Environment: Cherish old trees, rivers and birds

Oct 30, 2022
A Wombat forages for food at sunset Australia. October 22nd was World Wombat Day.

The world’s old trees, Australia’s rivers and the USA’s birds are in decline. The cause is the same everywhere – failing to respect nature.

Old trees are gifts to the future

This Bristlecone Pine in California may be 5,000 years old.

Old trees are disappearing all around the world: the USA’s sequoias are succumbing to fires and their bristlecone pines to bark beetles, Africa’s baobabs to drought, Lebanon’s cedars to warmer, drier conditions, and NZ’s Kauris and Italy’s olive trees to invasive diseases. New trees planted for timber, paper pulp, cooking oil and offsetting carbon emissions (Ha!) are increasing but there are fewer massive trees, fewer ancient trees and fewer old-growth trees – and also less biodiversity in the monoculture plantations.

In a delightfully written article, Jared Farmer, a professor of history, eulogises about the benefits of ancient trees not only for the environment but also for humans:

‘They inspire long-term thinking and encourage us to be sapient. They engage our deepest faculties: to revere, analyze and meditate. If we can recognize how they call upon our ethical imperative to care for them, then we should slow down climate change now, and pay forward to people who will need a future planet with chronodiversity as well as biodiversity.’

In an old-growth forest there aren’t that many old trees to begin with: only about a quarter of the trees are 3-4 times the median age of the trees and only 1% are 10-20 times older than the median. Chop them down or create conditions in which they cannot survive and there are even fewer, with devastating effects on whole ecosystems. Farmer draws attention to the ecosystems that old trees contain in the canopy high above the ground (the ‘eighth continent’) and among the roots underground (the ‘ninth continent’ or WWW), and also to the role of ‘mother trees’ that connect, sustain and nurture the forest around them.

In contrast to ephemerals, annuals, biennials and perennials, Farmer refers to old trees as ‘perdurables’ – perdurance being resilience over time. He calls on humans to cultivate this attribute by caring for old trees and the old-to-be.

Forest fires and climate change feed each other

As I’ve previously reported, forest fires are becoming more widespread and burning nearly twice as much tree cover as they did 20 years ago. Fires are responsible for a quarter of all forest loss over the last two decades. Part of the reason for this increase is the forest fire-climate change positive feedback loop.

USA’s birds in decline

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the WWF report that described the 69% decrease in vertebrate population numbers around the world over the last 50 years. Data specifically about birds in the USA confirms this horrifying trend. Bird numbers have declined in almost every habitat over the last five decades. The only exception is wetlands where numbers have increased, and not by chance. This is due to policies and funds having been directed to conservation of wetland habitats, and hence wetland birds – demonstrating that we can do better if we try.

The lowermost red line in the graph below relates to the 70 bird species in the USA that have collectively lost two-thirds of their populations over the last 50 years and are on track to lose another 50% in the next 50.

The devastating effect that climate change can exert on breeding is well illustrated in the next graph. During ocean heat waves the number of Atlantic Puffin fledglings per nest plummeted. This is because warmer water reduces the number of fish that puffins need to feed their young.

On the west coast, Tufted Puffin numbers have fallen by 90% since 1979. As well as causing ocean heat waves, climate change can reduce seabird numbers during more frequent and more violent storms and when rising sea levels remove nesting habitats. Overfishing and fishing bycatch also reduce the availability of prey for seabirds and then there’s plastic pollution, entanglement in fishing gear and invasive species such as rats in breeding sites.

The report’s main recommendation is blindingly obvious: Scale up conservation policy, funding, action, coordination and monitoring. Preventing problems and acting before a species becomes endangered is the fastest, cheapest and most effective approach. It also has multiple beneficial outcomes. For instance, improving wetlands isn’t just good for the birds. It helps a wide range of animals and plants, promotes biodiversity, sequesters carbon, cleans up water supplies, provides jobs and recreational opportunities, and protects communities from climate disasters. It’s not just the birds’ health that benefits.

Growing industrial sectors in a green economy

McKinsey have identified eleven industrial sectors with high potential to grow their revenues as the world moves towards net zero. Transport leads the way with a potential market size of approximately US$2,500 billion per year. Then come six sectors with annual revenues in the US$1,000-2,000 billion range and four around US$100-1,000 billion.

Interestingly, last on the list is carbon management which includes the markets for the dodgy carbon offsets and the unproven carbon capture and storage. I don’t think I’ll be putting my money in either of those. (Disclaimer: This is not financial advice and, sorry, no liability will be accepted for lost investments.)

No doubt there are profits to be made in the short term in some industries, including fossil fuels, as greenhouse gas emissions decline – or I should say, once emissions start to decline. However, to keep beating the drum, the big question is whether the market economy is capable of making the changes needed to achieve environmental sustainability, not which sectors of the economy will prosper and which wither.

Wombat Day

It seems unlikely that many people in Australia, never mind around the world, were aware that October 22nd was World Wombat Day. To celebrate, Australian Wildlife Conservancy released the first high-resolution video of a Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat. The NH-NW is the largest and rarest (less than 300 left) of the wombats. As well as the NH-NW and, you guessed it, the SH-NW, there are three subspecies of Common or Bare-nosed Wombats. Wombats are limited to Australia, principally the eastern and southern states. Newborn wombats weigh one gram and the mother’s pouch opens to the rear so that it doesn’t fill with earth when they are burrowing.

The Baaka-Darling’s demise – climate change or over-extraction?

Over-extraction and climate change (higher temperatures and reduced rainfall) have both contributed to the Baaka-Darling’s problems but research covering the last 40 years has concluded that more of the river’s 53% reduced flow over this period has been caused by increased water extraction than by climate change.

Governments and irrigators are responsible for the major cause of the river’s problems (legal and illegal water extraction from the river itself and floodplain harvesting) and it is they who have principal responsibility for remedial action. While urgent and drastic action is also required to tackle climate change, the reality is that Australia has very limited influence over what needs to happen globally and even if emissions were to start falling rapidly tomorrow the effect on temperatures and rainfall in eastern Australia would take years to become evident. Immediate action by Australian governments and Australian irrigators is completely within their control and can have beneficial effects on the Baaka-Darling right now.

Increases in river flows would have beneficial effects on a wide range of animals and plants and also on drinking water supplies in downstream communities. If 100 gigalitres per year of water were allocated to river flow rather than irrigation, the annual cost would be around 1.3% of total irrigation profits; 400 gigalitres would cost about 4%. (100 gigalitres is about a fifth of the water in Sydney Harbour.)

Interestingly, the situation is different in the Paroo River (an intermittent tributary of the Baaka-Darling) which has had virtually no water extraction over the last 40 years, so all of its 28% reduction of flow has been caused by climate change.

The bear-faced cheek of it

My wife complains about the possums eating her magnolia buds … this video shows how lucky she is:

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