Australian forested wetlands under climate change: Collapse or proliferation?

Publication Name

Marine and Freshwater Research


Climatically driven perturbations (e.g. intense drought, fire, sea surface temperature rise) can bring ecosystems that are already stressed by long-term climate change and other anthropogenic impacts to a point of collapse. Recent reviews of the responses of Australian ecosystems to climate change and associated stressors have suggested widespread ecosystem collapse is occurring across multiple biomes. Two commonly cited case studies concern forested wetland ecosystems: mangrove forest dieback in northern Australia (2015-16) and riverine forest dieback in the south-east of the continent (2002-09). We present an alternative interpretation that emphasises the dominant signal of climate change effects, rather than the interdecadal signal of climate variability that drives wetland forest dynamics. For both the south-east Australian riverine forests and mangroves of northern Australia, aerial extent remains greater after dieback than in the early 1990s. We interpret dieback and defoliation in both systems as a dry phase response and provide evidence of a current and near-future climate change trajectory of increased areal extent and cover (i.e. tree colonisation and range infilling). In both case studies, climate change-driven increases in tree cover and extent are occurring at the expense of wetland grasslands and the important ecosystem functions they support.

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