Published works

Published works

Changing Fire Regimes in Tropical and Subtropical Australia

TitleChanging Fire Regimes in Tropical and Subtropical Australia
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2017
Academic DepartmentSchool of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Number of Pages190
Date Published12/2017
UniversityUniversity of Queensland
CitySt Lucia
Keywordsburning, Fire, fire impacts, fire regime, grassland, Great Sandy region., history, Queensland

The focus of the study is to investigate regional and local past, present and future changes in fire regimes of tropical and subtropical Queensland and shifts in vegetation composition and structure. Fire has been shown to be a significant driver of ecosystem evolution, composition and distribution through its impact on biota. Within Australia fire has long played a role in shaping the landscape, with increased fire frequency, associated with heightened aridity, over the last five million years promoting the expansion of fire adapted sclerophyll vegetation across the continent. Evidence of anthropogenic fires date back to approximately 50 ka (thousand years ago) with the advent of Aboriginal occupation and fire-stick practices, however with the arrival of Europeans there was a decline in fire frequencies, related to fire exclusion that observes an increase in fire intensity and severity. A review of the introduction of tropical African perennial grasses to improve grazing in tropical and semi-arid regions of northern Australia was also undertaken. This introduction has resulted in some exotic grass species such as Gamba grass (Andropogon gayanus), Mission grass (Cenchrus polystachios syn. Pennisetum polystachion) and Guinea grass (Megathyrsus maximus syn. Panicum maximum Jacq. var. trichoglume) becoming invasive pests. Invasion by these exotic grasses has serious implications for ecosystem function, altering fire regime dynamics through increasing the distribution and abundance of fine fuels. With increased fine fuels there is a serious danger that there will be an increase in fire frequency and intensity resulting in higher severity burns and higher vegetation mortality, with possible local species extinctions and habitat modification or change. Macro charcoal and pollen records were used from Fraser Island, subtropical eastern Australia to identify fire and vegetation histories, which show substantial temporal and spatial changes in past fire frequencies and vegetation composition for the last 24,000 years. Pollen records show pyrophobic rainforest taxa dominated and then declined while pyrogenic sclerophyll arboreal taxa increased correlating with an increase in fire frequencies, and a dryer climate. This was followed by a dramatic increase in Restionaceae values at the beginning of the Holocene (~10,000 years ago) that dropped off as a marked peak in mangroves, primarily the Rhizophoraceae and Melaleuca iii occurred, possibly linked with sea level rise approximately 6000 to 5000 years ago, which was also associated with lower fire frequencies. Restionaceae then recovered from around 2 ka to the European settlement period, when a dramatic change in fire frequency occurred linked to fire suppression and was followed by vegetation thickening (i.e. increase in arboreal taxa) in the mid to late 20th century. Vegetation thickening was investigated on Fraser Island through land change analysis of aerial photographs and survey data between 1958 and 2016 of a wetland system at Moon Point. This was undertaken using the Land Change Modeller (IDRISI TerrSet), with results showing that forest and woodland communities have invaded the fringes of a restiad dominated wetland. Pollen results from adjacent sediment cores support the occurrence of vegetation thickening that appears to be linked to marked changes in fire regimes on the island associated with European management since the 19th century. A projection of further landscape change was made to 2066 and this suggested a 30% loss in wetland extent by this time under present fire frequencies (i.e. with a mean of approximately one fire every plus/minus 12 years). Identifying past and present fire regimes and vegetation composition are important for fire modelling as this provides possible scenario based probabilities for changes in fire frequency and intensity. Modelling is useful in that it provides managers with a tool to ascertain possible scenario based outcomes depending on the input values. Here the FireBGCv2 fire simulation model has been applied to an Australian context to provide a research simulation platform for exploring fire, vegetation, and climate dynamics that can be directly applied to fire management applications. Fire has played an integral role in shaping the Australian landscape, with fire regimes driven by both climatic and anthropogenic factors during the late Quaternary period. Evidence of shifts in vegetation and fire regimes for the subtropics of Australia can be seen from pollen and charcoal analysis, with dramatic changes occurring over the past 24,000 years on Fraser Island. With the arrival and settlement of Europeans in the mid19th century, fire regimes were once again changed that resulted in further vegetation shifts due to a fire exclusion policy. Further shifts in fire regimes can be seen in tropical northern Australia through the introduction on invasive grasses increasing fuel loads and iv fire frequency, resulting in a transformed landscape, perpetuating a fire grass cycle. However in the subtropics alterations in fire management have seen a reduction in fire frequency with a thickening of vegetation along the ecotone of E. minus wetlands and sclerophyllous forests at Moon Point on Fraser Island. The complexities of fire regimes for managers is obvious, therefore there is a need for a dynamic mechanistic fire simulation model that managers can use as a tool to project present and future fire events.


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