Regrowth Seen in Australia’s Burned Forests

Fire damaged trees release epicormic sprouts along their trunks and branches that allow the tree to continue to photosynthesize and live. Image: Nathan Rott/NPR

In 2019 and 2020, about 20% of Australia’s burned during the country’s unprecedented wildfires. A proportion, that The Guardian noted, scientists believe is unprecedented globally. In fact, ancient forests that have previously survived geographic upheavals were feared to have been irrevocably damaged.

However, new insight from ecologists in Australia is showing that many of these forests are starting to recover–a trend that will hopefully continue. 

The Good and the Bad: Australia has numerous types of forests that respond to wildfires in very different ways. As Science News explained,

“Some of the world’s most ancient rainforests lie in the north of the Australian state of New South Wales. Continually wet since the time of the dinosaurs, these forests once covered the supercontinent Gondwana. Today, vestiges harbor many endemic and evolutionarily unique plants and animals.”

Typically moist, these environments don’t burn. But unprecedented fires have now ravaged more than 11 million hectares in eastern Australia, penetrating these strongholds that rarely, if ever, faced fires before.

Dominating much of South Eastern Australia, eucalypt forests were severely affected by the recent wildfires. As WWF explained,

The quintessential Australian genus, Eucalyptus dominates in all better-watered regions of Australia, including the Southeast Australia Temperate Forests. There are approximately 700 species of Eucalyptus, and only seven are found outside Australia (Berra 1998). Unlike the rest of mainland Australia, soils here are moderately fertile with a cool temperate climate.

As Live Science noted, like many plants native to fire-prone regions, eucalyptus trees (aka gum trees in Australia) are adapted to survive — or even thrive — in a wildfire. However massive, climate-fueled wildfires are pushing the limits of these hardy ecosystems. The trees that have observed to be recovering are from these eucalypt forests.

What The Good News Means: As NPR reported, the burst of regrowth is a sign that despite a months’ long assault of flame and smoke, the second-hottest summer on record and a multi-year drought, that Australia’s nature “is doing it’s thing.”

  • This cycle of fire, rain and recovery has played out in Australia for millennia.
  • The majority of the country’s forests are uniquely adapted to fire. Some species need it. “Australia is, more than any other, a fire continent,” writes ecologist and historian Stephen Pyne in his book “World Fire.”

But scientists have long warned that a warming climate could mean more severe fires, more often. Now there are concerns that even a fire continent will struggle to recover from the scale and severity of recent events.

Why This Matters: Nature is resilient, but we’re witnessing in ecosystems throughout the world that humans are pushing them to their brink. Regrowth in Australia’s forests is certainly a welcome sign but also a reminder that with the next wildfire, we may not be so lucky.

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