ESA2020: Understanding ecological extremes – mechanisms of resilience and recovery

A summary

ESA2020 was the Ecological Society of Australia’s 2020 conference that was originally planned to be held in Wollongong, NSW but which was eventually held as an entirely virtual event.

I’ve attended two fully virtual conferences now, and ESA2020 was certainly the better of the two. Although, to be fair, the first virtual conference I attended was relatively small and changed from in-person to virtual at short notice. The first conference was also streamed via YouTube (thus, Google) and I’m in China. The difficulties they faced as organisers and which I faced as the audience are obvious.

ESA2020, in contrast, streamed via Zoom with a dedicated virtual conference platform. I still encountered a few challenges as an audience member – half way through the conference I stopped being able to ask questions via the Q&A portal and throughout the conference videos were taking 20-30 seconds to load, leading to the final 20-30 seconds being cut off by the extremely precise session allowance coding. 30 seconds on a 12 minute presentation isn’t much of an issue – but 20 seconds on a 3 minute presentation is a pretty hefty chunk. I was also unable to interact with (or even see) the posters because of my abysmally slow internet combined with what seemed to be poor optimisation of the poster portal.

Overall, the conference materials that I did see were excellent, as usual. ESA conference participants continue to have some of the highest standard material around. While most of the presentations were stock-standard scientific presentations (just in video format instead of in person), some of the participants took ‘video’ as an opportunity to branch into more creative presentation styles. Don Driscoll’s video on fire and habitat fragmentation was a particularly creative take.

Unsurprisingly, fire and fire effects were high on the agenda throughout the conference; an entire session was spent on exploring the short term effects of the 19/20 bushfire season. Interestingly, the last ESA conference I made it to had several speakers discussing the importance of climax ecological systems and reducing canopy fires by allowing vegetation to ‘age out’ of the stage where young trees/large shrubs are tall enough to connect grass fires to the canopy. The take home message at that conference was that frequent fires are leading to vegetation systems more likely to burn. This conference had a great many people discussing the importance of indigenous approaches to burns, and highlighted the importance of low intensity, patchy fires. It’s good to see physical science and history/social science getting together to work these things out. As always, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

I don’t often get to attend the ESA’s conferences – they have this amazing ability of scheduling them in the exact same week as Soil Science Australia’s conference. But it’s always a good one to get to.