Impact of climate change
This chapter examines the impact of climate change on fire frequency and
magnitude in Tasmania and in particular, the Tasmanian Wilderness World
Heritage Area (TWWHA). The committee heard that fire conditions and dry
lightning strike are increasing in the TWWHA. Recent research into climate
change and its impact on Tasmania has increased understanding of these threats
to the World Heritage Area. However, stakeholders indicated that there is a
continuing need for further recognition of, and preparation for, climate change
in the TWWHA.
Fire conditions and dry lightning strike
State of the Climate is a biennial review of variability and
changes in Australia's climate, and how Australia's climate is likely to change
in the future.
In October, the Bureau of Meteorology and the Commonwealth Scientific and
Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) released State of the Climate 2016.
Its findings are shown below.
Figure 2.1: Predicted changes to Australia's climate,
next 100 years
Source: Bureau of Meteorology
and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, State of the
Climate 2016, 2016, p. 22, accessed 14 November 2016.
Several submissions reflected these climate predictions. CSIRO,
for example, reiterated that Australia is expected to experience a warming
climate, with increases in extremely high temperatures, decreases in annual mean
rainfall and relative humidity, and small changes in annual mean wind-speed.
Increases in the extent and frequency of droughts are likely
in south‑eastern Australia, and annual total forest fire danger index has
increased 10–40 per cent in many locations in the last 35 years.
The Department of the Environment and Energy (DEE) said that 'there has
been an observed increase in extreme fire weather, and a longer fire season,
in parts of Australia since the 1970s'. Further, 'future projections of
these conditions show an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme fire
Submitters agreed that fire conditions were elevated during the
2015–2016 fire season but the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative
Research Centre (BNH CRC) commented that it was difficult to link the
precedent conditions or bushfires to climate change although 'many researchers
have pointed to this as a possibility'.
Similarly, CSIRO cautioned that it is not clear how climate change will
affect future fire risk, the behaviour and spread of bushfires, and the
difficulty of suppressing bushfires, all of which depend on a number of
The relationship between climate change, the occurrence of
synoptic patterns conducive to elevated fire danger and the occurrence of
bushfires in south‐eastern
Australia is complex, multi‐faceted
and only beginning to be understood.
Several submissions noted weather elements—such as unseasonal warm
temperatures, below average rainfall, low humidity and unprecedented soil
dryness—that preceded and/or were present at the start of the 2016 bushfires.
A particular focus was the amount of rainfall in south‑eastern
Australia leading up to the 2015–2016 fire season. The Wilderness Society
(Tasmania) and Greenpeace Australia Pacific (Wilderness Society (Tasmania) and
Greenpeace) submitted that large parts of western Tasmania experienced the
lowest spring rainfall on record, with the trend continuing into summer.
Figure 2.2: Rainfall in south‑eastern Australia,
1 August to 31 October 2015
Source: Wilderness Society (Tasmania) and Greenpeace,
Submission 27, p. 8.
The BNH CRC reissued its seasonal bushfire outlook as a result of
this exceptionally dry October.
The revised outlook assessed a significantly larger part of Tasmania as being
at 'above normal' risk (not including the TWWHA which remained at 'normal') and
The first half of spring has seen very low rainfall for
almost all of Tasmania, especially in the west. Above-average daytime temperatures
have increased evaporation rates, which further increases fuel dryness. The fire
season has commenced in the eastern half of the state, with many fires proving
difficult to control because of the dryness of fuels.
The Australian Conservation Foundation similarly explained that the lack
of rain had rendered wilderness areas—such as the TWWHA—unusually dry and
susceptible to fire:
Normally wet rainforests have a natural protection against
fire, as they are cooler and wetter ecosystems than surrounding environments.
The preceding dry spring and summer meant that this natural protection was
compromised, and once the lightning sparked a flame, the amount of dry fuel
above ground and dry peat below meant that the fires spread incredibly rapidly
and were difficult to control.
Dry lightning strike
In 2013, the Parks and Wildlife Service, Tasmania (PWS) reported that fires
started by dry lightning strike now appear to be the main threat to the TWWHA. However,
the PWS stated 'it is too early to know whether a shift in climate may be
contributing to a long‑term increasing trend in dry lightning activity in
Some submitters and witnesses did not agree with this assessment, contending
that climate change is creating, or likely creating, dry lightning storms. In
particular, David Bowman, a Professor of Environmental Change Biology at
the University of Tasmania, has argued that climate change is not only
increasing fire frequency and magnitude, it is also causing the dry
lightning storms that ignite bushfires.
At the height of the 2016 bushfires, Professor Bowman wrote:
Since the declaration of the World Heritage Area, fire has
been carefully regulated with a prohibition of campfires, which has sharply
reduced the number of bushfires. Unfortunately, over the last decade there have
been an increasing number of lightning storms that have ignited fires.
The current fire season is shaping up to be truly
extraordinary because of the sheer number of fires set by lightning, their
duration, and erratic and destructive behaviour that has surprised many
seasoned fire fighters. The root cause of [this] has been the
record-breaking dry spring and the largely rain-free and consistently warm
summer, which has left fuels and peat soils bone dry.
There are two ways to think about the recent fire situation
in Tasmania. We can focus on the extreme climate conditions and unusual
fire behaviour, or we can see what is happening as entirely predictable and
consistent with climate change.
I have formed the latter view because the current fires are
part of a global pattern of increasing destructive fires driven by extreme fire
A critical feature of the current Tasmanian fires is the role
of lightning storms—climate is not only creating the precursor weather conditions
for the fires, it is also providing the storms that ignite them.
Professor Bowman described this as a 'philosophical rupture with the very
notion of wilderness'. He commented:
If you think about it, a wilderness is a free standing,
self-sustaining system, independent of humans...what is occurring here is the
challenge of managing systems where we have had certain expectations or certain
understandings and those expectations are changing.
Environmentalists and conservationists agreed with Professor Bowman's
views on climate-induced fire conditions and dry lightning strike in the TWWHA.
For example, the Australian Conservation Foundation submitted:
...climate change is increasing the regularity and intensity of
the lightning that ignited the fires, drying out environments and fuel loads,
and lengthening and intensifying the fire season.
BirdLife Australia submitted that there is 'no empirical scientific
evidence yet available to link the increased frequency of dry lightning strikes
and concomitant fires in the TW WHA with contemporary changes in our
climate'. However, 'the relationship is consistent with our current
understanding and earlier predictions of increased frequency and intensity of
extreme events associated with climate change'.
The committee notes that CSIRO is currently researching the cause of
bushfires in south-eastern Australia. Dr Andrew Sullivan from the CSIRO advised
that the study does not include Tasmania but could do so if there were a
reprioritisation of resources and access to historical fire occurrence data.
The Australian and Tasmanian Governments acknowledge the need for further
research on climate change in Tasmania. Both governments have funded a number
of recent initiatives that have contributed to understanding of climate change.
These studies are in addition to independent research projects.
The Australian Government has a major role in the provision of authoritative
climate information. The DEE identified a number of organisations that have
recently received funding from the Australian Government and the purpose for
CSIRO—to develop a set of national climate change projections
(presented in regional clusters), to help plan for increased future fire
weather and longer fire seasons;
$9 million over three years (2014–2017) to the National Climate
Change Adaptation Research Facility, based at Griffith University—to develop
practical information and tools to help manage climate risks; and
a maximum of $47 million over eight years (2013–2021) to the BNH CRC—to
continue and expand research efforts into natural hazards.
The Tasmanian Government also identified some of its initiatives to
increase understanding of global warming risks to Tasmania, such
as the Climate Futures for Tasmania project and, in particular, the Tasmanian
Wilderness World Heritage Bushfire and Climate Change Research Project (Bushfire
and Climate Change Research Project).
In March 2016, the Tasmanian Premier, the Hon Will Hodgman, announced
that the government would be investing $250 000 in a 'forward looking
research project that examines the impact of climate change and strengthens our
fire-fighting techniques specific to our wilderness areas'.
Dr Tony Press, Adjunct Professor of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems
Cooperative Research Centre, was appointed to lead the Bushfire and Climate
Change Research Project, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2016.
At the Launceston public hearing, Dr Press presented the committee with some
preliminary findings, including:
...the projections are that the [areal] extent of the TWWHA
subject to dry lightning will actually decrease...but, on the other hand, the
most extreme dry-lightning potential environmental events do not decrease in
extent. You might get an overall decrease in dry-lightning events, but you
will still get the same numbers of intense dry-lightning events. You will still
get the types of extreme events that have emerged over the last couple of
decades with this picture of increased lightning in the Tasmanian Wilderness
World Heritage Area. If you combine that with [the] general tendency for
increased dryness and extended fire seasons, you can see that a pattern is
emerging of fire risk, as a whole, increasing in the world heritage area over
the century. Also, the vegetation communities into which to fire can spread
will start to change, and you will start to get some of those vegetation
communities that have historically been barriers to fire now becoming
Dr Press concluded that the risk of fire directly impacting natural (and
to a lesser extent, cultural) values in the TWWHA will increase. He added 'the
challenge is: how do you manage that landscape in order to protect those
natural and cultural World Heritage values'?
The committee notes that the final report will examine 'the kinds of
research that is required to underpin the management of the World Heritage Area'.
Independent research projects
Submitters and witnesses commented on various types of research that
they considered will, or would, help to protect and conserve the TWWHA. This
research focuses on dry lightning strike and ecological impacts where it was
argued there is a lack of knowledge and understanding.
Dr Jonathan Marsden‑Smedley, a fire researcher and operational
fire management specialist based at the University of Tasmania, described his
current project titled Changes in the climate patterns of western and
southwestern Tasmania: bushfires, snowpack and the implications of climate
Dr Marsden‑Smedley hypothesises that changes in Antarctic zone and
other greenhouse gasses have increased the number of high pressure cells, and
decreased the number of low pressure cells, crossing Tasmania, with consequent
marked changes to Tasmania's weather (especially, to rainfall patterns in south-western
and western Tasmania). In summer, these changes:
...increase the potential for lightning fires, and if fires start,
the predominantly dry conditions result in a significant increase in the
potential for large fires (eg greater than 10 000 ha) in all vegetation
and soil types (eg fires in rainforests, alpine areas and peat).
Dr Marsden-Smedley noted that, in the TWWHA, there has been 'about a
20 times increase in lightning fire number, about a 70 times increase in
average lightning fire size and about a 570 times increase in the area burnt by
lightning fires', comparing the periods 1980–2000 and 2000–2016.
Figure 2.3: Lightning fires in the TWWHA, by number, size
and burnt area, 1980–2016
Jonathan Marsden-Smedley, Submission 17, p. 3.
The Australian Conservation Foundation submitted that it could not find
any direct and publicly available research on climate impacts on lightning in
Its submission identified research from the United States of America,
including a 2014 study that showed a 12 per cent increase in lightning for each
degree of global warming.
Professor Bowman highlighted other potential research areas: ecology
research (see chapter three) and the threat to organic soils in the TWWHA
caused by increased landscape fire in a warmer and drier climate:
Research is required to (a) evaluate the relationship between
organic soil moisture and likelihood of combustion, (b) determine how this is
affected by antecedent meteorological conditions and (c) quantify how fire
intensity influences the vulnerability of organic soil loss due to combustion
during fire and erosion afterwards.
Professor Bowman told the committee that research should be peer
reviewed and accessible in order to contribute to the body of knowledge.
He considered that this has been 'a little bit underdone' in Tasmania,
despite the TWWHA having 'extraordinarily interesting systems':
It is a World Heritage area with many unique properties, and
one of them is that it has got all this strange Gondwanic vegetation yet a lot
of it is highly flammable. So getting that information out is extremely
important...there is some really excellent science and excellent land management
being done in the Tasmanian government. But it would probably be great if it
could be seen.
That is how we are going to all inform ourselves, because the
other thing with a rapidly developing situation like climate change is that we
are all going to have to bend...Having these evidence based conversations is
critical, and the evidence ideally is peer reviewed so people can understand
it, it can be refined, it is available and it is credible.
Dr Press acknowledged Professor Bowman's comments and advised that the Bushfire
and Climate Change Research Project will 'pull a lot of that grey literature
together and put in in one place so that [it can be incorporated] into the
Planning for climate change
Some submitters and witnesses argued that increased fire conditions,
changing ignition patterns and climate change increasingly threaten the
Accordingly, policy makers should plan for a greater incidence and severity of bushfires
in the TWWHA.
For example, the Tasmanian Greens argued:
Tasmanian and Australian governments have a legal and moral
responsibility to ensure management of the TWWHA is appropriately resourced—and
this will require increased resourcing—in the decades ahead as the threat to
the Outstanding Universal Values of the TWWHA intensifies.
Friends of the Earth Australia submitted:
The presence of climate change enhanced fire regimes needs to
be considered the new reality of managing the WHA, with obvious implications
for resourcing of firefighting agencies and approaches to managing fires when
they do occur. Part of the response needs to involve a stronger focus on
protecting those ecological assets which are most vulnerable to the effects of
fire. Fire sensitive vegetation in Tasmania is mapped, and information about
priority ecosystems must form a core part of decision making when fire
responders are allocating resources, both at the state wide and local levels.
The Wilderness Society (Tasmania) and Greenpeace warned that 'widespread,
simultaneous outbreaks of uncontrolled fires in remote, difficult country are...likely
to become a frequent feature of Tasmanian summers'. The submission called on
governments to respond to the 'permanent threat' by providing:
...increased financial resources for research, policy-making
and coordination capacity pertaining to bushfires; for more permanent staff in
key fire-fighting agencies and management authorities; and for increased
capacity for remote-area and rapid response fire-fighting. However, on many of
these long-term issues, governments are going backwards.
A few submitters focused specifically on human resource requirements,
arguing that this resource will affect Tasmania's capacity to respond to future
bushfires. Mr Greg Cooper representing the United Firefighters Union of
Australia–Tasmania Branch stated:
Climate change is real. I don't care what anyone says. It is
real. It is getting warmer...It will impact. And in order to be able to manage
it, you need to have more resources.
The committee notes comments from the Landscapes and Policy Hub, a research
body funded by the National Environmental Research Program. In a 2015 study for
the Tasmanian State Emergency Service, the Landscapes and Policy Hub considered
that increased fire danger will have social and political implications—such as
influencing the pace and direction of fire policy, logistics and funding.
Following the 2016 bushfires, the Tasmanian fire agencies commissioned
an independent review into the management of the fires (2016 Independent
The review was conducted by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service
Authorities Council (AFAC) and was released in April 2016.
The Review Team commented briefly on climate change and its predicted
impact on future fire conditions:
...there is considerable scientific advice and evidence to the
effect that climate change may bring about longer and more severe fire seasons,
reducing opportunities for controlled burning and increasing pressure on
firefighting resources. While many people we spoke to considered fire
conditions in Tasmania in early 2016 to be unprecedented in terms of drought
conditions and availability of fuels to burn, we consider that it would be
prudent for the Tasmanian fire agencies to plan on the basis that these
conditions may recur in the future.
Various other aspects of the 2016 Independent Operational Review are
considered later in chapters three and four of this report.
Reputable organisations have accurately predicted global warming that
has resulted in Australian climate change. Submitters agreed that this has
manifested in increased fire conditions in the TWWHA, although the precise link
between climate change and bushfires has not yet been determined. The committee
notes that over time the threat will also increase due to the erosion of natural
protections that are currently available to certain vegetation types.
In order to mitigate and prepare for risks posed by global warming,
the committee considers that the Australian Government should recognise
that climate change has increased fire conditions in south‑eastern
Australia and the risk to natural and cultural values in the Tasmanian
Wilderness World Heritage Area.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government:
recognise that climate change has increased fire conditions in
south‑eastern Australia and the risk to natural and cultural values in
the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area; and
report annually to the World Heritage Committee on the state of
conservation in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
There is some disagreement on whether climate change will cause a long‑term
increase in the number of dry lightning strikes in the TWWHA. However, on the
evidence available, it is clear that these strikes pose a significant and
increasing threat to the World Heritage Area.
Governments and stakeholders recognise that there is a paucity of
research specific to climate change in Tasmania. The committee is pleased to
see recent efforts being made to bridge this knowledge gap, including
independent research in relation to dry lightning strike in the TWWHA. The
committee notes however that there does not appear to be a research focus on
climate-related ecological and biodiversity impacts, which are integral facets
of the World Heritage listing.
The committee is concerned that increasing climate change will continue
to threaten the TWWHA and its OUV. To plan for and manage these impacts,
authoritative and publicly available information is essential.
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