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Drought detectives examine how Australian forests will cope with a hot, dry and fiery future

At the height of the last drought in late 2019, when eastern Australia was suffering through its hottest and driest year on record, environmental scientist, Dr Rachael Nolan, and her colleagues at Western went to see how the eucalypt forests near Armidale in New South Wales were faring.

“As far as you could see, the forest had turned to brown,” recalls Nolan. “The leaves were crispy.” The researchers did what any good clinician would do when faced with such a sick patient: they took measurements and samples, and tried to work out what had gone wrong.

The ‘why’ was easy — the drought had pushed these trees to the brink. But the ‘how’ was harder to establish. Their research found that the trees’ circulatory systems had effectively collapsed: hydraulic failure. The fact that this knowledge was so late in coming, in a country as drought-prone as Australia, reveals the paucity of understanding of how native vegetation responds to extremes of heat, drought and fire.

This is one of many vital research projects underway at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at Western, which aim to better understand how the Australian bush will cope with and recover from the heatwaves, droughts and bushfires that are likely to increasingly affect a warming world.