Climate change hits the Clare Valley

Spring Gully Conservation Park was hard hit following the exceptional summer of 2007/08, with heavy damage particularly to the red stringybark trees. There were more defoliation events in 2018 and 2019.

I've recorded more evidence of local climate change at Crystal Brook.

This page created 2008/05/11, last edited 2021/11/24
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©    

The red stringybark tree community, that has lived in the Clare hills for thousands of years, has suffered very badly from heat and drought. It appears likely that, in the next few decades, they will go from being the dominant species in some microenvironments to becoming a scattered remnant in only small areas, predominantly with southerly aspects, if they do not become locally extinct.

Epicormic growth
Epicormic growth on one of the trees that previously appeared dead, photo July 2008. Unfortunately, many trees that produced epicormic growth in the winter of 2008 were dead by the following year.


Spring Gully was first gazetted as a Wildlife Reserve in 1962 and later proclaimed as a Conservation Park to protect a significant population of red stringybark trees. It is at Latitude -33.91°, Longitude 138.59°, near Clare in the state of South Australia. The stringybarks (Eucalyptus macrorhyncha) had, thousands of years previously, become separated from the remainder of the species which are in eastern Victoria and eastern NSW, see Wikipedia. Many of these trees have suffered badly from heat and drought, particularly in the summer of 2007/08, and an unknown proportion have died.

Environmentalist have been predicting for years that as temperatures rise due to climate change, species on hills or mountains would tend to die-out at lower altitudes and gradually spread toward higher altitudes, where the lower temperatures would suit their needs.

It seems that the red stringybarks of Spring Gully Conservation Park have taken a big first step on the journey toward that local extinction. It is more a guess than an estimate, but something like a third to a half of the trees have come very close to dying, or have died. As these trees are at or near the top of the Clare hills, the species cannot migrate to a cooler habitat at a higher altitude.


Nowhere to go

Kenneth Feeley, a biologist at Florida International University, was reported in Scientific American of March 2013 as saying that plants in the Peruvian Andes needed "to move nine or ten vertical metres a year" to keep up with climate change. Of course the red stringybark of Spring Gully area have nowhere higher to go.
I revisited the park on 2008/07/27 and observed epicormic growth on many of the trees that earlier appeared to be dead. Interestingly the shooting is on the northern side of the tree trunks and larger branches, although apparently on all sides of smaller branches. Another visit on 2009/07/26 showed that many of the trees that had produced epicormic growth had died.

The Spring and early Summer of 2007 were dry in the Clare Valley of South Australia, a premium and famous wine-growing region. To make matters worse the first three months of 2008 were exceptionally dry; only about 16mm of rain fell in this period. The final blow was an all-time record long heatwave in mid-March. (Between 3 March and 17 March 2008 Adelaide recorded 15 consecutive days of 35°C or above, and 13 consecutive days of 37.8°C (100.0 °F) or above - both records for an Australian capital city.) The results can be seen in the photos below...

Photos, May 2008

Red stringybark
The trees with the dark bark in this photo are red stringybark (Eucalyptus macrorhyncha).

The live tree is, I believe, a bluegum (Eucalyptus leucoxylon).

Wyman's Track

11th May, 2008; Spring Gully Conservation Park


Red stringybark
The trees with the dark bark on the left of this photo are red stringybark. Those with the smooth white bark on the right could be bluegums.

Most of the bluegums, perhaps the most common Eucalypt in the Clare Valley, are quite healthy. The difference is remarkable; thousands of stringybarks are dead or near dead, more thousands of bluegums going on the same as ever.

Wyman's Track

11th May, 2008; Spring Gully Conservation Park

Red stringybark
Another stand of Eucalyptus macrorhyncha.

Note that these trees are mainly very young. Many of the trees that appear dead in this photo will recover in time.

Wyman's Track

11th May, 2008; Spring Gully Conservation Park

Red stringybark and bluegums
Most of the trees on the left are highly stressed stringybark, while the trees on the right (bluegums?) have survived with little apparent damage.

There is always a danger that when a major species is set back to this extent that the area will be colonised by weed species such as Spanish lavender.

Wyman's Track

11th May, 2008; Spring Gully Conservation Park


Dead and live
The majority of the trees in this photo are red stringybark. It seems that those on the right, being less crowded together, have survived well because they had a greater volume of soil from which to access water.

Wyman's Track

11th May, 2008; Spring Gully Conservation Park

Bluegums and stringybark
Live bluegums(?) in the foreground, near-dead stringybark in the distance

On the track along the roadside

11th May, 2008; Spring Gully Conservation Park


Big stringybark
The tree near the center of this photo is exceptionally large for the red stringybarks of Spring Gully. It appears quite dead (but may recover given sufficient time).

The green shrubs are Acacia.

On the track along the roadside

11th May, 2008; Spring Gully Conservation Park

Ridgetop walk
Thankfully the stringybarks along the ridge-top walk were not in quite such a bad way as those on the Cascades Trail and Wyman's Trail. However, many are near dead even here too.

Ridge-top walk

12th May, 2008; Spring Gully Conservation Park

This beautiful stringybark, on the park boundary at the end of the ridge-top walk, looks very healthy. Again, this is probably because it is not as crowded as where many have been stressed to the point of seeming to be dead.

Ridge-top walk

12th May, 2008; Spring Gully Conservation Park


Bennys Hill Road

On Bennys Hill Road
It was easy to find red stringybarks on the Clare ranges in May 2008. They seemed to mostly be dead and were easy to see because of their pale leaves.

I now know where there were scattered patches of stringybark that I didn't know were there. What a pity to learn of the existence of something by its apparent death! We can only hope that they recover and that the next bad summer does not come for a few years yet.

12th May, 2008; Adjacent Bennys Hill Road

There appear to be a number of other similar small patches of 'dead' stringybarks along the same ridge, on the western side of Clare. Most of these are on private property.


Climate change or freak event?

Australian mean temperatures
Australian mean annual temperature anomaly – credit: Aust. Bureau of Meteorology, 2008
It might be argued that similar dyings could have taken place in the past every fifty or hundred years or so, whenever there was a particularly harsh period of drought and/or heat; that this event might not be unique. Even if most of the trees recover, the community could not suffer this sort of blow at all frequently without there being a great competitive advantage given to the other species in the community. If this had happened in the past, at more than very rare intervals, the Eucalypts other than stringybarks would have taken over entirely from the stringybarks.

The graph on the right shows the change in average annual temperatures from 1910 to about 2007. For each year it shows how the average temperature for that year compares to the average temperature for the base period, 1961-1990. Years below that average are represented by blue bars going downward and years above average temperature are represented by red bars going upward. The length of the bars show how far the temperature of that year deviated from the average.

The South West of Western Australia is being impacted particularly hard. An article written by Ben Deacon and Daniel Mercer for ABC Weather noted that:

  • South-west WA has seen a 20 per cent reduction in winter rain since 1970;
  • The declining rainfall has seen up to 80 per cent declines in runoff into dams.
In the same article Tom Hatton, the former Chair of WA's Environmental Protection Agency, was reported as saying that the Perth water catchments used to receive around 400 gigalitres of water each year, "Now we're lucky if we get 70 gigalitres and we don't even rely on that."

The stringybark dyings were freak events – to some extent. But, looking at the graph and considering that there is a trend for each year to be a little warmer than the one before, how could any reasonable person doubt that the dying is a combination between global warming and a freak event. Freak events such as this are going to be more common as temperatures rise.

Of course I am not going to convince the remaining climate change skeptics. There is a hard core of these who will die believing that it is not happening or that it is 'normal' or that it is nothing to do with human activity.


A year later


Year later 1
My wife and I visited Spring Gully again on 26th July 2009, a year and a couple of months after the visit on which most of the photos above were taken.

Many of the stringybarks had not recovered.

Year later 2
Quite a few of the trees that had produced epicormic shoots had not survived.

Here the tree on the right of centre has survived, while its neighbour left of centre has died after shooting.

Year later 3
Another view of an area with many dead trees over a year after the main 'dying' event.

Bushfire of 2009

November 2009

Bushfire 1
A bushfire was started by lightning on 2009/11/20 following a record November heatwave. It was reported in the Northern Argus that about 20ha of the park was burned; however I estimated the burned area at no more than 4ha a few days later.

This photo was taken 2009/11/29

Bushfire 2
A part of the burned area, photographed from the lookout car park, 2009/11/29. It is interesting that many of the leaves on the trees in the burned area have apparently not been killed by the heat; presumably because of the small quantity of fuel beneath the trees.

This will obviously stress trees that have already suffered from the drought and heat; what the long-term affect will be remains to be seen.


Pine trees

Perhaps the most conspicuous damage that the long hot, dry spell of 2007/08 did in the Clare Valley was to be seen in the older pine trees.

The red stringybarks are confined to a few small parts of the area and some of them are recovering (by February 2010, when this photo was taken), but the dead or dying pines were widespread.

This photo, of aleppo pines, Pinus halepensis, was taken on the Blyth road about 2km west of Armagh.

Younger pine trees suffered less than old, but perhaps young radiata came off worse than young halepensis?



Isn't it about time that we, as individuals and as a society, started taking climate change seriously and doing something about it – changing our life-styles, closing down fossil-fuelled power stations?

What more must we loose before the apathetic majority change from their big four-wheel-drives to small fuel-efficient cars or even bicycles and our governments start spending more on renewable energy than on coal?

I reviewed this page on 2011/01/19, toward the end of record floods in Queensland and Victoria. Extreme weather events, including flooding, are one of the effects of climate change. "We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality"; Ayn Rand.


Another dying in 2018

Near the 'top' road, Spring Gully Conservation Park
Spring Gully
Photo taken 2018/05/02
Adjacent to Sawmill Road, Spring Gully Conservation Park
Spring Gully
Photo taken 2018/05/02
My wife and I visited Spring Gully again in early May of 2018.

The previous summer had been the second hottest in Australia on record, and the year-to-date rainfall at Clare had been about half of the average.

Many of the red stringybarks were again suffering a major defoliation.

The strigybarks of the Clare hills are similar 'canaries in the coal mine' as the Great Barrier Reef. Both are suffering periodic damage and heading toward total collapse as climate change becomes worse.

This section added 2019/04/01

And in 2019

From Wyman's track, Spring Gully Conservation Park
Spring Gully
Photo taken 2019/03/25
The summer of late 2018 early 2019 was Australia's hottest on record, in the Clare area it was preceded by an exceptionally dry winter and followed by a dry early autumn.

Not surprisingly, and as can be seen in the photo on the right, the red stringybarks were in poor shape. There had been some recovery by epicormic shooting following the defoliation of 2018, but many of the trees could not sustain that and seemed to be dying.

More evidence, Crystal Brook this time

Crystal Brook is about 70 km north-north-west of Clare.

I used to work for the groundwater division of the state government Department of Mines and Energy (over the thirty years or so I worked for them the department went by a number of other names too).

For most of this time I was based in Crystal Brook. From 1989 to 2002 I sampled flows in the Crystal Brook at the concrete ford in Bowman Park. In summer the water would have come from springs in the creek bed; it was, of course, the groundwater in the creek (the 'base-flow') that I was interested in, not the surface runoff. (Observation point unit number 6531-1284, Obs. No. CBK006.)

Over that period I recorded taking a sample from a flow in the creek. There was a trend toward increasing salinity over the period, but more importantly it has hardly flowed at that point in summer since I retired in 2003. Winter flows are also becoming fewer.

As there has been no significant change in upstream groundwater use there can be little doubt that the failure of the permanent flow has been due to a change in the local climate.


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