In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Australia’s Environment and Its Management

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of Australia’s Environment
  • Australian Aridity and Climate Variability
  • Characteristic Australian Environments
  • Australian Biota
  • The Impact of Indigenous Populations
  • The Impact of European Populations
  • Air and Water Pollution
  • Environmental Management
  • Areas of Special Value
  • Globally Significant Environmental Management Developments
  • Climate Change

Environmental Science Australia’s Environment and Its Management
I.D. Rutherfurd
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0098


The Southern Hemisphere island continent of Australia (7 million km2) is old, flat, stable, and dry, with a high proportion of endemic biota. The environment of Australia is fundamentally shaped by its age, its aridity and interannual climate variability, and the role of fire. These help to explain the continent’s characteristic ecology, animals, and evergreen vegetation. Fire has also been the main tool used by indigenous populations to substantially alter the landscape in their 50,000 years of occupation. In just 200 years, a relatively small population of European colonizers (by world standards) has even more effectively transformed the environment of Australia through mining, land use change, invasive plants and animals, exploitation of water resources, and water quality degradation. Very high endemism is matched by some of the world’s highest rates of extinctions of plants and animals. Although human populations are clustered in capital cities, and on the coast, particular pressure has come on three globally notable environments: the Great Barrier Reef, Northern Australia, and the Great Artesian Basin. Parallel with destruction has been preservation, and Australia has a long history of environmental protection. Nearly 12 percent of the continent is in protected areas, including Australia’s sixteen UNESCO World Heritage Areas. There are also some globally notable developments in environmental management, including the burgeoning role of indigenous groups in managing over 30 percent of the continent, and radical water management in response to overexploitation of water resources. In the early 21st century, climate change influences every aspect of Australia’s environment. Australia also has seven external territories (including 42 percent of Antarctica) that are also of great environmental importance but are not covered in this review.

General Overviews of Australia’s Environment

We cannot understand the Australian environment without appreciating its geological history: the continent’s low elevation, its northward geological migration through to the mid-latitudes, its consequent aridity (explained in White 1994), and its infertile soils (Orians and Milewski 2007, cited under Australian Biota). The geological history of Australia as presented in Blewett 2012 has led to some of the world’s highest levels of endemic species (species only found in Australia) (Stow, et al. 2014 and Low 2016, both cited under Australian Biota), but human impacts have now also led to some of the highest levels of extinction of those species, covered by Stow, et al. 2014. Although indigenous populations have altered the Australian environment over 50,000 years (Gammage 2011, cited under Impact of Indigenous Populations), Lines 1991 describes how European colonists altered most parts of the continent over just a couple of centuries. Jackson, et al. 2017, in a major review of Australia’s present environmental condition, concludes that the most important environmental challenges in the early 21st century are climate change, land use change, habitat fragmentation and degradation, and invasive species.

  • Blewett, R. S., ed. 2012. Shaping a nation: A geology of Australia. Canberra, Australia: Geoscience Australia.

    This is a beautifully produced book. Look at it just for the pictures. In its eleven chapters, it introduces readers not just to Australia’s geology, but to how that geology interacts with vegetation, animals, and humans. As stated in the summary: “The book is not intended as a definitive text on all aspects of Australia’s diverse geology, nor does it follow the ‘traditional’ time-based treatment of the topic. Rather, the book tells the story of Australia’s geological evolution through the lens of human impacts—illustrating both the challenges and the opportunities presented by the geological heritage of the ‘lucky country.’” 544 pp.

  • Jackson W. J, Robert M. Argent, Nic Bax, et al. 2017. Australia: State of the environment 2016: Overview. Independent report to the Australian Government, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra.

    One of the best summaries of the condition of Australia’s environment is the regular “State of the Environment Report” prepared by an independent authority of the Australian government. The 2016 version is the fifth review (1996, 2001, 2006, 2011, and 2016), making this an extremely useful resource. 101 pp.

  • Lines, W. J. 1991. Taming the Great South Land: A history of the conquest of nature in Australia. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    A personal narrative that describes the character of Australia’s environment as well as the often tragic changes that have taken place since colonization.

  • White, M. E. 1994. After the greening: The browning of Australia. Kenhurst, Australia: Kangaroo Press.

    An extremely readable synthesis of the geological, botanical, and biological history of Australia over the last 160 million years as Australia moved progressively northward. This is a good place to start for readers wanting to understand the fundamental drivers of Australia’s environment. 288 pp.

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