Native species extinction more likely than tsunamis: scientists

 Austrlian Broadcasting Corporation – Jane Cowan

Scientists gathering in Melbourne to discuss the risk of extreme natural events have found that tsunamis are far more likely to affect neighbouring countries than Australia.

On the downside though, scientists warn that climate change is threatening the extinction of Australian plants and animals.

The Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 brought havoc and took thousands of lives on Australia’s doorstep.

But scientists, like geophysicist Trevor Dhu from Geoscience Australia, say that kind of devastation is unlikely to happen on Australian shores.

“What appears to be more likely phenomena is actually quite large and potentially quite dangerous currents and rips, those sorts of things that are very unpredictable and potentially quite dangerous to swim as you might be unaware of them,” he said.

Australia is protected because it is further from the epicentres of the earthquakes that cause tsunamis, allowing more time to prepare and giving the energy more time to dissipate before it reaches Australia.

But the Australian coastline is far from immune and there are still a lot of unknowns.

“Before 2004 we probably hadn’t done a lot of modelling as to what tsunamis do in Australia,” Mr Dhu said.

“There’s a lot more communities in Australia that actually need to be looked at and considered just to understand what the risks actually are.

“The region that looks like it’s got a slightly greater risk is probably north-west Western Australia.”

He says while rises in sea levels could potentially change where a wave comes on to the shore, climate change is not something that is likely to affect the key causes of tsunamis.

Colossal problem

The news is not as good when it comes to plants and animals.

Professor Nigel Stork from the University of Melbourne’s School of Resource Management calls climate change a dire problem for the survival of some species.

“At this point we really don’t know just how colossal extinction rates will be and in particular we are unsure about which groups are going to be threatened more than others,” he said.

“The evidence so far is that it is the large things. It’s the mammals and the birds which are particularly threatened, and so everything that people say about massive extinction rates of these things appears to be on the cards.”

Professor Stork says we are almost certainly already seeing the effects of climate change on flora and fauna even if it has not yet been measured.

Most vulnerable are those species adapted to live in a very specific habitat.

“The cassowary is one of those in north Queensland – very high profile bird that lives only in the tropical rainforests in northern Australia. The numbers of those are declining,” he said.

“Maybe it’s a matter of moving some of these things to places which may be cooler, and that’s something which I don’t think we’ve done very much of before.”

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Filed under australia, biodiversity, wildlife, zoology

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