Teacher background information


Year 10 Science Content Description

Science Understanding

Earth and space sciences

Global systems, including the carbon cycle, rely on interactions involving the biosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere (ACSSU189 - Scootle )

  • investigating how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions through the reinstatement of traditional fire management regimes (OI.5, OI.9)

This elaboration describes opportunities for students to investigate the interactions between the biosphere and the atmosphere in the context of bushfire management. Students will learn how the traditional fire management practices of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of tropical northern Australia are being recognised by contemporary science for effectively reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, these practices result in healthier ecosystems compared to former practices in fire management informed by Western science. Students have opportunities to appreciate how the traditional ecological knowledge and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are informing and enriching modern scientific understanding of tropical savanna ecosystems and how the reinstatement of traditional fire management regimes is contributing to more sustainable land management practices and a reduction of atmospheric pollution.

Wildfires form a major component of the global carbon cycle. During this natural phenomenon the carbon stored in the biosphere (in the form of organic matter in plants and animals) is converted to carbon dioxide and released into the atmosphere. Fire also plays an important role in other global system cycles when it returns vital nutrient elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus from the biosphere back to the lithosphere, thus making them available once more for the regrowth of plants and the rejuvenation of the whole ecosystem. 

Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring atmospheric gas with heat-trapping properties which play a vital role in the stability of global climate patterns. However, the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, mineral oil and natural gas, has led to a dramatic increase of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This by-product of modern-day lifestyles has been identified as the major cause of an enhanced greenhouse effect. This is leading to a gradual warming of the Earth’s systems and an associated change in climate patterns, which has sparked global efforts to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

Over millennia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in the tropical savanna woodlands of northern Australia have amassed a wealth of ecological knowledge, and have developed strictly controlled fire regimes. Controlled fires were purposefully designed to burn at low intensity in the early dry season and only in carefully selected patches of bushland. This practice results in a landscape that consists of a ‘mosaic’ of patches in different stages of regrowth. Recently burned patches act as effective fire breaks against the spread of large-scale and high-intensity fires. Since the beginning of European colonisation, Western land management practices have disrupted this carefully designed fire management regime leading to more frequent out-of-control wildfires that are extremely destructive, highly polluting and emitting significantly larger quantities of greenhouse gases than the controlled burns prescribed by traditional practice 

Students could investigate the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project. This project has adopted a new fire management regime with support from local communities, the Northern Land Council, and Aboriginal traditional owners and organisations from the West Arnhem Land region. Defining factors such as fire timing, frequency and the size and pattern of patches to be burnt are informed by the experience and knowledge of the Aboriginal peoples of this region. Similarly, the traditional fire management practices of Torres Strait Islander peoples are being recognised and reinstated on the islands of Moa, Badu and Mabuiag. These projects use traditional ecological knowledge, together with modern scientific practices, to better control the timing and intensity of savanna fires and to monitor the effectiveness of the new measures in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

Barnsley, I., & North Australian Indigenous Land & Sea Management Alliance. (2009). A carbon guide for northern Indigenous Australians. Yokohama, Japan: United Nations University, Institute of Advanced Studies.

Cape York Elders & Community Leaders, George, T., & McConchie, P. (2013). Fire and the story of burning country. Avalon, NSW: Cyclops Press.

Gammage, B. (2011). The biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

Garnaut Climate Change Review. (2010). Case Study: Abating greenhouse gas emissions through strategic management of savanna fires: Opportunities and challenges – Northern Territory. In R. Garnaut (Ed.), Garnaut Climate Change Review. Commonwealth of Australia: Cambridge University Press.

Green, D., Billy, J., & Tapim, A. (2010). Indigenous Australians’ knowledge of weather and climate. Climate Change, 100, 337-354.

Heckbert, S., Russell-Smith, J., Davies, J., James, G., Cook, G., Liedloff, A., . . . Bastin, G. (2009). Northern savanna fire abatement and greenhouse gas offsets on Indigenous lands.  Northern Australia Land and Water Science Review Full Report. Canberra: Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government.

Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. (2008a). Climate change, water and Indigenous knowledge:  A Community Guide to the Native Title Report 2008. Sydney: Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. (2008b). Study: Western Arnhem Land fire management. Native Title Report 2007 (pp. 257-275). Sydney: Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

Raison, R. J. (1980). A review of the role of fire in nutrient cycling in Australian native forests, and of methodology for studying the fire-nutrient interaction. Australian Journal of Ecology, 5, 15-21.

Russell-Smith, J. (n.d.). Fire agreement to strengthen communities. North Australian Land Manager. Retrieved from http://savanna.cdu.edu.au/view/250363/fire-agreement-to-strengthen-communities.html

Russell-Smith, J. (2006). The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project. Tropical Savannas Cooperative Research Centres Program. Retrieved from http://savanna.cdu.edu.au/information/arnhem_fire_project.html

Torres Strait Regional Authority. (2013). Profile for ecological fire management of Mabuiag Island. Retrieved from http://www.tsra.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/5882/TSRA-Mabuiag-Proposed-Fire-Management-v1.pdf

Xu, G., & Zhong, X. (2017). Real-time wildfire detection and tracking in Australia using geostationary satellite: Himawari-8. Remote Sensing Letters, 8(11), 1052-1061. doi:10.1080/2150704X.2017.1350303