Antarctica may not be as isolated as we thought, and that’s a worry


Ceridwen Fraser, Australian National University

For a long time, we have thought of Antarctica as isolated from the rest of the world. The continent is entirely surrounded by the Southern Ocean, which heaves with giant waves whipped up by intense winds, and is home to the world’s strongest ocean current, the eastward-flowing Antarctic circumpolar current (ACC).

The Southern Ocean is associated with several circumpolar oceanic fronts (see image below), where sharp transitions in ocean temperature and salinity occur.

Approximate positions of the Antarctic polar front and the subtropical convergence, which are the northern bounds of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic water, respectively.
Ceridwen Fraser, Author provided

One of the most significant of these is the Antarctic polar front, a convergence zone where cold Antarctic water sinks under warmer sub-Antarctic water.

Ocean barrier

The polar front was considered as a barrier blocking movement of marine plants and animals into and out of Antarctica.

Many groups of organisms show strong differences on either side of the front, suggesting northern and southern populations have been separated for a long time. We know from genetic work that some species, such as some molluscs and crustaceans, have managed to cross the front in the past, but there is little evidence that biological movement across the front can or does still occur.

Some live adults and larvae of crabs that hadn’t previously been found south of the polar front have recently been detected in Antarctic waters, but there is doubt about whether these are true invaders from the north, or have been around Antarctica for thousands of years.

Species on the move

Globally, many species are either moving up mountains or towards the poles as the Earth warms. This trend has been going on since the end of the last Ice Age, but is accelerating as global warming speeds up due to human influences.

In the Northern Hemisphere, shallow waters and continental land span almost all latitudes from the tropics to the poles (see image, below), making it straightforward for many tropical and temperate species to move north.

Pole-centred globes showing the oceanic isolation of Antarctica compared to the more continental Northern Hemisphere.
Ceridwen Fraser, Author provided

But in the Southern Hemisphere, the Southern Ocean gets in the way of plants and animals trying to head to higher latitudes.

Many species that are already on the southern tips of continents such as South America, Africa and Australia face extinction if they cannot move south as the climate warms.

Antarctica’s unique ecosystems

Antarctic ecosystems are unique; they feature large numbers of species not found anywhere else in the world.

Many Antarctic species are slow growing. Antarctic lichens, for example, take between 100 and 1,000 years to grow one centimetre.

Antarctic species have adapted to extreme conditions where evolving strategies to compete with other species has been less important than evolving ways of dealing with intense cold and desiccation. As a result, most Antarctic species are poor competitors.

New arrivals could cause major ecosystem shifts and sharp declines in native species. Some such impacts have already been seen with invasive species reaching sub-Antarctic islands.

To protect Antarctica’s fragile ecosystems from the impacts of invasive species, efforts are being made to limit the chance of humans (tourists and scientists) moving exotic species into the polar region.

The chance of non-native species finding their own way in has generally been considered too remote to pose a major threat.

Antarctic penguins watch the ocean.
Ceridwen Fraser, Author provided

Crossing the Antarctic Polar Front

Modelling and oceanographic research has started to indicate that the polar front is not the unbroken, continuous barrier was thought to be. Rather, it is a dynamic, shifting series of water jets that can be breached by features such as eddies, which transport pockets of water through the convergence zone.

New evidence published this month from observations of floating kelp at sea indicates that drifting marine species can cross the polar front and enter Antarctic waters from the north.

On each of three separate ship voyages – one in the Atlantic Ocean (2013-2014), and two in the Indian Ocean (2008 and 2014) – many detached pieces of kelp species that grow in the sub-Antarctic were observed floating on both sides of, and across, the polar front.

Southern bull-kelp grows abundantly in the sub-Antarctic but can drift long distances at sea.
Ceridwen Fraser, Author provided

Floating kelps act as the “taxi service” of the sea, forming rafts that can transport diverse species – even entire communities – across hundreds of kilometres of open ocean.

At the moment, the absence of most of these species from Antarctic shores suggests that cold and ice are stopping them from successfully colonising polar environments.

Some groups, at least, seem able to disperse across the polar front and enter Antarctic waters.

Antarctica has some of the fastest-warming regions of the world, and with less ice and warmer waters, many shallow-water marine species from the north could colonise and establish, irrevocably changing the structure of Antarctic marine ecosystems.

The Conversation

Ceridwen Fraser, Lecturer, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can ‘reset’ Earth’s damaged ecosystems


Martin Breed; Andrew Lowe; Nick Gellie, and Peter Mortimer, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Earth is in a land degradation crisis. If we were to take the roughly one-third of the world’s land that has been degraded from its natural state and combine it into a single entity, these “Federated States of Degradia” would have a landmass bigger than Russia and a population of more than 3 billion, largely consisting of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people.

The extent and impact of land degradation have prompted many nations to propose ambitious targets for fixing the situation – restoring the wildlife and ecosystems harmed by processes such as desertification, salinisation and erosion, but also the unavoidable loss of habitat due to urbanisation and agricultural expansion.

In 2011, the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration, a worldwide network of governments and action groups, proposed the Bonn Challenge, which aimed to restore 150 million hectares of degraded land by 2020.

This target was extended to 350 million ha by 2030 at the September 2014 UN climate summit in New York. And at last year’s landmark Paris climate talks, African nations committed to a further 100 million ha of restoration by 2030.

These ambitious goals are essential to focus global effort on such significant challenges. But are they focused on the right outcomes?

For restoration projects, measuring success is crucial. Many projects use measures that are too simplistic, such as the number of trees planted or the number of plant stems per hectare. This may not reflect the actual successful functioning of the ecosystem.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale are projects that shoot for outcomes such as “improve ecosystem integrity” – meaningless motherhood statements for which success is too complex to quantify.

One response to this problem has been a widespread recommendation that restoration projects should aim to restore ecosystems back to the state they were in before degradation began. But we suggest that this baseline is a nostalgic aspiration, akin to restoring the “Garden of Eden”.

Beautiful, but not particularly realistic.
Wenzel Peter/Wikimedia Commons

An unrealistic approach

Emulating pre-degradation habitats is unrealistic and prohibitively expensive, and does not acknowledge current and future environmental change. While a baseline that prescribes a list of pre-degradation species is a good place to start, it does not take into account the constantly changing nature of ecosystems.

Instead of a “Garden of Eden” baseline, we suggest that restoration projects should concentrate on establishing functional ecosystems that provide useful ecosystem services. This might be done by improving soil stability to counter erosion and desertification, or by planting deep-rooted species to maintain the water table and reduce dry land salinity, or by establishing wild pollinator habitats around pollinator-dependant crops such as apples, almonds and lucerne seed.

Natural ecosystems have always been in flux – albeit more so since humans came to dominate the planet. Species are constantly migrating, evolving and going extinct. Invasive species may be so prevalent and naturalised that they are impossibly costly to remove.

As a result, land allocated for restoration projects is often so altered from its pre-degradation state that it will no longer serve as habitat for the species that once lived there. Many local, native species can be prohibitively difficult to breed and release.

And present-day climate change may necessitate the use of non-local genotypes and even non-local native species to improve restoration outcomes. Newer, forward-thinking approaches may result in the generation of novel gene pools or even novel ecosystems.

Projects should focus on targets that are relevant to their overarching goals. For example, if a restoration project is established to improve pollination services, then the abundance and diversity of insect pollinators could be its metric of success. As we argue in correspondence to the science journal Nature, restoration should focus on helping to create functional, self-sustaining ecosystems that are resilient to climate change and provide measurable benefits to people as well as nature.

An excellent example of a successful, large-scale restoration project with targeted outcomes is Brazil’s ongoing Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact. This has committed to restoring 1 million hectares of Atlantic forest by 2020 and 15 million hectares by 2050.

This project has clear objectives. These include restoring local biodiversity (for conservation and human use, including timber and non-timber forest products); improving water quality for local communities; increasing carbon storage; and even creating seed orchards that can be either sustainably harvested or used to provide more seeds for sowing as part of the restoration.

This project has clear social objectives as well as ecological ones. It has created new jobs and income opportunities. Local communities are contributing to seed collection and propagation, while the project gives landowners incentives to abide by laws against deforestation. For forests, this is the kind of pragmatic approach that will bear the most fruit.

The Conversation

Martin Breed, ARC DECRA Fellow; Andrew Lowe, Professor of Plant Conservation Biology; Nick Gellie, PhD Candidate, and Peter Mortimer, Associate professor, Chinese Academy of Sciences

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Queensland commits to fixing water quality in the Great Barrier Reef


Karen Hussey, The University of Queensland; Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, The University of Queensland, and Robin Smale, The University of Queensland

Current measures are not enough to protect the Great Barrier Reef, according to experts in a government report released today.

After a year of careful analysis, the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce has delivered its final report to the Queensland environment minister, Steven Miles. This is part of efforts to resource the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, which was designed to meet the challenges facing the reef.

The report is part of the response to the United Nations’ concerns that the reef is in danger of irreparable damage – with declining water quality from farming and land-use change being a major driver. The reef narrowly missed being listed as “in danger” in 2015.

The Queensland government has committed A$90 million over the next four years specifically for water quality. The federal government has also committed funding, but it remains to be seen how much will be directed specifically to water quality concerns.

The report recommends the money should be directed at understanding and beginning to reverse the impact of sediment and nutrient from rivers flowing into the Great Barrier Reef.

By any degree, the taskforce has done well in terms of bringing together a wide range of opinions and perspectives on a potentially contentious issue — views that are unified around the report’s conclusions.

While the report is not about climate change, climate change is critically important to whether the plan will ultimately succeed or fail. Stronger storms, floods, droughts and underwater heatwaves will all make the task of solving the water quality issue even harder.

So there is an assumption that we will beat the climate change challenge through mechanisms such as the international commitments that Australia agreed to under the Paris Agreement in December 2015.

Starting to reverse the damage

The Great Barrier Reef and its river catchment are bigger than Italy. With problems going back over 100 years, A$90 million is not going to fix all of the problems, but it can start to significantly reverse the damage.

The Queensland government has committed to ambitious water quality targets adopted in the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan — for instance, reducing nitrogen runoff by 80% and sediment by 50% across the key catchments of the Wet Tropics and the Burdekin by 2025. As many have noted, these targets will not be achieved under current practice — even if farmers fully adopt best management practices — and the taskforce report agrees.

Angry voices on soapboxes won’t solve this monumental challenge. That will only come about through inclusive and considered processes — it needs a long-term, sustained and coordinated reef-wide strategy.

We must redefine how we manage — and therefore resource — the Great Barrier Reef system, from the ecosystems that thrive in it to the industries and communities that depend on it for the long term. That strategy should coordinate all existing but separate approaches.

We’ve been here before

Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it — Australia has been here before with a complex environmental problem that crosses multiple borders. Particularly in the past 15 years, state and federal governments have attempted to undo a century of mismanagement in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Although water quantity is the issue in the basin, as opposed to water quality in the Great Barrier Reef, there are similarities.

The two systems are a similar size — the Murray-Darling Basin covers a million square kilometres, and the Great Barrier Reef half-a-million sq km. In both cases, productive industries such as farming cotton or cane closely interact with valuable ecological systems. Overall, they produce billions of dollars of annual revenue from food production, tourism and other industries.

In each case, international pressure (the RAMSAR convention on wetlands in the Murray-Darling, UNESCO for the reef) have played very significant roles in encouraging responsible actions from Australia.

Billions of dollars have been spent on the Murray-Darling — and similar investment is probably required for the Great Barrier Reef catchments. While action within the Murray-Darling system hasn’t been (and still isn’t) perfect, we can learn much from the experience.

Where to from here?

In our opinion, and drawing on the experiences in the Murray-Darling, the following principles should be core to any strategy for the reef.

First, recognise that a significant shift is required in how we manage and develop land next to the Great Barrier Reef. While this is politically, economically and socially difficult, the fallout will be greater if we don’t get this right.

Farmers must be enabled and supported to care for the land to deliver both economic outcomes and ecosystem services. They are the stewards of our natural capital as well as key contributors to our economy.

We’ll also need to take a small proportion of land out of production to form riparian strips, and incentives will need to be established to ensure the careful use of fertiliser, better use of cover crops, and the like. Again, these initiatives are occurring now, but we need to adopt a whole-of-system approach that corrals these actions into a coherent strategy.

The efficiencies introduced through the National Water Initiative and later the Murray-Darling Basin Plan did achieve such a shift there.

Second, acknowledge that nothing we do to address water quality issues makes sense if we don’t also address climate change as a major source of the problem. Any strategy to protect the reef has to include meaningful action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and vice versa. Solving the climate issue only to let the reef down on the water quality issue doesn’t make any sense either.

Third, full and enduring cooperation and coordination between the Commonwealth and Queensland governments are essential. Anything else risks duplication, redundancy, confusion and, more than likely, a monumental waste of money.

The political heat in the lead-up to the National Water Initiative, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the 2007 Water Act served only to diminish the opportunities for a lasting and meaningful solution to excessive water allocation in the basin.

Fourth, in support of the cooperative federalist approach, a statutory authority that oversees the implementation of the strategy — with appropriate financial incentives and regulatory powers — will be necessary. This authority would operate across Queensland river catchment and estuarine regions. We would argue that this should be a separate entity to GBRMPA, which already has its hands full managing the reef.

One of the successes from efforts in water reform was the National Water Commission, which played a crucial role in the implementation of the National Water Initiative. Its subsequent demise was regrettable.

Fifth, well-designed, market-based mechanisms work. Just as some efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are cheaper than others, we need to know which measures that reduce water quality are most cost-effective. If designed correctly, these mechanisms have the potential to drive innovation and game-changing ideas.

A water quality “trading scheme” should be explored. If done properly, such a market could prove to be enormously beneficial to farmers as well as the reef.

Finally, make sure the strategy has the resources to get the job done. While throwing money at the problem won’t solve it on its own (the billions spent in the Murray-Darling Basin proved that), the challenge will demand significant resources over the coming decade.

Such finance need not come from governments alone. If the principles above are implemented in a way that provides transparency and certainty to the market, then the private sector may be able to contribute.

These are the first steps of a journey that is critical for the long-term survival of the Great Barrier Reef. As the taskforce stresses, this is a journey that will require clever policy that adapts to a dynamic world.

The reforms to address the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin were triggered by the Millennium Drought. The recent coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef should inspire the same urgency.

And, if so, let’s hope that we are now truly on a pathway to a future for the Great Barrier Reef where its people, industries and ecosystems thrive into the future.

The Conversation

Karen Hussey, Deputy Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland; Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, and Robin Smale, Visiting fellow, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Without extra money, the Coalition’s low-emissions roadmap is a trip to nowhere


Craig Froome, The University of Queensland

On Friday, the Coalition made a low-key announcement of its new Low Emissions Technology Roadmap. To be developed by the CSIRO, it will aim to “highlight areas of growth in Australia’s clean technology sector”.

Unveiled jointly by the industry and science minister, Christopher Pyne, the environment minister, Greg Hunt, and the energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, the plan asks the CSIRO to identify the most promising ways to reduce emissions and to come up with plans to accelerate the development and commercialisation of Australian technologies such as solar panel components.

With the election campaign in full swing and announcements coming thick and fast, some will obviously get more airtime than others. Still, it was surprising to see this one quietly released on a Friday afternoon, given the seniority of the ministers involved, not to mention the importance of both renewable energy and greenhouse emission reductions as issues in this election.

It’s also not immediately clear what is actually involved in developing a “technology roadmap” like this. It might conceivably follow a model previously developed at the US Sandia National Laboratories, which identified three key elements:

  • preliminary activity, which involves defining the project’s precise scope

  • developing the roadmap, by deciding which technologies to include and defining specific targets for their development

  • follow-up, by working out how the plan is actually going to be implemented.

The announcement in itself has kick-started the first of these three stages. CSIRO has been given the lead for the second element. But it is the third stage – the actual implementation – where roadmaps typically lose their way. Many governments have set roadmaps in the past, only for successive ones to choose different objectives and therefore move down a different path.

The key for any roadmap to deliver its intended outcome is the successful implementation of its proposals. The policy and, crucially, the funding committed to the project will determine whether the ultimate objectives are met.

Pay to play

In the announcement’s press release, Pyne said the roadmap would “achieve a large-scale technology transformation”. But looking at the steps above, this will require policy and investment in those technologies that are to drive the transformation process.

While this announcement supports previous policy pledges, notably the A$1 billion Clean Energy Innovation Fund uneviled two months ago, will this be enough to drive the crucial third stage of the roadmap: developing commercial-scale clean energy generation to the level required to make serious inroads into emissions reduction?

In the past Australia has tended to adopt the cheapest available energy technologies, particularly given that much of the electricity sector is moving from public to private-sector ownership.

Will this change now? Frydenberg’s statement that “the Coalition is committed to a technology-neutral approach to energy policy” would suggest that it may not.

Josh Frydenberg wants to grasp the commercial potential of new energy technologies.
AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

With the minimal growth in electricity demand over recent years, new generation on a large scale will need to be more economical than existing assets, or else policy measures should be put in place to make the new technologies competitive.

Part of the Coalition’s plan, as also stated by Frydenberg, is to ”help identify opportunities for Australian businesses to be involved in the global energy supply chain, with the potential of creating new industries that create new jobs and growth in Australia”. History has shown that while Australia has been a very innovative nation, much of the technology developed here tends to move offshore.

Pyne added that “by 2018 Australian solar technology will be embedded in over 60% of the world’s [photovoltaic] panels”. But how much of this global supply chain has created jobs and growth in Australia?

Hunt also stated that the roadmap will help Australia meet its greenhouse emissions target, which calls for a 26-28% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030. But 2030 is not that far away, and the process of drawing up roadmaps, developing technologies and then commercially deploying them takes time. Support for existing mature technologies, such as solar and wind energy, must be continued in the meantime.

While existing agencies such as the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation support these technologies, ongoing funding is a constant subject of debate within the government. These bodies will jointly administer the new Clean Energy Innovation Fund, but if this new roadmap is to be a success, ARENA’s funding must continue beyond its currently planned expiry date of 2022, and the CEFC needs a longer business plan than the current one which runs to 2019.

In the meantime, it pays to think carefully about the initial phase for the roadmap: defining its precise scope. According to the announcement, the areas to be considered include “renewable energy, smart grids, carbon capture and storage, electric vehicles and energy efficiency” – all areas in which CSIRO has existing research programs. As such, it is well placed to understand the challenges, the investment needed, and realistic time frames for implementation. All of these need to be identified and quantified precisely, given that the plan only spans a few years.

Introducing innovative technology into an existing sector, which is already working, will always draw resistance, particularly from the operators (as well as equipment manufacturers, maintenance companies and fuel suppliers) of existing generation assets. But, of course, decisions about electricity generation have much wider effects than just the provision of energy.

The need to reduce emissions affects every aspect of how we will live our lives in the future. No major political party disputes the need to move from existing technology to a clean energy future. But policy, with sufficient financial backing, needs to be put in place now and supported by successive governments to have any chance of hitting the deadlines we face.

The Conversation

Craig Froome, Global Change Institute – Clean Energy Program Manager, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A guide to using drones to study wildlife: first, do no harm


Jarrod Hodgson and Lian Pin Koh

Technological advances have provided many benefits for environmental research. Sensors on southern elephant seals have been used to map the Southern Ocean, while tracking devices have given us a new view of mass animal migrations, from birds to zebras.

Miniaturisation of electronics and improvements in reliability and affordability mean that consumer drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) are now improving scientific research in a host of areas. And they are growing more popular for wildlife management, as well as research.

Wildlife drones can be used in many different ways, from small multi-rotor units that can scare invasive birds away from crops, to fixed-wing aircraft that fly above rainforests to spot orangutan nests. UAVs have also been shown to provide more precise data than traditional ground-based techniques when it comes to monitoring seabird colonies.

Other industries, from mining to window-cleaning, are looking at using drone technology. Some forecasts predict that the global market for commercial applications of UAVs will be valued at more than US$127 billion. Given their usefulness in the biologist’s toolkit, the uptake of UAVs for environmental monitoring is likely to continue.

But this proliferation of drones raises questions about how best to regulate the use of these aircraft, and how to ensure that wildlife do not come to harm.

A UAV-mounted camera provides an aerial view of a Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) in North Sumatra.
L. P. Koh

Wildlife disturbance

Biologists carrying out field studies are typically interested in animals’ natural state, or how their behaviour changes when conditions are altered. So it is important to know whether the UAVs disturb the animals and, if so, exactly how.

Of course, different species in different environments are likely to have very different responses to the presence of a UAV. This will also depend on the type of UAV and how it is used. Our current understanding of wildlife responses is limited.

A team of French and South African biologists observed the reaction of semi-captive and wild birds to UAVs. They found that the approach angle had a significant impact on the birds’ reaction, but approach speed, UAV colour and flight repetition did not.

In polar regions, where UAVs may be particularly useful for sampling inaccessible areas, researchers found that Adélie penguins were more alert when a UAV was in range, particularly at low altitudes.

These studies, and similar observational studies on other animals besides birds, provide an initial understanding of wildlife behaviour. But the animals’ behaviour is only one aspect of their response – we still need to know what happens to their physiology.

Cardiac bio-loggers fitted to a small number of free-roaming American black bears in northwestern Minnesota have shown that UAV flights increased the bears’ heart rates by as much as 123 beats per minute. Even an individual in its winter hibernation den showed stress responses to a UAV flying above.

Interestingly, the bears rarely showed any behavioural response to the drones. This shows that just because animals do not appear visually disturbed, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not stressed.

A code of practice

We have developed a code of best practice, published today in the journal Current Biology, which seeks to mitigate or alleviate potential UAV disturbance to wildlife. It advocates the precautionary principle in lieu of sufficient evidence, encouraging researchers to recognise that wildlife responses are varied, can be hard to detect, and could have severe consequences.

Jarrod Hodgson launches a fixed-wing UAV on Macquarie Island.
J. Hodgson

It also provides practical recommendations. The code encourages the use of equipment that minimises the stimulus to wildlife. Using minimum-disturbance flight practices (such as avoiding threatening approach trajectories or sporadic flight movements) is advised. The code also recognises the importance of following civil aviation rules and effective maintenance and training schedules, and using animal ethics processes to provide oversight to UAV experiments.

The code isn’t just food for thought for biologists. It is relevant to all UAV users and regulators, from commercial aerial videographers to hobbyists. Unintentionally or otherwise, such users may find themselves piloting drones close to wildlife.

Our code urges the UAV community to be responsible operators. It encourages awareness of the results of flying in different environments and the use of flight practices that result in minimum wildlife disturbance.

Low-impact conservation

As researchers continue to develop and refine UAV wildlife monitoring techniques, research that quantifies disturbance should be prioritised. This research will need to be multi-faceted, because responses could vary between species or individuals, as well as over time and in different environments. Greater knowledge could help us to draw up species-specific guidelines for drone use, to minimise disturbance on a case-by-case basis.

UAVs are a useful wildlife monitoring tool. We need to proactively develop and implement low-impact monitoring techniques. Doing so will expand our technological arsenal in the battle to manage Earth’s precious and increasingly threatened wildlife.

The Conversation

Jarrod Hodgson, PhD Candidate and Lian Pin Koh, Associate Professor

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.