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To the chagrin of the tourist industry, the Great Barrier Reef has become a notorious victim of climate change. But it is not the only Australian ecosystem on the brink of collapse.
Our research, recently published in Nature Climate Change, describes a series of sudden and catastrophic ecosystem shifts that have occurred recently across Australia.
Changes - Stress - Climate - Change - Weather
These changes, caused by the combined stress of gradual climate change and extreme weather events, are overwhelming ecosystems' natural resilience.
Australia is one of the most climatically variable places in the world. It is filled with ecosystems adapted to this variability, whether that means living in scorching heat, bitter cold or a climate that cycles between the two.
Land - Clearing - Mining - Activities - Landscape
Despite land clearing, mining and other activities that transform the natural landscape, Australia retains large tracts of near-pristine natural systems.
Many of these regions are iconic, sustaining tourism and outdoor activities and providing valuable ecological services – particularly fisheries and water resources. Yet even here, the combined stress of gradual climate change and extreme weather events is causing environmental changes. These changes are often abrupt and potentially irreversible.
Plant - Population - Collapses - Extinction - Species
They include wildlife and plant population collapses, the local extinction of native species, the loss of ancient, highly diverse ecosystems and the creation of previously unseen ecological communities invaded by new plants and animals.
Australia's average temperature (both air and sea) has increased by about 1°C since the start of the 19th century. We are now experiencing longer, more frequent and more intense heatwaves, more extreme fire weather and longer fire seasons, changes to rainfall seasonality, and droughts that may be historically unusual.
Interval - Events - Ecosystems - Extremes - Variability
The interval between these events has also shortened, which means even ecosystems adapted to extremes and high natural variability are struggling.
As climate change accelerates, the magnitude and frequency of extreme events is expected to continue increasing.
What is ecosystem collapse?
Gradual climate change can be thought...
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