As wildfires hit Australia, ocean warming from climate change endangers Tasmania

Tasmanian Aboriginals faced genocide, and now extreme climate change is threatening what’s left of their culture.

BRUNY ISLAND, Tasmania – Even before the ocean caught fever and reached temperatures no one had ever seen, Australia’s ancient giant kelp was cooked.

Climate change had arrived at this island near the bottom of the world, and the giant kelp that flourished in its cold waters was among the first things to go.

Over recent decades, the rate of ocean warming off Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost state and a gateway to the South Pole, has climbed to nearly four times the global average, oceanographers say.

More than 95 percent of the giant kelp – a living high-rise of 30-foot stalks that served as a habitat for some of the rarest marine creatures in the world – died.

Giant kelp had stretched the length of Tasmania’s rocky east coast throughout recorded history. Now it clings to a tiny patch near Southport, the island’s southern tip, where the water is colder.

“This is a hot spot,” said Neil Holbrook, a professor who researches ocean warming at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania. “And it’s one of the big ones.”

Climate scientists say it’s essential to hold global temperatures to1.5 degrees Celsiusabove preindustrial times to avoid irreversible damage from warming.

The Tasman Sea is already well above that threshold.

The Washington Post’s examination of accelerated warming in the waters off Tasmania marks this year’s final installment of its global series “2C: Beyond the Limit,” which identified hot spots around the world. The investigation has shown that disastrous impacts from climate change aren’t a problem lurking in the distant future: They are here now.

Nearly a tenth of the planet has already warmed2 degrees Celsiussince the late 19th century, and the abrupt rise in temperature related to human activity has transformed parts of the Earth in radical ways.

In the United States, New Jersey is among the fastest-warming states, and its average winter has grown so warm that lakes no longer freeze as they once did. Canadian islands are crumbling into the sea because a blanket of sea ice no longer protects them from crashing waves. Fisheries from Japan to Angola to Uruguay are collapsing as their waters warm. Arctic tundra is melting away in Siberia and Alaska, exposing the remains of woolly mammoths buried for thousands of years and flooding the gravesites of indigenous people who have lived in an icy world for centuries.

Australia is a poster child for climate change. Wildfires are currently raging on the outskirtsof itsmost iconic city and drought is choking a significant portion of the country.

Nearly 100 fires are burning in New South Wales, nearly half of them out of control. Residents of the state, where Sydney sits, wear breathing masks to tolerate the heavy smoke, which has drifted more than 500 miles south to the outskirts of Melbourne.

This is happening even though average atmospheric temperatures in Australia have yet to increase by2 degrees Celsius.

The ocean is another story.

A stretch of the Tasman Sea right along Tasmania’s eastern coast has already warmed by just a fraction below2 degrees Celsius, according to ocean temperature data from the Hadley Center, the U.K. government research agency on climate change.

As the marine heat rises and the kelp simmers into goo, Dillon and other descendants of Tasmania’s first people are losing a connection to the ocean that has defined their culture for millennia.

Aboriginals walked to present-day Tasmania 40,000 years ago during the Stone Age, long before rising sea levels turned the former peninsula into an island.

Cut off from Aboriginals on the mainland, about a dozen nomadic tribes were the first humans to live so close to the end of the Earth, fishing amid the giant kelp for abalone, hunting kangaroo and mutton birds, turning bull kelp into tools, and fashioning pearlescent snail shells into jewelry for hundreds of generations.

But that was before British colonizers took their land and deployed an apartheid-like system to wipe them out.

Now, as descendants try to finally get full recognition as the first people and original owners of Tasmania, climate change is threatening to remove the marine life that makes so much of their culture special.

Two of the most severe marine heat waves ever recorded struck back to back in recent years.

In the first, starting in 2015, ocean temperatures peaked at nearly3 degrees Celsiusabove normal in the waters between Tasmania and New Zealand. A blob of heat that reached 2 degrees Celsius was more than seven times the size of Tasmania, an island the size of Ireland.

The region’s past heat waves normally lasted as long as two months. The 2015-2016 heat wave persisted for eight months. Alistair Hobday, who studied the event, compared it to the deadly 2003 European heat wave that led to the deaths of thousands of people.

“Except in this case, it’s the animals that are suffering,” said Hobday, a senior research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, a government agency.

South of the equator, Australia’s summer stretches from December to February – and soaring temperatures turned the mainland deadly this year. An estimated 23,000 giant fruit bats – about a third of that species’s population in Australia – dropped dead from heat stress in Queensland and New South Wales in April.

The bats, called flying foxes, cannot survive temperatures above42 degrees Celsius. Another 10,000 black flying foxes, a different species, also died. Bodies plopped into meadows, backyard gardens and swimming pools.

A month later, more than 100 ringtail possums fell dead in Victoria when temperatures topped35 degrees Celsiusfor four consecutive days.

The warming waters off Tasmania are not just killing the giant kelp, but transforming life for marine animals.

Warm-water species are swimming south to places where they could not have survived a few years ago. Kingfish, sea urchins, zooplankton and even microbes from the warmer north near the mainland now occupy waters closer to the South Pole.

“There’s about 60 or 70 species of fish that now have established populations in Tasmania that used not to be here,” said Craig Johnson, who leads the ecology and biodiversity center at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania. “You might see them occasionally as sort of vagrants, but they certainly did not have established populations.”

But the region’s indigenous cold-water species have no place to go. Animals such as the prehistoric-looking red handfish are accustomed to the frigid water closer to the shore. They cannot live in the deep-water abyss between the bottom tip of Tasmania and Antarctica.

“It’s a geographic climate trap,” Johnson said. Marine animals unique to Australia – the wallabies and koalas of the deep – could easily vanish. “So there’s going to be a whole bunch of species here that we expect will just go extinct.

“You know, it’s not a happy story.”


Every time he dives for abalone, Rodney Dillon plays his part in what is arguably Tasmania’s saddest story of all.

At 63, he’s getting too old for the occasional plunge. Before a dive on a windy day in September, two people had to wrestle his wet suit over a thick athlete’s body softened by time.

Dillon persists because diving puts a favorite food on the family table, and, more important, it carries on a dying Aboriginal custom nearly ended by the British crown and the Australian governors it appointed.

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