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Climate canaries

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Dr Arthur White, President of the NSW Frog and Tadpole Study Group, examines the effects of climate change on Australian frogs. The consequences for frogs in the climate change scenario are not good. Over the last ten years a lot of the climate change models have been continuously refined and the algorithms used today are capable of combining data from diverse sources to produce a unified model. Now the models can predict the effects of climate change on particular areas and can look at changes 50 or 100 or 200 years into the future. Using global models, temperature and rainfall patterns in Australia will change but it won’t be uniform. 

Some parts of Australia will be being subject to far greater changes, southern Australia being one of the worst areas. This is due not to rising temperatures but to the loss of dependable rainfall, some areas suffering quite badly. Northern Australia will have an increase in temperature but it will also have an increase in rainfall. Right: Corroboree Frog

Other models looked at the environmental limits for frog species. This involves data like the average temperatures that frogs prefer and the maximum high (and low) temperature durations that frogs could survive. The models also look at whether frogs can tolerate frosts and what sort of rainfall regimes (like the timing of the rainfall) is needed for particular species. These data have been collected for around 45 frog species and can now be overlain with climate change scenarios and they show that some parts of Australia frogs are in big trouble. The south-western area of Western Australia will suffer the most. At the moment it has a Mediterranean climate, most of its rain coming in winter. The rainfall bands that produce the winter rains are set to move further south and miss the Australian continent. Given that many of the frogs rely on the winter rain for their breeding, this change could be catastrophic. One entire genus of frogs (Geocrinia: with five species) faces potential extinction in 50 years. Other frogs will have their range reduced and will survive for the first 50 years but not for 200.
The alpine regions of the south-east of Australia will also have problems due to rises in temperature and declines in moisture. Corroboree frogs in the Snowy Mountains are already under threat because the alpine bogs are not surviving and mountain frogs are retreating further up into areas that are not safe. 

Baw Baw frogs (left) only survive on Mt Baw Baw and nearby peaks in Victoria and will disappear as that habitat dries out since there won’t be enough time to adapt to new conditions. Tree frogs, particularly along the east coast, are still actively undergoing speciation (genetically diversifying) as a result of adapting to the end of the last ice age. Speciation helps them adapt.

Some parts of Tasmania are another cause for concern with areas of high rainfall seeing a considerable tapering. This summer alone has seen extensive bush fires in the alpine regions, a response to the beginning of the drying out process.
Reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions would slow these changes down but the process has already started. The models state that if we halved those emissions now it would take some 250 years for recovery. Human intervention (captive programs with artificial environments) may well be needed for those frog species that cannot adapt.
Indeed, Dr White would like to see multinationals pay reasonable corporate taxes and use some of that to undo the environmental damage. Farmers in the south-western Western Australia are well aware what is going on in relation to the effects of climate change as wheat and other crops fail. It seems that frogs may not be the only climate canaries.

Dr Arthur White was interviewed by Ruby Vincent for A Question of Balance. Images from Dr White. Summary text by Victor Barry, April 2016.

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