If New Zealanders want a ‘laboratory’ to observe what climate change-induced ecosystem collapse will look like, it’s right across the Tasman Sea.

A study of Australian ecosystems under severe stress has just been released. It identifies 19 Australian ecosystems as “collapsing” right now.

“Collapsing” is defined as “the state where ecosystems have changed in a substantial, negative way from their original state – such as species or habitat loss, or reduced vegetation or coral cover – and are unlikely to recover.”

The study is based on measured data and observations, not modelling or predictions for the future. If there’s any encouragement in the study, it’s that not all the ecosystems examined have yet collapsed across their full range — e.g., some deep water reefs are still intact on the Great Barrier Reef.

Here are the ecosystems already collapsing:

  1. Great Barrier Reef
  2. Australian Tropical Savannas
  3. Mangrove Forests, Gulf of Carpentaria
  4. Wet Tropical Rainforest, North Queensland
  5. Western-central Arid Zones
  6. Georgina Gidgee Woodlands, central Australia
  7. Ningaloo Reef, northern Western Australia
  8. Shark Bay Seagrass Communities, Western Australia
  9. Murray Darling River Basin – waterways
  10. Murray Darling River Basin – riverine
  11. Montane and Sub-alpine Forests, South Australia, New South Wales and the Victorian highlands
  12. Great Southern Reef Kelp Forests, southern Australia
  13. Mediterranean-type Forests and Woodlands
  14. Monaro Tablelands, South Eastern Highlands
  15. Snowpatch Herbfields, Australian Alps
  16. Mountain Ash Forests, Victorian Central Highlands
  17. Gondwana Conifer forests, Tasmania
    And not on the map above:
  18. Subantarctic Tundra, Macquarie Island
  19. East Antarctica Moss Beds, Windmill Islands, Vestfold Hills

If you go here, the condition of each of these ecosystems is briefly described.

Sounds dystopian to me. It’s important to realise that these collapses are not disasters ‘only’ for nature, they affect the human condition as well (we are part of nature, after all).

Most obvious are the effects on water and food availability. For example, the Murray-Darling Basin, covering around 14% of Australia’s landmass, supports more than 30% of Australia’s food production. Its rivers and other freshwater systems are severely stressed. And in Victoria, the degradation of Ash forests “greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people’s drinking water in Melbourne”.

You better visit Melbourne as soon as a ‘bubble’ permits!

The study does advance mitigation opportunities, some doable at local scale, but others requiring major systemic change of direction — curbing greenhouse gas emissions, combatting invasive species from feral cats to buffel grass, stopping widespread land clearing and other forms of habitat loss.

With this degradation observable on our doorstep, we here in NZ can’t say we didn’t know what was coming.

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  1. I lived in Albany on the southern western Australian coast for 5 years from 1990 to 1995 and watched the desertification of productive farmlands to sand dunes between Albany and Esperance along the coast and in the hinterland following years of clearance of native vegetation. This was not a small patch of land but hundreds of sq kms.

  2. If you look at the changes that have have occurred in areas such as Esperance (for example) since 2005 where ecological diversity changes occur and effort applied its amazing what can be positively achieved be great to see many of these diversity principles applied to the Murray Darling basin instead of the constant fight over water ….

  3. Here’s where human aspirations to wealth and ‘growth’ meet the harsh reality of resource limitation issues – most urgently, GHG emissions. We live within a sustainable environmental footprint or we go down. But it’s a slow burn, creeping crisis so the worst effects won’t be seen until – a few decades hence – it’ll be too late. Meanwhile our Freudian love affair with the internal combustion engine continues – jetskis, quadbikes, utes, SUVs, motorhomes, powerboats, overseas holidays and the rest. We have to choose – our cars or our kids.

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