More than 200,000 hectares of forests, and more than 500,000 km of rivers, lakes and wetlands have been damaged by wildfires in Victoria’s remote north, according to the latest estimates.
While many of these fires have been put out by firefighting agencies, a growing number are taking place in remote areas, as climate change intensifies, experts say.
But while these fires may be the most visible manifestations of climate change, the impact of climate-related loss of biodiversity is not.
This is the point at which climate change’s impacts on biodiversity become less visible to humans, because of changes in human activities such as deforestation, mining, livestock and agriculture.
While fires are damaging forests and other ecosystems, the loss of native species is not as clear-cut, said lead researcher and forest ecologist, James Cook University Professor Peter Meecham.
The effects of climate changes have been underestimated, he said, and that can make it difficult to understand what climate change means for biodiversity and for people.
Meech said the findings of the latest Australian Government survey of forest loss are the most comprehensive available of its kind, but it doesn’t mean that climate change has stopped.
There is no doubt that climate-driven changes are happening.
But they are happening in a way that humans are not aware of and we’re not doing enough to slow down.
“Climate change is a complex phenomenon,” Meechard said.
“But what we have is a much more coherent understanding of how the effects of global warming are affecting biodiversity.”
Climate change impacts on vegetation and wildlife The fires in Victoria are not only causing damage to forests and water, but also on the landscape, where vegetation and animal populations are becoming more vulnerable to fire.
While the fires may not be visible, they are making it difficult for animals to find food and shelter, and for some species to adapt to changes in their range.
In Victoria, the number of species affected by fire is increasing rapidly.
More than 60 per cent of species in the state’s wetland ecosystem are now threatened with extinction, according the Australian Conservation Foundation.
“There are more species than there are people, but there are more people than there is vegetation,” Miecham said.
While some species may have lost habitat, the majority of species are likely to have been affected by wildfire.
“A lot of those species are found on remote, semi-arid land,” he said.
A study published in Conservation Letters last year found that the number and type of species lost to fire has increased over time, but some species are particularly vulnerable.
“In terms of the severity of the losses, the extent to which those species were affected was the most significant,” Miescham said, “so they may have been particularly affected by fires in areas that are in the worst fire-prone regions.”
One example of the impact is the destruction of the iconic blue-eyed skink.
“They’re the only species in Victoria that have survived the fire and are still in a habitat that’s probably quite well adapted to climate change,” he added.
The blue-headed skink has become a symbol of Victoria’s unique landscape, and the loss has a profound impact on the survival of other species in this part of the world.
Miech said many species in our landscape are dependent on vegetation, and a loss of that vegetation is detrimental to their survival.
He said the blue-legged skink is particularly vulnerable to habitat loss because its habitat is already highly fragmented, and in some areas, vegetation is being removed by the fire.
But he said this does not mean that fire will never happen again.
“I’m not sure it’s going to stop,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We can’t say with certainty that we will not see fires in future.”
Conservation is a priority in Australia.
Miesch said climate change is happening at a time when conservation is under increasing pressure.
“The Australian government is going to have to start thinking about how to reduce its emissions, but we have to think about how we can manage it,” he noted.
For example, in Victoria, there are no plans for new coal-fired power stations and some of the state government’s policies will see emissions decline, but the country’s coal exports will continue to grow.
In the absence of action, Miesches said, the Australian Government will have to take drastic measures to protect Australia’s biodiversity.
“It’s really about what are the implications of that for Australia, and how can we ensure that biodiversity continues to thrive in our country, whether we’re a country that’s producing as much as it does or not,” he explained.
“That’s what the next decade will be about for Australia.”
Al Jazeera’s Rachel Guevara reports.