Simon Torok, University of Melbourne; Colleen Boyle, RMIT University; Jenny Gray, University of Melbourne; Julie Arblaster, Monash University; Lynette Bettio, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Rachel Webster, University of Melbourne, and Ruth Morgan, Monash University
December 24 is the 50th anniversary of Earthrise, arguably one of the most profound images in the history of human culture. When astronaut William Anders photographed a fragile blue sphere set in dark space peeking over the Moon, it changed our perception of our place in space and fuelled environmental awareness around the world.
The photo let us see our planet from a great distance for the first time. The living Earth, surrounded by the darkness of space, appears fragile and vulnerable, with finite resources.
Viewing a small blue Earth against the black backdrop of space, with the barren moonscape in the foreground, evokes feelings of vastness: we are a small planet, orbiting an ordinary star, in an unremarkable galaxy among the billions we can observe. The image prompts emotions of insignificance – Earth is only special because it’s the planet we live on.
As astronaut Jim Lovell said during the live broadcast from Apollo 8, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realise just what you have back there on Earth.”
Earthrise is a testament to the extraordinary capacity of human perception. Although, in 1968, the photograph seemed revelatory and unexpected, it belongs to an extraordinary history of representing the Earth from above. Anders may have produced an image that radically shifted our view of ourselves, but we were ready to see it.
A history of flight
People have always dreamed of flying. As we grew from hot-air balloons to space shuttles, the camera has been there for much of the ride.
After WWII, the US military used captured V-2 rockets to launch motion-picture cameras out of the atmosphere, producing the first images of Earth from space.
Russia’s Sputnik spurred the United States to launch a series of satellites — watching the enemy and the weather — and then NASA turned its attention to the Moon, launching a series of exploratory probes. One (Lunar Orbiter I, 1966) turned its camera across a sliver of the Moon’s surface and found the Earth, rising above it.
Despite not being the “first” image of the Earth from our Moon, Earthrise is special. It was directly witnessed by the astronauts as well as being captured by the camera. It elegantly illustrates how human perception is something that is constantly evolving, often hand in hand with technology.
Earthrise showed us that Earth is a connected system, and any changes made to this system potentially affect the whole of the planet. Although the Apollo missions sought to reveal the Moon, they also powerfully revealed the limits of our own planet. The idea of a Spaceship Earth, with its interdependent ecologies and finite resources, became an icon of a growing environmental movement concerned with the ecological impacts of industrialisation and population growth.
From space, we observe the thin shield provided by our atmosphere, allowing life to flourish on the surface of our planet. Lifeforms created Earth’s atmosphere by removing carbon dioxide and generating free oxygen. They created an unusual mix of gases compared to other planets – an atmosphere with a protective ozone layer and a mix of gases that trap heat and moderate extremes of temperature. Over millions of years, this special mix has allowed a huge diversity of life forms to evolve, including (relatively recently on this time scale) Homo sapiens.
The field of meteorology has benefited enormously from the technology foreshadowed by the Earthrise photo. Our knowledge is no longer limited to Earth-based weather-observing stations.
Satellites can now bring us an Earthrise-type image every ten minutes, allowing us to observe extremes such as tropical cyclones as they form over the ocean, potentially affecting life and land. Importantly, we now possess a long enough record of satellite information so that in many instances we can begin to examine long-term changes of such events.
The human population has doubled in the 50 years since the Earthrise image, resulting in habitat destruction, the spread of pest species and wildfires spurred by climate warming. Every year, our actions endanger more species.
Earth’s climate has undergone enormous changes in the five decades since the Earthrise photo was taken. Much of the increase in Australian and global temperatures has happened in the past 50 years. This warming is affecting us now, with an increase in the frequency of extreme events such as heatwaves, and vast changes across the oceans and polar caps.
With further warming projected, it is important that we take this chance to look back at the Earthrise photo of our little planet, so starkly presented against the vastness of space. The perspective that it offers us can help us choose the path for our planet for the next 50 years.
It reminds us of the wonders of the Earth system, its beauty and its fragility. It encourages us to continue to seek understanding of its weather systems, blue ocean and ice caps through scientific endeavour and sustained monitoring.
The beauty of our planet as seen from afar – and up close – can inspire us to make changes to secure the amazing and diverse animals that share our Earth.
Zoos become conservation organisations, holding, breeding and releasing critically endangered animals. Scientists teach us about the capacities of animals and the threats to their survival.
Communities rise to the challenge and people in their thousands take actions to help wildlife, from buying toilet paper made from recycled paper to not releasing balloons outdoors. If we stand together we can secure a future for all nature on this remarkable planet.
But is a 50-year-old photo enough to reignite the environmental awareness and action required to tackle today’s threats to nature? What will be this generation’s Earthrise moment?
The authors would like to acknowledge the significant contribution of Alicia Sometimes to this article.
Simon Torok, Honorary Fellow, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne; Colleen Boyle, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, RMIT University; Jenny Gray, Chief Executive Officer – Zoos Victoria, University of Melbourne; Julie Arblaster, Associate Professor, Monash University; Lynette Bettio, , Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Rachel Webster, Professor of Physics, University of Melbourne, and Ruth Morgan, Senior Research Fellow, Monash University
Our beaches are our summer playgrounds, yet beach litter and marine debris injures one-fifth of beach users, particularly children and older people.
Our research, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, found more than 7,800 injuries on New Zealand beaches each year – in 2016, some 595 of them were related to beach litter. The most common injuries caused by litter were punctures and cuts, but they also included fractured limbs, burns, head trauma, and even blindness.
Children under 14 suffered 31% of all beach litter injuries, and were injured by beach litter at twice the rate compared with other locations in New Zealand. Beach litter injury claims exceeded NZ$325,000 in 2016, representing a growing proportion of all beach injury claims. Beach injury claims changed from 1.2% of the total in 2007 to 2.9% in 2016.
Our study relied on reported injury insurance claims in New Zealand, and thus probably underestimates the true injury rate, particularly for minor wounds. Our 2016 survey of beachgoers in Tasmania found that 21.6% of them had been injured by beach litter at any time previously – even on the island state’s most picturesque beaches.
Alarmingly, most beach users in the Tasmanian survey did not consider beach litter an injury risk, despite the high rate of self-reported injuries.
Awash with danger
As more debris washes ashore and our recreational use of our coasts increases, it is more likely than ever before that we will encounter beach litter, even on remote and “pristine” beaches.
Global studies have found up to 15 items of debris per square metre of beach, even in remote locations. On Henderson Island – a supposedly pristine South Pacific outpost miles from anywhere – some 3,570 new pieces of litter arrive every day on one beach alone.
Beach litter typically includes a huge range of items, such as:
- broken glass
- sharp and rusted metal such as car bodies, food cans, fish hooks, and barbed wire
- flammable or toxic materials such as cigarette lighters, flares, ammunition and explosives, and vessels containing chemicals or rotten food
- sanitary and medical waste such as used syringes, dirty nappies, condoms, tampons and sanitary pads
- bagged and unbagged dog faeces and dead domestic animals.
The health hazards posed by beach litter include choking or ingesting poisons (particularly for young children), exposure to toxic chemicals, tripping, punctures and cuts, burns, explosions, and exposure to disease.
Degrading plastic can also produce toxins that contaminate seafood, potentially entering human or ecological food chains.
Despite the potential severity of these hazards our understanding and study of human health impacts from beach litter is poor. We know more about the impacts of beach litter and marine debris on wildlife than on humans.
Two of our previous studies in Australia and New Zealand have found beach litter that can cause punctures and cuts at densities 227 items per 100 square metres of beach, and choking hazards at densities of 153 items per 100 square metres of beach. These exposures to beach litter hazards in Australia and New Zealand may be 50% higher than global averages (based on preliminary data).
Even “clean” beaches can be hazardous, and may even increase the likelihood of injury. Visitors to a recently cleaned or supposedly “pristine” beach may be less vigilant for hazards. What’s more, European studies have found that actively cleaned beaches can still have hazardous debris items.
The risk of injury will continue to increase without concerted efforts to prevent addition of new debris and the active removal of existing rubbish. Besides watching where we tread when at the beach and participating in beach cleanups, we also need to make sure we deal with rubbish thoughtfully, so litter doesn’t end up there in the first place.
Marnie Campbell, Chevron Harry Butler Chair in Biosecurity and Environmental Science, Murdoch University; Cameron McMains, PhD Candidate, Harry Butler Institute, Murdoch University; Chad Hewitt, Professor and Director, Murdoch Biosecurity Research Centre, Murdoch University, and Mariana Campos, Lecturer and researcher, Murdoch University
It’s the most wonderful time of the year: deciding what to do with your Christmas tree.
If you bought a plastic tree, you might have already made the commitment to store and reuse it next year. However, if you were just looking at the greenhouse gas credentials of Christmas tree options, a full life cycle analysis indicates you’ll need to reuse that plastic tree at least 20 times to break even. So you had better store your plastic tree really carefully (even if you are prepared to accept it might be a little bedraggled by 2038, and no longer even in style).
What about the living or cut trees? Do you throw you throw them out, stash them in the backyard for a midwinter bonfire, or start a compost heap? You might be surprised to learn that your real Christmas tree can bring you all sorts of joy both before and beyond December 25.
Selecting a real Christmas tree as a family is an enjoyable annual ritual for many, but actually the tree itself can also directly reduce stress. Yes, the presence of natural living things – and even objects made from natural things like wood – has been demonstrated to improve physiological well-being. The more you have in your home or office, the more likely you are to express satisfaction with your work and well-being.
So, having a living or a cut Christmas tree in a wooden planter box, positioned in front of a large window, over the Christmas period would have allowed you to gain the full stress-reduction effects, reduce your greenhouse gas footprint, and enjoy the festive season.
The love you give (to trees)
The improvements in well-being associated with nature-based objects is part of what is now termed biophilia. It is not only plants or trees in a pot in your room that can promote these improvements. Wooden furniture, natural light, nature seen through large windows, and even images of nature can all combine to enhance the biophilic experience.
But if images of nature can help with biophilia, wouldn’t a realistic plastic tree also work? In a recent study, my colleagues and I found that photographs of plants could indeed result in volunteers responding that they felt positive emotional, physiological, cognitive and behavioural responses.
However, when exposed to the real plants that were the subject of the photographs, the response was even more positive, and people went out of their way even just to walk past the plants. Plastic Christmas trees are generally more “symbolic” than realistic and it is unlikely that these could directly induce any feelings of biophilia.
Cut trees, and even live trees left inside too long, will lose leaves or needles and eventually need to be discarded. But even these processes may engage aspects of biophilia if done sensitively.
Dead needles and twigs can be crushed and used as mulch, and if the tree stem is too big to break into mulchable parts, you might be able to whittle or craft a small wooden artefact or piece of jewellery. Composting or reusing the material produced by a once-living Christmas tree, as a part of the Christmas tradition, would certainly increase the biophilic response.
While out in the garden or veranda spreading a little mulch, you could also begin a new tradition – planting next year’s living Christmas tree in a pot! Almost any tree could be used as a living Christmas tree, depending on how big you want it and how much tinsel or popcorn string you plan on wrapping around it.
However there are a number of native species (like the Norfolk Island Pine) which work well as Christmas trees, and which you might be able to plant in your yard when they get too big.
Growing your own tree, complete in its little wooden planter box on your veranda or balcony, will give you a hit of biophilia and a glimpse of next Christmas every day.