The Savanna Burning Experiment was established in 2003 by CSIRO, in collaboration with the Northern Territory Government and Charles Darwin University, to research the effects of fire frequency on biodiversity and carbon.

The challenge

Fire impacts biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions

The vast majority of bushfires in Australia occur in the savanna landscapes of the tropical north, where bushfire issues relate primarily to landscape management rather than protection of life and property. Bushfire is an especially dominant factor in the Top End, where up to 50 per cent of the landscape is burnt each year. Most of the fires are lit by people, including conservation managers, pastoralists and traditional Aboriginal land owners.

There is widespread concern that changed fire regimes following disruption of traditional Aboriginal burning practises has led to substantial declines in biodiversity values across northern Australia.

There is also increasing interest in the role of savanna fires in Australia's greenhouse gas balance. Savanna burning makes a significant contribution to the nation's accountable emissions through the release of methane and nitrous oxide. Fire also influences the amount of carbon stored in savanna ecosystems, which contain about 30 per cent of Australia's terrestrial carbon stocks.

There needs to be an integrated understanding of the effects of different fire management options on greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity values.

Our response

Experimenting with fire in the Territory Wildlife Park

In 2003 as part of the national Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, CSIRO established the Savanna Burning manipulative fire experiment at the Territory Wildlife Park near Darwin, in collaboration with the Northern Territory Government and Charles Darwin University.

Dr Dick Williams digging up timers to measure rate of fire spread, as part of the Savanna Burning Experiment.

A line of 18 one hectare-sized plots has been established on the western boundary of the Territory Wildlife Park. Plots are arranged in three blocks of six, with plots within each block subject to one of six experimental fire regimes, including annual burning early in the dry season (June); burning every two years early in the dry season; burning every three years early in the dry season; burning every five years early in the dry season; burning every two years late in the dry season (September/October); and remaining unburnt.

Research activities focus on the effects of fire frequency, time-since-fire and fire intensity on:

  • soil ecological processes, especially relating to carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling and water infiltration
  • plant growth, survival and recruitment, enabling long-term vegetation dynamics to be effectively modelled
  • above-ground carbon dynamics
  • invertebrate and reptile biodiversity.

The project also promotes public awareness of fire through:

  • a walk-through demonstration site at the Territory Wildlife Park with interpretative signage allowing for a hands-on experience of fire in the northern Australian environment
  • information products covering the role of fire in the management of conservation landscapes in northern Australia.

The results

Most species are resilient to fire

The intensity of experimental fires ranged from 100 to 3000 kW/m, with late dry season fires generally more intense than those in the early dry season. Fire has had a significant effect on the cover of woody vegetation, especially for relatively fire-sensitive species that are characteristic of denser forests.

However, most species characteristic of open savanna habitats have proven to be highly resilient in relation to fire. For example, after five years of experimental burning, differences in ant communities were apparent only between highly contrasting fire regimes, and there were no detectable effects of fire on small lizards. Such high resilience is consistent with the findings from the Kapalga Fire Experiment.

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