Dry, drier… Repeat environmental surveys deliver detailed drought data

More than 100 TERN Ecosystem Surveillance plots have now been sampled multiple times. The open data from these plots allow researchers to better understand how plants are impacted by drought and are a powerful resource for understanding environmental change and climate adaptation.

Deep in South Australia’s rugged northern Flinders Ranges, a wispy shrub reminiscent of a daddy-long-legs, clings to life in a tiny 10 km2 pocket.  On this cool, clear September day, the rare and vulnerable spidery wattle (Acacia araneosa) has visitors.

A team of TERN ecologists, also clinging to life after a gruelling four-hour hike to this remote corner of the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, is monitoring how the area’s plants have changed since they were last there in 2013.

The spidery wattle may not be the pin-up poster species for conservation, but studying this amazing survivor will help us understand how other species might adapt to climate change—knowledge that could also help us understand how we can adapt and maintain viable regional communities and economies.

TERN's field team hike to TERN's permanent ecosystem surveillance plots in SA's Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary to monitor the area's vegetation and soil
Volunteers assisting TERN's field team conduct vegetation monitoring at a TERN plot in SA's Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary
Then and now: insights to climate adaptation

To collect data on how plants, including many endangered species, are changing over time, TERN conducts landscape observation at over 600 sites dotted nation-wide.  Now that TERN provides open-access to environmental data and samples from 85% of Australia’s major terrestrial vegetation groups and over 50% of the nation’s bioregions, our field team is turning its attention to revisiting sites to add temporal depth to the data.

In September 2018, the TERN Ecosystem Surveillance team finished resampling sites along TERN’s continental-scale monitoring transect in South Australia (TREND), bringing the tally of revisited sites to over 100.

“Like most of south-eastern Australia, the TERN sites along the TREND were showing signs of prolonged drought,” says TERN field team member Nikki Francis.  “Collecting data and samples when conditions are so harsh allows researchers to better understand how plants are handling water stress.”

“Used on their own or together with the data from our previous visits, the data are a powerful resource for climate adaptation studies.  For example, the data have facilitated a recent synthesis that has identified the implications of climate change for South Australia’s plant species and the state’s biodiversity.”

Third time’s a charm at Witchelina

Almost ten years ago, the first ever TERN Ecosystem Surveillance plot was established at Witchelina Nature Reserve.  Thousands of hours of hard work and 600-odd research plots later, our field team was back at the Nature Foundation SA property surveying for a third time in September 2018.

“It’s like visiting an old friend,” says Nikki. “Working with the fantastic team from Nature Foundation SA is part of the enjoyment, but it’s also the excitement we get from seeing and measuring how the environment is changing.”

“The plots contain a lot of really interesting communities and rare species that are only found in or around our sites, such as the spidery wattle at Arkaroola, or the very rare purple wattle (Acacia carneorum) which grows on our Boolcoomata plots.”

“After a long and dusty day of fieldwork, it’s really encouraging to think that the data we collect will be used by researchers and managers to better understand these special ecosystems and ensure their protection.”

Members of TERN’s field team Luke Ragless and Nikki Francis enjoy a well-earned cuppa after conducting detailed ecosystem monitoring at Nature Foundation SA’s Witchelina Nature Reserve

TERN’s plot-based ecosystem surveillance monitoring program samples from some of Australia’s most remote arid ecosystems, including South Australia’s rugged northern Flinders Ranges

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