Time Warp: 32 Years of Environmental Change in Victoria

Victoria has changed substantially over the last few decades. We've had enormous environmental perturbations, such as the 2003 Alpine fires that burnt 1.3 million hectares of land and the rolling booms and busts of rainfall associated with the El Nino cycle. We've also seen Melbourne's continued expansion as our population grows. But rarely are we able to visualise some of these changes easily, and at a scale that allows us to conceptualise just how much change has occurred.

Luckily, the release of Google's satellite photography time lapse project allows just that - we can now see how the world has changed over the past 32 years, from the perspective of space. We've picked through much of Victoria, known for its variable climate and environmental disturbances, in search of some of the most striking and eye-opening changes and environmental variations.

What we've found is pretty incredible. 

A State-wide View

Take a look at Victoria as a whole. From tall forests to farmland, and mallee to Melbourne, this time-lapse is striking in that it shows just how much Victoria has changed in the past thirty years - even in the most remote parts of the state, such as Wyperfeld and Croajingalong National Parks.  

The Growth of Melbourne

In our capital, you can see suburbs sprawling around Port Phillip Bay to the east and west, the pace quickening in more recent years as the city's population raced past four million. It's likely that these rates of growth will continue into the future as well, signalling further environmental change. 


Fire in the Central Highlands

On Melbourne's doorstep, we have the Central Highlands. Here, it's the striking impact of the Black Saturday fires that is most apparent. As the timeline flicks over from 2008 to 2009, the dark green of the mountain ash turns to grey, highlighting the enormous scale of these devastating fires.  

East Gippsland

In Victoria's far-east, the thirty years of environmental change in eucalypt forest is substantial. Fire and a dynamic climate are apparent here as the forest changes over the years. This particular view emphasises the kinds of scales that processes like fire operate on, and that very little of Victoria remains untouched by humans. 

Where The Snowy Meets The Sea

Google's time-lapse technology also offers a look at how some of our river systems have changed over time. Where Victoria's iconic Snowy River meets Bass Strait, the river mouth snakes up and down the coast every year with the tides, shifting enormous amounts of sand in the process. 

Lake Eildon

We can also gain new perspectives of Victoria's dynamic climate over the years by looking at how some of our lakes have changed. Here, Lake Eildon dries and fills every few years in line with rainfall. Over the course of the Big Dry (1997-2009), Eildon progressively becomes drier and drier, only to fill up again in the 2010-11 Big Wet. This particular time lapse really hits home with how much drought can affect Victoria's systems. 

Fire in the Mallee

In Victoria's mallee ecosystems, the effects of individual fires scar the landscape for over 100 years. As each year rolls through in the time lapse, new scars appear as fire incinerates the vegetation, leaving only dirt and ash. Of particular note is the enormous Big Desert fire in 2003 that covered over 180,000 Ha of land. The contrast of these with the fires in East Gippsland is dramatic - from space, the temperate forests of the east appear to regenerate within a few years, whereas in the mallee, the changes brought on by fire last for much longer

Booms and Busts of the Grampians

To the south-east, we can see how Victoria's increasingly dynamic climate is affecting the beautiful Grampians. We know how much the Grampians' small mammal populations vary with fire and climate from year to year, and by studying this series of images it's easy to understand why. The filling and drying lakes tell a story of unreliable rainfall (see Wartook Reservoir in the north and Rocklands Reservoir to the west). At the same time, fires create a complex patchwork of vegetation across the landscape. 

These time lapse videos provide a whole new way to conceptualise environmental change in Victoria, and indeed the world. The impacts of fire, climate, and human society are apparent all across the state, the scale of which, at times, is incredible. Hopefully, these will videos go some way to contextualising that change, and put into perspective just how much our world varies from year to year. Often as a result of us, too.  

To explore Google Timelapse, head to this link.

Not As We Know It: Williamstown to Werribee

This is a guest article by Mary Shuttleworth

When I was a little kid, at least once a month I’d convince my parents to take me to Williamstown. I didn’t want to go for the beach, or the ice-cream, and definitely not the coffee – I wanted to go because there was a shop there that sold stone fairies and pretty rocks, and when I was six, I thought that was pretty cool. I’m in my twenties now, and amazingly, despite the surge of eclectic Melbourne designers, that fairy shop is still there. I still think it’s pretty cool, though I have to admit the allure of the beach and the ice-cream is what tempts me to Williamstown now. 

Before Williamstown began to be developed by European colonisers in the 1830s, open grassy woodland occupied much of the area, stretching from the centre of the area up through to Laverton. The area was rich in grasses and herbs, with species such as kangaroo grass, wattle mat-rush, weeping grass and kidney weed making up most of the ground cover. While there was the occasional Gippsland or river red-gum that popped up through the grasses, like in most of Victoria, these areas were dominated by grasses and herbs. While we now have the Princes Highway sweeping across Melbourne, 200 years ago grasslands were what swept through Victoria, over areas such as Williamstown, Altona Gate, Laverton North, and Derrimut. These grasslands contained a mountain of diversity of plants, insects, and animals – a diversity that is now drastically different, due to the huge development these areas have seen in recent history. 

Williamstown Beach, past and present?&nbsp;&nbsp;Images: Williamstown SLSC, Victoria University

Williamstown Beach, past and present?  Images: Williamstown SLSC, Victoria University

There are some wonderful walks around Williamstown, with the Williamstown Beach to Altona Foreshore Trail being one of my favourites. Walking along the beach with the wind in your hair and the occasional shrubs and grasses, it can feel quite wild – especially if you arrive early enough, and you’re lucky enough to catch a water rat scuttling along the trail. It is difficult to imagine that around Victoria Street and up through the coast to Werribee, coastal saltmarsh once surrounded the ocean in a wide band. Succulent herbs, shrubs, rushes and sedges made themselves home along the tidal flats, species such as creeping brookweed, rounded noon-flower, and austral seablite sweeping up along the coast. Around Cherry Creek and extending to Queens Street in Altona Meadows, there was a small band of scrub that differed from the surrounding saltmarsh. Here, taller species were more common, with Moonah species, coast wirilda, and coastal tea-tree growing in the area, up to eight metres tall. Surrounding them were low-lying herbs tussocks such as bristly wallaby grass and coast blown grass that swept through the area, well- adapted to the soils.

Kororoit Creek, now a great location for walks or runs, was once full of aquatic, low-lying plants such as red water-milfoil, tiny duckweed, and water ribbons. Along the creek line there were occasional eucalypts scattered amongst the tussock grasses and herbs, extending up through Laverton North and past Sunshine West. Featherbrook Drive Wetland, another great location for bird-watching and walking, was a fantastic pocket of diversity, with sedgy wetland found in the area. Fine twig-sedge, wetland wallaby grass, and soft twig-rush found homes in the wetlands, which would have been ideal habitats for an assortment of native ducks.

Werribee River. Image: Parks Victoria

Werribee River. Image: Parks Victoria

Werribee River meets the bay near Werribee South, and goes straight through the heart of Werribee. Two hundred years ago, wwamp gum, narrow-leaf peppermint and river red-gum would have been relatively frequent along its banks, towering up to 20 metres in height. Large sedges and tussock grasses such as kangaroo grass, tall rush, and the adorably-named bidgee-widgee would have made up much of the ground cover and understory along the river. Of course, this is dramatically different to modern times, as the river travels up through the extensive development that now exists there. While the river has seen some hard times, it has certainly added character to the area, with Werribee Mansion and Werribee Open Range zoo sharing their borders with the winding waters. Luckily, there’s now a lot of effort being made to improve its health, with hopes that doing so will entice back some of our native species.

About five years ago, I went on a rowing tour of the Werribee River. While I recommend one actually practices rowing beforehand, I truly enjoyed it. Our guide excitedly told us how the health of the river had improved monumentally, and was barely comparable to what it had been 10 years ago. He was adamant that one early morning a few months ago, he had been sitting on the banks of the river, and had actually seen platypus swimming together, doing their dance in the waters between reeds.

While I’m not absolutely convinced, I can’t help but be excited when I remember his face as he told the story. ‘Just imagine it!’ he’d said, ‘Wild platypus - In Melbourne!’

It’s certainly difficult, but not unachievable. Let’s hope we can make it happen. 

Cover image by Australian National Botanic Gardens