Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Burning Issue


Dry grasses are burned at the beginning of the Northen Territory’s dry season to avoid larger fires later when lightning storms occur. Credit: travellinglight/iStockphoto

By Kate Osborne

The use of fire to manage Australia’s vast northern savannas is being doused by government bureaucracy, resistance by pastoralists, loss of indigenous knowledge and mistrust of science.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

The vast, thinly populated country north of the Tropic of Capricorn is Australia’s great frontier. The icons that form our collective image of the north are the reef, the rainforests and the arid interior.

Yet these iconic landscapes are the exception rather than the rule. More than 1.9 million km2 – roughly one-quarter of the total area of the Australian mainland – is savanna country.

Globally, savannas are threatened by population pressure, land clearing and overuse. In Australia the sheer scale of the savanna is a risk factor – with so much country the ecological values are not considered rare or threatened. Yet scientists believe we could be on the brink of the next great extinction.

Savanna is also known as grassland, rangeland or, in northern Australia, simply as “the burning country”. Globally, the savanna biome occurs in a wide band on either side of the Equator. These habitats are shaped by a strongly seasonal climate and the transforming effects of fire. The summer “wet” is a time of flooding rains and growth, followed by a long “dry”. As the country slowly becomes parched, fires spring up or are lit in the grass understory. In Australia’s north, the extent of grassland areas without trees is restricted; most of the country is flat or undulating, and vegetated with annual and perennial grasses and scattered trees or shrubs.


The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.