Before the inferno: giant cushion plants beneath ancient pencil pines in the Walls of Jerusalem national park. Photograph: Ashley Whitworth/Alamy
As 1,000-year-old trees turn to ash and dried-out peat bogs burn, the devastation of these precious plains is a harbinger of a warmer, far less wonderful world.
It is a three-hour, thigh-torturing climb to reach Tasmania’s high central plateau. Ancient myrtle rainforests flank the slopes. In years gone by, springs and streams gushed from the soaked highlands above, feeding the ferns and tall, old trees. The track passes Norm’s spring, from which local legend holds it is good luck to drink. But in these parts the luck has run dry.
Last year Tasmania suffered its driest and hottest spring. At the nearby Miena dam, October’s rainfall was just 10.2mm, a record 65mm below average. The second driest November followed.
For the world heritage-listed ecosystem above, these normally sodden forests are a fortification against the fires that perennially torch the lowlands. But their fluorescent mosses turned a circumspect pastel green in the heat. By the time December and January broke summer heat records, they were just waiting for a spark.
On 13 January a huge, dry electrical storm set more than 70 fires rampaging across the island. Within days the flames tore through the dried-out defences and into the world heritage area above. For more than a month, fire has rolled back and forth across the fragile plains.
At the lip of the plateau a spectacular field of cushion plants once marked the northern edge of Tasmania’s vast world heritage area. These fragile plant communities build on the skeletal wood of their ancestors. As the centuries pass they construct huge, alien-green mounds that bulge from the peat. Today they look like a tray of burnt sponge cakes.
A long glacial valley stretches out below, devoid of colour, filled only with twisted black branches and burned stones; a monument to entropy. The rocks still radiate heat even though a fortuitous cloudburst put out the flames weeks before. At every step the normally spongy soil bursts into puffs of dust. The torched bark of thousand-year-old pencil pines shines iridescent black.
Only in tiny pockets has some life survived. Due to some inherent extra wetness, a protecting rock or a random swirl of the wind, here and there a few square metres of peat still shout forth little fantasias of sphagnum moss, pineapple grass, honey richea and cushion plants. Like funeral photos of a young life cut short, these still-glorious toeholds only accentuate the bitter, irredeemable tragedy of the surrounding acres of ash.
When vandals of Islamic State blew up the temples of Palmyra, the sickened world responded with appropriate and universal rage. The director general of Unesco, the UN body that oversees world heritage sites, called it a “war crime”.
As the burning of Tasmania enters its sixth week, Unesco remains silent. But if the dire warnings of forest scientists are correct, this summer heralds a new era of decline for this great Gondwana ecosystem. Unlike eucalyptus forests, these plants have not evolved to cope with regular bushfires. Once burned, they die. In a region that has rarely experienced fire, the blackened trunks of millennial trees will burn again and again. Some fire-resistant species will remain but the change will be absolute.
The beginning of its end is a theft from us all. Two-thirds of the plant species on the plateau exist nowhere else on earth but Tasmania. According to one estimate, 4% of the world’s remaining pencil pines – among the longest living of all trees – have been lost in these blazes.
The British explorer Gertrude Bell once wondered of Palmyra’s temples whether “the wide world presents a more singular landscape”. For the pilgrims who visit Tasmania’s wild sanctuary, there is only one answer. They come, from both near and far, to worship a different articulation of the divine. Or, as one local bushwalker puts it: “This is where we go to have fun.”
Away to the west, fires still burn. Tasmania’s fire service says they are contained. Thankfully, the weather failed to produce the dire northerly buster that would have sent the fires deep into the wilderness. Damage has been limited to 22,000 hectares of the vast 1.5m-hectare park. The Tasmanian government has been at pains to point out that the great majority remains intact. Rather than the final cataclysm, the ruined valleys at the northern edge are a premonition of a warmer, less wonderful world.
Unesco says it is “not in a position to speculate about the extent to which global warming is responsible for this particular fire”. Earlier this month the Tasmanian premier, Will Hodgman, attacked “activists” for “almost gleefully capitalising” on the fires, which he said were “naturally caused”.
But this ignores the unnatural rarity of these particular fires and the circumstances that preceded them. If they had been lit by arsonists, says David Bowman, a forest ecologist from the University of Tasmania, “that would be bad, but you would understand that that was preventable”.
Instead the rising background of climate change combined with a huge El Niño to create conditions in which peat bogs were dry enough to burn for the first time in perhaps a thousand years. Tasmania’s rainfall has been decreasing since the 1970s, accompanied by a rise in annual average temperature of half a degree. Last week research confirmed that even with an El Niño in effect, the occurrence of Australia’s three hottest-recorded springs in the past three years was “almost certainly” caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate scientists have also predicted that lightning strikes will happen 12% more frequently with every degree of warming.
“It’s a historically significant event,” Bowman says.
Deep in the valley, a tiny grove of pines is still green. From afar the trees (which look to be about 500 years old – young by pencil pine standards) appear to have been protected from the fire by a rocky slope. But closer inspection reveals that the peat burned right up to their bases. Licking flames singed the bark at the bottom of their trunks. Then, inexplicably, the fire turned away. Perhaps this was the moment the rain came to douse the flames. The chubby needles of the pines remain soft and lively. But if these trees are going to ride luck like this their end cannot be far away.
The parents of these young trees may have been young themselves when the citizens of Palmyra still walked their desert streets. The razing of these old treasures are two points on the wide spectrum of human failure. Along with the fractured temple of Baalshamin, Isis have broken the statues of Hatra in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the Taliban blasted the great Buddhas of Bamiyan. All of these places carried the aegis of world heritage. This week news comes that the violence of climate change has turned towards another Unesco wonder, the Great Barrier Reef.
At the edge of the central plateau, a half-torched wooden signpost bears Unesco’s world heritage symbol, signifying the interdependence of nature and human ingenuity. Nothing within eyeshot is now worthy of such lofty recognition. Amid the blackened clumps of the cushion plants, the icon is a travesty.