Widespread wildfires in early 2016 caused devastating damage across large areas of the Tasmanian World Heritage Area, including significant sections of vegetation which is not fire adapted, such as Pencil Pine forests.
At the time, and in follow up investigations, it became clear that increased fire risk due to climate change posed an existential threat to these vegetation types. Now additional research has confirmed the trend towards more extreme fire seasons. It suggests that we reached a ‘tipping point’ sometime around the year 2000 and that, since then, there has been an increase in the number of lightning-caused fires and an increase in the average size of the fires, “resulting in a marked increase in the area burnt”.
Lisa Cox, writing in The Guardian, reports:
The amount of vegetation burnt by fires caused by lightning strikes in Tasmania’s world heritage area has increased dramatically this century, according to new research led by the University of Tasmania.
The study, published this month in the academic journal Fire, warns the state’s heritage forests face rising threats because of the tendency toward drier summers and that the probability of “catastrophic” fires could increase as a result of more fuel igniting from lightning strikes.
Researchers at the University of Tasmania looked at historic fire data collected by the Tasmanian parks and wildlife service from 1980 to 2016.
The records detail the number of fires each year, the area burnt and what caused the fire.
From the year 2000, they found an increase in the number of lightning-caused fires and an increase in the average size of the fires, “resulting in a marked increase in the area burnt”.
Their data shows only a few fires caused by lightning were recorded in the 1980s and 1990s, compared with almost 20 that were recorded in 2015-16.
There were major fires caused by lightning in 2000-01, 2006-07, 2012-13 and 2015-16.
“Lightning is now responsible for the majority of the area burned in the TWWHA [Tasmanian wilderness world heritage area],” they state.
Fire ecologist Jenny Styger, the paper’s lead author, said: “Something changed about 2000″.
“It was the tipping point at which lightning started to become the predominant cause of fire ignition.”
The Tasmanian Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said the new research showed “climate change’s impacts are here now and this is another reminder of the need to urgently reduce emissions”.
He said the inquiry had considered whether an increase in fires caused by lightning may have contributed to the destruction in 2016.
“To have this confirmed by this study should send shockwaves through the conservation community,” he said.