Home Agriculture Australia needs a soil database to prepare for future fires, scientists say

Australia needs a soil database to prepare for future fires, scientists say

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The University of Tasmania's Melissa McHenry says that some of Tasmania's peat soils could take years or even decades to fully recover from last summer's bushfires.

Key points:

  • Last summer’s bushfires ravaged millions of hectares of Australian soils, some of which may take decades to fully recover.
  • Academics say Australia needs a national database of information on different area’s soils to prepare for future bushfires.
  • Knowing more about soils helps farmers and conservationists treat soils to help them recover faster.

Australia needs a national database of soil information to better prepare for the effects of future intense bushfires, according to a group of experts.

The academics recently wrote a paper saying last summer’s bushfires had ravaged soils, damaging agricultural and environmental recovery.

The University of Adelaide’s Professor Robert Fitzpatrick, who was involved in writing the paper, said damage to soils could be devastating for farmers.

“Once these areas have been burned, of course, it’s not coverage; there’s no mulch there’s no vegetation, so in other words, they can’t crop these areas,” he said.

“If they’ve got stock, then there’s nothing there for them to eat… so the devastation to farmers areas is huge. It runs into the millions and billions of dollars.”

The brief said that while bushfires were not new to the Australian landscape, a combination of heatwaves, drought and high fuel loads meant the 2019-2020 bushfires were hot enough to damage millions of hectares of soil.

Catastrophic fires can rob soils of their nutrients, melt clays in the soil and degrade them to the point they can’t absorb water.

That means any rainfall can wash valuable soil into waterways, polluting them with soot and ash.

Professor Fitzpatrick said if farmers could better understand the soil they had, they would know how to treat it after a bushfire, so it recovered faster.

Peat ‘can burn on and on’

University of Tasmania’s Dr Melissa McHenry has been researching the impacts of last summer’s bushfires in Tasmania.

She said soils could take decades to recover.

“I’m in Tasmania, and in Tasmania we have a lot of peat soils, or what we call organic soils, that are actually made up of dead leaves and materials,” she said.

“In these situations when peat fires occur … the fire can burn on and on for months, because it’s actually made up of a source of carbon.

“And those peat fires can mean that recovery trajectories for those types of soils can take even 50 years to re-accumulate and re-establish.”

Kangaroo Island Land and soil consultant Lyn Dohle said a national database with more information about Australia’s soil could help Australian agriculture adapt to the challenges of climate change.

“We’re still learning what that’s actually going to mean for us in the future, but for farmers to better manage their soils, they need to know what they what they have, so then they can address them accordingly,” she said.

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