Locals 'horrified' as great browning spreads through forests thought to be 'invulnerable'

It wasn't until the sunlight changed that a local man spotted a 'great browning' parching trees on a nearby hillside. Now he sees it everywhere.

The image on the south-west coast of Western Australia and it shows trees that have turned pink/brown from the big dry. That picture was taken in April. One from June in Tasmania's Huon valley show trees on a hillside that are also browning.
A 'great browning' has been documented in Western Australia (left) and Tasmania (right) Source: Joe Fontaine/Sean Tooker

A “great browning” is spreading across Australia's hills. Forest covering tens of thousands of hectares of land is losing its vibrant green colouring as it is deprived of moisture due to dry, unseasonal weather.

Photographs showing parched eucalypts along Australia’s southwest coast were the first sign something was wrong. Now it’s been revealed the problem has jumped across the Great Australian Bight.

Areas of Tasmania are now a “big concern” for Dr Joe Fontaine, a forestry sciences expert at Murdoch University.

“It’s been a dry autumn with warmer than normal temperatures. And these wet forests that people thought were invulnerable, are starting to turn brown,” he told Yahoo News.

There are also signs old trees are dying in South Australia, making some experts concerned three states could be impacted.

Residents living close to the Huon Valley are also worried. One of them is bush regenerator Sean Tooker, who has documented the rapid change since he first noticed it two months ago.

“I was driving home from work, and the sunlight hit the western slopes of the ridge that follows the valley, and I saw all these large areas of forest that had dried off in patches,” he told Yahoo.

“I was shocked. And I wondered why I hadn’t seen it before.”

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Dead trees, shrubs and grasses across Tasmania's Huon Valley.
It wasn’t just the eucalypts that were browning in Tasmania, grasses and shrubs were also affected. Source: Sean Tooker

After noticing the “browning”, Tooker drove around forests south of Hobart documenting what he saw.

“I just saw more of it — even in shaded south-facing gullies with what were once wet forests, trees had expired. And it was trees of all ages, it didn’t matter if they were saplings or mature,” he said.

“Then east of Huonville, down the Channel Highway, I saw that actually everything was dying, not just the eucalypts. The shrub layer and down into the grasses too.

“The strangest thing was that all the trees were fully intact, and hadn’t lost any leaves. But they looked completely dead.”

But it wasn’t until he drove further east to the Tasman Peninsula that he realised the “full horror” of the problem. It was there that extremely old trees were heavily bleeding from long vertical cracks, succumbing to an ailment called ginger tree syndrome — a condition affecting eucalypts, often following extreme heat events.

Tasmania’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania (NRE Tas) told Yahoo it was aware of reports about tree dieback in Tasmania, including in the Huon Valley. “It appears that the recent reports of dieback are a result of dry weather conditions,” it said.

“NRE Tas has been liaising with other land managers and organisations on possible actions and options to better understand the extent of the dieback.”

Separately there have been reports from South Australia’s Barossa Valley that trees there are also showing signs of ginger tree syndrome.

A Barossa Valley eucalyptus with symptoms consistent with ginger tree syndrome.
Images from the Barossa Valley show eucalypts with symptoms consistent with ginger tree syndrome. Source: Cat Walker

Since Yahoo first reported on the problem in Western Australia, the situation has worsened.

“After we spoke in April, the region experienced its hottest May on record. So the die-off continued at pace until the end of the month until we finally got decent rain,” Fontaine told Yahoo.

It’s too early to tell how many of the trees have died. Fontaine thinks it won’t be until October, that we’ll be able to see whether they sprout with new growth.

The Bureau of Meteorology's long-term forecast between July and September is for above average rainfall for central and eastern Australia. And Rainfall is expected to be within the typical seasonal range across most of northern Australia, Western Australia and Victoria.

But because climate change is leading to more frequent extreme weather, including sustained hot and dry periods, Fontaine worries some forests won’t adapt. He sees the problem mirrored at the other end of the country in Queensland, where coral is being hammered by increased numbers of mass bleaching events.

“Just look at the Great Barrier Reef, it’s the same exact story. We thought it just happened once in 1998,” he said.

“And now it’s happened six times in the last two decades. So unfortunately I think it’s going to happen again.”

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