Australian mangrove die-off blamed on climate change

AFP Yahoo News 11 Jul 16;

Sydney (AFP) - Thousands of hectares of mangroves in Australia's remote north have died, scientists said Monday, with climate change the likely cause.

Some 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres), or nine percent of the mangroves in the Gulf of Carpentaria, perished in just one month according to researchers from Australia's James Cook University, the first time such an event has been recorded.

The so-called dieback -- where mangroves are either dead or defoliated -- was confirmed by aerial and satellite surveys and was likely to have been the result of an extended drought period, said Norm Duke, a mangrove ecologist from James Cook University.

"This is what climate change looks like. You see things push the maximums or minimums... what we are looking at here is an unusually long dry season," Duke told AFP.

"The reason that there's dieback now is because of this drought. Droughts are normal, but not so severe, and that's the difference," he said.

Local rangers told scientists they were seeing creatures like shellfish, which need the shade of the trees, dying and that turtles and dugongs that are dependent on the ecosystem could "be starving in a few months", he added.

Duke said researchers believe the event took place in the semi-arid region in late November or early December last year.

"The dieback occurred synchronously across 700 kilometres (434 miles) in one month," he said, which is about the distance between Sydney and Melbourne.

He added that "by all accounts, the climate is going to become more erratic, so we can expect these type of events to become more common".

Some of the mangroves suffering "dieback" were defoliated, meaning they were not yet dead but had lost their leaves, and could recover. But most "won't recover, and will be dead", with satellite images matching ground surveys, said Duke.

Massive mangrove die-off on Gulf of Carpentaria worst in the world, says expert
Climate change and El Niño the culprits, says Norm Duke, an expert in mangrove ecology, after seeing 7,000ha of dead mangroves over 700km
Michael Slezak The Guardian 11 Jul 16;

Climate change and El Niño have caused the worst mangrove die-off in recorded history, stretching along 700km of Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria, an expert says.

The mass die-off coincided with the world’s worst global coral bleaching event, as well as the worst bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef, in which almost a quarter of the coral was killed – something also caused by unusually warm water.

And last week it was revealed warm ocean temperatures had wiped out 100km of important kelp forests off the coast of Western Australia.

To assess the damage to the mangroves, Norm Duke, an expert in mangrove ecology from James Cook University, flew in a helicopter over 700km of coastline, where there had been reports of widespread mangrove die-offs.

He was “shocked” by what he saw. He calculated dead mangroves now covered a combined area of 7,000 hectares, as was first reported by the ABC on Sunday. That was the worst mangrove mass die-off seen anywhere in the world, he said.

“We have seen smaller instances of this kind of moisture stress before, but what is so unusual now is its extent, and that it occurred across the whole southern gulf in a single month.”

Knock-on effects

The devastated mangrove forests played an essential role in the region’s ecosystem, Duke said. They were nurseries for many fish species.

“But we also think of them as kidneys – as water filters and purifiers,” he said.

As water from rivers and floodplains runs into the ocean, mangroves filter a lot of sediment, and protect coral reefs and seagrass meadows. That service would be lost in the areas affected by die-off.

“There are already anecdotal reports of marine life dying and piles of dead seagrass washing up on the shore,” he said. “If that’s true, then turtles and dugongs will be starving in a few months.”

And it would get worse over the coming years as the roots of the dead plants rotted.

“The problem is the growth rate isn’t high enough to stabilise the environments,” Duke said. “In five or six years’ time, the roots will break down and those sediments will become destabilised. And that will threaten the near-shore habitats of seagrass and coral.”

The mangroves also protect the shoreline and coastal ecosystems from storms and tsunamis. Absorbing waves that hit the coast helps limit the impact of storms and rising sea levels.

“We need that resilience and protection of the shoreline so we can slow down the effects of sea level rise,” he said.

Death by global warming

Mangroves die off naturally on a small scale, but Duke had never seen anything of this magnitude.

Around the world there had been widespread destruction of mangroves, but usually as a result of direct local impacts such as clearing for the creation of shrimp farms, he said. But the areas in northern Australia were “relatively pristine”.

“So you can see global changes or influences more easily. Usually, local influences are far stronger.”

The clear culprit in this case was climate change, which was warming waters and making rainfall more erratic, Duke said. That put the mangrove forests at their tolerance limit, and when a strong El Niño hit the world this year – warming waters in northern Australia and drawing rainfall away – they were pushed past their tolerance thresholds.

Greg Browning, from Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, confirmed the past two years had seen unusually low rainfall and very high sea surface and air temperatures across the region where the die-off occurred.

“In a nutshell, there have been significantly below-average rainfall totals in the last two wet seasons ... and very warm sea surface temperatures,” he said. “When you have those departures from average conditions, it’s bound to affect the ecosystem in some way.”

The 2016 wet season was affected by the El Niño phenomenon, which produced dry conditions at the heart of the die-off. Browning said normally there were two or three bursts of monsoonal rains across the region, but in 2016 there was just one.

But the 2015 wet season, when there was no El Niño, was even drier.

This year, it is believed those dry conditions combined with a belt of record-warm sea surface temperatures across the north of Australia, as well as very warm air temperatures, to create a perfect storm that devastated the mangroves.

Browning said these conditions were a result of natural fluctuations, occurring on top of climate change. “[Global warming] exacerbates the situation,” he said. “It makes a bad situation much worse.”

Recovery and monitoring

Duke said mangroves were good at adapting, but not to such severe changes that occurred so quickly. How they would recover over the coming years was unclear.

Some areas could transition completely away from being mangrove-dominated, and become salt pans – flat, unvegetated regions covered in salt and other minerals.

“Some zones have been completely removed of vegetation across the tidal profile,” he said. “The problem is that the rate of colonisation isn’t fast enough to stabilise those environments. So in five or six years’ time when the root material breaks down, the sediment becomes destabilised and no amount of seedling growth will stop the erosion.”

Duke said there had been very little monitoring of these relatively pristine mangroves in areas where very few people live.

Such a program was urgently needed. “We need to be able to form a rapid assessment response for these emergent situations,” he said. “These habitats are on the retreat. They’re retreating far more rapidly than any of the endangered forests we have.

“We need to equip people to have independent assessments of what the local impacts are.”

Although they were among the most pristine mangroves in the world, they could be being affected by grazing.

“The question is how much of that is going on, and we need to be monitoring those sorts of influences so we can properly understand what are these larger effects, and are we reducing the resilience of mangroves so we are making them more vulnerable to the climate?”

Fishing industry concerned about widespread mangrove dieback in Northern Australia
Matt Brann ABC 11 Jul 16;

The widespread dieback of mangroves across northern Australia's coastline has the commercial fishing industry worried about its future.

It is estimated around 10,000 hectares of mangroves have died along the Gulf of Carpentaria coastline, in an event being described by experts as severe and unprecedented.

Barramundi fisherman Jeff Newman has been working in the Gulf for years and has seen the mangrove dieback first hand.

"The extent of damage is a shock to me and of real concern to the [fishing] industry," he said.

"To see it on this massive scale is unheard of.

"I've never seen or heard of anything like this before in the past."

Mr Newman said the death of so many mangroves could have a disastrous impact on the local fishery.

"Any healthy ecosystem survives on the mangrove forest," he said.

"Every marine organism either lives in the mangroves at some stage of its life or supplies food for all of the fish, prawns and crabs that we catch.

"Without that habitat, all the fish that we survive on as a commercial industry is very vulnerable.

"So it'll have a disastrous effect on our nurseries for our small fish and it could take years for a recovery."

Mr Newman said he's seen mangrove forests wiped out by cyclones in the past and it's taken five to six years to fully recover pending on favourable environmental factors.

He said it was tough to know how long it would take for the ecosystem to recover this time, if the ongoing climate issues continue.

"In my opinion it's definitely [happened because of] hotter water and environment temperatures," he said.

"It was very hot over our last summer, and the lack of rainfall and the lack of a wet season. It's all contributed."

Mr Newman believes further research and monitoring of the mangroves "is of the utmost importance" to determine what caused the dieback and what the long term effects are going to be.

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