Climate Change vs the Outdoors
Climate change, alongside other major environmental issues, has a direct negative impact on the wild places we love and our ability to live and thrive in the outdoors. Unfortunately, these impacts will only worsen unless action is taken.
Outdoors people know that extreme weather events pose a serious threat when you're out in the wild; not just to human life, but to the wild places we love, which suffer irreparable stress and damage in the wake of drought, bushfire, and extreme wet weather.
While some of the threats to our wild places are transient and can be managed or recovered from, others are resulting in permanent damage. Within Australia, climate change has resulted in extinction and suffering of species, collapse of ecosystems, soil erosion, coral deaths, and more. Much of these impacts stem from an increasing frequency and intensity of adverse weather. In future, these environments may no longer be safe to access, and the places that we love will be changed forever.
Let's take a few minutes to explore the immediate and practical consequences of climate change for the Australian outdoors.
Worsening bushfire seasons
Climate change is the leading cause behind a devastating new normal in Australia: longer and more severe bushfire seasons. Having warmed by more than 1.4°C since the pre-industrial era, Australia now experiences longer and more intense heatwaves, and in southern Australia, less rainfall during the cool season. Extreme fire danger days have increased. Fire risk will continue to escalate unless action is taken.
Bushfire is a normal part of the Australian climactic system, but not like this. The unprecedented breadth and intensity of the 2019–20 Black Summer fires was a reckoning for many Australians.
Black Summer laid bare the profound consequences of worsening bushfire seasons on the Australian outdoors. Our wild places suffered immensely under the widespread blazes. It is unclear whether some ecosystems will recover sufficiently prior to the next extreme weather event or other ecological threat. The ecological impact of the Black Summer fires was enormous; it is estimated that three billion animals lost their lives, were injured, or saw habitat destruction over that summer. The fires also have profound impacts on the people who love, live, and work amongst these wild places.
During Black Summer, hazardous air quality meant many thousands of Australians were unable to get outdoors. National parks and other areas were closed, with active fires burning inside their boundaries or threatening the periphery. Visitors were evacuated from outdoor places threatened by fire fronts including, in the case of a few backcountry enthusiasts, by helicopter rescue from Kosciuszko National Park. As a precaution, numerous parks were closed pre-emptively on days of total fire ban, while after the fires, many outdoor places remained closed for extended periods due to the serious fire damage. Black Summer also left its mark on damaged and destroyed parks and outdoor infrastructure, including loved and iconic tracks, campgrounds, and visitor centres.
Black Summer was also a devastating reckoning for outdoor businesses. Those invested in the outdoor sector faced serious losses and disruption. When relocation was not possible due to widespread fires, trips and activities of outdoor education and tourism operators were cancelled or postponed and in some cases, property and infrastructure belonging to or used by these businesses was threatened, damaged, or destroyed. A notable example is the devastated Selwyn Snow Resort near Adaminaby, with fire damage resulting in closure of the resort for both the 2020 and 2021 snow seasons. Large swathes of land essential for these businesses' operations was severely fire affected, effectively barring workers from their workplaces after the fire season.
During the Black Summer,
80% of the bush in the Greater Blue Mountains area - extending from Wollemi in the north to Nattai in the south - was burned.
In the ACT, 80% of Namadgi
National Park was razed.
Almost the entirety of Flinders Chase National Park and the adjoining Ravine de Casoars Wilderness Protection Area was ravaged; 96%.
Increasing extreme heat
It's no secret that average temperatures are increasing globally as a result of climate change: hot days are getting hotter, and heat waves are increasing in length, severity, and frequency. Hot and dry weather is typical in Australia, but not like this. In 2019, Australia experienced its' hottest year on record.
Heat waves can be deadly. Acute heat-related illness, including heatstroke, dehydration, and sunburn, are significant hazards for people outdoors in Australia. Hotter temperatures are impacting everyone's ability to engage in many outdoor activities including bushwalking, running, trail running, cycling, and mountain biking. Everywhere, but especially in our hotter regions, outdoor activities, especially strenuous ones, will become ill-advised for greater stretches of the year.
Increasing average and peak temperatures are just as bad for the places we love. Australian flora and fauna have adapted over millennia to the Australian climate and have previously been robust to the hot conditions across much of the continent. However, the rapid increases in extreme heat, coupled with drought and bushfire, have left many organisms vulnerable. Heat waves are responsible for significant die-off of Australian native animals, including fish and flying foxes.
Worsening drought conditions
Rainfall has been steadily decreasing in Australia for decades. Since the 1970s, late autumn and early winter rainfall has decreased by 15% in southeast Australia, while Western Australia’s southwest region has experienced a 15% decline in cool season rainfall. Drought conditions in Australia are further exacerbated by an increase in the intensity and frequency of hot days and heatwaves caused by climate change. Time spent in drought is expected to increase in the future across southern Australia.
Increasingly prolonged dry periods have significant consequences for freshwater species and other flora and fauna. Future drying trends in Australia will be most pronounced over the world-renowned biodiversity hotspot of southwest Western Australia.
Drying trends will have direct impacts on how we can engage in the outdoors. For bushwalkers, hikers, and trail runners, once reliable water sources are becoming ephemeral, reducing the window of safe access to these regions. Drought conditions are also increasingly affecting our larger waterways; bad news for those of us who love paddling. It's likely we will see increasingly reduced stream flow and water availability in much of Australia, even possibly altering the very physical structure and function of our most iconic rivers like the Mitta Mitta, the Murray, and the Murrumbidgee.
Increasing drought will make it harder for both visiting people and resident critters to find water in our wild places.
Steam flow has been declining in southern Australia since 1975.
Flooding and coastal erosion
Climate change is causing sea levels to rise. Globally, sea levels rose by 17 cm during the 1900s. Sea levels through the 21st century are likely to rise by 0.4 to 1.0 m, depending on human emissions.
Sea level rise affects the Australian coast in two ways: by inundation, where seawater floods the land, and by coastal recession, where sandy or otherwise soft shorelines are eroded.
Damaging, very high tides caused by storms (called storm surges) are exacerbated by higher sea levels, and heavy rainfall associated with these weather systems can worsen coastal flooding.
A sea level rise of just 0.5 m would result in a very rare, 1-in-a-100 year flood becoming a common occurrence, every few months. It could also involve a potential retreat of sandy shorelines by an extreme 25 to 50 m.
There is no doubt that rising sea levels, coastal erosion, storm surges, and coastal flooding will impact the places we love on the coast, as well as surfing, fishing, snorkelling, paddling, hiking and camping. Climate change will not only affect our access and use of our coastal places, but will change them forever; particularly our sandy beaches, which are especially vulnerable to irreversible physical change.
Vital coastal ecosystems are at threat from sea level rise as well, including mangroves, saltmarshes, seagrass beds, coastal freshwater habitats, and coral reefs.
Over half the Australian coastline is vulnerable to recession from rising sea levels, including 80% of the Victorian coast.
More intense, damaging storms
Climate change is fuelling more intense and damaging storms in Australia, with tropical cyclones, extreme rainfall, hail, and thunderstorms now playing out in an atmosphere saturated with energy and moisture. Extreme rainfall events are expected to increase across much of Australia and the frequency of severe thunderstorms will increase in the Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane areas. Tropical cyclones are projected to become less frequent but more intense in terms of winds, rainfall, and storm surges.
More intense and dangerous storms are an unwelcome consequence of climate change in the outdoors. Severe winds, extreme rainfall, and hail and thunderstorms all pose serious safety risks to people in the outdoors. Damaging winds can cause limbs and trees to fall while extreme rain can cause waterways to become flooded, dangerous, and impassable. Storm events can result in park closures and otherwise restrict access to outdoor places.
Severe storm events can damage or destroy public and private infrastructure in the outdoors. Problematic erosion and landslides can result from extreme rainfall. An increased incidence of damaging storms can result in increased insurance premiums, a challenge for outdoor businesses in affected areas like Queensland.
Cyclone Debbie (2017) was the second most expensive cyclone in Australia's history, with an estimated loss of $1.565 billion.
Less snow, no snow
Climate change means we have less snow in Australia than we have ever had in the past, and means we will have less snow in the future. Australia is experiencing reduced snow depth, shorter snow seasons, reduced area of snow coverage, and a reduced ability to make snow across our alpine region.
Snow cover in Australia has already declined by more than 30% since 1954.
The significant change in snow conditions affects backcountry and resort users alike, including skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and all those who spend time in the snow.
Outdoor businesses and employees who rely on the snow season will be impacted, most notably Australia's $2.4 billion ski industry which employs an estimated 23,000 people.
These changes to our snow seasons and the associated warming of the Australian alpine will have further environmental consequences in the region including soil erosion, damage to vegetation, reduced water quality, and impacts on native species including the critically endangered mountain pygmy possum.
Australia's winter ski slopes could be completely snow free by 2050, unless concerted action is taken against global warming.
Mass extinction and biodiversity crisis
Globally, and in Australia, biodiversity is in peril. About one million plant and animal species globally are threatened with extinction. Today, the combined mass of wild mammals is less than one-quarter of the mass before humans started colonising the planet. Population sizes of animal species have declined by more than two-thirds over the last 50 years. Since the agricultural revolution, humans have halved the vegetation biomass.
Australia has the worst mammal extinction rates and one of the worst animal extinction rates of any country in the world.
Threats to biodiversity include habitat loss, climate change, overexploitation, pollution, and introduced species.
Climate change has resulted in widespread bleaching and subsequent death of coral, notably in the Great Barrier Reef. At 2°C above pre-industrial times, a devastating milestone anticipated to be passed as early as 2034, coral reefs will become practically non-existent.
Reduced biodiversity will affect the experiences of outdoor enthusiasts in all environments. Outdoor workers and businesses may be impacted by a reduced appeal to visitors, for example reduced tourism to coral reefs.
More than 500 Australian native animals, including the greater glider, black-flanked rock-wallaby, regent honeyeater, swift parrot, and koala, and more than 1,300 native plant species are at risk of extinction.
What does it all mean?
For the wilderness
Our cherished local and iconic outdoor places will be increasingly stressed and damaged. Without sufficient action to address the climate and environmental crisis our environments and ecosystems are expected to experience reduced biodiversity and extinctions, increased incidence of alien species, affected landscapes and coastlines, altered vegetation, impacts to waterways, ocean acidification and compounding impacts.
Visitors to the outdoors, of all types and pursuits, will be increasingly impacted by the climate and ecological crisis. We can expect increased closures and reduced ease of access of outdoor places like National Parks, increased safety risks, less suitable conditions more often, damaged and destroyed public infrastructure, reduced appeal of outdoor places, and feelings of grief and loss. Even the most simple of outdoor engagements - walking in the neighbourhood, sitting out in the garden, visiting local playgrounds and dog parks - will be affected.
For outdoor businesses and workers
Businesses that operate in wild places including outdoors education and tourism providers may expect a range of losses as a result of the impacts of climate change and other environmental issues. Shortened suitable seasons and more frequent unsuitable conditions for certain activities and trips as well as closures and access issues, can result in closures, cancellations, itinerary changes, rescheduled and relocated operations, trips and activities. Outdoor businesses may experience the financial strain of increased insurance premiums, and a greater need for and reduced access to insurance. As ecosystems and landscapes are adversely affected, the demand for trips in affected destinations can diminish. Some business's have experienced damaged and destroyed company infrastructure as well as public infrastructure relied upon for operations by fire or flood. Businesses may also need to adapt to increased safety risks whilst operating in the outdoors.
All of these issues flow onto workers, who often work casually or seasonally, who are at risk of losing employment.
The challenge ahead is enormous. But outdoors folk are no strangers to challenge.
We're the kind of people who solve problems, face difficulty, and seek adventure. We are leaders. We know how to get everyone home safely. And we're not easy to intimidate.
The world has all the solutions we need to address the climate and ecological crisis, and to even start reversing the damage. The only thing missing? Political will.
Social movements can achieve incredible outcomes. This is our chance to turn the tide, solve the crisis, save the world, and protect the outdoors while we're at it.
The antidote to despair is action. Let's get amongst it!