Red Centre Holiday 2016: Day 6 – Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory


It was once again an early start, but this time it wasn’t because I had a lot of driving to do. In fact, it was a short drive from Yulara to Uluru this morning. So I was up at 6am and off quite ealy to get the day’s main activity under way – The Uluru Base Walk.

Once I arrived at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, it was a case of paying my $25.00 for a park pass, which gave me three days of consecutive entrance to the park. There is a ticket station there and when you have a pass, you can enter fairly quickly via the boom gate entrance while the ticket remains valid.

The Uluru Base Walk is a 10.6 km circuit walk that is generally started at the Mala Walk Carpark (which is also the starting point for the Uluru climb and Mala Walk). The walk is said to take 3.5 hours, which may or may not be close to the money as it really depends on your interest level in the walk. It can take less or a lot more, depending on your enthusiam for what you’re doing. It is really quite an easy walk as it is all flat. I imagine it would be more difficult if there were higher temperatures, like in the middle of summer for instance.

The Base Walk covers the same territory as several other walks that are interested in particular features around Uluru, incorporating the Mala Walk (which I returned to do as a separate walk on day 8) which heads into Kantju Gorge, the Lungkata Walk and the Kuniya Walk, which heads to Mutitjulu Waterhole.

ABOVE: Aboriginal Rock Art at Mutitjulu Cave   BELOW: Mutitjulu Waterhole

One of the things that really annoyed me early on were the tourists. Early on there probably weren’t that many, but as the morning went on more and more arrived. It wasn’t the number of tourists (though the Rock obviously draws a lot of people from not only Australia, but from around the world) it was the volume of the tourists. By volume, I mean the noise many of them created. They just couldn’t help themselves but had to be ‘yahooing’ all of the time, making as much noise as it seemed un-humanly possible to create, doing who knows what in order to create it.

ABOVE: A View of Uluru   BELOW: Wildflowers

ABOVE & BELOW: Wildflowers at Uluru

ABOVE & BELOW Wildflowers at Uluru

ABOVE: A View of Uluru

I was also amazed at how many people would walk great distances around the Rock without even looking at what they were walking around, seemingly only interested in talking with one another, completing the walk to move on to their next ‘accomplishment’ and the like. Right under their noses was a world of delight, with great open wild spaces of wildflowers and wildlife of all manner of varied descriptions to behold and be amazed at. The odd person (and perhaps we were odd) shared my fascination and joy at being in such a place. One woman described to me how she was brought nearly to tears by what she was able to see and experience in this place. But I fear we were the odd exception to this mass of disinterested humanity wandering about the place.

So there I was, wandering about the place enjoying my every experience and imbibing everything that I could with the little time that I would be there. Still, as great a place as this was and is, I knew that in my own opinion Kuta Tjuta always impressed me more and that was yet to come, plus new experiences in places I had never been before at Watarrka National Park and in the West Macdonnell National Park. Still, this was a very special place and for me, every wilderness location is impressive, having its own reason for being there and its own reason for being impressive. There is always some wonder to be had at whichever place you are currently visiting, if you only take the time to listen, to smell, to see, to touch (umm… maybe not taste).

ABOVE: Always Something to Experience in the Wild

I think I was out on this walk for at least 4 hours and possibly a little longer than that. It all went by fairly quickly and every bend of the walk brought something new. The highlights of the walk were of course Uluru itself, the wildflowers, Mutitjulu Waterhole and Kantju Gorge. However, there are plenty of other sites and objects to maintain one’s interest on the walk. There are various insects, birds and sometimes other forms of wildlife, some ‘minor’ landform associated with the Rock, some feature away from the Rock – a glimpse of Kata Tjuta even. It is just an amazing place that you feel priviliged for being able to be there, let alone being able to enjoy it on more than one occasion.

ABOVE: Kantju Gorge

The distance travelled on this day was 60 km – giving me a total of 2932 km for the whole trip to this point.

Once again it was the usual ‘house keeping’ before bed – updating the daily journal, reviewing the holiday budget, checking in on social media, and editing and uploading photos. Then it was off to bed for an early start the next morning, with the goal of Kata Tjuta set for the next day.

ABOVE: The Mala Walk

View the Photos at:
https://flic.kr/s/aHskH7CHaQ

Visit the Red Centre Holiday 2016 web page at:
http://kevinswilderness.com/NT/redcentre2016.html

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Australian Wilderness Adventures: Episode 002 – Cathedral Rock National Park (Part 02)


Cutting ARENA would devastate clean energy research


Nicky Ison, University of Technology Sydney and Chris Dunstan, University of Technology Sydney

This week’s first sitting of the 45th Parliament of Australia is considering a A$6.5 billion “omnibus savings bill”, including a proposed cut of A$1.3 billion to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). If adopted, it would effectively mean the end of ARENA and would devastate clean energy research in Australia.

From driving innovation and economic growth, to creating jobs, to addressing climate change and ensuring a reliable and affordable energy system for the future, ARENA plays a critical role. Most perversely, by reducing Australia’s role in the booming global clean energy industry, closing ARENA would likely reduce Australia’s capacity to balance its budget in years to come.

What is ARENA?

ARENA, an independent Commonwealth agency, has driven most of Australia’s innovative renewable energy projects in recent years. This includes Australia’s world-leading solar photovaltaics research centre at UNSW, the Carnegie wave energy pilot in Perth, AGL’s virtual power station trial and UTS’s own research into local electricity trading and network opportunity mapping.

ARENA has funded 60 completed projects and is managing a further 200. Many more are in the pipeline. It has also leveraged A$1.30 in private-sector R&D funding for every dollar of government funding – a fact that is often overlooked amid talk of budget savings.

Without ARENA’s grants and leveraged co-funding, very few of these projects would have happened. While its sister organisation, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, plays an important role in helping to finance established renewable projects and technologies, only ARENA can provide the research grant co-funding to develop these technologies in the first place.

ARENA was formed in 2012 as part of the Gillard government’s Clean Energy Future package. It drew together a range of clean energy programs and funds such as the Solar Flagships, the Australian Solar Institute and some, such as the Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund, which the Howard government established. ARENA was given the twin goals of:

  1. Improving the competitiveness of renewable energy technologies

  2. Increasing the supply of renewable energy in Australia.

ARENA was one of five key elements of the Clean Energy Future package slated for abolition by the Abbott government. While the carbon price and Climate Commission were cut, ARENA, the CEFC and the Climate Change Authority were saved by opposition and crossbench support, albeit with a A$435 million cut to ARENA’s original budget.

Now, three years on, the Turnbull government has chosen to keep the CEFC but its plan to slash ARENA’s budget remains. The Labor opposition has yet to announce its position on the proposed cut. Meanwhile, clean energy researchers across Australia have written an open letter calling on all parties to support the agency.

ARENA’s innovation role

The process of energy technology innovation can be thought of as having a series of phases, which have different funding needs (see below).

The innovation chain for renewable energy technologies.
ISF, based on ARENA’s Commercial Readiness Index, Author provided

The first phase is typically fundamental research and development. Two examples are the world-leading research programs at UNSW Australia and ANU, which have developed the world’s most efficient solar photovoltaic and solar thermal technologies. Both are ARENA-funded; neither could have been effectively funded by loans.

Technologies then need to be piloted in the real world – as in the case of the Carnegie Wave Energy project in Perth. This stage is often still too risky for most commercial lenders, so some public grant funding remains critical.

Next comes the large-scale demonstration phase – bringing technologies down the cost curve by developing viable business models and supply chains, with the aim of making them cost-competitive. Here, a mix of loan and grant funding is needed.

Australia’s large-scale solar industry is an example of a sector in this stage of development. In 2015, ARENA realised that despite having 1.5 million solar roofs and plenty of sunshine, Australia had a dearth of large-scale solar projects (only four operating and four in development). As such, it has committed A$100 million to help build more solar farms.

Finally, there are commercial renewable technologies that are already cost-competitive with other energy sources. Wind energy is the prime example of this, which is precisely why ARENA has not funded wind projects.

Our changing energy system

Innovation is not purely about technology development; it is also about addressing complex challenges such as how to manage the changing nature of our energy system. On a cents per kilowatt-hour basis, wind energy is now cheaper than new-build coal and solar power is cheaper than grid electricity. These two trends will continue, but our energy market is struggling to adapt to the new technology mix.

ARENA has a crucial role to play here. For example, it has funded the Institute of Sustainable Futures (ISF) at UTS to develop a set of Network Opportunity Maps. These show locations in the grid where demand management and decentralised generation (solar, storage etc) can help avoid costly grid upgrades.

ARENA has also funded ISF’s research into local energy trading (also known as peer-to-peer energy or virtual net metering). This is aimed at avoiding the predicted “energy death spiral”, by encouraging consumers and power companies to compromise in making the most of existing infrastructure, reducing consumers’ bills and supporting local power generation.

Meeting our climate targets

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, ARENA is helping to meet Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions target, which calls for a 26-28% cut relative to 2005 levels by 2030.

The electricity sector is Australia’s largest carbon emissions source. ARENA has a vital role in delivering cost-effective emissions reductions. There are two main mechanisms to decarbonise the sector: increasing energy productivity and efficiency, and switching from fossil fuels to renewables. As outlined above, ARENA is a key player in the latter process and is primed to play a leading role in the former.

It would be a tragic error to cut funding to an agency that is making such an important and successful contribution to fulfilling Australia’s obligations under the Paris climate agreement, as well as driving innovation and energy affordability. No other agency combines all of these facets.

More renewable policy instability?

In a 2010 speech on low-carbon energy, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull acknowledged the role of government in supporting clean energy innovation, saying:

Government support for innovation and investment in clean stationary energy is important, particularly at the early stages.

The need for this support is not going to go away. If ARENA and its research grant funding is abolished, a similar organisation will doubtless soon need to be re-established. In the meantime, millions of dollars in opportunities would have been wasted and irreplaceable industry and research expertise lost.

After years of policy instability around renewable energy, which has held back the domestic development of one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, do we really want to embrace even more uncertainty?

To paraphrase former Harvard University president Derek Bok, if you think research is expensive, try ignorance.

The Conversation

Nicky Ison, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney and Chris Dunstan, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

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

Dear politicians, please don’t endanger world-leading solar research by cutting ARENA


Andrew Blakers, Australian National University

The following is an open letter to parliamentarians from 182 members of Australia’s solar research community.

Dear Members of Australia’s 45th Parliament,

The federal government is proposing to strip the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) of most of its funding, and with it its ability to make grants. This is an existential threat to renewable energy research, innovation and education in Australia.

We call upon all political parties to support the retention of ARENA.

The solar photovoltaic (PV) industry now provides one quarter of all new generation capacity installed worldwide each year and is growing at 20-30% per year. Together, PV and wind energy constitute half of all new generation capacity installed worldwide, and all new generation capacity installed in Australia.

A renewable energy revolution is in progress and Australia is currently at the forefront. However, debilitation of ARENA directly threatens our leadership position.

For 30 years there has been an Australian renewable energy funding agency in one form or another. This has led to phenomenal success in generation of technology and provision of education. The worldwide PV industry owes its existence in large measure to Australians who were supported by grants from government renewable energy agencies.

Billions of dollars of benefits have accrued to Australia in the form of dramatically reduced costs of PV systems, rapidly growing renewable energy business activity in Australia, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, royalties, shares and international student fees. For example, the Australian-developed PERC solar cell has annual sales of $10 billion and will soon dominate the worldwide solar industry.

If ARENA is debilitated then hundreds of people would lose their jobs within a year or two. In the longer term, Australia’s leadership in solar energy would vanish. This would be completely at odds with the government’s innovation agenda and its commitment at the Paris climate conference to double clean energy R&D by 2020 under the international Mission Innovation program, and with the ALP’s Climate Change Action Plan launched in 2015 at UNSW Australia, and reinforced by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten at ANU also in 2015.

Support for research and innovation at universities lies at the heart of accelerated growth of the renewable energy industry. It supports later-stage commercialisation directly through technology development. Additionally, university research groups underpin education and training of engineers and scientists.

Echoing the words of another prime minister of a decade ago, Malcolm Turnbull has described budget repair (in which cuts to ARENA are lumped) as a “fundamental moral challenge” because debt should not be passed onto our children and grandchildren.

How ironic if parliament fails to appreciate the many costs to future generations of failing to address climate change now with solutions such as renewable energy.

Yours sincerely,

UNSW Australia: Benjamin Phua, Henner Kampwerth, Mark Keevers, Ziv Hameiri, Catherine Chan, Craig Johnson, Kyung Kim, Li Wang, Mark Silver, Trevor Young, Richard Corkish, Robert Patterson, Binesh Veettil, Christopher Whipp, Dirk Konig, Renate Egan, Bram Hoex, Joyce Ho, Simba Kuestler, Martin Green, David Payne, Robert Taylor, Shira Samocha, Supriya Pillai, Timothy Lee, Udo Romer, Belinda Lam, Natasha Hjerrild, Evatt Hawkes, David Jewkes, Thalia Arnott, Leslie Lay, Muriel Watt, Carlos Vargas, Nathan Thompson, Robert Dumbrell, Daniel Lambert, Nicholas Shaw, Nathan Chang, Anita Ho-Baillie, Ben Wilkensen, Ned Western, Yan Zhu, Lingfeng Wu, Stuart Wenham, Ran Chen, Thilini Ishwara, Steven Limpert, Rolando Vargas, Brett Hallam, Allen Barnett, Santosh Shrestha, Xiaowei Shen, Xiaojing Hao, Saratchandra Tejaswi, Fangzhao Gao, Zhongtian Li, Ivan Perez Wurfl, Qiangshan Ma, Alec Tan, Murad Tayebjee, Ya Zhou, Liam Parnell, Luke Marshall, Jack Colwell, Mable Fong, Alan Yee, Lawrence Soria, Kian Chin, Kamala Vairav, Nancy Sharopeam, Graeme Lennon, Zoe Hungedfold, Bernhard Vogal, Jill Lewis, Ya Zhou, Erny Tsao, Feng Qingge, Yin Li, Thorsten Trupke, Alison Wenham, Ashraf Uddin, Chang Yan, Kaiwen Sun, Yajie Jiang, Yuansim Liao, Marjorie Owens, Shujuan Huang, Sassan Vahdani, Jialiang Huang, Brianna Conrad, Zi Ouyang, Jae sun Yun, Alex Li, Kate Lindsay, Nitin Nampalli

Australian National University: Andrew Blakers, Tom White, Marco Ernst, Fiona Beck, Jie Cui, Andres Cuevas, Erin Crisp, Chris Samondsett, Yimao Wan, Hemant Halmodi, Moshen Goodarzi, Sienpheng Phang, The Duong, Yiliang Wu, Xiao Fu, Kylie Catchpole, Chong Barngkin, Daniel Macdonald, Andrew Thompson, Josephine McKeon, Chang Sun, Kristen Anderson, Anyao Liu, Bin Lu, Matthew Staks, Bruce Condon, Jun Fpeng, Thomas Ratcliff, Hang Sio, Shakir Rahman, Judith Harvey, Klaus Weber, Ingrid Haedrich, Di Yan, Rowena Menkedow, Dale Grant, William Logie, Teck Kong Chong, Hieu Nguyen, Daniel Walte, Sachin Surve, Mark Savvnoeas, Harry Qian, N. Kaines, Nandi Wu

Monash University: Yi-Bing Cheng, Yasmina Dkhissi, Niraj Lal, Jianfeng Lu, Liangcong Jiang, Shannon Bonke, Wei Li, Gaveshana Sepadage, Wemon Mao, Feng Li, Xiangfeng Lin, Udo Bach, Dison Hoogeveen, Iacopo Benesperi, Francsco Paglia, Bin Li, Jiansong Sun, Chanjie Wang, Chunkiu Ng, Maxime Fournier, Boex Tan, Kira Rundel, David Mayeuleg, Jacek Jasieniak, Rebeeca Milhuisen, Masrur Morshed, Kedar Deshmukh, Susaha Frier, Mathias Rothmann

University of Melbourne: Ken Ghiggino, Roger Dargaville, Yann Robiou du Pont, Alex Nauels, Kate Dooley, Malte Meinshausen, Martin Wainstein

Other: Alan Pears (RMIT), Nicola Ison (UTS), Rhett Evans (Solinno), Michelle McCann (PV Lab Australia), Keith McIntosh (PV Lighthouse)

The Conversation

Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering, Australian National University

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

Tasmanian devils are evolving rapidly to fight their deadly cancer


Menna Elizabeth Jones, University of Tasmania; Andrew Storfer, Washington State University; Hamish McCallum, Griffith University; Paul Hohenlohe, University of Idaho, and Rodrigo Hamede, University of Tasmania

For the past 20 years, an infectious cancer has been killing wild Tasmanian devils, creating a massive challenge for conservationists. But new research, published today in Nature Communications, suggests that devils are evolving rapidly in response to their highly lethal transmissible cancer and that they could ultimately save themselves.

Cancer is usually a disease that arises and dies with its host. In vertebrates, only two known types – Canine Transmissible Venereal Cancer in dogs and Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) – have taken the extraordinary evolutionary step of becoming transmissible. These cancers can grow not just within their host but can spread to other individuals. Because the cancer cells are all descendants of one mutant cell, the cancer is effectively immortal.

To grow in the new host, the tumour cell must evade detection and rejection by the immune system. Both the devil and dog transmissible cancers have sophisticated mechanisms for hiding from the host’s immune system. Our research suggests that the devil is nevertheless evolving resistance to the disease.

Ecological disaster

The Tasmanian devil is too important to lose – and this would seem careless following the extinction of the thylacine, the world’s largest marsupial predator, in the 1930s. Since the thylacine’s extinction, devils have stepped up to the role of top marsupial predator, keeping numbers of destructive feral cats at bay in Tasmania. With the decline of the devils, invasive species have become more active.

Since it was first detected in northeastern Tasmania in the mid-1990s, DFTD has spread slowly southward and westward. It will reach all parts of Tasmania within a few years; only the far northwest coast and parts of the southwest are still disease-free.

Devil Facial Tumour Disease has spread across the island over two decades.
Menna Jones

Devil populations have declined by at least 80%, and by more than 90% in some areas within six years of local disease outbreak.

DFTD kills most devils at sexual maturity. Before the disease arrived, most devils produced three litters over their lifetime. Most now raise only one.

The cascading effects of the loss of Tasmania’s top predator on the rest of the ecosystem could lead to loss of further species. Already, feral cats have increased activity and small mammals on which cats prey have declined.

Cats may also be preventing recovery of the eastern quoll. Brushtail possums behave as if devils were already extinct, grazing freely on pasture in the open.

Evolution in action

Our research has been a truly international effort. We used data collected by Menna Jones at the University of Tasmania since 1999. This archive of tissue samples now represents one of the best resources globally for studying evolution of an emerging infectious disease in wildlife.

Andrew Storfer at Washington State University and Paul Hohenlohe at the University of Idaho compared the frequency of genes in devils in regions before DFTD arrived to devils 8-16 years after DFTD arrived.

We identified significant changes in two small regions in the DNA samples of devils from regions with DFTD. Five of seven genes in the two regions were related to cancer or immune function in other mammals, suggesting that Tasmanian devils are indeed evolving resistance to DFTD. Evolution is often thought of as a slow process, but these changes have occurred in as few as 4–8 generations of devils since disease outbreak.

Devils are surviving at our long-term sites, despite models that predicted extinction. Previously, studies have shown that devils with lower rates of DFTD showed specific changes in their immune response. Our genetic results might explain why.

New infectious diseases put strong pressure on their hosts to evolve, leading to rapid changes in resistance or tolerance. Rapid evolution requires pre-existing genetic variation. Our results are surprising because Tasmanian devils have low levels of genetic diversity.

Evolution doesn’t just act on the devils; it also also acts on the disease. The disease evolves to not kill the host before it can spread to another host, but also to overcome the host’s defences. Over the long term, pathogen (the cause of the disease) and host usually evolve to live together as rabbits and Myxoma virus have evolved together.

Our results suggest that devils in the wild may save themselves through evolution. However, it is essential for managers to develop strategies that help the devils do so. For example, releasing fully susceptible devils that have had no exposure to the disease into populations where resistance is developing is likely to be counterproductive.

DFTD presents a unique opportunity to study the early stages of the evolution of a new disease and transmissible cancer with its animal host. Ultimately, through future research, we may understand how cancers can become transmissible and how their hosts respond.

The Conversation

Menna Elizabeth Jones, Associate professor, University of Tasmania; Andrew Storfer, Professor & Associate Director, School of Biological Sciences, Washington State University; Hamish McCallum, Professor, Griffith School of Environment and Acting Dean of Research, Griffith Sciences, Griffith University; Paul Hohenlohe, , University of Idaho, and Rodrigo Hamede, Post Doctoral Research Fellow, Conservation Biology and Wildlife Management, University of Tasmania

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

Red Centre Holiday 2016: Day 5 – Marla, South Australia to Yulara, Northern Territory


I was probably up a little later than I had expected to be, but was still away just as dawn broke. It had been a cold night, I was still ill with the flu, but at least I had been nice and warm in the sleeping bag and under the covers in my little tent. Having experienced a very cold night in central Australia many years ago, I have never gone camping again without all that I need to keep comfortable and warm. I now go prepared for all possibilities as far as cold nights are concerned, as the previous cold night in central Australia (18 years ago) was terrible and was in fact less than 100km from Uluru in June 1998. So now I have a sleeping bag I can be comfortable in (one I can fit comfortably in too – no pathetically small single-sized sleeping bag), the doona that I throw over the top and an inflatable double-sized mattress (which helps not only with rough surfaces, but also the very cold ground, which was the real issue 18 years ago). I speak of all this with car-based camping in mind of course – there is no way I would carry this sort of gear for multi-day walks and camping.

Before I could leave Marla I needed to fuel up and had a quick chat with the girl who was serving in the service station – she had been on duty all through the night. She had suggested to me the night before that I come up to the store and be in the air conditioning if it was too cold in the tent. Thankfully I didn’t need to do that, though it probably sounded as though I did – I was pretty ill with the flu and it was very easy to tell.

ABOVE: Wildflowers Just Inside the Northern Territory   BELOW: Just Inside the Northern Territory

The journey today would once again involve a lot of driving, broken up by the odd geocache here and there along the way. However, the main drawcard was always going to be Uluru and I would get some tantalising glimpses before the day was out. I was very keen to reach my destination and the goal of the holiday – the red centre. So today the main stops along the way were the South Australian – Northern Territory border, Erldunda for fuel (just where the turnoff for Yulara and Uluru is, from the Stuart Highway and onto the Lasseter Highway) and also Curtain Springs for one last fuel stop before hitting Yulara. There were a few stops on the Lasseter Highway along the way for a bit of sight-seeing, especially for wildflowers, views of Mount Conner and some early glimpes of Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

ABOVE: Mount Conner in the Distance   BELOW: Mount Conner

ABOVE: Mount Conner   BELOW: Uluru in the Distance

On arrival in Yulara I booked in to the Ayers Rock Campground for four nights and set up my tent on a powered site. I chose to exercise restraint and not head off to Uluru straight away, choosing to both rest up for the following day and to wait until I was able to use the full 3 days that my Uluru pass would give me when I purchased it at the entrance to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park ($25.00 for an adult for 3 days). So it was a case of resting up and being ready for the base walk around Uluru the next day.

The distance travelled on this day was 503 km – giving me a total of 2872 km for the whole trip to this point.

Once again it was the usual ‘house keeping’ before bed – updating the daily journal, reviewing the holiday budget, checking in on social media, and editing and uploading photos. Then it was off to bed for an early start the next morning, with the excitement mounting, as I would arrive in Yulara the next day and be within sight of Uluru – the main goal of my holiday.

View the Photos at:
https://flic.kr/s/aHskFHygxC

Visit the Red Centre Holiday 2016 web page at:
http://kevinswilderness.com/NT/redcentre2016.html