Current government natural disaster funding arrangements are not efficient, equitable or sustainable. They are prone to cost shifting, ad hoc responses and short-term political opportunism. Groundhog Day anecdotes abound. Governments overinvest in post-disaster reconstruction and underinvest in mitigation that would limit the impact of natural disasters in the first place. As such, natural disaster costs have become a growing, unfunded liability for governments. (Productivity Commission 2014)

From a gloomy baseline, there have been concerted attempts to better integrate and sustain investments. The major recovery funding provided by states and the Australian Government is managed through the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements 2018, governed by the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements Determination 2017. Australian Government funding supports state or territory government funding to provide urgent financial assistance to disaster-affected communities. These arrangements were reviewed after the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires.

In addition, funds are made available during crises to target activities. For example, in 2019–20, the Australian Government spent more than $1.6 billion from the National Bushfire Recovery Fund, including grants to small businesses and primary producers, and payments and allowances to individuals. Some $200 million was allocated for the recovery of native wildlife and threatened species, informed by an expert panel chaired by the Threatened Species Commissioner, and supported by state and territory agency staff and the National Environmental Science Program Threatened Species Hub. The expert panel helped assess the scale and impact of the bushfires. It also developed guidelines to assist with the prioritisation of recovery efforts, and the development of a strategy for building populations and resilience of native plants and animals. A report on approach, lessons learned and principles for the future following the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires considering the establishment, operation and impact of the expert panel will be published on the website of the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment to guide responses to future national-scale environmental catastrophes.

In response to the 2019–20 bushfires, the Australian Government funded the Bushfire and Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre to undertake additional research to learn from these extreme events. Two of the research projects funded – one each in northern and south-eastern Australia – sought to develop the foundation for a co-designed research program for land management with Traditional Owners. The North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance hosted several discussions and workshops with Indigenous communities and emergency management agencies to explore ways to improve land and fire management outcomes. They found that ‘integrating Indigenous fire and land management knowledge with emergency management operations and systems is not about taking the knowledge; rather, it’s about building respectful and trusting relationships with Indigenous people to deliver more effective emergency management together’.

The south-eastern Australia project explored how to empower and enable Indigenous-led cultural fire and land management practices to improve landscape management and community resilience. This was done through face-to-face and online workshops with community members, researchers, agency staff and key cultural land management stakeholders. The project led to 10 recommendations and proposed potential research areas for cultural land management in south-eastern Australia. A key outcome is that research projects and institutes relating to land and fire management need to proceed from certain core understandings:

  • There is a widespread need for a holistic and integrative approach that recognises that all research and research outcomes impact Country and Indigenous communities. Indigenous communities are both rights holders in relation to Country and critical stakeholders in relation to creating resilient, healthy Country and people.
  • Cultural land management is an essential part of creating well-prepared and resilient communities and landscapes anywhere in Australia.
  • Research institutes need to develop Indigenous research strategies that are underpinned by foundational commitments to meaningfully support cultural land management practices. These strategies must include practical actions that can be taken immediately to empower Indigenous leadership, and enhance Indigenous engagement and inclusion. Priority should be given to embedding these commitments and actions through institutional structures and resourcing decisions.

Data and monitoring

We now face the acquisition of more data than we can potentially use. Automated data recorders, Earth observation satellites, sensor networks and passive data capture present managers and scientists with a 21st century problem. Integrated national-scale modelling and nationally consistent data standards are critical if we are to address planning and preparation, response and recovery at national scales.

Large volumes of data relevant to improving our understanding of extreme events and their impacts on the natural and built environments are collected. Many of these datasets are, at least in theory, in the public domain. The availability of data, and levels of risk, differ across states and territories, but data are generally underused. Many jurisdictions provide guides for residents and businesses – for example, Brisbane City Council’s Interactive Flood Awareness Maps; the ACTmapi suite for the Australian Capital Territory, which includes bushfire and flood risk; and Western Australia’s Map of Bushfire Prone Areas. The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements devoted an entire chapter to improving data and information availability and application, and made 7 recommendations (Binskin et al. 2020). It acknowledged that moves towards better data and information are occurring, including through such initiatives as the National Disaster Risk Information Services Capability (NDRISC), although there has not been a consistent response to the implementation of the NDRISC from states and territories.

Lack of coordination in data collection standards (including temporal and spatial scale), and inconsistent metadata and data storage, accessibility and discoverability mean that attempts to collate data across study domains, jurisdictions or sectors is challenging. For example, a National Indicative Aggregated Fire Extent Dataset (DAWE 2020c) was compiled by the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment to indicate the total fire scar for the 2019–20 season (staring 1 July 2019). The dataset was developed from the national Emergency Management Spatial Information Network Australia data service, supplemented from other sources, to show current active fire incidents. This required accession and integration of data from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service; North Australia and Rangelands Fire Information; the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services; the Queensland Department of Environment and Science; the South Australian Country Fire Service; the South Australian Department for Environment and Water; the Tasmania Fire Service; the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment; the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning; and the Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions.

The case for data sharing and a shared information platform was clearly articulated by Mortlock et al. (2018) in their example of information sharing to understand the coastal impacts of severe tropical cyclone Debbie. In 2020, the Wildlife and Threatened Species Bushfire Response Expert Panel, established by the Australian Government Minister for the Environment, drew on information from government agencies, university researchers, nongovernment organisations, communities and individuals to identify 810 priority species and communities for urgent management intervention. The establishment of Australian Climate Service will go further to bringing national platforms, tools and data together in a single location to ensure that policy and operational decisions are informed by the best available data.

Collection and collation of data and expertise were also highlighted in the Reducing illness and lives lost from heatwaves report (PERN 2021), which recommended cross-agency collaboration to provide the evidence to support, and the opportunities to make, spatially targeted interventions. Since the impacts of heatwaves vary with population age and health, the built environment context and compounding environmental factors, bringing social and environmental data together from multiple agencies can inform warnings, healthcare preparedness and response efforts.

The Northern Australia Insurance Inquiry (ACCC 2020) recommended that definitions of prescribed events (such as ‘action of the sea’ and ‘storm’) be standardised to protect consumers and enable comparability of insurance products.

Citizen science

With extreme events striking with little warning, it is often a matter of chance whether scientists can access the area and record impacts. Even if they can access an area, they often have limited or no pre-event data from which to assess change. Citizen scientists, or people living in and around impacted communities with ready access to the area, and possibly imagery or observations from before the event, are demonstrating huge promise in the assessment and management of impacts (Hicks et al. 2019). An example of where citizen scientists can expand the capacity of professional scientists is the WeatheX app, which can be used by members of the public on their smartphones to record short-lived weather events (see case study: Researchers call on citizen scientists to report severe weather).

Case Study Researchers call on citizen scientists to report severe weather

Joshua Soderholm, Dean Sgarbossa and Alain Protat, Bureau of Meteorology

Australian researchers are calling on members of the general public who are fascinated by severe weather to take part in a citizen science initiative that will better capture the occurrence of severe weather events and improve our ability to understand them. Citizen reports of severe weather are critical because such events are often localised, are of short duration and happen at ground level, and therefore it can be difficult to quantify the associated hazards from standard instrumentation (weather radar and weather stations). Furthermore, measurement of the size of hailstones is only possible from citizen reports.

Citizen reports of severe weather have been collected by the Bureau of Meteorology’s Storm Spotter Program during the past 3 decades through telephone, mail and web forms. This rich dataset has provided invaluable information for understanding Australia’s thunderstorm risk (e.g. Allen & Karoly 2014), for forecast verification and for in-depth analysis of hazards (e.g. Allen et al. 2021). With the advent of smartphones and new communication platforms, a new approach to collecting citizen reports is required to ensure the continuity of this dataset in the future.

The key to modernising citizen reports is the WeatheX app, designed by scientists from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Monash University and the Bureau of Meteorology. The WeatheX app aims to modernise Australia’s capacity for reporting severe weather events by using the functionality of smartphones to deliver real-time information and photographs. The app was carefully designed to provide a user-friendly, engaging interface, while protecting the user’s anonymity.

Since its launch in late 2018, the WeatheX app has collected more than 3,400 reports, of which 10% include photos of the severe weather event. Reportable hazards include hail, heavy rainfall, damaging winds and flooding. Most recently, WeatheX users submitted 242 reports during the Brisbane hailstorm on 31 October 2020, the largest number of reports for any severe thunderstorm event in Australia. There were 134 hail reports (Figure 28). The largest measured and photographed hailstone recorded in Queensland’s history was observed during this event (Figure 29). Analysis of WeatheX reports and other meteorological datasets has allowed an in-depth investigation of this exceptional event.

Figure 28 WeatheX hail report locations from the 31 October 2020 event

km = kilometre

Figure 29 Largest hailstone observed in the 31 October 2021 event (maximum diameter of 13 centimetres)

Photo: Niel Gentile

WeatheX strives to remain relevant and effective for the Australian public. Future improvements are expected to include integration with existing apps and weather products, and new applications for this dataset in verification, warnings and climate services.

Acknowledgement: Data used in this case study were collected through the WeatheX app. These data are held by the Bureau of Meteorology and available on request.


In response to the 201920 bushfires, CSIRO was asked to identify opportunities for the public to engage in citizen science projects, and to maximise the likelihood of these activities delivering science-ready data. Two national forums brought together stakeholders to explore how the sector could be supported and coordinated to help deliver research-ready data, and to share ideas and discuss opportunities for the science and citizen science sectors to work together. The scope of the forum included the natural and built environments.

Participants were encouraged to take on the role of citizen scientists in supporting Australia’s bushfire response. Recent events precipitated a timely conversation between the science and citizen science communities. Citizen science capability can include both individuals, who can be mobilised to collect in situ data, and the broader science community, which can help classify, interpret and validate observations.

The forum recognised that, in a time of crisis, citizen science can provide an important complement to traditional research-led monitoring activities. It was agreed that, in the short term, there would be benefit in the research sector communicating fundamentals of data acquisition. Citizen scientists are confronted by a plethora of tools and protocols, so that capturing data in a consistent manner is a challenge. The science community noted that more could also be done to align field protocols to address multiple science questions – for example, botanical data captured to answer ecological questions could also assist in the calibration of remotely sensed imagery. The longer-term challenge is to integrate citizen science programs within a research-led ‘experimental design’, which can only be achieved by closer coordination during the design of a research study.

CSIRO, the Atlas of Living Australia and the Australian Citizen Science Association developed and launched the Citizen Science Bushfire Project Finder as a first step in building awareness of the range of bushfire-related citizen activities underway. CSIRO has also developed an online citizen science resource hub to support broader engagement and exemplify some successful programs (see case study: Virtual expedition – detecting the Kangaroo Island dunnart after fire).

Impacts on research infrastructure

As extreme weather events are by their nature unpredictable, or at least predicted but with a short lead time, the opportunity to study their impacts can be a matter of chance, where studies, potentially for other purposes, have generated baselines against which damage can be assessed. For example, long-term forestry plot measurements enabled post-event impacts of severe tropical cyclone Yasi to be assessed in the field, and enabled satellite photo interpretation of broader landscape damage (Negrón-Juárez et al. 2014).

However, research infrastructure itself – and consequently our ability to understand events and the changes they cause – may be victims of extreme events. Recent examples include the destruction of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN) carbon flux tower at Tumbarumba, New South Wales, in bushfires in January 2020; blowing down of TERN’s flux tower at Wombat Stringybark Eucalypt SuperSite in a storm in June 2021; loss of a radar installation in Western Australia caused by a cyclone, affecting data collection by the Integrated Marine Observing System; and melting of snow runways in Antarctica during summer heatwaves, affecting access to research stations by the Australian Antarctic Division and collaborators.

National planning for location and management of research infrastructure should increasingly consider where and how to install infrastructure that will best support an understanding of emerging changes to our complex and naturally dynamic environments.

Case Study Virtual expedition – detecting the Kangaroo Island dunnart after fire

Erin Roger, Atlas of Living Australia, CSIRO

Citizen scientists have answered the call to assist in bushfire recovery efforts for one of Kangaroo Island’s most endangered species. Before the 2019–20 bushfires, the Kangaroo Island dunnart population was listed as Critically Endangered, with its population estimated at 300–500 individuals. The dunnart is only found on Kangaroo Island in South Australia, so there was considerable concern about its persistence after the fires burned more than 90% of its habitat. A team from the South Australian Department for Environment and Water, and the Kangaroo Island Landscape Board established a monitoring project and set up more than 90 cameras in the vast national parks of western Kangaroo Island to try to locate remaining individuals.

Each remote camera is deployed for 2 months and will capture thousands of images during the 2-year program. For a project of this magnitude, the team needed help to review each image and identify species photographed. The team turned to citizen science to help solve this challenge – citizen science is all about the power and potential of scale, and that by working together we can do more. The project team formed a partnership with the Australian Museum to use the Wildlife Spotter feature on the DigiVol crowdsourcing website. DigiVol is run by the Australian Museum and is supported by Atlas of Living Australia infrastructure.

To date, more than 1,300 citizen scientists have contributed their time and expertise to review the nearly 200,000 images loaded on the platform (e.g. Figures 30 and 31). One dedicated individual has reviewed images from every expedition since the project started in March 2020. Participants are mostly from across Australia, but there are also enthusiastic individuals from around the world. The identified animal photos are helping to draw a picture of the distribution and abundance of the surviving animal populations; the team picked up 33 new locations of the dunnart in the first 6 months.

The project initially focused on the unburnt area, but later realised that there are significant populations remaining in the burn scar, and there are now equal numbers of sightings inside and outside the burn area. This is important for future prioritisation efforts.

The Department for Environment and Water indexes and tracks photograph identification through DigiVol and verifies outputs to generate data. These data are helping to inform recovery actions for other native species on the island, such as Rosenberg’s goanna and the Kangaroo Island echidna. The information gathered is also helping to support on-ground fauna surveys of rare species, such as the Kangaroo Island southern emu wren and other cryptic species. This people-powered project is also providing valuable information for invasive species programs.

The project will continue to run, enabled by the Australian Museum and Atlas of Living Australia collaboration, with regular batches of images for sorting by the community. Anyone can participate (go to the Bushfire Recovery Projects page on the DigiVol website. This is a great example of the benefits for science and society of engaging a wider cohort of people in disaster monitoring and recovery.

Figure 30 [EXT_26b] Figure 30 Kangaroo Island dunnart captured by motion-sensing camera

Photo: Kangaroo Island Fire Recovery, South Australian Department for Environment and Water

Figure 31 [EXT_26a] Figure 31 Kangaroo Island dunnart, a small marsupial found only on Kangaroo Island

Photo: Peter Hammond

Acknowledgement: The Kangaroo Island Dunnart Survey team comprises 3 key partners: the Kangaroo Island Landscape Board, the South Australian Department for Environment and Water, and Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, which have been working before and after the fire with funding from the Australian Government. This citizen science initiative is a partnership between these organisations, the South Australia Wildlife and Habitat Bushfire Recovery Taskforce, and the Australian Museum. DigiVol is a crowdsourced digitisation platform that was developed by the Australian Museum in collaboration with the Atlas of Living Australia. See also Protecting and detecting the Kangaroo Island dunnart (Hohnen 2019).

Assessment Management effectiveness for extreme events
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is effective, meaning that management measures maintain or improve the state of the environment, but pressures remain as significant factors that degrade environment values. The situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Warnings and engineering solutions are currently limiting the worst impacts of extreme events on our communities. However, adaptation planning and innovation will be needed to continue to limit impacts as events worsen.
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 11.5, 13.1, 13.2

Assessment Management of climate change
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is ineffective, meaning that management measures are failing to stop substantial declines in the state of the environment. The situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Limited long-term action to address the drivers of climate change internationally will ensure that impacts will continue to increase.

Assessment Management of cyclones and storms
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is effective, meaning that management measures maintain or improve the state of the environment, but pressures remain as significant factors that degrade environment values. The situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Warnings and engineering solutions are limiting the worst impacts on communities. Ongoing innovation is required to mitigate increasing risk.

Assessment Management of floods
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is effective, meaning that management measures maintain or improve the state of the environment, but pressures remain as significant factors that degrade environment values. The situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Warnings and engineering solutions are limiting the worst impacts on communities. Ongoing innovation is required to mitigate increasing risk.

Assessment Management of heatwaves
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is effective, meaning that management measures maintain or improve the state of the environment, but pressures remain as significant factors that degrade environment values. The situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Warnings and engineering solutions are limiting the worst impacts on communities. Ongoing innovation is required to mitigate increasing risk. Environmental consequences are likely to increase in scale and impact.

Assessment Management of bushfires
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is effective, meaning that management measures maintain or improve the state of the environment, but pressures remain as significant factors that degrade environment values. The situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Warnings and engineering solutions are limiting the worst impacts on communities. Significant new investment and national integration should improve our ability to manage risk.