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In some parts of Queensland, half the plant species may be displaced. Laura Thorn

Climate change is placing increasing pressure on Queensland’s ecosystems

Climate change will place increasing pressure on Australia’s natural environments in the future. Queensland is no exception.

CSIRO and the Queensland Government recently conducted an in-depth review and synthesis of the existing scientific literature. The resulting report shows that climate and ocean changes will affect Queensland’s marine, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in ways that are more widespread and, in many situations, more extreme than currently recognised.

Even under a moderate global emissions scenario, there are likely to be very significant ecological changes at most locations in Queensland by 2070. It is impossible to predict exactly how ecosystems will change, but our models indicate that in any affected location more than half the plant species in that location in 2070 could differ to those there today. This example provides an indication of the magnitude of the environmental change that ecosystems may face. Actual levels of change at any location could be higher or lower depending on how individual species respond and interact with each other.

These findings mirror CSIRO’s Australia-wide assessment of the impact of climate change on biodiversity conservation and the National Reserve System. Species and ecosystems will be very sensitive to anticipated levels of future environmental change, and existing pressures greatly reduce their ability to adapt to those changes.

Some mountain-top ecosystems may disappear entirely. Kara Brugman

Some areas of international significance are particularly at risk, such as the Wet Tropics and the Great Barrier Reef. The Wet Tropics was identified as a global climate change “hot spot” by the IPCC in 2007. Our report found that the entire region is expected to experience significant environmental change; some mountain top ecosystems may disappear entirely.

The Great Barrier Reef is expected to face the combined influences of warming, ocean acidification and storm activity. It is generally expected to have its mix of species altered, be prone to disease and bleaching, have reduced coral cover, and become more dominated by algae. The report indicates that, under a scenario of two degrees increase in average global temperature, ocean acidification will be severely affecting reefs by the mid century.

Last month’s Climate Commission report, The Critical Decade, said future operations of the agriculture and tourism industries will be significantly affected as climate change alters the ecosystems on which they rely.

The cultural identity of North Queensland’s tourism sector relies heavily on the integrity of the ecosystems and biodiversity of the Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef. CSIRO’s report describes how climate change could cause disruptions and significant economic losses while the tourism industry adjusts.

Rural industries depend on ecosystem services, such as productive native pastures, shade trees and shelter-belts, pest control, pollination, photosynthesis, water filtering and nutrient cycling. Projected changes in the climate may lead to a decline in these services, compromising industry viability in some landscapes, and placing pressure on them to adapt.

Queensland’s landscapes will be significantly different in the future. The magnitude of changes to local ecosystems, including changes to species distribution and abundance, will challenge the prevailing worldviews and community values throughout the state. This may have implications for biodiversity legislation.

If we are to successfully protect ecosystems and the services they provide, we will need to manage these landscapes differently. Substantial ecological change means a shift in management objectives will also be needed. These objectives are likely to be more effective if they promote a coordinated response between government, industry, science and the broader community to manage, rather than resist, change.

There is already significant pressure on biodiversity. SJI Photography

We will need to balance our desire to protect individual species with the need to preserve ecosystem services and functional landscapes as a whole. Planning over longer time scales and wider geographical areas is likely to produce better results for biodiversity conservation.

Current approaches to conservation have not been sufficient to halt biodiversity decline. A much greater effort in managing ecosystems in our landscapes will be required if we are to minimise losses with the additional pressures of climate change.

Land management systems will need to adapt to change quickly. Managers will need a greater capacity to anticipate and account for future ecological impacts as part of their current decision making processes. Upfront investment and support from all those involved will help design and delivery early action.

Adaptation of biodiversity can be supported through landscape-scale management that protects and restores key areas of habitat. This will help species survive over the long term, enhancing their ability to withstand shocks and providing options for movement. Areas that are important to the viability of ecosystems under future climate conditions will need to be identified and conserved. So will areas that can provide refuge for species from the direct impacts of climate change.

Clearly, helping our ecosystems adapt to climate change will challenge the future of natural resource management. Given the importance of what is at stake, it is a challenge we should meet.

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