Adelia Hallett: Droughts, fire caused by climate change harm native species too

While rain welcomes relief, many parts of the Northland remain tinder dry. Photo / John Stone
While rain welcomes relief, many parts of the Northland remain tinder dry. Photo / John Stone

Rain is a welcome relief for parched Northland, where we've experienced the fifth official drought in eight years.

But many parts of the North Island remain tinder dry. Gisborne and Hawke's Bay are facing drought conditions, after the driest January in more than a century. Total fire bans are in place for Northland, Coromandel, the East Coast and Hawke's Bay.

Figures released last month by Niwa show that 2016 was the hottest year on record for New Zealand, with record or near-record breaking temperatures for many locations, writes Adelia Hallett.

As Niwa principal climate scientist Dr Brett Mullan puts it, this is the stark reality of global warming.

And it's not only New Zealand grappling with the consequences of a changing climate. Globally, the Earth reached its highest temperature on record in 2016 - breaking a record set only a year earlier, which broke one set in 2014.

With drought comes fire. Even before the outbreaks on the Port Hills near Christchurch this week, rural fire crews had been besieged with scrub and grass fires this summer, some destroying large areas and property.

In Whitianga in the Coromandel, an out-of-control scrub fire destroyed several homes. A recent scrub fire at Ruakaka threatened the Marsden Point oil refinery, and another cut power to 30,000 Northland homes.

A state of emergency was declared in Hastings this week, as fire crews battled the worst fires in 20 years.

Our southern hemisphere neighbours are also experiencing unprecedented fire events.

In New South Wales over the weekend, a heatwave pushed temperatures into the high 40s, creating the worst fire conditions the state has seen. The worst wildfires in Chile's history have torched more than 900,000 hectares.

Drought is bad for farmers, communities and families, and it's equally bad for our native forests, wetlands and waterways, and the native species that live there.

Northland native forests, which are already on the brink of collapse because of uncontrolled possum browsing, are further stressed by drought. Possums eat the new leaves, leaf litter becomes thin, the ground dries up and impacted trees die.

Dying forests also release their carbon into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change and leading to more droughts - a disastrous feedback loop.

Kiwi struggle to survive as water sources dry up and they can't get their beaks into the hard, dry ground to find food. In Kerikeri earlier this month, a kiwi chick died of dehydration, repeating a pattern seen in the 2010 and 2013 droughts.

Water fowl such as the rare pateke, or brown teal, also struggle as waterways dry up and food sources disappear. Our native parakeets, the kakariki, have had breeding setbacks in drought years.

Dire though this situation is, the good news is that while a stressed environment perpetuates climate change and allows drought, fire and floods to wreak havoc, a well-functioning natural environment does the opposite.

Forests with ongoing pest control develop deep leaf litter, which retains moisture and reduces fire risk. It also provides food for foraging birds such as kiwi. New forest growth, free from possums and other introduced pests, locks up carbon - breaking the feedback cycle.

Healthy rivers with forest margins deliver water to downstream towns in times of drought, and moderate floods during heavy rainfall. Healthy dune systems, estuaries and mangrove forests protect coastal settlements and infrastructure against storm surges, coastal erosion and rising sea levels.

It's crucial we take action to limit climate change, and protect the natural systems that will protect us from the effects we can't avoid. But at the moment we're going in the opposite direction.

Development for short-term, private gain is seen as reason enough to degrade the forest, river and coastal ecosystems that offer the best protection from a swiftly and dangerously changing climate.

New Zealand's primary tool for cutting our emissions, the emissions trading scheme, has not been allowed to work. Agricultural emissions have been indefinitely excluded. Farming, one of our major emitters, has yet to recognise it will be a beneficiary of climate change relief.

Taxpayers are already subsidising irrigation schemes and the future will bring increased costs from pest control, flood protection, fire protection and higher insurance premiums.

If the Government holds the course that it has set, our net emissions will be 96 per cent higher by 2030 than they were in 1990, despite our pledge to cut them to 11 per cent below 1990 levels.

The Government and industry must show leadership and vision in reducing emissions, and protecting the natural systems that will protect all of us.

If we invest in protecting our environment, it will protect us, our communities and our jobs.

• Adelia Hallett is Forest & Bird's climate advocate, and lives at Whangarei Heads.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 29 Mar 2017 15:30:04 Processing Time: 1392ms