Catastrophic Australian bushfires derail research
But scientists see chance to control invasive species and study ecosystem disruption.
17 January 2020
Smoke hung thick in the air and shrubland was still smouldering when firefighters escorted a small team of biologists into Kosciusko National Park in southern New South Wales on 15 January.
The expedition, granted a rare exemption from the park’s strict no-go policy during this record-breaking fire season, was to prevent one of Australia’s rarest fish from going extinct.
Rain forecast for the following day threatened to wash ash from the fires into the mountain streams, smothering the last remaining Galaxias tantangara, a species of mountain minnow found in a single three-kilometre stretch of the Tantangara Creek. The expeditioners collected 142 fish as an insurance population to be bred in captivity, a first for the species, in case it disappears in the wild.
“In this situation, they're more important than koalas, [because] we’re not going to lose koalas with the fires,” says Mark Lintermans, from the University of Canberra, who has been studying the finger-sized fish since their discovery in 2014.
As blazes of unprecedented size continue to rage across Australia, the full extent of the devastation is still unknown. Fire-affected regions remain off-limits to all but a few researchers due to safety risks, but some, having consulted satellite images and fire maps, fear the worst.
Some studies have been set back months or years. Destroyed scientific equipment and derailed research projects must be added to the calamitous toll of lives, homes and businesses lost.
Remote sensing specialist, Will Woodgate, from the University of Queensland, manages a site in the Bago State Forest in the alpine region of southeast Australia, as part of Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN), a nationwide array that gathers data on land surface conditions to feed into global climate models.
A 70-metre tower at the centre of the site, one of 20 in the network, is connected to sensors and equipment with a combined value of $A500,000. As fire tore through the site at 3 pm on New Year’s Eve, the stream of data that has flowed from there for 20 years stopped.
Photos of the site from the NSW Forestry Corporation show that the understory of the forest has been wiped out, but the canopy is intact. The tower still stands, so sensors at the top of the tower could have survived the blaze, says Woodgate.
But power cables and two shipping container storage units housing computers, a battery bank and communications equipment are scorched.
“All our equipment inside those sheds could have been melted,” says Woodgate.
The site’s generator and on-ground sensors may also be destroyed. The repair bill could top $100,000, says Woodgate, not to mention the time and effort required to get the site back up and running. It could be months before scientists get the go-ahead to even physically assess the damage, he says.
A handful of the 700 TERN sites without permanent infrastructure — on Kangaroo Island off the coast of southern Australia, for instance — have also been burnt.
A personal toll
Ecologist, Ross Crates, from the Australian National University, studies the critically endangered Regent Honeyeater, a petite nomadic bird with fewer than 400 individuals remaining in the wild.
Finding and counting the honeyeaters has just got a lot harder because fires may have wiped out about 20% of their habitat, forests in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Site, says Crates. He thinks it could take years before the fate of the honeyeater is known.
If the bird has shifted to new habitat as a result of the fires, “it almost puts us back to square one,” he says. “It’s pretty heart-breaking.”
For researchers working directly with species affected, fires can exact an emotional toll, wildlife ecologist, Euan Ritchie, from Deakin University points out. “It's almost like a member of your family being very strongly adversely affected, so people take that pretty hard,” he says.
Aquatic ecologist, Ross Thompson, from the University of Canberra says that he has spent the past few days counselling students whose research has been affected by the fire.
“If you're trying to do a three and a half year PhD and you have a big fire in the middle of it, it can have a pretty significant effect on whether you've got enough data to get done,” he says.
Plant ecophysiologist, Ros Gleadow, of Monash University in Melbourne, says the fire could delay one of her experiments by several years. A site in East Gippsland, in southeast Australia, home to the southern-most population of a native species of sorghum, Sorghum leiocladum, has been burnt.
The wild relative of commercially cultivated sorghum, being investigated for useful genes, may return, but not in time for one of Gleadow’s students to collect data on it for his PhD thesis.
“Even if it comes back, we won't have the funding or the opportunity to do this experiment again probably for a few years,” she says. Seeds from the population haven’t yet been added to a dedicated seed bank, underlining the importance of such facilities in safeguarding against the loss of species, she says.
Research at the newly established Australian Mountain Research Facility lead by the Australian National University in Canberra has also been postponed. The multi-institutional facility, which is set to study the effects of a changing climate on alpine landscapes, had planned to deploy sensors and monitoring equipment to its eight field sites this summer.
Fire at one of those sites, in the Snowy Mountains, has left “nothing but bare soil,” says soil scientist Zach Brown from Australian National University in Canberra and the senior technical officer for the project. With fires still threatening other sites, installation of equipment across the network has been set back by a year, says Brown.
A silver lining
As ruinous as the fires have been, ecologists are preparing to make the most of the situation. “Disturbances are one of the ways we learn about ecology best,” says Thompson.
On 10 January, ecologists in Victoria met to discuss the extent of the damage across the state. According to a government report from the meeting leaked to The Age newspaper, fires have incinerated large chunks of habitat for several endangered species in south-eastern Australia, including the sooty owl, the long-nosed bandicoot, and the diamond python.
The fires present an opportunity to ramp up management of introduced herbivores such as deer and pigs while numbers are down and tree cover has been opened up, exposing them for aerial shooting, says Ritchie, who attended the meeting.
Ecologist, Michael Clarke, from La Trobe University in Melbourne ,is experienced at creating gains from fire losses. Clarke had been studying mating systems in birds when in 2003, fires burnt through his field sites on Wilson’s Promontory in southeast Australia.
“In my case, it changed my research direction in a productive way,” says Clarke. He turned to investigating how fire management, including controlled burns to reduce fire hazard, affects ecosystems. “The more I delved into the ecological basis of fire management, the less confident I was that it was based on really good science,” says Clarke.
He’s been trying to fill that gap ever since.