After experiencing a record-breaking hot summer and a significant dry spell, Western Australia forests are again under threat of a potential forest collapse event. Similar to what occurred in 2010/11, this could devastate local ecosystems, impacting plant health and animal populations severely.

Dr. Joe Fontaine, a fire and plant ecologist at Murdoch University, has observed signs of vegetation distress since early February. Across the central and south-west coast of WA, extensive drying and dying of flora are evident.

“We’ve had a really long, dry summer. The plants were stressed, and now they’re out of water,” Dr. Fontaine stated while at Manning Park in Perth.

The recent climate in Western Australia has made matters worse, according to Dr. Fontaine. Despite significant rainfall in some areas, like the unprecedented flood in Rawlinna, many regions have experienced severe droughts. Perth recorded its driest six months between October and March. Since the 1970s, the southwest has been getting drier, making such events more frequent and intense.

Impact on Flora and Fauna

The local flora and fauna, adapted to a Mediterranean-type climate, struggle with these unpredictable severe dry spells and heatwaves. “Our plants and animals are tough, but they struggle with these conditions,” said Dr. Fontaine. He noted that some years are harsher than others, significantly stressing wildlife and vegetation.

Such collapses increase bushfire risks, alter microclimates, and affect biodiversity. Species like Carnaby’s black cockatoos, which suffered during the last major collapse, are at risk. This event is more widespread, affecting nearly 1,000 kilometers from Denmark to Shark Bay.

Collaborative Research and Community Involvement

Dr. Fontaine, along with a team including Murdoch University, the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA), and other academic institutions, is documenting current conditions and tracking changes. They use fieldwork, remote sensing, and satellite data to map affected areas and predict future events.

The DBCA has developed vulnerability maps to help land managers prepare for potential impacts. “This ongoing research is crucial not just for us but globally, as it helps understand climate challenges in regions like California or Europe,” a DBCA spokesperson said.

Community members are encouraged to contribute to the Dead Tree Detective website to help document this environmental crisis. Although there might be an inclination to water the dying plants, Dr. Fontaine advises against it due to limited water resources and potential negative effects on native vegetation.

As Western Australia braces for another potential forest collapse, the emphasis is on understanding and mitigating the impact through coordinated research and community efforts, with hopes that timely rains will relieve the situation.