Ir­re­versible dam­age

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pen­cil pines prick the sky­line. The back of the sign­post has burned, but on the front the writ­ing has some­how es­caped the flames. “World Her­itage,” it says. The joke is too dark.

Once, as the sign sug­gests, this was a place of glob­ally sig­nif­i­cant bio­di­ver­sity – an an­cient rem­nant of the up­land veg­e­ta­tion of the su­per­con­ti­nent of Gond­wana, which once stretched across the high­lands of Aus­tralia, Antarc­tica and South Amer­ica. Two-thirds of the plants in th­ese val­leys grow nowhere else on Earth. They are places of great beauty, in which time is stretched over a grand ex­panse.

Now, ac­cord­ing to the warn­ings of for­est sci­en­tists, we may be bring­ing about the end of this great nat­u­ral trea­sure. Many Aus­tralian forests are uniquely adapted to burn, but not th­ese ones. The an­cient alpine conifers and the lit­tle plants that grow amid the bogs are blasted year by year with all the rain the South­ern and In­dian Oceans can muster. Nor­mally, fire would be un­think­able in th­ese sod­den places, thus the plants here have evolved lit­tle re­sis­tance to fire.

But this is no nor­mal year. The spring of Septem­ber to Novem­ber was Tas­ma­nia’s dri­est and hottest since records be­gan. De­cem­ber and Jan­uary smashed heat records. By Jan­uary 13, even the moun­tain bogs were tin­der dry. Then, in highly un­usual weather, a huge, dry light­ning storm flashed across the state, set­ting off more than 70 fires. Within days, the flames had roared through the dried-out rain­forests that usu­ally pro­tect the high­lands. They crossed into the World Her­itage area, set­ting the peat alight. Parts of the pro­tected moun­tains are still on fire, hav­ing burned for more than six weeks.

Th­ese types of con­di­tions might com­bine to oc­cur nat­u­rally once in 1,000 years, says David Bow­man, a pro­fes­sor of for­est sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Tas­ma­nia. But now, he be­lieves the fires rep­re­sent a new nor­mal.

“We just have to ac­cept that we’ve crossed a thresh­old, I sus­pect,” he tells The Na­tional. The is­land has been los­ing rain­fall since the 1970s. “This is what cli­mate change looks like.”

In Fe­bru­ary, af­ter a me­dia flight or­gan­ised to high­light that the tourist at­trac­tion was till largely un­af­fected by the fires, Tas­ma­nian premier Will Hodg­man at­tacked “ac­tivists” for “al­most glee­fully cap­i­tal­is­ing” on the fires, which he said were “nat­u­rally caused”.

There were cer­tain nat­u­ral fac­tors that meant the fires hap­pened in this year, rather than any ad­ja­cent one. A mas­sive El Niño event com­bined with an In­dian Ocean dipole. Both of th­ese pe­ri­odic ocean cir­cu­la­tions have a dry­ing ef­fect on Tas­ma­nia. But th­ese con­flu­ences have hap­pened be­fore and the forests sur­vived.

The fires fit a global pat­tern of in­creas­ing burn­ing in the wet forests of the world, and es­pe­cially on the main­land of Aus­tralia, says David Lin­den­mayer, a pro­fes­sor of ecol­ogy and con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­ogy at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity.

“That’s what other peo­ple have been fore­cast­ing to hap­pen. We are go­ing to see more fires, over larger ar­eas, that are more fre­quent and of higher sever­ity. What we are see­ing in Tas­ma­nia would ap­pear to be a man­i­fes­ta­tion of that,” he says.

The im­pli­ca­tion, says Bow­man, is “good­bye Gond­wana, be­cause Gond­wana can’t live in this sort of world”. De­spite th­ese warn­ings, Unesco re­mains silent. A spokesman said the or­gan­i­sa­tion was “not in a po­si­tion to spec­u­late about the ex­tent to which global warm­ing is re­spon­si­ble for this par­tic­u­lar fire”.

Around me, 1,000-year-old pen­cil pines hud­dle in lit­tle clumps, ex­actly as they stood when alive. Look­ing at them feels in­va­sive, like star­ing at the vic­tims of Pom­peii locked for­ever in their pri­vate fi­nal an­guish. Their skin has been burned to an irides­cent black and cracked like dragon’s scales.

Sam Wood, a Univer­sity of Tas­ma­nia for­est sci­en­tist, es­ti­mates that four per cent of the world’s pen­cil pines were lost in the past few weeks.

A few have sur­vived thanks to some quirk of the wind, or a for­tu­itous wall of pro­tect­ing rocks or a lit­tle rain that came and fi­nally doused the flames af­ter weeks of burn­ing. Th­ese trees have rid­den their luck to bear wit­ness to the dawn­ing of the new age. One that Bow­man sus­pects their species will be ill-equipped to sur­vive.

“It stretches my mind to be­lieve there’ll be much of this stuff left in 50 years,” he says. “But we’ve got to get through next sum­mer and we’ve got to get through all th­ese sum­mers in a world that is get­ting hot­ter.”

Again and again, the flames will pass through th­ese once sod­den val­leys. Fire-re­sis­tant species will move in and this global trea­sure will be for­ever changed.

Bow­man’s pre­dic­tion echoes the work of the great co­ral sci­en­tist Ove Hoegh-Guld­berg. In 1999 he pre­dicted that the great co­ral reefs of the world would be lost by the mid-cen­tury. As the world grows hot­ter, some species in par­tic­u­lar will have no chance to adapt. Th­ese are the ones that al­ready in­habit the ex­treme fringes of the bio­sphere.

Co­ral reefs can­not stand wa­ter that is much cooler or hot­ter than the wa­ters around the Equa­tor. The great global bleach­ing event that has rolled around the world’s oceans for the past two years is tes­ta­ment to their un­suit­abil­ity to this new world. Sim­i­larly, Tas­ma­nia’s alpine forests can­not climb any higher to find a cooler, wet­ter place to live.

In all, about 22,000 hectares of the 1.5 mil­lion-hectare prop­erty have been dam­aged. It is a large chunk, but by no means ab­so­lute. I will still be able to re­visit my child­hood play­ground even though it will di­min­ish.

This nib­bling around the edges is the way of cli­mate change. A lit­tle here, a lit­tle there, and then with­out us re­ally be­ing aware, species, habi­tats and a whole planet have been ir­re­deemably changed. But in this lit­tle val­ley, far away from all of the grand ideas of sci­ence, the in­tractable pol­i­tics of cli­mate change and the sym­bol­ism of a World Her­itage area burned, some­thing sim­ple hap­pens. I stand among the burned old cush­ion plants and the child in me starts to cry.

Karl Mathiesen is an en­vi­ron­men­tal jour­nal­ist based in Lon­don.

Dan Broun

The World Her­itage wel­come sign on Tas­ma­nia’s Cen­tral Plateau re­mains amid a black­ened land­scape of dead pen­cil pines, cush­ion plants and sco­paria that stretch for kilo­me­tres.

Fairfax Photo Ar­chives / Fairfax Me­dia / Getty Im­ages

Pro­test­ers at the Franklin River in Tas­ma­nia cel­e­brate the govern­ment’s de­ci­sion to end plans for a dam, in July 1983.

Dan Broun

A pen­cil pine tree aged be­tween 800 and 1,200 years old, de­stroyed by the bush­fires that dev­as­tated Tas­ma­nia’s World Her­itage wilder­ness in Jan­uary.

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