This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the Commonwealth, available from the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. Requests and inquiries concerning reproduction and rights should be addressed to:
International Heritage and Policy Branch
Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts
GPO Box 787
CANBERRA ACT 2601
The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Government or the Minister for Climate Change and Water and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts.
Name changes to the Australian Government’s environment department have occurred over the past several years. This report refers to:
• The Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH)—former name
• The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA)—current name
• The Department of Climate Change—current name (part of which was formerly the Australian Greenhouse Office in DEH)
The report should be cited as:
Australian National University (2009) Implications of climate change for Australia’s World Heritage properties: A preliminary assessment. A report to the Department of Climate Change and the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts by the Fenner School of Environment and Society, the Australian National University.
The ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society thanks the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts for the opportunity to undertake this project. We particularly acknowledge the cooperation, engagement, feedback and contributions made by Liz Dovey, Anna van Dugteren and Anne-Marie Wilson from the Department of Climate Change and Bruce Wellington, Ken Heffernan, Veronica Blazely, Madeleine Maple and Megan Smith from the Heritage Division of the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. We also wish to acknowledge the contributions made by Lance Heath, Will Steffen and Bruce Arnold of the ANU Climate Change Institute (formerly the ANU Institute for Environment).
Many people contributed to this project and report through discussions, comments on early drafts and provision of written material. Comments and contributions on the World Heritage properties were received from Tony Auld, Jane Balmer, Linda Beaumont, Dana Bergstrom, Corey Bradshaw, Ross Bradstock, Dick Braithwaite, Adam Britton, Virginia Chadwick, Bob Conroy, Bart Currie, John Day, Michael Driessen, Max Finlayson, Marc Hockings, David Hilbert, Angela Hill, Harry Hines, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Ian Houshold, Lesley Hughes, John Hunter, Stephen Goosem, Kate Hammill, David Jones, Kate Kiefer, Karen King, Roger Kitching, Adam Leavesley, W J F McDonald, Michael Mahony, Paul Marshall, John Merson, Joe Morrison, Bronwyn Ness, Peter Ogilvie, Michael Pemberton, David Priddel, Sarah Pizzey, Lynda Prior, Don Sands, Peter Sharp, Stephen Swearer, Ray Tonkin, Paul Tregoning, Steve Turton, Peter Waterman, Ian White and Eric Woehler. Apologies if anyone has been missed.
We are very appreciative of all your contributions.
Preface by the Australian Government
World Heritage properties are important to all people and have a universal value that transcends national boundaries. Australia’s 17 World Heritage properties include the largest World Heritage property, the Great Barrier Reef, extensive natural and Indigenous places like Kakadu National Park, isolated marine and terrestrial areas such as Macquarie Island, and Sydney Opera House, an architectural masterpiece. Climate changes such as sea level rise, reduced rainfall and higher temperatures are expected to threaten the resilience of our World Heritage properties, exacerbating issues such as habitat loss and degradation, spread of invasive species and changing fire regimes.
Committed to protecting the values of Australia’s World Heritage properties, in 2006 the Australian Government asked the Australian National University to assess the exposure, potential impacts, vulnerability and adaptive capacity of our World Heritage properties to climate change and to identify major knowledge gaps. This resulting report will inform management plans and government policy on World Heritage and climate change adaptation into the future.
Some of our World Heritage properties have already embarked on far-sighted initiatives to manage the effects of climate change. For example, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has completed a detailed vulnerability assessment and is implementing an $8.9 million Climate Change Action Plan, and a $200 million Reef Rescue Plan, funded by the Australian Government.
A range of other Australian Government and intergovernmental studies and initiatives are contributing to our understanding of the risks posed to biodiversity and natural landscapes from climate change. The National Climate Change Adaptation Framework is the basis for government action on adaptation over the next five to seven years, and it includes actions to assist the most vulnerable sectors and regions of the country. $126 million has been provided towards the implementation of the framework, including the establishment of a Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, which will lead Australia’s researchers in generating robust biophysical, social and economic information that decision makers need to manage the risk of climate change.
One of the first countries to ratify the World Heritage Convention in 1974, Australia is committed to helping other countries protect World Heritage. Keen to share our skills and experience on World Heritage and climate change, in 2007 we provided significant input and guidance on the World Heritage Convention’s Climate Change Policy. Our election to the World Heritage Committee in 2007 for a four-year term provides further opportunities for collaboration.
Australia is one of the oldest continents on earth, and is unique in terms of its cultural, geographical and biological diversity. There are currently 17 sites in Australia recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as possessing characteristics considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. Because of their global significance, these sites are listed as World Heritage properties. However, Australia’s World Heritage properties, and their values, are under threat from global climate change.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC 2007) states that ‘global warming is unequivocal’ and is due largely to an increase in greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), caused by burning fossil fuels. Australia’s average surface temperature has increased by about 0.7 °C since 1900 (IPCC 2007). From 1993 to 2003, global mean sea level has been rising at a rate of around 3 mm/yr- (Bindoff et al. 2007). Thermal expansion of the oceans and widespread melting of land ice will result in further global sea level rise.
Australia—already the driest inhabited continent on earth—is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Australia is one of the most biologically diverse countries, and is home to more than one million species, many of them endemic. Species endemic to Australia include 85% of our flowering plants, 84% of our mammals, 89% of our temperate in-zone fish and 45% of our birds.
Reduced rainfall, higher sea and land surface temperatures, more severe storm events, ocean acidification, and rising sea levels are expected to impact significantly on Australia’s unique World Heritage values, particularly the natural values listed under UNESCO’s criterion (x), i.e. those sites that ‘contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation’.
Because Australia’s World Heritage sites are isolated from each other and have very different geographical characteristics, the severity of climate change threats is likely to vary across the World Heritage estate. It is likely that, with continued global warming, there will be substantial reductions in the area of rainforests, declines in the abundances of native fauna and flora, expansion of woody vegetation into arid and semi-arid rangelands, and continued coral bleaching. Changes in the abundance and distribution of many species, including the extinction of indigenous plants and animals with limited dispersal capabilities and/or narrow climatic tolerance ranges, are also expected. These impacts are likely because rates of climate change are highly likely to occur faster than the rates of evolutionary adaptation of many plant and animal species. Extreme weather events are likely to result in irreversible damage (i.e. erosion) to geological, geomorphologic and physiogeographic heritage, whose values are embodied in UNESCO’s criterion (viii), i.e. ‘to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features’. Furthermore, the preservation of unique cultural values—including Aboriginal middens, sea cave deposits, archaeological sites, rock art and cave art sites—is highly dependent on the maintenance and protection of their underlying landforms from climate change impacts. Other cultural values, such as architectural heritage, are also likely to be affected by climate change but to a lesser extent, at least in the short term.
Australia’s biological diversity is already under stress from human impacts particularly caused by land use change, hydrological change, soil salinisation, invasive species and changes to fire regimes. Climate change is an additional stress. It includes stresses such as higher temperatures, changed water and fire regimes, more extreme weather events, and salt water inundation into freshwater coastal wetlands, including those that are World Heritage listed.
The recent IPCC Fourth Assessment Report—Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (IPCC 2007) noted that significant loss of biodiversity is projected to occur by 2020 in some ecologically rich sites—many World Heritage listed—including the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics of Queensland, with other sites at risk including the Kakadu wetlands, south-western Australia, sub-Antarctic islands and alpine areas. It also noted that natural systems have a very limited adaptive capacity, and that habitat loss and fragmentation are very likely to limit species migration in response to shifting climatic zones.
Climate change will modify the natural and cultural values of Australia’s World Heritage properties. This in turn may affect their outstanding universal values and may affect their status as World Heritage sites. Put succinctly: ‘If a site was inscribed for its glaciers, and the glaciers melt, is it “no glaciers—no World Heritage site?”’(UNESCO 2006).
Prepared by The Australian National University for the Australian Government Department of Climate Change and Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, the report provides a preliminary assessment of the vulnerability of the World Heritage values of Australia’s World Heritage properties to the impacts of climate change.
The report is based on extensive review of the scientific and heritage literature and, where possible and time permitting, consultations with World Heritage property managers and scientists who have conducted work within the properties or provided advice to property managers.
The primary aims of the report are to:
assess the vulnerability of the World Heritage values of each World Heritage property to climate
identify World Heritage values that are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts
identify major gaps in knowledge about the vulnerability of World Heritage values to climate
The report has been prepared within the context of the growing understanding within Australia and internationally of the extent of impacts, both observed and projected, of climate change on human and natural systems. The World Heritage Committee of UNESCO, at its 29th session in 2005, recognised that climate change is already affecting the natural and cultural values of many World Heritage properties, and is likely to affect many more in the years ahead.
In scoping likely climate change impacts, vulnerability and adaptive capacity of the World Heritage values of Australia’s World Heritage properties, this report identifies information gaps and provides the basis for further, more detailed, responses by governments, property managers and researchers.
Climate change context
There is now a general consensus that climate change is occurring and the earth is warming. In its Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC 2007), the IPCC found that ‘warming of the climate system is unequivocal’ as a result of alteration to the energy balance of the atmosphere through markedly increased levels of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere from human activities since 1750.
Increased drying linked with higher temperatures and decreased precipitation has contributed to changes in drought regimes. The IPCC report found, for example, that more intense and longer droughts have been observed over wider areas since the 1970s, particularly in the tropics and subtropics.
Average surface temperatures across Australia have increased by as much as 0.7 °C since 1910 and 0.6 °C ± 0.2 °C globally since the early 1900s. For the next two decades, a global warming of about 0.2 °C per decade is projected for a range of emissions scenarios. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) have investigated future climate change projections for Australia in more detail. Relative to 1990 temperatures, these projections indicate a warming trend across the continent by as much as 1.8 °C by 2030 in some regions and as much as 5 °C by 2070 (CSIRO and BOM 2007).
Australian rainfall patterns are expected to change, with northern Australia likely to receive more rainfall while southern and south-eastern Australia will likely receive less. Water availability and quality, and runoff into streams, are likely to be affected by higher temperatures, increased evaporation rates and lower soil moisture content, and changes in amount and patterns of rainfall. Increased evaporative demand (evaporation and evapotranspiration) associated with higher temperatures are likely to lead to an increase in severe droughts for the majority of Australia’s World Heritage properties. However, there is an increased likelihood of more severe storm events and cyclones (CSIRO 2006).
Sea level is expected to increase by 2030 by an average of 17 cm under a continued ‘High greenhouse gas emissions’ scenario (CSIRO 2006). However, even rises expected under a more moderate scenario would be undesirable for some of Australia’s World Heritage properties such as Kakadu National Park and Shark Bay, Western Australia.
Climate change projections for each of Australia’s World Heritage properties are summarised in this report.
Potential climate change impacts on World Heritage values
Australia’s World Heritage properties and their World Heritage values are diverse, and not all will be affected equally by climate change. Some properties, such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics of Queensland, are highly sensitive, whereas others such as Naracoorte (Australian Fossil Mammal Sites) are likely to be more robust.
Palaeoclimatic studies have revealed that some of Australia’s World Heritage properties have undergone periods of considerable change through a series of glacial cycles. These studies provide a clear indication that the World Heritage values of these properties will continue to change in response to ‘natural’ or non-anthropogenic climate change processes. However, what is uncertain is the responsiveness and inherent adaptive capacity of World Heritage properties and their values to abrupt or more rapid change in climate resulting from anthropogenic (human-induced) effects. There is also uncertainty as to the capacity of managers and property management systems to assist World Heritage properties or specific values to adapt in the face of rapid climate change.
The severity of climate change threats also varies considerably across the World Heritage estate and is often location-specific. The literature of potential climatic impacts on individual values is extremely uneven. Such ‘patchiness’ inhibits an authoritative overall assessment across the properties.
A summary of some of the key values of each of Australia’s World Heritage properties, the major threats to these values from climate change and likely adaptive capacity, are provided in Appendix C to the report.
Impact on ecological values
Those World Heritage properties that have ‘outstanding universal value’, as assessed against World Heritage criterion (ix)—‘to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals’—and criterion (x)—‘to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation’—are likely to be the most affected by climate change. However, the impacts of climate change will not necessarily remove the outstanding universal value of a World Heritage property as assessed under these or other criteria.
Impacts on values associated with criteria (ix) and (x) may occur because projected rates of climate change are highly likely to occur faster than rates of evolutionary adaptation in many plant and animal species. Lower rainfall and higher temperatures are also expected to impact significantly on plant and animal species across all World Heritage properties, with substantial contractions in some communities, such as rainforest communities, and declines or distribution changes in some plant and animal species. Bioclimatic modelling has revealed that the bioclimates of some species are likely to vanish with only a moderate increase in temperature (1 °C).
Some future climate change impacts on biodiversity values in World Heritage properties include:
the loss of freshwater wetland species and the continued expansion of mangrove communities along tidal rivers resulting from rising sea levels
a predicted lift in the orographic cloud layer, which may lead to the decline or disappearance of most endemic plant and animal species that rely on mountain-associated precipitation from cloud mist
increases in plant productivity and continued expansion of woody vegetation into arid and semiarid rangelands from increased carbon dioxide (CO2); however, this may be countered by reduced rainfall
continued changes in distribution and abundance of plant and animal species on sub-Antarctic islands associated with glacial retreat and other impacts
rising sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification, which will continue to impact on marine organisms including coral.
Although fire has always been a natural phenomenon of the Australian landscape, changing fire regimes (more intense and frequent) as a result of climate change have emerged as a major threat to biodiversity values.
Impact on geomorphic and aesthetic values
World Heritage values listed under criterion (vii)—‘to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance’—and criterion (viii)—‘to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features’—are also likely to be affected by climate change, but to a lesser extent in the short term. These include landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features. Impacts of more intense fires—including effects due to heating and soot damage, changes to rates of erosion, and changes to coastal geomorphology from rising sea levels and storm events—are the most common threats to landforms and physiographic features from climate change.
Impact on cultural values
Unlike the natural criteria and respective values, there is little information available on the potential impacts of climate change on cultural values of Australia’s World Heritage properties. The literature has concentrated on specific site management issues such as restrictions on access to sites and excavation. Because there is little knowledge or understanding of potential impacts of climate change on cultural values, the extent of vulnerabilities would appear to be worthy of identification and assessment in the context of specific site management issues. However, based on limited information, the potential impacts on cultural values (criteria (i) to (vi)) might include excessive erosion from extreme weather events, changes to vegetation from drought, changes in rainwater pH, and heat and soot from intense fires. In addition, storm-surge and saline intrusion into coastal regions is likely to affect low-lying, coastal cultural values. A table summarising the potential impacts of climate change on Australia’s World Heritage properties (Table 3) can be found in Part 1 of the report.
Incorporating climate change into management
The findings in this report raise important issues relating to the management of World Heritage properties, and the development and prioritisation of programs that will ameliorate the impacts from climate change on values with low adaptive capacity. Future work must focus on the development of strategies that will ameliorate the effects of climate change, as well as on the need to identify the extent of vulnerabilities for risk preparedness planning. Furthermore, since Australia’s World Heritage sites do not share common management structures or systems, efficiency may be able to be improved by improving communication and networking between all World Heritage properties. The vulnerability of archaeological and other cultural heritage sites—as well as the social, legal and economic costs to the community from lost heritage—requires further identification and assessment.