoke. The Adelaide Hills are so vulnerable, and every possible provision has been made to react quickly if further fires break out. Homes have already been lost, along with three emergency vehicles.

Yesterday, residents in New South Wales were describing flames 50 m high, with fire crowning on treetops and all vision obscured by thick black smoke. There was no prospect of staying and defending homes, the only choice was to flee to a ‘last resort’ safe location. One resident in a hill village in NSW lost his collection of veteran and vintage cars worth $1 million, burnt beyond recognition in 40 minutes, along with the water tanker he was using to defend his home and his cars.

These fires are beyond anyone’s experience in terms of fire behaviour and options for getting them under control. The whole of Australia is tinder-dry, the driest ever recorded, and it is this factor which is the fundamental cause of the widespread fires. While big improvements have been made in emergency services communications and equipment based on lessons learnt in past devastating fires, volunteer firefighters are already exhausted and the expanded resources are stretched to the limit with so many fires around Australia.

The aim in South Australia is to get the Adelaide Hills fire under control as quickly as possible (and pray for no lightning strikes!), so Elvis can be sent to New South Wales tomorrow to help with their catastrophic fire conditions. The only effective solution is drenching rain. All our politicians are praying for rain(!) but none is forecast for the next three months. There is a higher likelihood of extreme weather events, when some unlucky communities might get an intensive storm, with a month’s worth or even a year’s worth of rain in a very short time, leading to catastrophic flooding, as experienced in Far North Queensland earlier this year, with fires followed by devastating flooding.

The long term solution for Australia is to re-hydrate soils by massive revegetation across cleared landscapes. Massive vegetation clearance across southern Australia to allowing cropping and stock grazing has disrupted rain cycles, with regional rainfall declining by more than 50% since the 1970s. Farmers could be paid to manage native vegetation and repair disrupted rain cycles through a system of biodiversity credits (a credits system already pays farmers in catchments of the Great Barrier Reef for preventing silt and nutrients leaving their farms). Australia has been identified as an international hotspot where mass regeneration could contribute significantly to the removal of up to 25% of the carbon already in the atmosphere.

The medium term solution is to change the way we farm in Australia, to adjust farming techniques to better suit the limited poor nutrient soils and highly unreliable water availability. We need to put limits on the notion that water can be traded between river valleys without regard to the real physical and logistical reasons why that presents a major threat to fair and practical water-sharing provisions.

The short term solution is to wean Australians off the false belief that Australia can be drought-proofed, that somehow more dams will create more water, and that we can all have unlimited access to as much water as we want. We need to act immediately to cut water allocations back to realistic volumes and to put every community in Australia on permanent water restrictions. We need to value every drop of the water we take and ensure that we maximise opportunities for re-use and recycling, including in urban communities.

It is going to be a very long, very difficult summer in Australia!

Posted in bushfires, caring for our planet, climate change, drought, sustainable natural resources management, water issues | Tagged , , , ,

Public Health Warning: Extreme Heat Wave Coming!

The predictions for climate change have always included an increase in frequency and intensity of extreme events. In Australia, this is particularly important, as our climate is highly variable and the extreme events determine the overall conditions. The use of averages in weather forecasts gives the wrong impression of predictable, stable conditions but the opposite is the case – our rainfall and temperature vary wildly and are predictions have limited accuracy, particularly for extreme events.

In the last few weeks, those predictions of more frequent, more intense extreme events have become only too real. Brisbane had one month’s rain in one hour. Hail storms on the Gold Coast generated huge hail stones 11-13 mm in diameter in intense, damaging storms that left thousands of people without power. Intense storms across Sydney brought down so many trees that it took 5 days to restore power to all customers. And hundreds of fires continue to rage up and down the east coast in tinder-dry conditions, driven by unpredictable gusty winds which keep changing direction, while the fires themselves are so intense that they are generating their own unpredictable weather systems.

aus heat wave dec019

The weather forecasts for southern Australia for the next week are frightening! There is an official health warning for South Australia, due to the increased risks to human well-being due to high temperatures, particularly high overnight minimum temperatures which will prevent natural cooling of body temperature.

The maximum temperatures for Adelaide from Tuesday are for four days above 40 degrees: 40, 41, 41, 42, with a cool change to 24 on Saturday. For the Riverland, 3 hours north-east of Adelaide, from Monday maximum temperatures will be 37, 41, 44, 45, 46, with a ‘cool’ change to 32 on Saturday.

Last year, the Bureau of Meteorology had to add a new colour to the temperature maps, dark purple to indicate temperatures above 48 degrees. The weather map for the next week is truly frightening!!

What else does the Prime Minister need to convince him to act???

Posted in bushfires, caring for our planet, climate change, sustainable natural resources management, weather patterns | Tagged , , , ,

Still repairing wetlands of the South Australian Murray River Valley: continuing the learning 20 years on

Catch up on this update of the Gurra Gurra wetlands story, progress since 2002, and other Murray Valley wetlands benefiting from environmental watering since 2008!

The Journal of Ecological Management & Restoration has just published their 20th Anniversary Virtual Issue https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/14428903/anniversary-virtual-issue?=

They have selected 27 papers from their back catalogue to demonstrate innovation in ecological restoration and management over the last two decades. Their website includes the original papers, alongside updates on their Project Summaries page.

One of the projects included is the story of wetland repair projects in the South Australian Murray River Valley, commenced by Wetland Care Australia 1998-2003 and now with environmental watering currently being on some of the same sites by Nature Foundation SA. The exciting news this watering season is that a Water For Nature project at Lyrup Lagoon in the Gurra Gurra wetlands, in partnership with the Central Irrigation Trust, Department for Environment and Water, and the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, has produced pregnant endangered Murray Hardyhead!!!

The original story about the Gurra Gurra wetlands project by Wetland Care Australia is
Repairing wetlands of the Lower Murray: Learning from restoration practice
and is found at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1442-8903.2002.00092.x

The update on what has happened at Gurra and other Murray Valley wetlands over the last 20 years is Still repairing wetlands of the Lower Murray: continuing the learning and is found at https://wp.me/p1oGXT-Gy.

Enjoy free access to all papers until the end of 2020!

The key construction site in the Gurra Gurra wetlands project at Tortoise Crossing (left photo) saw 160 pipes installed in 2000 to replace the original 3 pipes, allowing 50 times more flows through this anabranch (an original river flow path). However, there were no flows until  substantial floods in 2010-2012 broke the Millenium Drought and water flowed through the system for 170 days in 2011. After a dry period in 2013-1015, water levels peaked again at the top of the double layer of pipes on 12 December 2016 and flowed through the Gurra Gurra system for 71 days (right photo). Photos: Anne Jensen.

Posted in caring for our planet, environmental flows, floods, Murray-Darling Basin, sustainable natural resources management, wetlands | Tagged , , , , ,

It’s not the average climatic conditions, it’s the extremes we need to watch!

Australia is naturally a land of extremes and extreme variability, with highly unpredictable climatic conditions. We are lulled into a false sense of control and predictability by our daily forecasts based on ‘average’ conditions, when in reality the graphs are wildly variable.

It is not the averages, it is the outliers, the extreme conditions that we need to worry about! One of the most frightening predictions of the effects of climate change is that these extreme events will be more frequent and more severe. We are seeing that in the incredible number of fires along the east coast in New South Wales and Queensland. Every report says, it has never been so dry, so early in the season, over such a large area and we have never seen fire behaviour like this before, where they are creating their own weather systems. And the only solution is drenching rain to restore moisture to the tinder dry soils and forests — but there is no rain coming in the foreseeable future.

A week ago, South Australia was on extreme high alert, a total fire ban across the state and ‘catastrophic’ fire conditions declared, with high temperatures and hot, gusty winds sweeping across the landscapes. Dust storms brought visibility to zero on the main interstate highway through the Riverland and the tiny seaside town of Edithburgh evacuated to the sea-shore as flames races through the ready-for-harvest wheat crops and grasslands to destroy 11 homes and singe the urban edges of the town. The next morning, sunrise on the south coast was serene and calm,  with no sign of the stormy winds raging just hours before. The temperature dropped 20 degrees in 2 hours.

serene sunrise

A week later, we are back to ‘average’ temperatures for late spring, in the mid-to high 20s, lulled into thinking things are back ‘normal’. But there is no moisture in the soil and very little water in our rainwater tanks. The rains have failed again over autumn, winter and spring. Suddenly, the desalination plant for Adelaide is being seen as a good investment, instead of being criticised over the last 6-7 years for being a massive waste of public money – people (and newspapers) have such short memories!

It is time to take a different approach, to understand the limitations of Australia’s natural systems and to live within our natural means. We need to acknowledge our lack of water resources and manage more effectively with less water. We need to re-hydrate our landscapes and soils, to store carbon in the soils. We need to re-vegetate our landscapes with native trees, bushes and groundcovers, to retain moisture, prevent evaporation, cool surfaces and encourage transpiration to feed water vapour into the rain cycles. Time for a new vision for how to live with Australian nature, not to continue our losing battle against it!

Posted in bushfires, caring for our planet, climate change, conservation, drought, environment, native vegetation, rainfall, sustainable natural resources management, water conservation, water issues, weather patterns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Where have all the flowers gone?

On the last weekend in September, I went looking for the native spring wildflowers of the Adelaide Hills. As a child, I remember stopping to pick white everlastings and taking them home to make posies of the dried flowers. As a Botany undergraduate, I was assigned pink heath as my subject for a project where we had to describe the taxonomy, anatomy and habitat for the chosen plant species. I remember finding my pink heath specimens in a patch of native scrub alongside a road between Forest Range and Uraidla, and hoped to find them again.

Sadly but predictably, everything was changed, with most of the roadsides now edging cultivated fruit trees and vines. Even where the original tall forest survives, there is almost no understory or it is dominated by weeds. Eventually I found some small pockets of these incredibly beautiful and unique plants with such amazing flowers.

An unusual acacia caught my eye first, with tightly spaced tiny golden balls along every branch. At ground level, there were fascinating rosy grevilleas, with their curving styles like spider legs. The cheery yellow goodenias were like little smiling faces next to the cheeky red pea flower of the running postman. Best of all were the gorgeous native orchids. In another patch of scrub, there were just three pink heath plants with just a few flowers left, nearly finished flowering. They were sheltering under glorious needle bushes covered with their delicate curling flowers.

Looking for conservation parks which might have more of these beautiful small shrubs, it was clear from the map that only patches of native vegetation persist across the Adelaide Hills, with big gaps between the patches. The remnant strips surviving along roadsides are all the more important to provide connections between the patches, to allow pollinators to migrate through the landscape and keep our beautiful wildflowers growing.

Posted in caring for our planet, conservation, disturbance, environment, native vegetation, sustainable natural resources management | Tagged , , ,

More dams are not the answer!

As towns in mid-west New South Wales face the prospect of running out of water, the response predictably is ‘we need to build more dams!’

More dams will not solve the problem, because they don’t make more water, they just empty damshift it upstream at the expense of downstream communities, farmers and ecosystems. All the existing dams were dry in the Millenium Drought. Rainfall across Australia is declining and run-off into dams is declining 3 times faster.

As the oldest, most eroded continent, Australia has poor quality shallow soils and highly unreliable rainfall. Since European settlement, farming activities and dam-building programs have been trying to re-engineer Australia’s landscapes and water sources to fit European-style agriculture. That is just not sustainable. There is only a finite amount of water in Australia and we need to live within the limits. The effect of more dams on Murray-Darling Basin rivers would be similar for downstream towns and ecosystems to what happened to the Lower Darling, when upstream irrigators were allowed to pump out so much water that there was none left to flow to Lower Darling farmers, irrigators and towns.

IMG_1611

Looking to build more dams is seeking to solve the problem by finding more water. The long term solution is to use less water and to use it more wisely. In the Millenium Drought, irrigators in the South Australian Murray Valley produced crops of similar value using one-third of usual water allocations. In Adelaide, urban water restrictions changed gardens to less-water hungry species and reduced use has persisted since the drought. There is room to use less water, more effectively, while maintaining incomes and attractive gardens.

All the efficient, cost-effective dams have already been built. The reason why proposals for new dams have not gone ahead is because the costs are too high and the proposed storage can’t deliver water effectively.

The long term solutions need to be focused on reducing demand and maximising recycling and re-use options. It is important to retain rain where it falls and to maintain soil moisture. Large-scale revegetation is needed to restore the transpiration processes using trees to generate more rainfall. 50% of the decline in rainfall and increase in drought conditions is attributed to the mass clearance of vegetation across Australian landscapes. It is not just climate change, it is how Australia is farmed. The emerging methods of regenerative farming should be spread across Australia, with the aim of maintaining surface cover and reducing evapo-transpiration.bare soil farm

Medium level restrictions should apply permanently in urban communities of the driest continent. Gardens should move to plants with low water requirements instead of water-hungry English-style gardens. Smart urban water systems need to incorporate permeable pavements, aquifer storage of stormwater, recycling of sewage water to public open space and irrigated crops, increased re-vegetation of all available open space and rainwater tanks for every suitable roof, industrial, community or household.

More dams will be a waste of money and won’t solve the problem because they can’t make more water. The solution lies in using less water and using it more wisely. The call needs to be for a long term plan for living with drought, working to increase rainfall and living within Australia’s water means.

Posted in caring for our planet, climate change, conservation, drought, ecosystem services, Murray-Darling Basin, native vegetation, policy, rainfall, soil conservation, sustainable natural resources management, water conservation, water issues, water supply, weather patterns | Tagged , , , , , , ,