Anger as 'great browning' spreads along 1,000km of Australian coast

The so-called great browning of Western Australia follows record-breaking weather events that are consistent with the modelled impacts of climate change.

Lush forests across Australia’s west are desperately in need of rain, as a big dry continues to parch tens of thousands of hectares in what’s been described as a “great browning”. Aerial photographs show pathways of brown snaking through the dense green bushland, following the path of the bedrock where the soil is thin and holds little water.

With Western Australia's southwest coast more than 3,000km from Sydney and Canberra, the great browning crisis is going largely unnoticed outside of the state. But researchers are concerned about the scale of disaster and have likened aspects of it to coral bleaching.

Piers Verstegen’s family has farmed the Walpole, south of Perth, for two generations, and he has “strong connection” to the place from visiting as a kid. “Shocked” is how he feels after walking among the dead plants and trees. It’s the worst he’s seen the land in over 40 years and he's concerned for both the forest and the locals who live off the land.

A jarrah forest that's been significantly touched by the great browning. Sections appear to be pink or brown in this aerial picture.
A "great browning" is devastating jarrah forests along the bedrock in Western Australia. Source: Joe Fontaine

Related: As the world burns, should we continue a slow and measured response to the climate era?

“It’s really tragic. The southwest of the state has always been a sanctuary – it’s the place you go to when it’s too bloody hot everywhere else. It’s just devastating to see it being impacted like this,” Verstegen, a leading conservationist, said.

While there are hints of green in some of the leaves, Verstegen thinks without imminent rain, the trees that bear them are in serious trouble.

Ordinarily, he’d hear the sound of insects, birds and animals, but where the browning has occurred it’s almost silent. “It’s eerie. You can still hear the wind in the leaves because they haven’t dropped to the ground yet. It’s a strange experience to walk through areas that are so crispy and dead. It has the sense there’s been a wildfire through there, but there’s no charcoal,” Verstegen said.

Many of the locals that have been around for a lot longer than me are saying they've never seen it this bad.Piers Verstegen, Conservationist

Why great browning of forests is like coral bleaching

The problem began around the rugged cliffs near Shark Bay and has spread 1,000km down to Albany on the south coast. It comes as Perth continues to experience extreme weather events in line with climate change predictions – 13 days over 40 degrees in 2024 and record breaking temperatures last spring.

Dr Joe Fontaine, a forestry sciences expert at Murdoch University, told Yahoo the great browning is a “developing situation”. The last in 2010/2011 destroyed 20 per cent of forest in areas it touched and saw black cockatoo numbers plummet. He compares the events to the mass bleaching of reefs which are becoming more frequent and wiping out coral before it has recovered from the last one.

Continuing on his coral bleaching analogy, Fontaine fears the “great browning” events may also become more frequent and severe. “We could see exactly what happened with the Great Barrier Reef, we had one mass bleaching event in the 1990s, another in 2022, and now we’ve seen five in the last 10 years. I really hope not, but that type thing is possible,” he said.

The worst affected plants are karri and jarrah trees, and red flowering gums. While thousands have browned, not all will die, and what’s still unclear is whether the surviving trees will adapt and become more resilient, or become more sensitive to future heat events.

Left - a map showing areas where the great browning has affected forest. Right - trees at eye level impacted by the great browning.
A map highlights areas along the southwest coast where the canopy has died off. Source: Joe Fontaine

WA called out for not having 2030 emissions target

Drive through the streets of Perth and you’ll notice the importance of the fossil fuel industry to the state. Illuminated signs advertising its successful mining companies, the airport buzzes with FIFO workers in hi-vis, and both the local nippers and one of its football clubs are sponsored by a fossil fuel company.

Unlike Australia’s other states, Western Australia does not have a 2030 emissions reduction target, and that’s not lost on veteran climate activist Sophie McNeill.

As a newly minted Western Australian Greens candidate and spokesperson on fossil fuel expansion and climate change, she is critical of the government’s efforts to tackle pollution, calling her state the “biggest climate laggard”.

“It’s the only state with rising emissions and a government pushing for expanded gas production,” she said. “But look what we stand to lose. Anyone who spends time in WA nature can see this happening in front of their eyes. Everywhere you look, from the city to the bush, trees are dying, endangered Carnaby cockatoos are hunting for water.”

Three maps showing Western Australia's record minimum lows and highs.
Parts of Western Australia experienced record minimum and maximum temperatures. Source: Bureau of Meteorology/Joe Fontaine

Anger at new fossil fuel projects as state's forests struggle

Verstegen has watched as the street trees died around the streets of Perth, but it was seeing the wild forests in Walpole that drove home the severity of the dry.

“(Perth) wasn’t the same as going into a natural environment that you've grown up around, and heard stories from your grandmother about, and seeing these places also been so severely impacted. It’s a reality check,” he said.

“It makes me extremely angry that we're continuing to pour carbon pollution into the atmosphere with these giant fossil fuel projects in Western Australia. They’re literally pouring fuel on a fire, while our special places that have been there for thousands of years are being dried to a crisp. It just feels so unfair.

“Climate change isn’t something we’ll experience in the future. It’s a climate emergency and we’re actively making it worse.”

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