Climate change has emerged as a key threat to a diverse range of ecosystems in Australia and beyond, according to studies published in a special issue of the journal Austral Ecology.
The studies applied the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems criteria to identify ecosystems, including marine sponge beds, coastal mudflats, deserts, tropical and temperate forests, alpine herbfields, temperate shrublands and wetlands, at high risk of degradation.
The Red List of Ecosystems, similar to the influential IUCN Red List of Threatened Species that identifies individual species most at risk of extinction, has become the global standard for ecosystem risk assessment.
“Our preliminary Red List risk assessment in Australia – the first of its kind in the country – has identified climate change as a key threat to many ecosystems, including rainforests, woodlands, desert shrub lands, alpine herb fields and marine systems,” says Professor David Keith, of the University of New South Wales Centre for Ecosystem Science.
“But it manifests itself in different ways. Some ecosystems are threatened by changing rainfall patterns; others by increased frequency of heat waves; still others by the declining duration of snow or Antarctic sea ice cover, or even rising cloud levels in the case of unique montane rainforest.”
Among the ecosystems assessed were the Cumberland Plain woodland in New South Wales, eastern Australia, the connected wetlands of the Lake Eyre Basin in central Australia, and the Busselton ironstone shrub lands in Western Australia. Outside Australia, researchers studied tidal flats in the Yellow Sea, shallow-water ecosystems in Antarctica, and terrestrial ecosystems in El Salvador.
The research brought together data on the biology and spatial distribution of each ecosystem to produce an overview of ecosystem status and trends.
Processes such as river flows, land use change, invasions by weeds and pests, climate, and the effects of fires and floods proved to be crucial to ecosystem status.
“We found that climate change adds to other major stresses, such as land clearing and disease, which have been strong historical drivers of ecosystem decline,” says Dr Tony Auld from the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage, a co-author of several of the studies.
A crucial outcome of the risk assessment is that it points to practical courses of action to deal with the threats and protect ecosystems from further degradation.
“Our ecosystems are not only important in sustaining the supply of clean water and other essential resources, they are the linchpin of Australia’s tourism industry and the fabric of Australian identity,” says Professor Keith.
“With support, we can extend this preliminary study to a full continental-scale Australian ecosystem assessment, which will help inform the community, governments and industries how to target their efforts and investments where they will generate the greatest benefit.”
“As ecosystems decline, the intrinsic value of nature degrades. But we also lose the natural resources that sustain our societies and protect communities from natural disasters, and the wild spaces that keep us sane and healthy,” says Rebecca Miller of IUCN’s Global Ecosystem Management Programme. “Functioning ecosystems are a prerequisite for a thriving global society.”