Personal tipping points

by Alison Munson (@MunsonAlison)


Cairns, Australia

Photos are starting to come in from Australia with elements of hope: epicormic sprouting of trees (that look dead), trees and shrubs sprouting from roots after this last rain, another few koalas found clinging to trees in a devastated landscape. As I work on a new course on ecological restoration this session, I wonder how and if the millions of hectares that burnt in the last weeks and months might or might not regenerate. I talked to a journalist yesterday about what we might expect and if there are means to assist in the regeneration of these forests. It is hard for anyone to predict the outcome after an extreme event at this scale, especially in across forest types. Many factors will play out on how the vegetation will be renewed, among them the recurrence of extreme drought, and the future fire frequency, though of course there is now much less biomass to burn in any returning fire for at least the next decade.

Perhaps because I visited these forests and was struck by their uniqueness (such as the remnant Nothofagus forest) and vibrant life, I felt the recent massive destruction as a mental and even physical stress. I remembered being woken up at dawn many years ago by wonderfully loud voices of tropical birds at the Binna Burra rainforest lodge in Lamington National Park. This is an amazing site, with trails leading in all directions into an incredible ecosystem. Checking online I saw that the lodge where we slept and other beautiful heritage buildings were mostly burnt back in September when the fires were first breaking out. The winding road into the lodge was closed for months, but cleanup operations on the burnt buildings have now begun, and they hope to have the campground running for April. Although some buildings were protected by the local volunteer firefighters, there much rebuilding to be done. Over 400 ha of the surrounding sub-tropical forest were burnt, according to local scientists Patrick Norman (@pat_m_norman) and Rod Fensham. Rainforests in the region are not supposed to burn, yet fire spread from the flammable eucalypt forest, and due to dry conditions, the usual fire-resistant vegetation of the rainforest burnt as well. Recovery is likely to be a long process.

In the midst of Christmas dinners and uncontrolled flames, some researchers suggested that the scale and predicted temperature increases might push these forest systems beyond a tipping point, so that different forests, or shrubs and grasslands, may take their place (comments by @dr_nerilie and @DaveBreshears). Another researcher in France suggested that the Mediterranean forest will also experience extreme fire in association with drought and rising temperatures (see @julien_ruffault). But we did not hear too much (in the news) from the aboriginal perspective; what is their view of the current bushfires in Australia? I read about increasing interest in cultural burning, and implication of aboriginal firefighters, but I would be more interested in their view of how the forest might or might not regenerate.

The damage to Lamington National Park and Binna Burra resort are one example of the heavy ecological and personal losses being felt across the country; the stories are heartbreaking. I follow the blog of Manu Saunders (@ManuSaunders), who recently wrote about her perspective as a previous resident of NSW (New South Wales, which was hit the hardest), and how breathing smoke for weeks took a mental and physical toll. Events such as these are likely to increase in frequency, and depending on our proximity, affinity or identity, will touch us to different degrees, emotionally. Australia touches many of us who have visited, have done science there or have friends and relatives directly affected. Will such events change our own attitudes and more important, our behavior in reaction to climate change? One of the main factors that pushed me to communicate more directly about my own science and climate change was the IPCC report of October, 2018, which was written to provoke a more significant shift in government actions in response to the crisis. But this last bushfire event and the massive loss of animal life about which people talk about abstractly in high numbers (millions maybe billions), represents another personal tipping point for me. Animal and plant life is being extinguished at a once unthinkable scale because we are consuming fossil fuels. What other events might be a personal tipping point for you: experiencing direct loss of life or property, or knowing closely those who have experienced these losses? It is likely different for each one of us.

The result of reading, watching reporters, hearing first hand accounts, and losing an amazing marker in my personal history seemed to push a button somewhere in my primitive brain. A survival mechanism? What will it take for this to happen to a critical mass of humanity – I’m not sure that I want to know.

Author Biography: Alison Munson is a professor of forest biogeochemistry at Université Laval in Quebec. Alison studies boreal, temperate and now urban forests and in her spare time she writes fiction; where did that spare time go?

Photo credit: Taken by vaun0815