CSIRO moves to protect world heritage sites

Australia’s World Heritage areas are under threat from climate change.

From the Great Barrier Reef to the Tasmanian Wilderness, the Blue Mountains and K’gari (Fraser Island), the CSIRO says Australia’s 20 UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites are facing “unprecedented challenges.”

A 2020 review by the national science agency to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee found climate change was the most significant threat to World Heritage sites. The Great Barrier Reef was listed as one of only two sites worldwide that had entered the critical category since 2017.

The concerns prompted a how-to handbook for property managers of World Heritage sites.

The implications of climate change for World Heritage properties in Australia: Assessment of impacts and vulnerabilities, a report by CSIRO, formed the basis for the handbook.

“Over the past decade the risk of climate change has become a reality,” the report notes.

“World Heritage properties in Australia have come under increasing threat.

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Bushfires burn on K’gari, Fraser Island, (Image QFES/Getty)

“The Great Barrier Reef has had three major coral bleaching events over five years and unprecedented bushfire events have impacted the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, Tasmanian Wilderness, Greater Blue Mountains Area and K’gari (Fraser Island) World Heritage areas.”

The report used climate data and local and Indigenous knowledge to provide a summary of the climate vulnerability of the country’s 20 World Heritage properties.

“The extent and strength of associated impacts are occurring at a greater speed than previously expected,” the report says.

CSIRO wants faster action on climate change

The Climate change toolkit for World Heritage properties in Australia, released this year, was put together through partnerships with Indigenous experts and World Heritage property managers – specifically at Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, Australian convict sites around the country, and the Willandra Lakes Region in New South Wales.

“Bringing climate science and Indigenous knowledge systems together promises to produce better results for protection as the climate changes,” authors of the handbook have noted.

“And there is no time to waste. We must act fast to address these threats to Australia’s unique and special places of global significance, so their World Heritage values can be enjoyed for generations to come.”

The handbook includes four modules – scoping, identifying climate change impacts on Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), vulnerability assessment, and adaptation planning.

CSIRO developers say the toolkit will help managers plan for current and future climate threats.

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Pink Anemone fish (Amphiprion perideraion) in Magnificent Anemone (Heteractis magnifica) Greant Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia (Photo by: Francois Gohier / VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“World Heritage site managers can take a broad range of practical actions to adapt to climate change,” the CSIRO’s website says.

“These actions, such as firefighting or invasive species control, may not be new. They just need to be undertaken more often or intensely.

“Some new management actions will be required, such as flood protection, relocating assets and new technological interventions.

“In cases where climate change is likely to lead to changes in the values of a site, there may be a need to re-evaluate management objectives and strategies (such as accommodating new groups of organisms or ‘ecological communities’, letting some populations decline, and managed retreat of shorelines).”

Ultimately, the CSIRO notes, the handbook will help protect Australia’s cultural and natural heritage.

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The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.

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