In the tropical wet rainforests of far north Queensland, outside Cairns, an estimated 23,000 spectacled flying foxes – one-third of Australia’s total population – drop dead from the trees over just two days.
Across the continent in Western Australia’s world heritage-listed Shark Bay, a summer heatwave kills about a third of the area’s seagrass meadows, triggering a sharp fall in populations across the local marine ecosystem, including dolphins, dugong and turtles, and forcing commercial fisheries to abandon the area for years.
Down the Darling River in outback New South Wales, a million fish float belly-up to the surface of Menindee Lakes in one deadly summer burst. Many are threatened Murray cod, some of them up to 100 years old.
These are just a handful of the catastrophes from the past decade included in a landmark paper by dozens of the country’s most respected scientists as part of a list of collapsing ecosystems across Australia and Antarctica.
Published in the peer-reviewed journal Global Change Biology, the study digs into the data for 20 struggling ecosystems and finds 19 have substantially changed, have a low likelihood of recovery and are heading towards permanent collapse.
As well as setting out the problem, the paper also focuses on what can be done to address it. It recommends a new way of responding that the scientists call the “3As” – short for improved awareness of the value of ecosystems, better anticipation of risks and rapid action to reduce them.
Prof James Pittock from the Fenner School of Environment & Society at the ANU recommends taking decisions out of politicians’ hands by introducing a built-in requirement to do less damage over time. He says far more attention should be paid to “no regret actions”, such as limiting invasive species and replanting to link wildlife corridors that would help the environment better cope with inevitable climate change.