'Staggering': Full impact of WA heatwave revealed

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'Staggering': Full impact of WA heatwave revealed

Postby Squire » 08 Sep 2018, 01:42

The March 2011 heatwave in WA revealed the susceptibility of plants and animals to suffer severe population loss.

It's probably too late to prevent global warming and we can only try to minimize the consequences by understanding the effects and taking measures to speed the recovery of plant and animal populations that are affected.

https://www.smh.com.au/national/western-australia/staggering-full-impact-of-wa-heatwave-revealed-with-stark-warning-on-climate-20180905-p501zo.html

'Staggering': Full impact of WA heatwave revealed with stark warning on climate
Cameron Myles
By Cameron Myles
6 September 2018 — 1:23pm

Researchers have warned WA is the “canary in the coalmine for climate change” in the wake of a new study shining light on the impact of a heatwave that swept across the state in 2011.

The study — a collaboration between international academics led by WA researchers — catalogued the devastation from a heatwave that struck most noticeably in March 2011, on the back of a dry 2010 winter.

It also coincided with one of the strongest La Niña weather events on record, which started in the summer of 2010-11 and peaked between February and March 2011.

Researchers put together a database of information on the response of plants and animals to the heatwave across an area about the size of California, spanning from Exmouth down to Cape Leeuwin.

Maximum temperatures in the area studied were 2C higher than the long-term March average while Perth saw weekly maximum temperatures about 5C higher than usual.

In Perth the number of heatwave days — defined when the maximum temperature is higher than the 90th percentile for three or more days consecutively — was the highest on record since 1960.

Conditions were mirrored in the ocean and happened to coincide with a near-record strength Leeuwin Current, the warm stream of water that flows down Australia’s western coast. Sea surface temperatures in 2011 were 2-2.5C higher than the long-term March average.

Murdoch University lecturer and Kings Park Science research scientist Katinka Ruthrof, who led the study, described the hot weather’s impact on plants and animals as “staggering”.

“The breadth of animals and plants affected by these heatwave conditions suggest our ecosystems are more vulnerable than we think to the projected increases in heatwave frequency, intensity and duration we are facing in the future,” she said.

The heatwave caused coral bleaching in Ningaloo, saw the loss of sea grass and kelp, damaged insect outbreaks and saw mass tree deaths in WA’s Northern Jarrah Forest.

Carnaby’s black cockatoo populations crashed in the wake of the heatwave and researchers saw the breeding success of little penguins plummet in the South West.

While Australian wildlife is typically thought to be able to handle hot, dry conditions, Dr Ruthrof said prolonged and extreme heat events like the one seen in 2011 had a “significant” impact on species’ productivity, growth and survival.

“Some of the trees we studied are from long-lived perennial species, which have, no doubt, experienced many extremes in the past, but they died in this event,” she said. “It was clearly significant.

“There was plant die-off and mortality all along the Swan Coastal Plain from Rockingham to Eneabba, and in the Northern Jarrah Forest to the east.

“Some of the Jarrah and Marri trees that died in the Northern Jarrah Forest were over 60cm in diameter, indicating they were around 100 years old.”

Co-authors Joe Fontaine and Jatin Kala, both also from Murdoch University, said the study presented a stark warning with implications for similar Mediterranean climates across the world, such as in California.

Researchers catalogued the impact of a heatwave that swept across WA in 2011, causing the death of scores of native plants and animals.

Dr Fontaine said the findings indicated extreme events caused by a changing climate were not simply a problem for the future.

“We often speak about climate change in terms of future generations,” he said. “It is not — this is a current issue that needs to be addressed.”

Dr Kala said the South West of WA was the “canary in the coalmine for climate change”.

“What happens here is a reflection of what is likely to happen for Mediterranean ecosystems across the world,” he said.

“These regions can use our findings to predict how their ecosystems are likely to be impacted by more intense and frequent heatwave events, which are expected in the future due to climate change.”

Dr Ruthrof agreed, describing the study as an "important case globally".

"Given the stacked disturbances that are occurring — that is, chronic drought since the 1970s along with acute drought in 2010 and heatwaves in the 2010/11 summer, it seems that conditions are changing rather rapidly in south west WA," she said.

A paper on the study’s findings was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
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