Image for Burning a scratch across a vinyl recording


In an apparent bid to downplay the significance of the damage caused to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) by the current fires, Premier Will Hodgman, National Tourism Minister Senator Richard Colbeck, and also an advocate for tourism development whose sensitivity to criticism I wish to respect and hence will refer to merely by the pseudonym of Nuke Tartan, have all been dismissively suggesting that things are fine because only 1.2% of the WHA has been burnt.

Since the subject is a serious one and all three of these people hold responsible positions in Tasmanian society, we must presume that their utterances are not just opportunistic political statements and that their apparent belief that bare percentages are an appropriate way to measure such things is based on some sort of evidence that has eluded most scientists but which these Tasmanian luminaries have themselves obtained by their own efforts.

It seems that the average adult human heart weighs about 300g, so if we assume a total body mass of about 80 kg the heart comes in at a bit under 0.4%.  I am not sure which additional organs these three researchers have also jettisoned in order to remove the additional 0.8% of their body mass necessary to reach the 1.2% they have apparently found it OK not to have, but I look forward to seeing this information in their explanatory scientific paper on the subject, perhaps in the next edition of Nature.

Presuming that they do actually have a valid reason for thinking that the simple percentage of the WHA recently burnt is indeed the correct way to assess the damage done, I hope that their paper might also cover the reasons why they consider that it is only this year’s fires that need to be considered, because I am sure that it is not just for some shallow political reason that they fail to put the current fires in context by acknowledging their contribution to the cumulative impact of these and various other fires in the WHA over the past few years.  The 2013 Giblin River fire alone, which was essentially not fought, burnt more than twice the area inside the WHA than that incinerated by the current fires (Figure 1).

The organic soils that characterise much of the Giblin area were also burnt to bedrock over much of it.  The speed with which some vegetation species can theoretically recolonise after fire is of no relevance if there is no soil left for that vegetation to grow in.  The soil-forming processes by which those organic soils form take thousands of years, not just a winter of rain to bring on a green flush.  But I am sure that researchers Hodgman, Colbeck and Tartan will also be able to also explain in their paper why such considerations are irrelevant and that trivialising the damage done to the WHA is indeed a valid and responsible response to the current situation.

And I do hope that these three good gentlemen are also aware of how much their own research could be even further advanced were they also to factor in the Giblin fire.  Adding just this fire alone to their data set would up the percentage of the WHA recently burnt to around 4%, which is about twice the mass of a human brain relative to body weight.  This would seem to open up the opportunity for them to see if they could also safely dispense with all that uncomfortably heavy stuff they have to carry around in their heads too (provided that has not already been accounted for in making up the unidentified extra 0.8% left unexplained in their first experiment).  And even after doing this they would still retain the capacity to maybe dispense with another lung or two - or perhaps some other organ, such as the one that risks thinking of this calibre being allowed to remain in the gene pool.

*Kevin Kiernan is a sixth generation Tasmanian who has spent most of his life poking around in wilderness areas, mountains and caves on seven continents, in both personal and professional capacities.  A geomorphologist by training, he recently retired from the University of Tasmania, where he had researched and taught Conservation Geomorphology and also a unit on the Geography and Environment of Asia.  In his earlier life he worked as an environmental campaigner and then as a national park planner, before spending 14 years in the Tasmanian forest practices system.  He is currently doing a fairly poor job of attempting to learn to be a retired gentleman.

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