Drones and wildlife – working to co-exist


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Researchers have reviewed evidence for wildlife disturbance and current drone policies and found that the law is playing catch-up with emerging technology.
Pip Wallace, CC BY-ND

Pip Wallace, University of Waikato; Iain White, University of Waikato, and Ross Martin, University of Waikato

The drone market is booming and it is changing the way we use airspace, with some unforeseen consequences.

The uptake of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) has been swift. But despite their obvious benefits, concerns are growing about impacts on wildlife.

In our research we investigate whether regulation is keeping pace with the speed of technological change. We argue that it doesn’t, and we suggest that threatened species might need extra protection to ensure they aren’t harmed by drones.

RPA management

Drones are useful tools for conservation biologists. They allow them to survey inaccessible terrain and assist with many challenging tasks, from seeding forests to collecting whale snot.

But researchers are also discovering that RPAs have negative impacts on wildlife, ranging from temporary disturbances to fatal collisions.

Disturbance from vehicles and other human activity are known to affect wildlife, but with the speed that drones have entered widespread use, their effects are only just starting to be studied.

So far, the regulatory response has focused squarely on risks to human health, safety and privacy, with wildlife impacts only rarely taken into account, and even then usually in a limited way.


Read more: The age of drones has arrived quicker than the laws that govern them


It is not uncommon for regulatory gaps to arise when new technology is introduced. The rapid growth of drone technology raises a series of questions for environmental law and management.

We have reviewed evidence for wildlife disturbance and current drone policies and found that the law is playing catch-up with emerging technology.

Impacts on wildlife range from disturbance to fatal collisions.
Pip Wallace, CC BY-ND

This is particularly important in New Zealand, where many threatened species live outside protected reserves. Coastal areas are of particular concern. They provide habitat for numerous threatened and migrating species but also experience high rates of urban development and recreational activity. Different species also respond very differently to the invasion of their airspace.

Where “flying for fun” and pizza delivery by drone combine with insufficient control, there is potential for unanticipated consequences to wildlife.

RPA and red tape

When competing interests collide, regulation requires particular care. Any rules on RPAs need to cater for a wide range of users, with varying skills and purposes, and enable beneficial applications while protecting wildlife.

There are strong social and economic drivers for the removal of red tape. Australia and the United States have introduced permissive regimes for lower-risk use, including recreational activity. In New Zealand, RPAs are considered as aircraft and controlled by civil aviation legislation.


Read more: New drone rules: with more eyes in the sky, expect less privacy


Wildlife disturbance, or other impacts on the environment, are not specifically mentioned in these rules and control options depend on existing wildlife law.

The lack of consideration of wildlife impacts in civil aviation rules creates a gap, which is accompanied by an absence of policy guidance. As a consequence, the default position for limiting RPA operations comes from the general requirement for property owner consent.

RPA and spatial controls

RPA operators wanting to fly over conservation land have to get a permit from the Department of Conservation, which has recognised wildlife disturbance as a potential issue.

On other public land, we found that local authorities take a patchy and inconsistent approach to RPA activity, with limited consideration of effects on wildlife. On private land, efforts to control impacts to wildlife depend on the knowledge of property owners.

Protection of wildlife from RPA impacts is further confounded by limitations of legislation that governs the protection of wildlife and resource use and development. The Wildlife Act 1953 needs updating to provide more effective control of disturbance effects to species.

Marine mammals get some protection from aircraft disturbance under species-specific legislation. Other than that, aircraft are exempt from regulation under the Resource Management Act, which only requires noise control for airports. As a result, tools normally used to control spatial impacts, such as protective zoning, setbacks and buffers for habitat and species are not available.

This makes sense for aircraft flying at 8,000m or more, but drones use space differently, are controlled locally, and generate local effects. It is also clear that equipment choices and methods of RPA operation can reduce risks to wildlife.

Keeping drones out of sensitive spaces

Dunedin City Council in New Zealand recently approved a bylaw banning drones from ecologically sensitive areas. This is a good start but we think a more consistent and universal approach is required to protect threatened species.

As a starter, all RPA operations should be guided by specific policy and made available on civil aviation websites, addressing impacts to wildlife and RPA methods of operation. In addition, we advocate for research into regulatory measures requiring, where appropriate, distance setbacks of RPA operations from threatened and at risk species.

Distance setbacks are already used in the protection of marine mammals from people, aircraft and other sources of disturbance. Setbacks benefit species by acting as a mobile shield in contrast to a fixed area protection.

The ConversationCongestion of space is a condition of modern life, and the forecast exponential growth of RPA in the environment indicates that space will become even more contested in future, both in the air and on the ground. We argue that stronger measures that recognise the potential impacts on wildlife, how this may differ from species to species, and how this may be concentrated in certain locations, are required to deliver better protection for threatened species.

Pip Wallace, Senior lecturer in Environmental Planning, University of Waikato; Iain White, Professor of Environmental Planning, University of Waikato, and Ross Martin, Doctoral Candidate (Coastal Ecology), University of Waikato

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

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Explorers probe hidden continent of Zealandia



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The Joides Resolution.
Tim Fulton, CC BY-ND

Rupert Sutherland, Victoria University of Wellington

Zealandia made global headlines earlier this year when scientists announced that it counts as a new continent.

Now it is coming under closer scientific scrutiny. We are currently halfway through an expedition to drill into this vast underwater plateau of continental crust, and we can already reveal that Zealandia’s geography changed more dramatically and more recently than anyone had thought.

As the first core samples from Zealandia emerge, chief scientists Rupert Sutherland and Jerry Dickens explain what that means for the continent’s evolution.

Earth’s hidden continent

There are seven continents on Earth: Eurasia, North America, South America, Africa, Antarctica, Australia and now Zealandia.

Zealandia is about two-thirds the size of Australia, but 94% of it lies deep below the southwest Pacific Ocean. Its only major landmasses are New Zealand to the south and New Caledonia to the north.

Very little is known about it, because most of it lies more than a kilometre deep beneath the Pacific Ocean.

The Zealandia continent also encompasses some smaller bits of land, including Norfolk Island, the Lord Howe group and some sub-antarctic islands. These islands were discovered hundreds of years ago, but the submerged part was only recognised as a continent in recent decades. It remains sparsely surveyed and sampled. We have better maps of the moon.

We are a team of 32 scientists from 12 different countries and our expedition is part of the International Ocean Discovery Program, which coordinates seagoing explorations of Earth’s history recorded in sediments and rocks beneath the ocean floor.

Our ship, the Joides Resolution is a floating village and laboratory, equipped with a drill rig that can take core samples from the seafloor. The samples we have collected so far show clear signs of major geographic changes and volcanic eruptions that were related to formation of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a chain of undersea volcanoes, ocean trenches, seamounts and hydrothermal vents that formed some 40 to 50 million years ago.

IODP research vessel Joides Resolution leaving Townsville in July at the start of its voyage to Zealandia.
Mark Leckie, University of Massachusetts Amherst, CC BY-ND

Zealandia exposed

There is a buzz of excitement on the ship. After more than a month at sea we are mid-way through our expedition and have drilled into the seabed at four sites. You can’t beat the old-fashioned thrill of exploration and discovery.

Co-chief scientists Jerry Dickens (left), Rice University, USA, and Rupert Sutherland (right), Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, drain excess sea water from a newly-collected sediment core.
Tim Fulton, IODP/TAMU, CC BY-ND

We are re-writing the geological history of Zealandia on our voyage. Zealandia was first recognised about 50 years ago and ideas for how it formed were published then, but the only previous expedition that has drilled deep enough into the seabed to collect useful evidence was undertaken in 1971.

It appeared back then that Zealandia separated from Australia and Antarctica about 80 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. It then subsided deep beneath the waves and was lost.

However, fossils and volcanic rocks show that northern Zealandia, an area about the size of India, was radically affected by formation of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

To collect sediment cores from deep beneath the seabed we need a drill that may be more than 5000 metres long and weigh more than 200 tonnes.
Tim Fulton, IODP/TAMU, CC BY-ND

Our preliminary observations suggest that regions now under more than 1000 metres of water became land or shallow seas, and other regions that are now under 3000 metres of water may have been much shallower, or even land. Changes in geography were massive, and may help explain how the unique plants and animals of the southwest Pacific were able to disperse and evolve.

Undersea exploration

Explorers are normal people doing extraordinary things. Exploration isn’t easy. Not everything goes to plan. The hours are long, you share a small room with someone you didn’t know before the voyage, and you miss your family and friends.

Texas A&M University technical staff process a recently-collected sediment core.
Rupert Sutherland, CC BY-ND

Sea sickness is not your friend if you spend 14 hours a day looking down a microscope at fossils that are so small you could fit hundreds on the head of a pin. So why do we do it?

It is hard to describe the excitement of discovery. Every time we get a new core on deck it is like unwrapping a present. What will it be? A curiosity to keep you busy for another few days, or key evidence to reconstruct the history of a hidden continent?

Our goals are to understand why Earth’s surface moves (the study of plate tectonics) and how greenhouse climate systems work (climate change). The southwest Pacific location makes Zealandia ideal for testing ideas on how the earth works.

The formation of the Pacific Ring of Fire changed the way our planet moved: new volcanoes and mountains grew, natural resources formed, and the changes had long-term effects on global climate.

Zealandia was closer to the South Pole 50 million years ago, but had a warm climate. How was this possible? If computer models can’t predict such warm conditions in the past, could models of future global warming also be underestimates?

The ConversationThe answers to these and many more questions lie beneath the waves, recorded in sediment layers that have accumulated over millions of years.

Rupert Sutherland, Professor of tectonics and geophysics, Victoria University of Wellington

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

I have always wondered: why is the sea salty?



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Salt flows down rivers to the ocean.
Shutterstock/Masonjar

Helen Phillips, University of Tasmania

This is an article from I Have Always Wondered, a new series where readers send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. Send your question to alwayswondered@theconversation.edu.au


Why is the sea salty? – Robert Moran, Middlecove


The short answer is that water dissolves the salts contained in rocks, and these salts are carried in the water to the sea.

As raindrops form, they absorb carbon dioxide from the air. The water (H₂O) and carbon dioxide (CO₂) react to form carbonic acid (H₂CO₃). The carbonic acid makes rainwater slightly acidic, with a pH of around 5.6. Pure water has a pH of 7, which is neutral.


Read More: I have always wondered: why are some fruits poisonous?


So, rain dissolves salts out of the rocks and these salts are carried via runoff to streams and rivers and finally to the sea. Rivers carry almost 4 billion tonnes of salt to the sea each year.

But rivers aren’t salty, right? Rivers are definitely not as salty as the sea, but they constantly carry their small salt content into the sea, and as a result the concentration of salt in the sea (which oceanographers call salinity) has built up over millions of years.

In fact, rivers aren’t the only source of sea salt. Rocks in the sea also play a role, and hydrothermal vents in the ocean floor and subsea volcanoes also supply dissolved salts to the sea.

Super-heated molten lava about to explode into the water.
NSF and NOAA

Over millions of years, the concentration of salts has increased from possibly almost fresh in the primeval sea to where it is now – an average of 35 grams of salt in every kilogram of seawater.

If all this salt could be taken out of the ocean and spread over Earth’s land surface, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it would form a layer more than 150 metres thick.

Why are some places saltier than others?

Salinity varies from place to place in the sea, depending on how close you are to rivers, how much rain falls, how much evaporation occurs, and whether ocean currents are bringing in saltier or fresher water.

In general, the sea is saltier in the subtropics, where evaporation is high due to warm air temperatures, steady trade winds, and very low humidity related to atmospheric circulation patterns called Hadley Cells.

The sea is fresher close to the Equator where rainfall is high, and in the Southern Ocean and Arctic Ocean, where sea ice melt in the summer adds fresh water.

NASA’s ‘Salt of the Earth’ Aquarius map.
NASA

Enclosed seas, such as the Mediterranean and Red Seas, can be very salty indeed. This is because the removal of fresh water by evaporation is much larger than the addition by rainfall, and lower-salinity waters from the deep sea can’t flow in as easily.

Ocean salinity as a rain gauge

While the total amount of salt in the sea is pretty constant, the distribution of the salt is changing. Broadly speaking, the salty parts of the ocean are becoming saltier, and the fresh parts fresher.

These salinity changes are caused by changing rainfall and evaporation patterns globally, where wet places are generally becoming wetter and dry places are getting drier.


Read More: I have always wondered: when do baby birds begin to breathe?


This amplification of the water cycle is a consequence of rising air temperatures due to climate change. Warm air can hold more moisture, so it can receive more evaporated water from the sea or land surface, and then release more when it rains.

Just how fast the water cycle is amplifying is a topic of current research.

Earth’s water cycle.

Rainfall and evaporation are difficult to measure accurately, particularly over the ocean where 78% of rain falls.

Ocean salinity, on the other hand, is easier to measure now that we have the global Argo program: an armada of profiling floats that measure salinity and temperature from the surface to a depth of 2,000m, and surface salinity measurements via satellite.

The ConversationOcean salinity measurements are not only being used to understand past changes in the water cycle and reduce uncertainty in climate models, they are helping to improve seasonal rain forecasts around the world.


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Helen Phillips, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania

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