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Changes in climate

The Earth’s climate is undergoing changes in response to natural variability, as well as human induced changes arising from increased concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols in the atmosphere. Associated with these changes are impacts on the Earth’s water cycle which has direct implications for wetlands.

While there is uncertainty regarding the precise impacts of climate change, there is general agreement amongst climate scientists that climate change will result in increased temperatures, altered rainfall patterns, increased risk of flash flooding, increased drought frequency and severity, increased cyclone intensity, rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion.

Wivenhoe Dam in flood Photo by Greg Miller

Quick facts

Queensland's
climate adaptation strategy provides a framework for ensuring an innovative and resilient Queensland that manages the risks and harnesses the opportunities of a changing climate.

There are many different wetland types but one thing they have in common is their dependence on the water cycle, though this varies in terms of specific water quantity, quality and temperature needs.

Any changes to the water cycle through altered rainfall patterns (distribution, time of the year, quantity), extreme weather events and rising temperatures will affect the water cycle and therefore the hydrology of individual wetlands. This in turn will affect the wetland’s structure and functionality. Climate impacts are likely to exacerbate changes in the water cycle.

See below for examples of how climate impacts are affecting or are likely to affect wetlands, including coastal areas and oceans:

  • Increased flooding, especially flash flooding, and an associated increase in the level of pollutants entering wetlands as well as an increased rate and amount of erosion. This is expected to result in poorer water quality.
  • More severe droughts which will reduce the water available for wetlands thereby affecting health. These impacts will be compounded by existing pressures on water supply from infrastructure, agricultural, urban and industrial water use.
  • Increased intensity of cyclones and storms which are likely to cause damage to coastal wetlands through increased flooding, damage to vegetation, changes to wetland structure, and reduced capacity for wetlands to repair between events.
  • Migration of mangroves and other estuarine wetlands inland in response to rising seas. Their capacity to do this will depend on suitable sites, topography and local land use. In many coastal areas existing development and infrastructure are likely to be barriers to migrating systems leading to overall wetland loss. Salt water intrusion and migration of brackish wetlands will impact freshwater wetlands.
  • Warmer seas which are likely to influence species composition and promote the intrusion of invasive species and increase dead zones, harmful algal blooms, and marine diseases.
  • Ocean acidification is the ongoing decrease in the pH of the Earth’s oceans resulting from long-term absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It is estimated that roughly 30% of human-made carbon dioxide is absorbed by oceans. Marine calcifying organisms such as coral and some plankton are adversely affected by increasing acidity, with existing shells becoming vulnerable to dissolution.

There are still many uncertainties regarding specific impacts on individual wetlands due to the sheer complexity of the climate system. However, the overall science around climate change and its likely impacts continues to grow. This increasing body of scientific information will help improve our understanding of how changes in the climate will impact Queensland’s wetlands and water systems.

Wetlands play a valuable role in supporting community efforts to adapt to a changing climate and respond to its impacts. There is increasing recognition of the role that wetlands play in supporting biodiversity, storing carbon and regulating greenhouse gas emission sources, being a refuge for wildlife during drought periods, and buffering our coastlines during extreme weather events.

Wetland and climate change - information resources

The Australian Government has developed a 'mini-portal' to compile information and links about wetlands and climate change.

The resources in the portal are broadly relavent to wetland managers and decision makers and include Ramsar Convention climate change resources, vulnerability and impacts, wetlands and the carbon cycle, adaptation and management, blue carbon and case studies.

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Last updated: 29 June 2017

This page should be cited as:

Changes in climate, WetlandInfo 2015, Department of Environment and Science, Queensland, viewed 11 February 2019, <https://wetlandinfo.des.qld.gov.au/wetlands/management/climate-change/>.

Queensland Government
WetlandInfo   —   Department of Environment and Science