from David Donaldson at the Guardian
Climate zones along the coast of southeastern Australia have already moved south by around 350km. Those fluctuations are also altering the way rural communities live.
I was in high school when crested pigeons started showing up at the farm where I grew up. Situated in a flat, pastoral corner of southwest Victoria, the pointy-haired birds first seemed out of place – a budding wildlife enthusiast, I’d previously only seen photos of them in the desert.
But thanks to the millennium drought – which became progressively worse from around the time I started primary school until my final year of high school – the crested pigeons had obviously decided southwest Victoria was now sufficiently dehydrated for them to take up residence. Though the drought ended several years ago, the pigeons are now a permanent fixture on the farm; I hear their distinctive whirring sound every time I go back to visit.
The same thing happened with galahs when my father was young. The pink and grey cockatoos flew in from the north during the 1965-68 drought and have never left. Other birds, such as the charismatic grey fantail, have changed their migratory behaviour in recent years as winters become milder and shorter, as have countless species right around the world.
It’s not just the wildlife that’s changing. The hotter, drier climate gradually imposing itself on southeastern Australia is forcing changes to agriculture. In southwest Victoria, this means it’s becoming harder to produce the beef and wool my father grew when I was a child. Cereal cropping, which uses less water and creates fewer jobs, is becoming more popular.
Old European trees in gardens and town centres are dying in the long, waterless summers. Aquifers are becoming harder to access as runoff remains low, while decreasing autumn precipitation is leading to a shorter growing season. Frosts are becoming less common, though clear skies, which allow heat to escape at night-time, mean minimum temperatures are not increasing at the same rate as maximums.
The changes are also altering the way rural communities live. The drought in particular had a huge and traumatic effect. Livestock previously had to be shot when feed and water ran out. Many workers ended up leaving farming because it was just too hard. Tragically, the suicide rate among farmers spiked during the final years as entire livelihoods were reduced to dust. Though drought is a recurrent theme of the Australian landscape, this one was especially long and harsh – and the research suggests such phenomena will only become more common.
As the IPCC’s fifth assessment report has reiterated, climate change is not merely a beast of the future – it’s been happening for a while. Victoria’s average annual mean temperature has increased by almost 0.9°C over the past century, around the same as the rest of Australia. Although rainfall is more variable, droughts are becoming longer and drier. Record high temperatures are regularly broken, while record lows are becoming harder to find.
Climate zones along the coast of southeastern Australia have already moved south by around 350km. Those on the northeast coast have shifted around 200km. Fish species are travelling further south than before. Long-spined sea urchins, previously found only as far south as southern NSW, have been caught in eastern Tasmania. Other organisms have specific, geographically-bound ranges that do not allow them to move, and will find it difficult to adapt to warmer seas.
Terrestrial animals will increasingly face the same problem. Our national parks are poorly connected in large areas of Australia, meaning many creatures will be unable to migrate as temperatures increase. Some animals escaping monsoonal northern Australia will find it difficult to survive in drier inland areas. Alpine animals, such as the Leadbeater’s Possum, will be especially challenged as thin snowfall and bigger bushfires cause their habitat to disappear.
But while the outlook is concerning for agricultural production and downright terrible for our natural habitat, there are a few glimmers of hope. It’s reassuring that, despite the acrimony surrounding climate politics at a national level, there are plenty of community groups and governmental bodies conducting important research into how we deal with a hotter, drier Australia. While politicians and vested interests have muddied the waters of public opinion for strong action to stop climate change, pragmatism based on evidence is leading progress in adaptation and mitigation.
Though it may be politically conservative, southwest Victoria is no exception. In 2013 for example, Moyne shire released an extensive coastal hazard assessment report for popular holiday town Port Fairy, finding that several hundred buildings would be at risk of inundation by seawater as ocean levels rise.
Individual farmers, landcare groups and catchment management authorities are working on a range of projects to increase biodiversity and improve agricultural processes. Nationally, the CSIRO is breeding new types of drought-tolerant wheat that will hopefully prevent a decline in productivity as the landscape becomes drier.
We’re already seeing the effects climate change is having on the natural world. Even if governments start making a serious effort to combat climate change today, we won’t be starting from zero – the clock started long ago, but we’re still crouched at the starting block.
Sooner or later, we’ll all be touched by climate change in some way, as indeed many already have. Hopefully we’ll be prepared for it.