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Sustaining Australia’s critical alpine zone: new ecosystem surveillance plots supplement seven decades of monitoring


Camped on the top of the Australian Alps a team of ecologists is beating the heat and sampling Australia’s critical yet fragile alpine ecosystems. The soil and vegetation data they collect will supplement a 70-year-long dataset and provide ecologists and land managers with the information they need to ensure the sustainability of our unique alpine environment and the ecosystem services it provides.
 

Australia’s alpine ecosystems are small but mighty. They cover just 0.15% of the continent but our alpine and subalpine ecosystems have exceptional natural value and have been calculated to provide billions of dollars’ worth of benefits to the nation each year.

The Australian Alps are critical for their support of unique and threatened plants and animals and for their provision of life-sustaining resources, including water for food production and energy generation.  They hold immensely important cultural and historic significance and are prized tourism and recreation areas.

However, the immense importance of our alpine ecosystems is threatened by their unproportioned vulnerability to changing patterns of climate, fire and land-use pressure in the coming century. Documenting environmental change, and deciding how best to manage the land for sustainable use, requires detailed knowledge of the fundamentals of ecosystem structure and function—insights that we now possess thanks to decades of persistent ecological monitoring efforts in the Australian Alps.
 

Ecologists from TERN's Ecosystem Surveillance capability and partner organisations are establishing 15 new surveillance plots across the Bogong, Dargo and Doolan High Plains to supplement Australia’s long-term alpine datasets (photo courtesy Christina Macdonald)

 

Decades of data sustaining the Australian Alps

Since the first long-term monitoring plots were established on the Bogong High Plains in 1947, a continuous succession of scientists working on an expanding network of plots (today there are more than 50) have created a 70-year data collection—openly available via TERN’s Data Discovery Portal—capturing the sites’ vegetation and groundcover condition change.

"This unprecedented dataset allows scientists to ask and answer questions about long-term alpine ecosystem dynamics and their vulnerability to changing patterns of climate, fire and land-use pressure in the coming century,” says Dr John Morgan of La Trobe University’s Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology.

Datasets like this and the long-term scientific studies that generate them have directly informed and improved alpine land management practices, report fellow alpine ecosystem researchers Dr Dick Williams of Charles Darwin University and James Carnac of Macquarie University.

“We now know that high levels of vegetation cover are needed to protect alpine catchments; that livestock grazing damages alpine ecosystems; how to better implement cost-effective weed control; how to better manage small Mountain Pygmy Possum populations; and that large, infrequent fires do not necessarily cause ecological disaster.”
 

New alpine surveillance sites strengthen national ecosystem observatory

To supplement Australia’s long-term alpine datasets, TERN’s Ecosystem Surveillance survey team, who are more used to the arid deserts of central Australia and the tall eucalypt forests of the south, is shifting its focus in early 2018 to the Alps.

In fact, as you read this a team of ecologists from the University of Adelaide and La Trobe University is camped on the Bogong High Plains collecting environmental data using the TERN AusPlots Rangelands Survey Protocols Manual.

The group is collecting extensive information on soils, vegetation structure and composition, alongside information on species occurrence, community composition and assemblage distributional patterns across the landscape that will allow researchers to understand what species occur where and how ecosystems adapt to change.

15 new ecosystem surveillance plots are being established across the Bogong, Dargo and Doolan High Plains. Several plots will be co-located next to the already established long-term monitoring site and OzFlux energy and water exchange monitoring tower.  Co-location of research sites will help develop an integrated observatory station that produces data on multiple phenomena at the same time and location, thus allowing the study of correlations and interdependencies between variables in great detail.

 

TERN’s Ecosystem Surveillance field survey team includes Emrys Leitch, Christina Macdonald, Luke Ragless, Ashleigh Doolette, Sue and Peter Milne and Michael Starkey (photo courtesy Christina Macdonald)

 

The new plots will provide another geographical and ecological link in TERN’s national network of over 580 ecosystem surveillance plots already established in all states and territories and most of the rangeland and forest bioregions of Australia.

TERN’s Ecosystem Surveillance capability’s senior botanist and field survey lead, Mr Emrys Leitch of the University of Adelaide, is excited about the observatory’s expansion into Australia’s alpine zone.

“The new alpine sites we’re establishing, share a lot in common with the rangeland sites our team is used to studying. They face many similar threats such as fire, introduced plants and grazing,” says Emrys.

“We’re working with some of Australia’s most eminent alpine ecologists to ensure the data collected at the plots can be used to address these threats and ensure the long-term sustainability of our unique alpine environment and the ecosystem services they provide us with.”

 
Ecologists are collecting extensive information on soils, vegetation structure and composition, alongside information on species occurrence, community composition and assemblage distributional patterns across the landscape that will allow researchers to understand what species occur where and how ecosystems adapt to change (photos courtesy Christina Macdonald)
 

The 15 new alpine ecosystem plots will provide another geographical and ecological link in TERN’s national network of over 580 ecosystem surveillance plots already established in all states and territories and most of the rangeland and forest bioregions of Australia

 

 

 

 

Published in TERN newsletter January 2018

 

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