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Mountain Journal

Environment, news, culture from the Australian Alps

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climate change

Mountain Ash forests in VIC face ‘almost certain collapse in the next 50 years’

Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) is the ‘signature’ tree of the damp montane forests of south eastern Australia. Generally growing in temperate areas receiving over 1,200 millimetres rainfall a year on deep loam soils, this species is the tallest flowering plant on earth.

They have been heavily logged for well over a century, and massive areas have been burnt in wildfire. Now climate change and extreme fragmentation of habitat is driving Mountain ash forest in south-eastern Australia towards ‘almost certain collapse in the next 50 years’, according to an assessment by researchers from the ANU.

The key message in this research is:

Researchers “modelled 39 different scenarios and found there was a 92 to 99.99% chance of collapse of the mountain ash forest in Victoria’s Central Highlands by 2067”.

It is also important to understand that there is still a “critical window where we can act to prevent the loss of the mountain ash forest ecosystem”.

Continue reading “Mountain Ash forests in VIC face ‘almost certain collapse in the next 50 years’”

New Zealand’s winter is shorter by a month over 100 years

We all know that climate change poses a grave threat to the amount of snow we will be seeing in Australia in coming years. Historically, average snow depths in the Kosciuszko National Park have shown a downward trend over the last 60 years. Another detail in the story of overall decline in snow pack is the ever later arrival of reliable snow (for instance, how often do you get to ski or ride on ‘Opening’ weekend?).

New research from New Zealand/ Aotearoa collaborates the observation that winter is arriving later and leaving earlier.

Continue reading “New Zealand’s winter is shorter by a month over 100 years”

The outdoor industry stands up to defend the Wild

What level of threat do we need to experience before we act?

The evidence that climate change is bearing down on us is absolutely compelling. And it is clear in regards to what is coming: the mountains and wild country that we love, which feeds our spirit and helps define who we are, is facing a grave, and potentially existential, threat. Without serious and concerted action to radically reduce greenhouse pollution now, we will experience shorter, more erratic winters, and longer and more frequent fire seasons. It will mean more frequent drought, hotter temperatures, and species pushed up the mountains until they run out of habitat.

Yet for the most part we continue with business as usual. The clock keeps ticking and we keep looking out the window, possibly hoping someone else will do something. The silence of the people who love the mountains – skiers, riders, hikers, climbers – and the industries who survive by supplying these communities – ski resorts, outdoor gear and tour companies – is generally deafening.

That’s why we have to be grateful wherever there is a rumbling of change, where companies and constituencies stir, get organised and speak out. One recent example comes for the USA, where the outdoor industry has become galvanised in opposing plans to undo protections for many (currently protected) wild places.

Continue reading “The outdoor industry stands up to defend the Wild”

Increased fire frequency is changing snow gum forest structure

Mountain Journal has often reported on the impacts of climate change enhanced fire seasons on the mountains of Australia and, in particular, on plant species.

The iconic mountain species of the mainland, the Snow Gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora), has been hammered in recent decades by multiple fires, often with small gaps between fires.

MJ previously reported on work carried out by researchers from Melbourne University who found that ‘over 90% of the Victorian distribution of snow gums has been burned at least once since 2003. What is of greater concern though, is that each of the large fires of the last 15 years has overlapped to some extent, leaving thousands of hectares of snow gums burned by wildfire twice, and sometimes three times’.

They went on to say that higher incidences of bushfires, which are likely due to climate change, are devastating for the usually fire-tolerant snow gums of southern Australia.

Now an updated version of their work has been published in the Journal of Vegetation Science which delves into whether these more frequent and severe fires are leading to higher death rates of individual trees (individual snow gums have the ability to regrow after fire from ground level regrowth – called basal resprouts – but may also be killed). This work was carried out by Tom Fairman, Lauren Bennett, Craig Nitschke, and Shauna Tupper.

Continue reading “Increased fire frequency is changing snow gum forest structure”

Forrest Shearer on climate activism. The first step is showing up.

It’s almost mid October and there’s still plenty of snow out there. The end of the season seems to go on and on. It’s been one of those amazing winters we will talk about for years.

On my local community facebook page, the climate deniers are banging on about how it’s been cold so that ‘proves’ climate change isn’t real, etc. But standing here in mid spring we’re clearly looking to a long hot summer. There are already fires in NSW and Gippsland, and in Queensland consumers are being warned not to set their air conditioners too low for fear of triggering blackouts if we crank up the air con during the expected heatwaves. The Bureau of Meteorology cautions that the dry weather that is happening across much of the continent is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

A good winter always feels like a dream. Where there is no drought, no fire, just the endless hope that the next storm front will be better than the last, and that urgent need to get out amongst it. Spring brings home the reality of our warming earth. Yes, fire and drought have long been a feature of our landscape (well at least for the last 65 million years or so). But when the Europeans arrived in the headwaters of the Australian Alps there was regular winter snow in places like Harrietville. Already, in a century or so, snow is a fleeting visitor in the sub alpine valleys.

The fact is the world is warming up, and the best available science says humans are the cause of it. So, to truly love our winter landscapes we need to turn that love into visible work: we need to do everything in our power to slow climate change if we are to have a hope of avoiding the worst of what’s coming (of course we have already locked in decades, if not centuries of warming and changed weather but it’s not too late to act).

As a campaigner with an environmental group, I spend much of my time working on climate change and I know so many inspiring people in the movement. As a skier, climber, hiker and very part time MTB rider, I often feel like there are very few inspirations in the Australian outdoor scene who are doing the same work. Sure there are some people who use their profile for the greater good (rugby player David Pocock comes to mind) and some fantastic skiers who do the same – especially local women Nat Segal and Anna Segal.

But generally you have to look overseas for further inspiration. Forrest Shearer is one of those who is really stepping up and putting his shoulder to the campaign wheel (while still getting in 200 days of riding a year!)

Continue reading “Forrest Shearer on climate activism. The first step is showing up.”

1,700 years of climate history in Tasmania’s King Billy Pine

This is a fantastic story. Anyone who has walked in the mountains of central and western Tasmania is probably familiar with the King Billy Pine (Athrotaxis selaginoides). Individual trees can live for more than 1,00 years. It is one of the conifers that are endemic to Tasmania and exists only within a very limited range of habitat. Fire threatens the species (one third of its habitat was burnt in the twentieth century), and climate change is expected to increase the severity of fire seasons in future.

The following article outlines a research project that used core samples from King Billy trees to develop a better understanding of climate in Tasmania in previous centuries. It is available here.

Continue reading “1,700 years of climate history in Tasmania’s King Billy Pine”

Auden Schendler on climate change – skiers can make a difference

After a decade of inaction, the Australian snow industry is finally starting to engage meaningfully on the issue of climate change. With Perisher having been bought by the Vail Resorts group, it has been swept along in that companies efforts to achieve carbon neutrality for it’s operations by 2030. And Thredbo recently became the first Australian resort to formally join Protect Our Winters (POW) the activist group seeking to mobilise the snow sports community.

There is, of course, still plenty of room to move. Many resorts, like Mt Hotham, are still effectively in denial about climate change, opting for the ‘we’ll just invest more in snow making capacity’ option. But as the recent visit by POW founder Jeremy Jones showed, there is a significant interest in the snow community about climate change.

We are starting to see some great leadership from prominent skiers and riders like Nat Segal, who is a vocal advocate for climate action. The interview below comes from Powder magazine and features a conversation with Auden Schendler of the Aspen resort. Auden is often seen as a key global spokesperson on climate because of his work at putting Aspen on a sustainable footing. This reflection has some significant things to say about what is and what isn’t possible in the resorts and what is required if we are to take effective action to limit climate change.

Two salient points that stand out for me from this interview are:

“We have to acknowledge or understand as a starting point that to be sustainable has got to mean solving climate change.

On climate, if you’re not at risk politically or from public criticism, and if you don’t feel uncomfortable, if it doesn’t hurt, you’re probably not doing enough on climate”.

The take home message from Auden is that making your operations greener is not an end point. It’s part of the pathway to solving climate change. This is going to involve sustained and public advocacy for the adoption of policies which will tackle climate change in a meaningful way – ie, engagement in good old fashioned politics. As he eloquently puts it, it means advocating for ‘systemic change’.

He reminds us that the current option adopted by most resorts is simply not going to work:

‘You can’t adapt to where we’re headed … we’re headed toward four degrees Celsius’.

Continue reading “Auden Schendler on climate change – skiers can make a difference”

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More frequent fires threaten snow gums

Fire has had a significant role in shaping mountain ecosystems in Australia for millions of years. But climate change is making our fire seasons more extreme and longer in duration.

What this means is that we are seeing more and more areas being burnt more frequently. In the case of the Victorian mountains, I have seen some areas of alpine ash and snow gums that have been burnt three times in a decade. Each year it feels like the world is getting poorer as these forests are impacted time and again, potentially beyond their ability to recover.

It’s the same story everywhere. Who can forget the devastating fires in Tasmania over the summer of 2016?

As we hear warnings that this summers fire season may be a bad one, massive fires are raging across much of western North America, causing many people to flee from their homes and communities. Vast areas of land are being burnt. For instance one fire in California swept through an area called Nelder Grove, which is home to 2,700-year-old giant sequoia trees. Human assets like historical buildings are also being threatened or destroyed.

There are fires across much of the rest of the northern hemisphere too. Check the incredible maps in this article entitled ‘This is how much of the world is currently on fire’.

Recent research here in Australia demonstrates that fire impacts are growing on snow gum forests and will continue to do so in future. Mountain Journal has reported on a number of these reports in the past. A new report from researchers at Melbourne University has a shocking message: ‘over 90% of the Victorian distribution of snow gums has been burned at least once since 2003. What is of greater concern though, is that each of the large fires of the last 15 years has overlapped to some extent, leaving thousands of hectares of snow gums burned by wildfire twice, and sometimes three times’.

Continue reading “More frequent fires threaten snow gums”

Australian snow pack in decline since 1957

Anyone who is paying attention to the state of our winters knows that they are getting more erratic. Often they start later (it’s a rare thing to ski on natural snow on opening weekend) and subject to more rain events, with big impacts on snow pack. While our climatic patterns go through natural wetter and drier cycles, climate science tells us that these patters will become more extreme, with less overall snow and shorter seasons.

Anecdotes and personal experience are one thing. But when did the snow pack actually start to decline?

While all resorts track snowfall, the benchmark of snowfall in Australia over time comes from Spencers Creek, at a site at 1,800 metres above sea level, in the Main Range of the Snowy Mountains. The following article comes from ABC Rural and gives a sense of the decades worth of data that is available from this site, and the process of getting the data. The measuring site was originally established to give the Snowy Hydro managers a sense of what water was trapped in the snow pack and hence how much water would be released in the spring. As skiers and riders, what it gives us is a long term summary of the trends in snowpack over the past six decades.

The take home message is that, overall, snowpack has been declining for decades and unabated climate change will make that worse. While the article does not drill into this issue in detail, previous analysis of this data by Terry Giesecke suggests that:

“There has been a downwards trend (in snow pack) from 1957 to 1989. It then goes up dramatically for about four years, before resuming a downwards path”. This research suggests that the increase in snow depth between 1990 and 1994 could have been due to global cooling which occurred as a result of major volcanic activity in the Philippines in 1991. Using data collected up until 2016, it also notes:

“There is evidence of further decline in the first 16 years of the 21st century.”

The full article is below.

Continue reading “Australian snow pack in decline since 1957”

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