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Turbulent future for Australia’s coasts: UC public lecture

Marcus Butler

9 February 2018: Australia’s coastal ecosystems are changing and one of the country’s leading coastal ecosystem experts addressed the University of Canberra’s 2018 Krebs Lecture to warn that their future is in the balance.

Dean of Science and Professor of marine ecology and ecotoxicology at University of New South Wales,Emma Johnston, delivered the annual public lecture to around 250 guests.

Professor Johnston highlighted the changing situation using emerging evidence from Australia’s changing coasts. Painting a picture of the dangers facing Australia’s coastal fringe and how to better protect it.

“Near-shore coastal systems are warming and becoming more nutrient rich,” Professor Johnston said.

“Nutrient flows are entering the ocean through sewerage outflows, stormwater, fuel spills, and agricultural runoff, which is probably the most significant form of organic enrichment affecting coastal zones.

“When you combine warmer conditions with artificially high levels of nutrients then you start to see the system changing. Sometimes it will accelerate the system, which in the short-term may appear to be a good thing.

“But when we see dramatic changes in algal growth, which are already happening, it puts important systems such as coral reefs and fisheries in jeopardy.”

But Professor Johnston said Australia may be rushing towards a dangerous boundary line.

“Added nutrients may speed up the rate of recovery for coastal areas which have been damaged over time, but there’s a limit.

“We don’t know where the barrier is between increased growth and recovery, and the point where the system is pushed too far and begins to head to catastrophic failure.”

In 2014, Professor Johnston was awarded the Australian Academy of Sciences Inaugural Nancy Millis Medal for Women in Science, and in 2015 the Eureka Prize for the public communication of science.

She has also appeared on the BBC/Foxtel series, Coast Australia.

The University’s annual Krebs Lecture is dedicated to Professor Charles Krebs for his extraordinary contribution to our understanding and appreciation of our natural world.

Past speakers include advisor to former US President Barack Obama Professor Jane Lubchenco, former federal Liberal Party leader Dr John Hewson AM and Environment and Education Minister Peter Garrett AM.