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Project maps 20 years of NT savannas

By Leanne Coleman

DCBR lead researcher Professor Jeremy Russell-Smith said the surveys were vital to improve understanding of the savannas DCBR lead researcher Professor Jeremy Russell-Smith said the surveys were vital to improve understanding of the savannas

A team of researchers from Charles Darwin University will travel to Kakadu National Park this week to conduct surveys investigating the effects of fire on savanna, as part of a project that spans 20 years.

The project has helped build a picture of the impact of fire on the tropical savanna landscapes that stretch across northern Australia, and is one of 12 national sites comprising the Long-term Ecological Research Network (LTERN) program.

Darwin Centre for Bushfire Research (DCBR) lead researcher Professor Jeremy Russell-Smith said the surveys were vital to improve understanding of the savannas to inform conservation management in the Northern Territory.

“The program has been investigating the three major savanna conservation reserves of the Top End (Kakadu, Nitmiluk and Litchfield) involving a series of more than 200 permanent sites, first sampled 20 years ago,” Professor Russell-Smith said.

“Every five years all of the vegetation down to the smallest grass and herb is measured and counted. In parallel animal surveys are undertaken to complete the biodiversity picture.”

He said that this year the team in conjunction with Kakadu National Park staff and traditional owners would re-measure 60 plots mostly in the biologically sensitive areas on and around the Arnhem Land plateau, and in similar habitats in other remote parts of the Heritage Listed Kakadu National Park. The team will look at the impacts of fire on the landscape.

“Monitoring the long-term changes in savanna vegetation is important to understand its effects on biodiversity, and other important issues such as carbon storage,” he said.

“The information from the fire monitoring plots has been used to derive methodologies that calculate the changes in tree biomass under various fire regimes. This tells you directly about the carbon stored in savanna vegetation. If land owners can improve their fire management they can also store more carbon.

“Other effects such as climatic factors have long time-scales that are also important and must be incorporated to comprehensively understand all the changes. Without this type of long-term monitoring you cannot truly understand the full story.”

Professor Russell-Smith said research to date demonstrated that there was an opportunity for land owners in northern Australia to develop employment opportunities associated with effective fire and carbon management, even with the impacts from climate change.

This is a collaborative project between the Darwin Centre for Bushfire Research at CDU, staff from Kakadu National Park, Litchfield National Park, Nitmiluk National Park, traditional owners, Australia’s Long-term Ecological Research Network and the Northern Territory Government.