Restoring jarrah forests in a time of climate change

Global climate change is projected to increase the frequency and intensity of drought in dry regions. Severe drought can trigger tree death and drive persistent vegetation change. To date, most empirical studies have focused on drought-induced mortality of adult trees, but this needs to be matched by similar efforts to understand drought impacts on seedling establishment if we are to understand the resilience of the world’s forests to projected climate change.

The Jarrah forest ecosystem of south-western Australia has experienced a 17% reduction in mean annual rainfall from 1975 to 2011. Drought-induced mortality of adult trees has been documented for Jarrah forest, but there is limited understanding of its capacity to recover, making it difficult to predict the likelihood of persistent effects. Long-term records of Jarrah-forest restoration following bauxite mining are available for the 19-year period between 1992 and 2010. Records include annual data on seedling establishment in restored mine sites for 587 species in 1938 plots during a period of climatic variability.

Rachel Standish and colleagues built a structural equation model to discriminate the relative effects of climate, restoration practice, and their interactive effects on three response variables including species richness of the restored plant assemblages. Climate variability had a significant negative effect on richness, but the effect size was relatively small, being less than half that of varying restoration practice. They suggest this is due, in part, to the reliability of rainfall (ie, no change in the coefficient of variation, seasonality or evenness, between recent and historical climates) despite a threefold difference in the absolute amount of wet-season rainfall. Importantly, there was no evidence that restoration practices were compromised by interacting effects of increased climate variability.

The researchers concluded that Jarrah-forest establishment in a restoration context appears resistant to recent changes in climate. Their research highlights the importance of deriving multiple metrics of climate change to understand community responses. In particular, rainfall reliability should be a focus of future research to determine its broader significance to seedling establishment in forests subject to a drying climate.

Reference 

Standish RJ, MI Daws, AD Gove, RK Didum, AH Grigg, JM Koch & RJ Hobbs (2015). Long-term data suggest jarrah-forest establishment at restored mine sites is resistant to climate variability. Journal of Ecology 103: 78-89.

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