Climate crisis facing Australian rainforests likened to coral bleaching


The Queensland government authority says “concerning new evidence has shown an accelerating decline” in the wet tropics’ unique rainforest animals.

The authority says the lemuroid ringtail possum is one of the worst affected species. Credit:Wet Tropics Management Authority.

“Following the hottest summer ever recorded, some of the key species for which the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area was listed are at imminent risk of extinction,” the statement said.

The Wet Tropics bring $5.2 billion worth of economic benefits each year. It includes the Daintree and Barron Gorge national parks and 13 river systems and runs parallel to the Great Barrier Reef.

A 2016 report found that region’s biodiversity was already declining, largely due to warming global temperatures. Species such as the lemuroid ringtail possum, green ringtail possum and tooth-billed bowerbird were progressively moving to cooler, higher ground “leaving alarming population declines” in lower areas.

Previous modelling has predicted that more than half of the area’s endemic species may be extinct by the end of this century. However the latest findings by James Cook University biodiversity professor Steve Williams suggested “these extinctions are happening even sooner”, the statement said.

Some mountain-adapted species, such as the lemuroid ringtail possum, could not survive even a day of temperatures above 29 degrees. However Mount Bartle Frere, the highest mountain in the Wet Tropics, recorded “an unprecedented 39 degrees” on six days this past summer, the board said.

“If the trends continue, populations at sites that previously had the highest density of lemuroid ringtail possums in the region could become locally extinct as early as 2022. This species is currently not even classified as endangered,” it said.

The wet tropics were inscribed on the World Heritage register in 1988, and are a tourist drawcard.

The wet tropics were inscribed on the World Heritage register in 1988, and are a tourist drawcard.

The statement said extreme heat events were as devastating to the wet tropics as coral bleaching was to the Great Barrier Reef. But unlike the Reef, funding to address the effects of climate change in land-based World Heritage Areas “has not been commensurate with the urgency” of mitigation.

The board said “strong intervention is required immediately” to secure the future of the area, including urgent action on reducing global emissions. Other measures to increase the area’s resilience were also required, such as land restoration, monitoring and pest management.

The authority says the International Union on the Conservation of Nature has ranked the Wet Tropics as the second most irreplaceable World Heritage Area on Earth, and the sixth most irreplaceable protected area, largely because many of its animal species are found nowhere else.

Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy said the authority’s call to action showed that climate chanage is hurting Australia now and a responsible government would act accordingly.

“Our political leaders must explain how they will protect places like the Wet Tropics of Queensland by urgently cutting our climate pollution and showing global leadership to encourage other countries to do likewise,” she said.

“Ultimately we are witnessing the destruction by climate change of one of the most ecologically important and beautiful places in the world that we as Australians have promised to look after on behalf of all humankind.”

Voter concern over climate change is at record highs during the election campaign. The Morrison government has pledged to cut Australia’s emissions by 26 per cent by 2030, based on 2005 levels. This is in line with the Paris target but experts say it is not consistent with keeping global warming below the critical 1.5 degree threshold.

Labor would reduce emissions by 45 per cent over the same period. Scientists and environmentalists have welcomed the policy, but say more must be done to avert the worst climate change impacts.

Nicole Hasham is environment and energy correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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