Wildfires Are Burning Some of the World’s Oldest Trees
Northwest Tasmania is home to part of the Gondwana forest. It’s a stretch of primeval-looking temperate rainforest, much like the one found in the Pacific Northwest’s Olympic National Park. Trees more than 1,000 years old tower above ancient ferns, forming a connection to the distant past. It’s why the region has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But that connection is being broken by climate change. Fuelled by extremely dry conditions that stretch back two years, major bushfires have raged across the region, sending a millennia of history up in smoke. As the world gets hotter and drier, it’s likely that the connection to the past could be even more tenuous.
More than 89,000 acres have burned since lightning ignited around 100 bushfires early last week. They were sparked in the wake of the driest spring on record for the region. El Niño likely played a role in that record as the climate phenomenon usually dries out Tasmania and the eastern part of Australia.
Because fire is so rare in these temperate rainforests, the trees that live there are ill-adapted to deal with large blazes. So when the current fires lit up, they attacked a forest with few natural defences.
When the fires die down to embers, they’ll leave behind a landscape vastly different than the one before it. Trees like the King Billy Pine and fagus — a beech tree and the only winter-deciduous tree in Australia — could be burned out of their range on Tasmania. These trees have spent millions of years adapting to slow climate changes. But the current rate of change is unlikely anything the world has seen in millions of years.