Spectacular shark encounters: Fanning's close shave reminds us we share the ocean


Leah Gibbs, University of Wollongong

In the wake of the spectacular footage of champion surfer Mick Fanning’s recent shark encounter in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, and his good fortune in emerging without physical injury, sharks are back on the radar.

Many people are probably scratching their heads wondering how we can avoid such dangerous incidents. Some have suggested that “shark attack” is on the rise, and therefore that risk is increasing.

But the risk of dangerous interaction with a shark is incredibly low. In fact, a recent study found that in California shark-related fatalities have decreased significantly since 1950.

Collecting statistics on shark incidents is more fraught than it might seem. The Global and Australian Shark Attack Files collect data on all reported interactions. But “risk” is fiendishly difficult to calculate because we don’t have good data on numbers of people using the ocean or types of activities people undertake.

Terminology adds to the confusion: “shark attack” is highly emotive and often misleading. More precise terms like “sighting”, “encounter” and “bite” do more to describe an interaction, develop public understanding of shark behaviour, and reduce the chance of reaction motivated by fear.

Learning from ocean-users

Our research recently published in the journal Marine Policy (and previously in Australian Geographer) focuses on the experiences and attitudes of the people most likely to encounter sharks; that is, ocean users.

We have talked with surfers, ocean swimmers, paddlers, divers, fishers, and others who use the ocean regularly for recreation, professional or volunteer purposes.

Two findings strike most:

  1. Almost 70% of the 557 people surveyed have encountered or sighted a shark while undertaking ocean-based activities. This could be a shark of any species, and includes those listed in Australia as potentially threatening to humans, namely great white, tiger and bull sharks. The lesson here is that most of the time people and sharks co-exist without ill effect.

  2. The most strongly supported strategies for managing risks associated with shark encounter are those that involve people adapting their behaviour. In particular, improving public education, and encouraging ocean users to understand and accept risks associated with entering the ocean. In contrast, the most strongly opposed strategies are those that involve killing sharks.

Efforts to manage shark-related hazards by killing sharks, through lethal strategies such as the baited drumlines rolled out in Western Australia last year and the shark nets currently under review in New South Wales, have been met with loud protest. The time seems ripe to reassess how we understand and manage our relationships with sharks.

Although frightening, the footage of Fanning at Jeffreys Bay is a reminder that sharks are present in the oceans, and that the vast majority of interactions between people and sharks end without fatality or injury.

The Conversation

Leah Gibbs is Senior Lecturer in Geography at University of Wollongong.

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Australia’s 'Carnival of Coal' – can you feel the love?


David Holmes, Monash University

As the latest State of the Climate report reaffirms 2014 to be the “the hottest on record”, the NSW Liberal Party is pressing ahead with plans for a “Carnival of Coal” in August. The party’s upper house whip, Peter Phelps, has appealed to members to download a sticker for MP office doors in support of the upcoming carbon love-in. It says:

I loved carbon before it was coal.

The Liberal paleo-love for coal, which Tony Abbott has declared “good for humanity”, is at least a point of differentiation with Labor. Labor does not promote such slogans at all – even if, in Victoria, the Andrews Labor government is still issuing coal exploration licences.

Both parties are capable of romancing the coal industry. But Liberal parties around the country have had much more success in convincing voters that either coal is more important than climate, or have decided that – with a population drip-fed on attention-deficit-consumerism and its reality television advertorials – their connection can be comfortably sublimated.

Whatever its form, the love for coal in Australia is going to end badly, like all relationships based on fantasy. To slightly misquote a 19th-century philosopher: the demand to give up the illusion that coal is good for humanity is the demand to give up a condition which needs such an illusion.

The condition I am referring to is the way our half-formed social democracy has become so captive to the ugliest form of corporate-servicing statism. It is not that the state has completely merged with corporate interests. Australia still has incredibly strong and progressive civic institutions such as its public broadcaster, its schools, universities, bureaus, museums and aspects of the legal system that do not serve capital’s interests.

It is that our governments have become servile – not to voters, but to a conjunction of multinational mining, energy and media interests, who have as their dating agencies the far-right silos of the capitalist class, such as the Institute for Public Affairs, which do not disclose their corporate donors.

Many believe, including perhaps Abbott himself, that he retains his power base at the pleasure of an ageing octogenarian who is well known for obtaining amusement from playing the Freudian Fort-Da game with entire democracies – the power to give and take away power – as long as he has also received something in return.

The same newspaper group that managed to squeeze a “toxic” “carbon tax” through the consciousness of millions of tabloid readers by means of slogan and cartoon did so when it was threatened by the Australian Tax Office (ATO) with having to repay almost A$900 million it had received on the eve of the last federal election.

The infamous “Kick this Mob Out” election blitzkrieg on Labor that started on August 5, 2013, was launched precisely at decision time for the ATO to appeal the Federal Court ruling on the windfall payout News Corp reportedly received by titanic-scale profit-shifting.

Global profit-shifting activities are routine for multinational empires such as Murdoch’s. But, not all have the ability to pressure governments at election times. And it is clear that at least the two major political parties believe they need a media mogul to gain office.

But political parties also need big donors. The largest to the Coalition are the energy and mining companies, who receive the greatest benefits in corporate welfare.

The examples are quite grotesque. Fuel rebate subsidies that mining companies receive run at A$2.2 billion per year. Meanwhile, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) is asked to cancel its A$2.1 billion in subsidies directed exclusively to windfarms – which have the ability to hurt coal.

Before it moved to neuter the CEFC, the Coalition has proposed what has been dubbed the ”Dirty Energy Finance Corporation” for Northern Australia. It will bewilderingly make up to A$5 billion available to subsidise infrastructure projects in northern Australia and Queensland in particular.

A source has suggested to me that the fund is actually an elaborate financial smokescreen to helping out the coal mines in the Galilee basin – particularly the Adani Enterprises mine, but also the GVK Alpha Coalmine. GVK Alpha, the largest coal mine in Australia, was approved 2 months after the Coalition assumed power, is part-owned by Gina Rinehart – and also stands to benefit from billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies. Ms Rhinehart attracted satire
in 2011 for flying liberal MPs to India to attend the wedding of the granddaughter of mine co-owner GV Krishna.

With the coal price diving worldwide, the mines – are unlikely to be economically viable without a huge subsidy. They might also surpass the viability threshold if they were able to sell the coal to a nearby newly proposed coal-fired power station that has been endorsed by Abbott personally.

However, competition from renewable energy company Windlab for an adjacent 1.2 mw combined solar and wind farm would be an enormous threat to Alpha and Adani. It is pledging to undercut the price of the coal station by $30 per megawatt hour.

Time for my readers to draw a diagram to figure out which proposal will get funded. A diagram might picture the coincidence that the CEFC was directed to cease subsidising windfarms – for which it actually returns a profit to Australian taxpayers – just as it was realised the Windlab proposal posed a threat to the coal-fired power station.

It is worth considering that, according to Bill McKibben from 350.org, the Galilee basin alone has so much coal that if it is all burnt, it would take the world 30% of the way to getting to 2 degrees. You couldn’t invent a more tragic case study on how destructive the Abbott government is on climate.

But then there is Direct Action. This is a government marketing exercise that disguises a further A$2.5 billion giveaway to corporate Australia that works with targets so small as to guarantee Australia’s status as having fallen off the climate action map.

Detailed analysis shows that Direct Action won’t even meet its miniscule targets. It has led to a demonstrable increase in Australias Co2 emissions since the carbon tax was repealed, according to the government’s own figures.

Given the Abbott government’s ongoing love affair with coal, it is little wonder that Australia was publicly scrutinised at climate talks held in Bonn last month about the impact of its domestic policies. The UN talks, attended by representatives of 190 countries, were an important stepping stone to the much-anticipated Paris summit to be held in December.

While the Coalition’s reckless disregard for addressing climate change may not get scrutiny by the tabloid media in Australia, it certainly will in Paris.

The Conversation

David Holmes is Senior Lecturer, Communications and Media Studies at Monash University.

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Finding Pluto: the hunt for Planet X


Kevin Orrman-Rossiter, University of Melbourne and Alice Gorman, Flinders University

Our solar system’s shadowy ninth (dwarf) planet was the subject of furious speculation and a frantic search for almost a century before it was finally discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. And remarkably, Pluto’s reality was deduced using a heady array of reasoning, observation and no small amount of imagination.

The 18th and 19th centuries were thick with astronomical discoveries; not least were the planets Uranus and Neptune. The latter, in particular, was predicted by comparing observed perturbations in the orbit of Uranus to what was expected. This suggested the gravitational influence of another nearby planet.

John Couch Adams and Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier calculated the orbit of Neptune by comparing these perturbations in Uranus’ orbit to those of the other seven known planets. Neptune was hence discovered in the predicted location in 1846.

Soon after this, French physicist Jacques Babinet proposed the existence of an even more distant planet, which he named Hyperion. Le Verrier wasn’t convinced, stating that there was “absolutely nothing by which one could determine the position of another planet, barring hypotheses in which imagination played too large a part”.

Despite that lack of evidence for perturbations in Neptune’s orbit, many predicted the existence of a ninth planet over the next 80 years. Frenchman Gabriel Dallet called it “Planet X” in 1892 and 1901, and the famed American astronomer William Henry Pickering proposed “Planet O” in 1908.

Comets, the law of vegetable growth and a conspiracy

In addition to the perturbations of known planets there were other hypotheses that foretold unknown bodies beyond Neptune.

In the 19th century, it was understood that many comets had highly elliptical orbits that swung past the outer planets at their farthest points from the sun. It was believed that these planets diverted the comets into their eccentric orbits.

Pluto is not only distant, but it’s small. That makes it very difficult to see from Earth.
NASA

In 1879 the French astronomer Camille Flammarion predicted a planet with an orbit 24 times that of Earth’s based on comet measurements. Using the same method, George Forbes, professor of astronomy at Glasgow University, confidently announced in 1880 that “two planets exist beyond the orbit of Neptune, one about 100 times, the other about 300 times the distance of the earth from the sun”.

Depending on how the calculations were done, the results predicted anything from one to four planets.

Other predictions were based on what can be described as numerical curiosities or speculations. One of these was the now-discredited Bode’s law, a sort of Fibonacci sequence for planets. The American mathematician Benjamin Pierce was not a fan, claiming that “fractions which express the law of vegetable growth” were more accurate than Bode’s law.

As well as these earnest astronomers, the trans-Neptunian planet idea attracted cranks and visionaries. An interesting contribution came in 1875 from Count Oskar Reichenbach, who accused Le Verrier and Adams of conspiring to conceal the locations of two trans-Neptunian planets.

The early photographic searches

Theories and calculations were all well and good, but many hoped to actually see the hitherto invisible planet(s). From the late 1800s new powerful telescopes equipped with the latest dry-plate photographic technologies were employed to search for undiscovered planets.

Pluto isn’t easy to spot. This 10 minute exposure shows the apparent magnitude of Pluto compared to some nearby stars.
Kevin Heider, CC BY-SA

Amateur astronomers such Isaac Roberts and William Edwards Wilson used the predictions of George Forbes to search the skies, taking many hundreds of photographic plates in the process. They found no lurking trans-Neptunian planets.

The professionals fared no better. Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard Observatory and William’s brother, spent around ten years from 1900 searching using his own data and those of earlier astronomers such as Dallet, all to no avail.

Lowell’s approach

In 1906 a new approach was introduced by the veteran astronomer Percival Lowell. Although best known to us for his (mistaken) observations of canals on Mars, Lowell bought a new rigour to analysing the orbit of Uranus based on observational data from 1750 to 1903.

With these improved calculations, hope for a visual fix on the elusive planet was renewed. With the aid of the brothers Vesto and Earl Slipher, Lowell spend the rest of his life scanning photographic plates with a hand magnifier and finally with a Zeiss blink comparator.

In September 1919 William Pickering kicked off another search for “Planet O” based on deviations in Neptune’s orbit. Milton L Humason, from the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, started a search based on these new predictions as well as Lowell’s and Pickering’s 1909 predictions. This search again failed to find any new planets. Pickering continued to publish articles on hypothetical planets but by 1928 he had become discouraged.

Zeiss Blink comparator at Lowell Observatory used in the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930
nivium/Wikimedia, CC BY

A planet among 160,000 stars

As part of Lowell’s legacy, the Lowell Observatory built a special astrographic telescope. It was completed in 1929, and under Vesto Slipher’s direction, a young assistant was assigned to take and examine the photographs of the farthest reaches of the solar system. His name was Clyde Tombaugh.

This was grim, unglamorous work. Each plate was exposed for an hour or more, with Tombaugh adjusting the telescope precisely to keep pace with the slowly turning sky. Today a computer would make the comparisons, but in 1929 they were made by eye, manually flicking between two images. Stars would remain motionless while other bodies would seem to jump between views. Some images would have 40,000 stars, others up to 1 million.

Nearly a year had elapsed when, on February 18, 1930, two images fifteen times fainter than Neptune were found among 160,000 stars on the photographic plates. The discovery was confirmed by examining earlier images. On February 20 the planet was observed to be yellowish, rather than bluish like Neptune. The new planet had revealed its true colours at last.

Announcing a discovery

Slipher waited until March 13 to announce the discovery. This was both Lowell’s birthday and the anniversary date of the discovery of Uranus. The announcement set off a worldwide rush to observe and photograph the new planet.

Now that astronomers, amateur and professional alike, knew what they were looking for, it turned out that Pluto had been hiding in plain view. Re-examination of Humanson’s plates showed four images of Pluto from his 1919 survey, and there were many others.

On March 14, an Oxford librarian read the news to his 11-year old granddaughter Venetia Burney, who suggested the name Pluto. It was also suggested independently in a letter by William Henry Pickering.

To complete the circle, some of Clyde Tombaugh’s remains are in a canister attached to the New Horizons spacecraft.

Most people alive today would not remember a universe without Pluto. And from 2015, its patterned surface will enter our visual vocabulary of the planets. Once seen, it can never again be unseen. Planet X, welcome to our world.

The Conversation

Kevin Orrman-Rossiter is Graduate Student, History & Philosophy of Science at University of Melbourne.
Alice Gorman is Senior Lecturer in archaeology and space studies at Flinders University.

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