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It’s a vision of environmental apocalypse with seasoning.

Far from the glittering Olympic pavilions in Sydney, in the gray light of dawn, dead branches protrude from a vast salt-infused lake in Western Australia. Where a leafy grove once stood, nothing can live now. Long ago, farmers cut down nearby woodlands to make room for their crops—and nature came back with a surprising reply.

Eye in the Sky

The lake represents one of the most challenging of many environmental problems now facing the world’s smallest continent, most of them brought on by 200 years of European settlement and, until recently, little understanding of the dynamics of the land.

Government officials estimate that dryland salinity resulting from land clearing is now threatening an area of land about half the size of the entire Australian state of Victoria—and in turn, the farming and ranching that is the underpinning of the national economy. In the words of a country song popular in the outback during the mid-1980s: “Stock won’t graze on pastures turned to salt.”

“We can’t afford to let the situation get any worse,” Murray River farmer Graham Winter recently told a TV audience. “We are on a knife edge. This is just a disaster.”

Added stockman David Clarke, “We are growing more salt than wool.”


The disaster began almost two centuries ago when the British ended their primary use of the island as a penal settlement, and colonists began arriving in large numbers. They sought to recreate the English countryside in this vast, rugged land, complete with farms.

But the clearing of millions of acres (hectares) of forests to make room for crops had an unintended consequence. Large areas of land in Australia contain shallow layers of salt. Just beneath them lie shallow aquifers. With thirsty trees no longer available to siphon it off, the water rose to the surface—bringing the salt with it.

The damage has been massive. About 10 percent of the wheat belt in Western Australia—about 4.5 million acres (1.8 million hectares)—has been salted, along with about 1.75 million acres (710,000 hectares) in southern and eastern Australia. Costs are estimated at AUS $130 million annually in lost agricultural production, AUS $100 million in infrastructure damage, and AUS $40 million in lost environmental assets.

Evidently the worst is not over. Scientists estimate that up to 30.9 million acres (12.5 million hectares), including some of the country’s most productive land, will be gripped by dryland salinity. In the Murray-Darling Basin alone—Australia’s most important agricultural production region—an estimated 7.4 to 12.4 million acres (3 to 5 million hectares) are likely to be affected.

The infusion of salt also threatens drinking water supplies in cities. Diversions of water by cities and for irrigation, along with evaporation, have reduced the flow at the mouth of the Murray River south of Adelaide to a trickle.


Despite abundant evidence of its harmful effects, land clearing continues at a brisk pace in some areas of the country. The state of Queensland is stripping vegetation at a rate of more than 741,300 acres (300,000 hectares) a year—about 40 percent of it in the Murray-Darling Basin.

“This is clearly not sustainable land use,” says Australian Environment and Heritage Minister Robert Hill. “It poses severe threats to endangered ecological communities and animal species, it has major consequences for our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and it is an open invitation to the ravages of salinity…. It defies the logic we supposedly had learned from the mistakes in other parts of Australia.”

Hill blames the continued land clearing in Queensland on a lack of leadership from the state government. Every other state on the mainland has introduced controls.

The willful refusal of Queensland leaders to restrict land-clearing is strenuously criticized by the country’s vigorous environmental movement. Among the most strident activists are those who live in the forests and blockade roads or set up platforms in trees to protect them from logging. Subsisting on donations and social security checks, they are referred to by other Australians as “ferals”—for the country’s abundant supply of domestic cats that have gone wild.

In a less radical and longer-term attempt to address the salinity problem, some farmers have organized voluntary efforts to bring native vegetation back to cleared lands by replanting.

Environment Minister Hill recently declared that dryland salinity is a result of one of the “mistakes we have made in the past in how we managed our natural resource base.” Many of these, he said, “date back to the time of settlement, when we believed we could simply import European-style farming practices to an ancient and fragile continent, far different from the European environment. Only now are we beginning to understand the full consequences.”

Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at

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•  Australia was first inhabited by Aborigines as many as 60,000 years ago.
•  Sailors completing Magellan’s round—the—world voyage spotted Australia in 1522, but European explorers did not return until the late eighteenth century.
•  After Captain James Cook discovered the Australia’s eastern coast in 1770, the British planned to set up a colony. However, the government decided to send a penal settlement instead.
•  Australia’s landscape began changing in the 1810s, when vast areas of good grazing land were discovered across the Blue Mountains and converted for agricultural use.
•  Although Australia severed its remaining functional ties to the British government in 1986, the titular head of state is still the British monarch.

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Along with unintentionally converting large areas of land to salt fields, European settlers have caused extinctions of native Australian animals. The government’s own State of the Environment Advisory Council rates Australia’s record of species extinction as the worst of any country on Earth.

At least 144 species of marsupials (think kangaroos and wombats) existed in Australia before the arrival of settlers 200 years ago. Ten species are extinct today, and 19 are endangered.

Societies were formed in the 1800s to make Australia look more like England. Settlers introduced rabbits, sparrows, and trout among other European species. These animals competed with the natives. Primary threats to native species during the past two centuries have included cats, dogs, foxes, camels, and water buffalo.

Some scientists believe that Aborigines are not blameless in the disappearance of some species. They are suspected of having killed off giant wombats and kangaroos after they arrived some 60,000 years ago.