• Australia;
  • biomass burning;
  • climate variability;
  • drought;
  • Quaternary environments;
  • vegetation history

Summary 1. Ice-volume forced glacial–interglacial cyclicity is the major cause of global climate variation within the late Quaternary period. Within the Australian region, this variation is expressed predominantly as oscillations in moisture availability. Glacial periods were substantially drier than today with restricted distribution of mesic plant communities, shallow or ephemeral water bodies and extensive aeolian dune activity.

2. Superimposed on this cyclicity in Australia is a trend towards drier and/or more variable climates within the last 350 000 years. This trend may have been initiated by changes in atmospheric and ocean circulation resulting from Australia's continued movement into the Southeast Asian region and involving the onset or intensification of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation system and a reduction in summer monsoon activity.

3. Increased biomass burning, stemming originally from increased climatic variability and later enhanced by activities of indigenous people, resulted in a more open and sclerophyllous vegetation, increased salinity and a further reduction in water availability.

4. Past records combined with recent observations suggest that the degree of environmental variability will increase and the drying trend will be enhanced in the foreseeable future, regardless of the extent or nature of human intervention.