July 23, 2013 Australia’s Awesome Alps
Australia possesses some incredible geologic and botanical records. In the west on Mount Narryer there are four billion year old exposed zircons embedded in rocks that are 3.6 billion years old. On the west coast, the first forms of life – cyanobacteria – are found in stromatolites dating back 3.5 billion years. The southeast is home to the awesome Australian Alps, occupying 9,653 square miles (25,000 square kilometers) or 0.3 percent of the continent.
The Australian Alps are about 311 miles (500 kilometers) long and extend from the state of New South Wales through the Australian Capital Territory into the state of Victoria.
The Alps truly have a storied beginning. Five hundred million years ago the Australian Alps were beneath the ocean and made up of the sea floor mud and sand.
About 80 million years ago Australia broke away from the Antarctica and soon thereafter New Zealand and Papua New Guinea pulled away from Australia. Australia then began its long and isolated journey northwards.
Volcanic activity and uplifting of fault blocks formed the present day Australian Alps which are rounded and not jagged like most mountains worldwide. The Alps are not high by world standards. The highest peak is Mount Kosciuszko, New South Wales at 7,310 feet above sea level (2,228 meters above sea level – compared to North America’s highest peak Mount Denali, Alaska at 20,322 feet above sea level (6,194 meters above sea level).
During the last Ice Age – The Pleistocene – Australia was subjected to a series of intense and relatively dry, cold periods – the most recent one was 35,000 to 12,000 years ago.
The diversity of unusual plants and animals on the continent of Australia is mind-boggling and is attributed to its long period of isolation. In one genus alone – Eucalyptus – there are over 700 species. And the array of marsupials, mammals characterized by premature birth and continued development outside the womb often in the mother’s pouch, is equally noteworthy. For instance, there are about 170 species of bandicoots, kangaroos, koalas and wombats in Australia, Papua New Guinea and nearby islands.
The fauna and flora of the Alps are impressive too. There are over 1,400 different species of trees, shrubs, small flowering plants and grasses including 58 species which only grow there.
The diminutive pygmy possum is the only critter that experiences a type of hibernation in response to cold conditions of the Alps. The secretive and nocturnal wombat is one of the most intriguing animals I’ve ever experienced in over two decades of exploring wild forests.
Temperatures in the Alps can get as low as minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 25 degrees Celsius) and winds can easily exceed 112 miles per hour (180 kilometers per hour). Irrespective on the season, the Alps experience very high levels of ultra violet radiation. On average the Alps receive at least 59 inches (1,500 millimeters) of precipitation a year, and some peaks get twice that amount.
From one to four months a year the subalpine forests receive snow that blankets the ground and accumulates. The melt waters are vitally important for plants, animals and people. They provide Victoria with about 40 percent of its water and 15 percent of the water in New South Wales. In fact, the capital city, Canberra, was selected because of its proximity to a permanent water supply from the Brindabella Mountains.
Thirty-six species of eucalypts live in the Alps. There are at least two montane eucalypts that are extraordinary: Eucalyptus regans or mountain ash is the tallest hardwood tree in the world at 375 feet (114.3 meters), and Eucalyptus delegatensis or woolly-butt, named for its butt of rough fibrous bark is sentimentally special to me.
In the early 1990s I undertook my doctoral studies in the Victorian Alps on Mount Stirling. I investigated cold tolerance of subalpine eucalypts. In order to get into the subalpine forests I walked through the majestic, tall woolly-butt montane forests. The pungent peppermint smell of the woolly-butt leaves was sublime!
There are about five species of eucalypts that can tolerate snow. One is endemic to Tasmania and another is a specialist at living in frigid frost pockets or hollows. Snow gums on mainland Australia have three subspecies and they make up the subalpine forests in the Alps. They grow at elevations between 4,921 feet (1,500 meters) and about 6,562 feet (2000 meters) or treeline.
Snow gums are survivors. They have smooth bark and occasionally in the spring displays regal reds and deep browns. The color of the bark is mostly silver because that color reflects ultra violet radiation which constantly bombards the Alps.
Snow gums are not tall trees. They must withstand heavy snow loads with weights in excess of one ton per branch. Freezing temperatures are stressful on large broad evergreen leaves, which miraculously adjust leaf cell sap to cope with temperatures as low as 2 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 16 degrees Celsius).
On average snow gums forests live for about 200 years or so before fire resets their biologic clock initiating natural forest regeneration.
Global warming has brutally ravaged Australia. In fact, the brutal La Nina of 2010 significantly disrupted agriculture with biblical-like flooding destroying grains, cottons and sugar crops. In addition, the railway, roads and electric systems incurred massive damage which costs billions to repair.
The Australian Alps, and in particular Victoria, have been plagued by two extreme fire seasons unusually close together: 2003 and 2007. Millions of acres of montane and subalpine forests have burned in southeast Australia.
Australia is very prone to suffer the effects of El nino – warming of the western equatorial Pacific Ocean. El nino’s promote droughts in Australia and elsewhere. Droughts spur on wildfires. And La Nina’s bring torrential rains – from one extreme to another.
Australia is a sun-rich continent. It is time for the government to provide incentives for innovators to harness the sun, offshore winds and ocean wave technology thereby promoting green renewable energies and opportunities for our children.
The Australian Senate ratified a bold carbon-tax to take effect in 2012 which will begin to lighten the footprint of a nation that depends upon coal for not only its power but as a lucrative exported natural resource (mostly to China). Kudos to the people Down Under who are showing leadership at a crucial time in human history!
Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2013. All rights reserved.
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