Characterising climate resilience in coastal groundwater – dependent ecosystems

Madeleine Dyring1, Dr Harland Hofmann1, Professor Ray Froend1, Professor Patrick Moss1

1The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland


The resilience of ecosystems to disturbance is a fundamental research question in the face of climate change. Ecosystems dependent on groundwater hosted in shallow, unconfined aquifers tightly coupled with climate systems are highly exposed to climate-induced hydrological change. Coastal groundwater resources are particularly vulnerable and under increasing strain from development, groundwater abstraction and saltwater intrusion. Reduced recharge and increasing evapotranspiration will affect the assemblage, persistence and function of coastal groundwater-dependent ecosystems (GDEs). While the effect of declining groundwater availability has been explored for arid GDEs, less research has been directed at those found along subtropical coastlines. This has limited our understanding of the capacity of these ecosystems to withstand climate variability whilst retaining self-organised structures and function. The key to enhancing resilience in natural systems is an in-depth understanding of ecosystem function, and for GDEs this includes both hydrologic (aquifer system) and ecological (biotic community) function. The resilience of subtropical and temperate GDEs to changing ecohydrological conditions will depend on: (a) the buffering capacity of reliant aquifers and, (b) the functional capacity of composite species to adapt to changing climatological conditions. Focusing on the Cooloola Sand Mass located in South East Queensland, Australia, this project aims to characterise groundwater resources utilised by GDEs in a complex coastal environment. We will evaluate the temporal and spatial variability of these sources in order to understand the buffering capacity of aquifers to rainfall variability. Using this information, we will investigate how changes to groundwater availability and quality will undermine the resilience of groundwater-dependent plant communities.


I am a doctoral researcher concerned about the impact climate change will have on coastal groundwater systems, particularly the consequences of these impacts to highly valuable groundwater-dependent ecosystems. Climate induced changes to groundwater systems are particularly concerning in coastal environments, where over-extraction, pollution and saline intrusion already threaten the quality and availability of groundwater for dependent communities. My research aims to gain a better understanding of the groundwater resources sustaining groundwater-dependent ecosystems in a complex coastal environment to better predict and manage impacts associated with climate change.