About nine years ago I was out on a ski trip on the main range of the Snowies. Half way through, a storm came in and we were snow bound for a couple of days. We bailed from our camp to the shelter of Seamans Hut, where two other skiers had also holed up, and we spent two days talking life, politics, parenthood – and gear.

Snowy Mountains

Snowy Mountains Main Range.

Our new compatriots were using heavy skis with plastic boots, whereas we were ‘old school’, with skinny skis and leather boots. Later, I watched them ski lines that I could only dream of. I was sold, and two weeks later I was climbing Staircase Spur with my new plastic boots and fat skis. I never looked back.

Probably anyone who has been around the outdoor scene for more than a decade has experienced the same thing. Gear becomes lighter, and is often stronger and more versatile. We can travel so easily on multi-day trips, and have so many small luxuries that would have been hard for walkers and skiers of earlier generations to imagine.

Magazines, shops and websites are full of new gear that does amazing things. I feel like my heavy skis and rigid boots are like ‘cheap grace’, as they allow me to ski 30 per cent better without any improvement in technique. Life in the backcountry is better, and often much safer, because of such breakthroughs in technology.

The Real Cost of Progress

When we reflect on the changes to Australian bushwalking, climbing, paddling and cross country skiing over the past 100 years, it is easy to say that it has been technological innovation that has been the major driver of change in our adventures. In reality, it has been the shrinking wilderness landscape and changing climate.

When Europeans colonised Australia they found a landscape that worked in a profoundly different way to home. One of the most obvious factors was fire. Fire has been a pivotal part of most of our landscapes for millions of years, but it took time for the new arrivals to understand this fact. In 1851 the Black Thursday fire burnt five million hectares of Victoria. Almost half a century later, Red Tuesday burnt 260,000 hectares of the state. These were devastating events. But it is only when you step back and look at fires on a longer time scale that you can see the changes that have been underway.

Fire damaged forest at Mt Wills, Victoria.

After the fires. Mt Wills, Victoria.

In Victoria, the frequency of large fires (greater than 100,000 hectares) has grown significantly over the past century.

  • 19th Century – 2 mega fires
  • first half of 20th Century – 4 mega fires
  • 2nd half of 20th Century – 7 mega fires
  • In the first 15 years of the 21st Century – 6 mega fires

There were no remote area fire teams or air bombers in 1851. Yet the increase in our firefighting capacity has not been sufficient to match the change in our climate as the landscape dries and the fires become more frequent.

Climate modelling tells us that the Australia our kids will inherit will be hotter, drier and more prone to fire, drought, heatwaves and erratic weather (for a conservative view of the future check out this information from the federal government. For a more sober assessment of our situation, check here). There is a window to take action if we want to avoid the worst of this future, but that is rapidly closing.

The Devastating Loss of The Places We Love

There are many reasons we haven’t acted at the scale that climate sciences tells us is necessary: a sense of hopelessness at the scale of the problem, personal disconnect and denial, ‘business as usual’ economies that ignore the laws of physics (for instance, we live in an economic system which thinks it can export vast volumes of coal without incurring a climate cost as a result), the simple momentum of our current economic system, the inordinate influence of fossil fuel companies over our leaders, and the fact that we are all enmeshed in a system of consumption that we don’t control.

But if we do want to leave a world that’s safe for human life, we had better get active now.

One blockage to action is that humans often want to ‘see’ a threat before we act. That’s certainly the case with climate change. After the millennium drought, which starved south eastern Australia of water for more than a decade, life slipped back to normal after the rains came. The government of the day even lifted the water restrictions that had seen Victorians become water wise and thrifty. We yearn for normalcy and want to believe things will continue to be normal.

But the climate has already shifted. Despite the denial that is given free rein in much of the media, you could fill books with the evidence. To take one recent example: According to research from the Australian Export Grains Innovation Centre (AEGIC), we are already experiencing a ‘new climate’, one that has become noticeable since about 2000.

The AEGIC analysis, based on rain records since 2000, shows that rainfall zones in Australia have moved — in some cases up to 400 kilometres. This has lead to local climates across much of the country shifting from say, ‘Winter Dependent’ rain patterns to ‘uniform’ rainfall zones, where rain is equally distributed over summer and winter seasons. This, in turn impacts on farming and local indigenous species, which have become attuned to rain events happening at particular times of the year. We have unleashed a massive science experiment on the planet, without agreeing on a way to end, or even control, the experiment.

And these changes are impacting on the places we love, the places we retreat to for our adventures.

Summit, Mt Wills, Victoria.

On the summit of Mt Wills.

Anyone who has walked in the Australian Alps will know the devastation caused by wildfire. The Mount Hotham region in Victoria had three major fires in a decade and the snow gum forests that fringe the main range are mostly a fuzz of dead trunks and regrowth. All of us are seeing fewer old snowgums as we get older. This summer’s fires in Tasmania, coming on the back of a long dry spring, are likely to be indicative of life in the 21st Century. David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania says that climate change is to blame for these fires. “We are in a new place. We just have to accept that we’ve crossed a threshold, I suspect. This is what climate change looks like.”

As you read this, the Great Lakes of the Central Plateau are almost empty, drained for power after a dry summer. And as we get close to peak tourism time on the Murray River – Easter – a 500-kilometre long plume of dangerous blue green algae stretches down the river from Albury. Algae outbreaks happen when river flows are low and water temperatures are high – the conditions expected in a climate change future. A long heatwave sits over NSW, with Sydney recently passing 26C for the 36th consecutive day (the previous record was 19 such days). Over the past week, daily temperatures for large parts of south eastern Australia have been 12C above average.

Addressing The Issue

In the short term, it is fire which is impacting on the outdoors most obviously. Apart from the dead snow gums across much of the Alps, and the loss of the sub-alpine pencil pine groves of central Tasmania, much of our taller forests – classic walking country dominated by eucalypts which don’t cope too well with fire – have been impacted in recent years. As one example, the fires were so hot on Black Saturday (the 2009 fires in Victoria) that they killed the vast majority of the parent trees on Lake Mountain, which can normally re-shoot after being burnt. Lower down the mountain, iconic Mountain Ash forest and cool temperate rainforest at places like the Camberville Reserve was devastated. In the longer term, temperature rise can be expected to change what species live and thrive in specific locations, with some species expected to ‘lose’ their habitat as ecosystems change (check here for a short list of Australian species directly threatened by climate change).

After fire on Smythes Hill, Victoria.

The aftermath of a fire on Smythes Hill, Victoria.

Of course, no single weather event or disaster can be slated back to climate change. But as with ‘mega fires’, the influence and frequency of extreme events – drought, flood, heat and fire – is expected to increase. What we are living through now is, in all likelihood, the ‘new normal’. This is hard to accept. But ignoring it is to risk a far worse future.

We know what we need to do. The first step is to rapidly wean ourselves off fossil fuels, stop transforming wild ecosystems into agricultural landscapes, and adopt 21st Century technologies like renewable energy. That will just be the start of a long journey for humanity, but one that could be a turning point for our species as we re-assess our relationship with the earth, and the atmosphere that sustains our very life.

This is not a missive of doom and gloom. But any clear eyed reading of mainstream climate science tells us we are in serious trouble if we don’t act now. And as we start the transition, we should be out there, in the places we love. Explore them and cherish them, knowing that they’re changing before our very eyes. Support restoration efforts and environmental groups that protect wild areas, and the scientists who are researching ways to better care for them.

As the writer and activist Edward Abbey famously said “run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely mysterious and awesome space.”