This is a guest post by Maggie Riddington.
Traditionally home to many Indigenous Australians, rainforests are not only beautiful, natural landscapes enjoyed by many bushwalkers - they also have a vital role to play in storing carbon at a time of growing community concern about climate change. In fact, if Australia is to honour its commitments made at the recent Paris Climate Summit, these beautiful ancient places might hold an important key.
In the peak of the Australian Summer, as temperatures soar, people often seek relief from the heat in natural spaces. They head to the beach, they go for a dip in the river, or if they are fortunate enough to be in the vicinity, they head to the rainforest. It’s a few degrees cooler in the rainforest and there they can seek relief in the lofty shade of the ancient myrtle beech and southern sassafras.
But as people seek refuge from increasingly extreme weather, so do the cool temperate rainforests of Victoria seek out, albeit very slowly, appropriate climatic niches to flourish. In fact, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Climatically restricted to areas of high rainfall and mild temperatures, such areas now exist only in southeast facing gullies where they are afforded sufficient protection from harsh conditions.
According to the Bureau of Meteorology annual climate summary released last week, 2015 was one of Australia’s hottest years and was the hottest year on record globally. In Victoria, areas of rainforest received rainfall well below average and temperatures much higher than average. That’s particularly bad news for forests dependent on mild temperatures and high rainfall.
Whether you’re in the Otways, far-east Gippsland, the Strzelecki Ranges or the Central Highlands, when you step out of a rainforest you step into a mountain ash forest. The adjacent forests, being the most carbon dense in the world, offer salvation to the rare and retreating rainforest in more ways than one. For instance, the mountain ash forests act as buffer zones for the rainforests, sheltering them from high temperatures, disease and fire.
Not only do the mountain ash forests protect cool temperate rainforests from harsh climatic conditions, they also store an incredible amount of carbon (1,867 tonnes per hectare), but if cut down they release a substantial amount of carbon into the atmosphere. In this way, the mountain ash forests help mitigate the effects of global warming on these rainforests.
Protecting Victoria’s rainforests and mountain ash forests is imperative to mitigating global warming. Not only for the forests themselves, but for the people who know and love them.
These forests are important places for all Australians, but they also hold a pragmatic significance as carbon stores that might help bridge the divide between Australia’s current carbon output and the pledges we’ve made to the international community.
Cover image by Maggie Riddington.