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