Climate Sightseeing

While there is plenty we can do to slow down climate change, some of our greatest natural wonders are among climate change ‘hot spots’.

When it comes to natural treasures, few countries can compete with Australia. From lush wetlands to spectacular alpine ranges and underwater wonderlands, the diversity of the landscapes represent a wealth of travel experiences.

The world’s largest living organism that is the Great Barrier Reef, dramatic escarpments and thundering waterfalls of the Top End, deserts that erupt with brightly coloured wildflowers and nearly 60,000 kilometres of magnificent coastline featuring sweeping beaches and scenic bays are all fine examples of some of Australia’s natural wonders. And across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand’s most precious jewels include Rotorua’s bubbling mud pools, spurting geysers, striking fjords and peaceful bays teeming with marine life. Yet the inescapable truth is that, over the next 40 years, many of these attractions are at risk from the effects of climate change.

Fragile Earth

“Climate change is taking place now. It’s not just something that’s going to happen in the future,” says Kevin Hennessy, a principal research scientist on climate change with the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research – which is a partnership between the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Bureau of Meteorology. 

“We are already seeing significant warming, increased rain in the northwest, decreased rain in the south and east, and effects such as water stress, more fires and bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.”

Hennessy was also a lead author of 2007’s report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “It is the best available data on climate change and it represents the majority view,” he says.

While there is plenty we can do to slow down global warming, some of our greatest natural wonders are among climate change ‘hot spots’ he adds. Together with Hennessy, we take a look at a few fragile areas, what makes them special and what you can do to help enjoy and care for them for a little longer. 

The Kakadu Wetlands

The ecologically rich wetlands of the Northern Territory’s World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park are one of Australia’s most spectacular sights. And only three hours’ drive from Darwin, the world’s second largest national park boasts thousands of birds which join the resident crocodiles to create striking scenes. 

But the Kakadu wetlands have been identified in the IPCC climate change report as a hot spot due to likely intrusion of sea water – a direct result of rising sea levels. Freshwater wetlands are also expected to be displaced by mangroves, which will in turn have an impact on the surviving plant and animal species.

The IPCC report also predicts that if the sea levels rise by 30 centimetres there could be an 80 per cent loss of freshwater wetlands by the year 2050. While some species may adapt to the new conditions, the scene that could be greeting visitors in another four decades may be vastly different to that enjoyed by those who visit the area today. 

The Yellow Water wetlands, located within Kakadu, play a vital role in conserving and sustaining the biodiversity of plants and wildlife in the area. The abundance and diversity of birdlife here ranges from ducks and geese to birds of prey and Australia’s only stork, the elegant Jabiru. Roughly one-third of Australia’s bird species are represented in the park, with at least 60 species found in the wetlands.

As well as being home to a rich and diverse range of plants and animals, the Yellow Water wetlands are also a part of the extensive South Alligator River system – the largest river system in Kakadu. Several cruise boats operate in the wetlands and it’s one of the most rewarding ways to see and experience Kakadu. It’s not uncommon to spot crocodiles sunning themselves on riverbanks, and during a late afternoon cruise – as the sun starts to set over the water – the reflections of countless birds appear in the still waters as they wade into the shallows. It is a photographer’s dream and a genuine Top End experience.

What you can do 

  • The Australian Conservation Foundation needs volunteers to help with research and events to promote the conservation of Kakadu and other fragile areas. For information, visit www.acfonline.org.au.

The Murray-Darling Basin

For visitors, the value of the Murray-Darling is in its soaring red cliffs, shady riverbanks, towering gum trees, plentiful birdlife and the occasional kangaroo, as well as the recreation activities the river affords. 

The Murray River – a short drive from Albury airport – stretches for over 2,500 kilometres from the Australian Alps in New South Wales and Victoria to Lake Alexandrina in South Australia, and provides for everything from kayaking and bird watching to fishing and houseboating. Houseboats can be hired from towns such as Renmark and Mannum in South Australia, and provide the ideal mode of transport to see the river at your own pace.

But in recent years, Australia’s largest river basin has been experiencing its lowest inflows of water on record, thanks to the drought that’s affected the country. Images of dry creek beds and parched lakes have been making headlines as governments grapple with its management. To date, the CSIRO has projected changes in water availability for 10 of the 18 catchment areas in the basin up to the year 2030 and even on a median scenario, expected reductions range between three and 21 per cent.

Competition for this dwindling resource will no doubt affect the natural ecosystems of the basin. The climate change report points to freshwater wetlands, such as the internationally recognised Macquarie Marshes in New South Wales, as a threatened area and a knock-on effect may result in fewer habitats for migratory birds. The changes taking place will also have implications for industry, agriculture, towns and cities and tourism – all of which rely on a healthy and abundant river.

What you can do 

  • Conservation Volunteers undertakes projects such as native tree planting to help combat loss of diversity, erosion and salinity in the Murray-Darling Basin. For details, visit www.conservationvolunteers.com.au.

The Resplendent Southwest

With grand karri forests, pristine beaches and excellent wineries, the southwestern corner of Australia boasts a wealth of attractions in a small geographical area. A few hours’ drive from Perth, you can be swimming with dolphins in Bunbury, taking a treetop walk on a suspended walkway in the Valley of the Giants near Nornalup, surfing breaks near Margaret River, scuba diving the wreck of the HMAS Swan near Dunsborough or fishing from the historic Busselton Jetty. 

But this picturesque area, which extends from the southern suburbs of Perth down to the dramatic beaches of Albany and includes the famous Margaret River winegrowing region, runs the risk of being bruised and battered by climate change in several ways. While there are few signs of the impacts of climate change in this spectacularly beautiful area, lower rainfall levels mean traditionally lush areas are becoming more arid and thus threatening many plant and animal species. And as a knock-on effect, the drier environment leaves the region’s famous tall forests exposed to the real risk of bushfires. 

What you can do 

  • Volunteer programs in southwestern Australia include seed collection and research on threatened local fauna. For information on how to get involved, visit www.dec.wa.gov.au and click on ‘community’.

The Bay of Plenty

North Island’s scenic Bay of Plenty – two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Auckland – is one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist spots, thanks to its incredible beaches, rumbling volcano and wealth of adventure activities. From fishing and surfing to trekking and skydiving, it is a paradise for outdoorsy types.

One of the best experiences on offer is taking a hike on the active White Island volcano, as the mountain steams and hisses around you. And if the conditions are right, there’s also the opportunity to swim with dolphins in clear, aquamarine waters.

But the Bay is not only popular with sightseers. The relatively recent influx of residents settling in the area is not only changing the face of the region, but is exacerbating damage from climatic changes such as erosion, rising sea levels and increases in the severity and frequency of storms. According to the IPCC, the population of this narrow coastal zone grew by over 13 per cent from 1996 to 2001 and is projected to increase two- or three-fold by 2050.

What you can do 

  • For a complete list of conservation programs, visit www.doc.govt.nz and click on ‘getting involved’.
Words by Jane E Fraser - Published in Voyeur July 2008
Quick Facts 
Population Approx 112,000
Area 112 km2 (city area)
Time Zone GMT +9.5
Languages English (official)
Currency Australian dollar (AUD)
Electricity 220–240v 50Hz
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