The Australian’s campaign against wind farms continues but the research doesn't stack up

Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

The Australian newspaper’s campaign against wind farms continued this morning with a page one story from the paper’s environment editor Graham Lloyd.

Lloyd writes about purportedly “groundbreaking” German research which, he infers, may provide a plausible basis for claims about wind turbines having direct effects on health.

Lloyd writes:

The results showed that humans could hear sounds of eight hertz, a whole octave lower than had been previously assumed, and that excitation of the primary auditory cortex could be detected down to this frequency.

A description of the project is here. The research never mentions wind turbines, only low-frequency noise, which is produced by many sources found in both nature and from a wide variety of mechanical sources.

The press release pitch, with its mentions of wind turbines, smells like a hook to a topical issue calculated to amplify attention to their work. (Note, this link to the press release was down at the time of publication.)

But these new findings are hardly “groundbreaking”. Earlier work found evidence of very similar auditory cortex stimulation from noise at 12Hz, slightly higher than the 8hz in this study.

In the study that excited Lloyd and the Australian’s sub-editors (the headline reads “Brains excited by wind turbines study”), auditory cortex stimulation at 8Hz (at pressure levels around the threshold of hearing) is meaningless in the context of wind turbine-generated infrasound, which is well below the threshold of perception.

Moreover, even fake stimuli can precipitate measurable activity in the brain. We know that both placebos (factors that increase expectations of positive outcomes) and nocebos (those which increase expectations of negative outcomes) can increase changes in cerebral metabolic rate when viewed via positron emission tomography (PET) scanning.

Expectations do not just affect people’s subjective experience of a stimulus (such as exposure to infrasound) but can actually produce measurable changes in brain activity which may or may not be markers of anything of clinical significance.

Fascinating work from Hungary and Germany on “electrosensitive” people (for example, those claiming to be made ill from exposure to mobile phones, wifi or other “stray” electricity) has shown that when such individuals are exposed to sham (fake) radiation from their feared source while thinking it is real, they experience symptoms. Correlates of these symptoms can be measured in the brain.

The Hungarian study exposed both people with “Idiophathic Environmental Intolerance (IEI) attributed to electromagnetic fields” and control subjects not reporting this condition to sham radiation. Those claiming IEI to electromagnetic frequency radiation both expected and experienced more symptoms.

In the German study, subjectively electrosensitive patients and gender-matched healthy controls were also exposed to sham mobile phone radiation and heat as a control condition. The subjects were not aware that the radiation was fake. Both before and during these exposures:

increased activations in anterior cingulate and insular cortex as well as fusiform gyrus were seen in the electrosensitive group compared to controls, while heat stimulation led to similar activations in both groups.

As the Hungarian researchers noted, electrosensitivity:

seems to be formed through a vicious circle of psychosocial factors, such as enhanced perception of risk and expectations, self-monitoring, somatisation and somatosensory amplification, causalization and misattribution.

In short, as the old saying goes, you can worry yourself sick. And those who spread fear arguably are an important part of this process.

Today’s Australian article complements Lloyd’s uncritical accounts of two recent studies about wind turbine noise. He wrote that:

Scientists in Japan measured brain function and reported last year that it showed the brains of Japanese wind turbine workers could not achieve a relaxed state.

As prominent wind industry science and research commentator Ketan Joshi has written:

[the study] doesn’t control for expectations, and it’s very likely that the subjects could perceive the sound = 20Hz at 92 dB(G), [at] the volume at which the synthesized noise was played, would annoy anyone.

Joshi compares such levels to the noise that would be experienced right inside a wind turbine nacelle, not hundreds of meters or several kilometers away, and notes that wind farm workers would never work inside nacelles when the turbines were turning.

Quoting an Iranian study, Lloyd continues:

In a similar vein, a study of 45 people … by Tehran University … said “despite all the good benefits of wind turbines, it can be stated that this technology has health risks for all those exposed to its sound.”

The study he referred to was of poor quality and Joshi has also mercilessly eviscerated its many problems, none of which Lloyd even hinted at.

Lloyd left messages for me to comment on the German research for his story. As his report notes, I did not respond. I have zero interest in obligingly playing into the Australian’s one-sided coverage. The paper has reported on a succession of trivial to terrible “studies” and published opinion pieces which are exalted by the tiny cells of anti-wind farm activists happy to embrace any fragment that furthers their cause.

No reporter from News has ever reported on any of my five recent studies on wind here, here, here, here, or here.

The University of Auckland’s Fiona Crichton who is arguably doing the world’s most advanced research on nocebo effects and wind farms has similarly never been reported.

The News agenda on wind energy is a travesty of good journalism.

The Conversation

Simon Chapman is Professor of Public Health at University of Sydney.

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Australia hit its Kyoto target, but it was more a three-inch putt than a hole in one

Clive Hamilton

In the saga of mendacity that is the climate policy debate, no claim has been more audacious than the one now being told by the federal government about Australia’s “success” in meeting its Kyoto emissions target.

Environment minister Greg Hunt now routinely makes statements like this:

We are one of the few countries in the world to have met and beaten our first round of Kyoto targets and to be on track to meet and beat our second round of Kyoto targets.

Anyone who remembers how the Kyoto targets were set will understand how hollow this boast is.

Playing hardball

Australia went to the 1997 climate conference in Kyoto to play hardball. Prime Minister John Howard was never enthusiastic about addressing global warming but public sentiment meant his government had to be part of the emerging global consensus to do something serious.

And so the Australian delegation – stacked, incredibly enough, with representatives of the fossil fuel industries and led by environment minister Robert Hill – insisted that Australia be given special treatment.

Early in the conference the executive director of the convention secretariat, Michael Zammit Cutajar, referred to every country except Australia being committed to its success.

In the end, after an extraordinarily fraught two weeks and with a deal finally hammered out, Australia demanded it be allowed to increase its carbon emissions while the rest of the industrialised world cut theirs.

Compared to the base year of 1990, Europe promised to reduce its emissions by 8% in the five-year “commitment period”, 2008-12. The United States agreed to cut emissions by 7%, and Japan and Canada by 6%. Australia dug its heels in and got its way; its Kyoto target would be 8% above 1990 levels.

But that was only half of it. As the final gavel was about to be brought down to seal the agreement, Robert Hill stood to say that Australia would not sign up unless a special clause were inserted into the protocol.

The Australia clause

The article, which became known as “the Australia clause”, would allow the inclusion of carbon emissions from land clearing.

Hill knew that land clearing in Australia had declined sharply between 1990 and 1997 because there had been a spike in 1990, mainly in Queensland. So an 8% increase would be on top of an extraordinarily high and artificial 1990 base.

Hill understood that with the inclusion of the Australia clause, the nation’s emissions from burning fossil fuels could rise by 25-30% while overall emissions would still come in at under 8%.

This is precisely what has happened. From 1990 to 2012 Australia’s emissions from all sources except land-use change and forestry grew by 28%.

The only other nation to receive special treatment at Kyoto was a much poorer one, Russia.

Russia’s industrial collapse in the early 1990s meant that its emissions were much lower in 1997, so its Kyoto target of a 0% change in emissions by 2008-12 was regarded as a big free kick.

Emitting on easy street

While other nations would have to work reasonably hard to meet their commitments – under business as usual, Europe’s emissions were expected to rise by around 20% over the period, so cutting them by 8% would require serious effort – Australia would have to do virtually nothing.

At the time, Labor’s environment spokesman Duncan Kerr prophetically described the task given to Australia at Kyoto as a “three-inch putt”.

He was right; Australia did very little but still met its Kyoto target. It could hardly miss.

Yet after making this putt, the government now boasts about Australia’s “commitment” while deriding those nations that took on a six-foot putt (a putt, incidentally, that Europe successfully holed).

Australia won its extraordinary concessions by threatening to wreck the consensus. Writing for the Australian, Robert Garran and Stephen Lunn captured the moment when Australia got its way:

So after Senator Hill’s interjection, [the chair] Mr Estrada added a new sentence to the clause, tailor-made to give Australia the escape hatch it was seeking… These were the words which saved the conference and allowed Australia to join the protocol.

Undercurrents of resentment

Australia’s negotiating tactics, and the “victory” they delivered, generated resentment around the world.

The chief European negotiator, Ritt Bjerregaard, said that Australia had made a misleading case and “got away with it”. The European Union’s environmental policy spokesman Peter Jorgensen said that the Australian increase was “wrong and immoral“.

Leading developing countries were reported to be preparing to use the Australian precedent as the basis for a refusal to cut their emissions in future negotiations.

Two years later, when the dust had settled, two German analysts, Sebastian Oberthur and Hermann Ott, bracketed Australia with OPEC and Russia as the principal obstacles to progress in the negotiations.

The Kyoto targets surely have two main winners: Russia and Australia… The considerable increase in emissions allowed to Australia … has set a bad precedent for future negotiations, especially with regard to developing countries.

At the first cabinet meeting after Kyoto Robert Hill received a standing ovation.
The self-described “greenhouse mafia” of fossil fuel lobbyists was jubilant, and wrote to the Prime Minister congratulating the government on “the excellent outcome at Kyoto”.

Howard then put much of his greenhouse policy in the hands of Senator Nick Minchin, who went on to become the foremost climate science denier in the Liberal Party, even after the issue had cost Howard his prime ministership.

Promises, promises

This bitter history paints the current government’s recent bragging in its proper light.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott crowed that Australia is different from “a lot of other countries” because “when we make commitments to reduce emissions we keep them”.

He went on to insult nations that took on much tougher targets by accusing them of making “airy-fairy promises that in the end never come to … anything”.

It ought to be remembered that two years after winning a remarkably generous deal at Kyoto, the Howard government reneged on its commitment by announcing that it would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

It was the Rudd government, amid howls of protest from the Coalition, that in 2007 finally took Australia back into the international fold by ratifying the treaty.

John Howard was widely seen as Tony Abbott’s mentor and now, 18 years later, Abbott has jumped through the escape hatch that Howard inserted into the Kyoto Protocol to proclaim that Australia is the only nation taking its commitment seriously.

“Hypocrisy” is too mild a word to describe the behaviour of the present government. Abbott is cynically sticking two fingers up at the rest of the world.

Negotiators have long memories. As the crucial Paris negotiations approach, this is not the way to win friends and gain influence. But perhaps he does not care.

The Conversation

Clive Hamilton is Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE) at Charles Sturt University.

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Beyond Pluto: New Horizons' mission is not over yet

Jonti Horner, University of Southern Queensland and Jonathan P. Marshall, UNSW Australia

When New Horizons phoned home this morning (Australian time) after its close encounter with Pluto, there was jubilation and excitement.

Now, as Pluto retreats into the distance, the slow trickle of data can begin. Sent to us at a rate of just 1 kilobit a second, it will take months to receive it all, and astronomers around the world are waiting on tenterhooks to get their hands on the data.

Pluto: Once shattered, twice shy

Like our own Earth, Pluto has an oversized satellite, Charon. It was discovered back in 1978 and is more than half the diameter of its parent.

Over the past few years, intense observation of Pluto in preparation for New Horizons’ arrival has revealed four more tiny satellites, Hydra and Nix, and tiny Kerberos and Styx.

Prior to New Horizons, our best view of the Pluto system came from the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA, ESA, and L Frattare (STScI)

But how did this satellite system come to be? And why the striking similarity to our double-planet?

If we look at the great majority of satellites in our solar system we find that they can be split into two groups. First, have those that we think formed around their host planet like miniature planetary systems, mimicking the process of planet formation itself.

These regular satellites most likely accreted from disks of material around the giant planets as those planets gobbled up material from the proto-planetary disk from which they formed. This explains the orbits of those satellites – perfectly aligned with the equator of their hosts and moving on circular orbits.

Then we have the irregular satellites. These are (with a couple of noteworthy exceptions) tiny objects, and move on a wide variety of orbits that are typically great distances from their host planets.

These, too, are easily explained – thought to be captured from the debris moving around the solar system late in its formation, relics of the swarm of minor bodies from which the planets formed.

NASA graphic using New Horizons’ early pictures of Pluto and Charon to compare their sizes to that of the Earth.

By contrast, our moon and Pluto’s Charon are far harder to explain. Their huge size, relative to their host, argues against their forming like the regular satellites. Likewise, their orbits are tilted both to the plane of the equator and to the plane of the host body’s orbit around the sun. It also seems very unlikely they were captured – that just doesn’t fit with our observations.

The answer to this conundrum, in both cases, is violent.

Like our moon, Charon (and by extension Pluto’s other satellites) are thought to have been born in a giant collision, so vast that it tore their host asunder. This model does a remarkable job of explaining the makeup of our own moon, and fits what we know (so far) about Pluto and its satellites.

Pluto and its moons will therefore be the second shattered satellite system we’ve seen up close, and the results from New Horizons will be key to interpreting their formation.

Schematic describing our best theory for the formation of Pluto’s satellite system.

Studying the similarities and differences between Pluto and Charon will teach us a huge amount about that ancient cataclysmic collision. We already know that Pluto and Charon are different colours, but the differences likely run deeper.

If Pluto was differentiated at the time of impact (in other words, if it had a core, mantle and crust, like the Earth) then Charon should be mostly comprised of material from the crust and mantle (like our moon). So it will be less dense and chemically different to Pluto. The same goes for Pluto’s other moons: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos.

Pluto, the unknown

The most exciting discoveries from New Horizons will likely be those we can’t predict. Every time we visit somewhere new, the unexpected discoveries are often the most scientifically valuable.

Jupiter and its volcanic moon Io, taken by New Horizons as it tore past the giant planet en-route to Pluto.
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Goddard Space Flight Center

When we first visited Jupiter, 36 years ago, we found that its moon Io was a volcanic hell-scape. We also found that Europa hosts a salty ocean, buried beneath a thick ice cap. Both of these findings were utterly unexpected.

The Death Star terrorised peaceful planets before Voyager sent back images of Mimas.
Flickr/Paul T, CC BY

At Saturn, we found the satellite Mimas looked like the Death Star and another, Iapetus, like a two tone cricket ball, complete with a seam. Uranus had a satellite, Miranda, that looked like it had been shattered and reassembled many times over, while Neptune’s moon Triton turned out to be dotted with cryo-volcanoes that spew ice instead of lava.

The story continues for the solar system’s smaller bodies. The asteroid Ida, visited by Galileo on its way to Jupiter, has a tiny moon, Dactyl. Ceres, the dwarf planet in the asteroid belt, has astonishingly reflective bright spots upon its surface.

Pluto, too, will have many surprises in store. There have already been a few, including the heart visible in the latest images (see top) – possibly the most eye catching feature to date. The best is doubtless still to come.

To infinity, and beyond!

Despite the difficulties posed by being more than four and a half billion kilometres from home, New Horizons is certain to revolutionise our understanding of the Pluto system.

The data it obtains will shed new light on the puzzle of our solar system’s formation and evolution, and provide our first detailed images of one of the system’s most enigmatic objects.

But the story doesn’t end there. Once Pluto recedes into the distance, New Horizons will continue to do exciting research. The craft has a limited amount of fuel remaining, nowhere near enough to turn drastically, but enough to nudge it towards another one or two conveniently placed targets.

New Horizons’ will continue its mission after flying past Pluto, studying objects in the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt.

Since the launch of New Horizons, astronomers have been searching for suitable targets for it to visit as it hurtles outward through the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, en-route to the stars.

In October 2014, as a result of that search, three potential targets were identified. Follow up observations of those objects narrowed the list of possible destinations to two, known as 2014 MU69 (the favoured target) and 2014 PN70.

The final decision on which target to aim for will be taken after New Horizons has left Pluto far behind, but we can expect to keep hearing about the spacecraft for years to come.

The Conversation

Jonti Horner is Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at University of Southern Queensland.
Jonathan P. Marshall is Vice Chancellor’s Post-doctoral Research Fellow at UNSW Australia.

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