Every five years, the Australian Government commissions an independent national assessment of the state of the Australian environment. Australia State of the Environment 2016 is the fifth national assessment and includes nine detailed thematic reports exploring: atmosphere, built environment, heritage, biodiversity, land, inland water, coasts, marine and Antarctic environment. CSIRO’s Dr Dan Metcalfe and Dr Elisabeth Bui prepared the land chapter.
ECOS spoke to Dr Dan Metcalfe, Landscape Management Group Leader at CSIRO specialising in ecosystem function, invasive species and ecological responses to climate change, about the state of Australia’s terrestrial environment.
ECOS: What were you working on in 2011 when the last State of the Environment Report was released?
DM: I was working across a range of Commonwealth-funded initiatives looking at long-term ecosystem monitoring, threat management, and the potential environmental consequences of resources development across the terrestrial environment, but particularly focussed on northern Australia.
ECOS: What was the scope of your chapter?
DM: The Land chapter was developed as an update of the 2011 State of the Environment, and so worked within the scope of that report, which means in practice that we had to deal with terrestrial Australia and its islands in terms of land condition and the components of that including soil, vegetation and major impacts including waste management, agriculture, forestry, and mining. However, we also recognised that we had to factor in how activities on land affect atmospheric quality or coastal zones, biodiversity and cultural heritage—the scope is broad but it’s loose at the edges.
ECOS: How do you go about gathering so much information and drawing conclusions with such a wide scope?
DM: We prioritised accessing the national-scale data that exists, which allowed us to assess the change and trajectory of the whole of the Australian environment.
We’ve also used publicly available data because the Digital State of the Environment requires that all data be made publically available. We consulted experts on their opinions. We then stepped back to ask what are the emerging issues, what has significantly changed in the environmental landscape over the last five years which we think is of national significance.
ECOS: What are the top 3 changes since the last report covered in your chapter?
DM: We have an improved national perspective over the five years, there are a number of initiatives which are attempting to coordinate federal and state land management. There’s also a stronger national perspective in a number of those initiatives which is a great step forward.
I think the pressure, the competition for alternative land uses, if anything has increased. For example, there is now more pressure on high quality agricultural land from peri-urban spread, mining and unconventional gas extraction.
I think there is pretty good evidence that a number of particular agricultural sectors are really biting the bullet in terms of identifying best practice.
For areas like land management to reduce sediment loss and its passage through inland waters to coastal systems, we can model that and the model suggests we’re having a positive impact. The demands on farmers are intense with the commercial constraints they face, the data suggests if you provide people with data in a way they can understand, it is likely that they will change practices to reduce their footprint and to me that’s a signal we don’t often report.
A really huge expansion in the last five years has been the breadth and depth of Indigenous community involvement in managing the environment, both incorporating Indigenous values and approaches and a recognition that in many cases they’re managing land for their communities but also on behalf of the nation.
There is also better engagement and greater recognition of Indigenous knowledge, more valuing of traditional knowledge about how to work on country.
ECOS: What have been some of the developments in technology or methods to improve the science since the last report?
DM: There have been major developments in data availability. Databases that collate large amounts of data like the Queensland Globe, Atlas of Living Australia, and National Soil Archive and the Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia mean that there are other agencies that have done a fantastic job of making national data available.
There is also hugely more remote sensing data and it’s more available, but that brings with it a question of managing the data.
ECOS: If you were writing the next State of the Environment report, what would you like to see?
DM: A number of those national-scale, remote-sensing data streams are available from daily to monthly to yearly.
Atmospheric data is available on a daily basis, we can look at stream flows and hydrology components on a seasonal basis, national reporting for vegetation clearing, fire frequency and intensity. The improvements in data availability means we should be data streaming through a State of the Environment portal, which is then summarised on a five-yearly basis.
Read the full Land chapter in 2016 State of the Environment report.