‘Revolutionary change’ needed to stop unprecedented global extinction crisis


The exploitation of the land and sea is the number one reason for biodiversity extinction, according to a new report.
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Michelle Lim, University of Adelaide

We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.

Last week, in the culmination of a process involving 500 biodiversity experts from over 50 countries, 134 governments negotiated the final form of the Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).




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IPBES aims to arm policy-makers with the tools to address the relationships between biodiversity and human well-being. It synthesises evidence on the state of biodiversity, ecosystems and natures’ contributions to people on a global scale.

The IPBES Global Assessment provides unequivocal evidence that we need biodiversity for human survival and well-being. To stem unprecedented species decline the assessment sets out the actions governments, the private sector and individuals can take.

Importantly, a whole chapter of the Global Assessment (about one-sixth of the assessment) is dedicated to examining whether existing biodiversity law and policy is adequate. This chapter also outlines ways to address the vortex of biodiversity decline.

If we are to halt the continued loss of nature, then the world’s legal, institutional and economic systems must be reformed entirely. And this change needs to happen immediately.

All four species of quoll have declined dramatically in numbers because of habitat loss or change across Australia, and introduced predators such as foxes and cats.
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What makes IPBES Assessments special?

IPBES is the biodiversity equivalent to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Assessments are a fundamental part of IPBES’s work.

IPBES Assessments review thousands of biodiversity studies to identify broad trends and draw authoritative conclusions. In the case of the Global Assessment, IPBES authors reviewed more than 15,000 publications from scientific and governments sources.




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Governments and stakeholders give feedback on the draft text, and experts respond meticulously to the thousands of comments before revising and clarifying the draft. A final summary of key findings is then negotiated with member states at plenary meetings – these meetings concluded on Saturday.

What did the Global Assessment find?

Human activity severely threatens biodiversity and ecosystem functions worldwide. About 1 million species are facing extinction. If nothing changes many of these could be gone within just decades.

But nature is vital to all aspects of human health. We rely on natural systems, not only for food, energy, medicine and genetic resources, but also for inspiration, learning and culture.

The report also reveals the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function is much less pronounced on lands managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities. It also recognises the significant role of Indigenous knowledge, governance systems and culturally-specific worldviews which adopt a stewardship approach to managing natural systems.

The report identified agriculture, forestry and urbanisation as the number one reason for biodiversity loss in land-based ecosystems and rivers. In the sea, fishing has had the greatest impact on biodiversity and is exacerbated by changes in the use of the sea and coastal lands.

This is followed closely by:

  • the direct use of species (primarily through harvesting, logging, hunting and fishing)

  • climate change

  • pollution

  • the invasion of non-native species.

These factors are aggravated by underlying social values, such as unsustainable consumption and production, concentrated human populations, trade, technological advances, and governance at multiple scales.

The Global Assessment concludes that current biodiversity laws and policies have been insufficient to address the threats to the natural world.




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What’s more, if nothing changes, neither the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Targets nor the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are likely to be met.

And yet, the Global Assessment has an optimistic outlook. It emphasises that if the world’s legal, institutional and economic systems are transformed then it is possible to achieve a better future for biodiversity and human well-being in the next 30 years.

But this is only possible if reform happens immediately, as incremental change will be insufficient.

What must be done?

Pollution is one of the main reasons biodiversity is in rapid decline.
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The Global Assessment puts forward these next, urgent steps:

  • we need to redefine human well-being beyond its narrow basis on economic growth

  • engage multiple public and private actors

  • link sustainability efforts across all governance scales

  • elevate Indigenous and local knowledge and communities.

The report also recommends strengthening environmental laws and taking serious precautionary measures in public and private endeavours. Governments must recognise indivisibility of society and nature, and govern to strengthen rather than weaken the natural world.

What can I do?

Produce and consume sustainably

Individuals can make meaningful change through what we produce and what we buy. Our food is an important starting point. You could, for instance, choose local or sustainably produced meals and reduce your food waste.

Champion the inclusion of Indigenous peoples and local communities

Indigenous and local communities need to be included and supported more than ever before. The Global Assessment provides clear evidence that lands managed by Indigenous and local communities are performing better in terms of biodiversity. Still, these lands face serious threats, and Indigenous communities continue to be marginalised around the world.

Provoke governments to do better

Current biodiversity laws and policies don’t adequately address the threats to the natural world. The report recommends the world include biodiversity considerations across all sectors and jurisdictions to prevent further degradation of natural systems. We have an important role in rallying our governments to ensure this occurs.




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We are losing biodiversity at record-breaking rates. The majesty of the natural world is disappearing and with it that which makes life worth living. We are also undermining the capacity of the Earth to sustain thriving human societies. We have the power to change this – but we need to act now.The Conversation

Michelle Lim, Lecturer, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The uranium mine in the heart of Kakadu needs a better clean up plan


Rebecca Lawrence, Macquarie University

Can a uranium mine be rehabilitated to the environmental standards of a national park and World Heritage site?

That’s the challenge faced by the controversial Ranger uranium mine inside Kakadu National Park.

But our new research report found the document guiding its rehabilitation is deficient, and urgent changes are needed for the heavily impacted mine site to be cleaned up well.

Kakadu has been a national park since the 1970s, but the Ranger mine, while surrounded by Kakadu, has never formally been part of the park. This classification is in the interests of resource extraction, and has failed to recognise or protect the area’s cultural and environmental values.

Kakadu National Park encompasses a precious natural heritage. It protects valuable ecosystems of outstanding value, diversity and beauty, and contains the world’s richest breeding grounds for migratory tropical water birds.




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Recent diggings and studies have documented at least 65,000 years of continuous human habitation at a site on the land of the Mirarr people – this is currently the oldest occupation site in Australia.

How was the mine developed?

The boundaries of Kakadu National Park were conveniently drawn around the Ranger mine site through a series of political and administrative negotiations following the Fox Inquiry, which gave a cautious green light for the Ranger operation.

Likewise, Ranger was excluded from the requirements of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act that would have otherwise given the Mirarr people the right to say no to the mine.

Now, as the mining stops and the repair begins, mining companies and government regulators are being tested on their environmental commitment, and capacity to make meaningful change.




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But rehabilitating what is essentially a toxic waste dump is no easy task.

And the inadequacy of the Energy Resources of Australia’s Mine Closure Plan – the key document guiding the rehabilitation – shows they are failing this test so far.

Problems with the Mine Closure Plan

Our new research report – jointly conducted by Sydney Environment Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation – examines the Mine Closure Plan and finds it is seriously wanting in key areas.

These include significant data deficiencies regarding management of mine tailings (mine residue), land stability, and modelling of toxic contaminants likely to flow off site into Kakadu National Park.

The Mine Closure Plan is almost completely silent on crucial governance questions, such as the Ranger mine’s opaque regulatory processes and rehabilitation, and current and future financing – especially in relation to future site monitoring and mitigation works.




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After the price collapse following the Fukushima nuclear crisis, times in the uranium trade have been tough. Coupled with a mandated end to commercial operations by early 2021, Rio Tinto has accepted the era of mining has now been replaced by the need for rehabilitation.

But the challenge for Energy Resources of Australia and Rio Tinto, who own and operate the mine, is not simply to scrape rocks into holes and plant trees. It is to ensure radioactive and contaminated mine tailings are:

physically isolated from the environment for at least 10,000 years [and that] any contaminants arising from the tailings will not result in any detrimental environmental impacts for at least 10,000 years.

These are time-scales of epic proportions, yet the Mine Closure Plan says little to assure the public this can be achieved.

In fact, Energy Resources of Australia concedes it won’t actually be possible to monitor and measure this over the next 10,000 years, so a model will be required instead. But this model has not been publicly released.

Kakadu is home to more than 280 different types of birds, such as the white bellied sea eagle.
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Rehabilitation success is determined by the mining company

And this speaks to a broader problem with the whole process: the success of the rehabilitation will be judged by criteria created by the mining company.

It is naive to assume a mining company is best placed to propose their own rehabilitation criteria, given their corporate imperative to reduce rehabilitation costs and future liabilities.

And the stakes here are very high. The rehabilitation of Ranger will be a closely-watched and long-judged test of the credibility, competence and commitment of the regulators and the mining companies.




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The Supervising Scientist Branch – a federal agency charged with tracking and advising, but not regulating, the Ranger operation – also made an assessment that should be ringing alarm bells:

[The company’s current plan] does not yet provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the current plan for rehabilitation of the Ranger mine site will achieve the required ERs [Environmental Requirements].

The Supervising Scientist Branch’s disturbing initial analysis is a red flag demanding an effective response.

The Conversation reached out to Energy Resources of Australia for a response to this story. A spokesperson told The Conversation the company is committed to the “full rehabilitation” of the Ranger Project Area:

Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) has committed to update the Closure Plan and submit for approval on an annual basis. Updates to the Closure Plan will be made publicly available.

As noted by ERA at the time of release of the Ranger Mine Closure Plan, there are some aspects of closure planning that will be further developed and refined as a result of ongoing studies and consultation. These will be reflected in future updates to the Closure Plan.

ERA is committed to rehabilitate the Ranger Project Area in accordance with the Environmental Requirements as set out in relevant regulations. The final close out of rehabilitation can only occur when the Commonwealth Minister, on advice of the Supervising Scientist and Traditional Owner representatives, is satisfied that the Environmental Requirements have been met.

Australia has a long history of substandard mine closure and rehabilitation in both the uranium and wider mining sector.

There is a real need to see a better approach at Ranger, and the first step in that journey is by increasing the scrutiny, accountability and transparency surrounding this essential clean up work.


This article was updated at 12.25pm, May 7, to include a response from Energy Resources of Australia.The Conversation

Rebecca Lawrence, Affiliate, Sydney Environment Institute; Honorary Associate, Macquarie University, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

El Niño has rapidly become stronger and stranger, according to coral records


Mandy Freund, University of Melbourne; Ben Henley, University of Melbourne; David Karoly, CSIRO; Helen McGregor, University of Wollongong, and Nerilie Abram, Australian National University

The pattern of El Niño has changed dramatically in recent years, according to the first seasonal record distinguishing different types of El Niño events over the last 400 years.

A new category of El Niño has become far more prevalent in the last few decades than at any time in the past four centuries. Over the same period, traditional El Niño events have become more intense.

This new finding will arguably alter our understanding of the El Niño phenomenon. Changes to El Niño will influence patterns of precipitation and temperature extremes in Australia, Southeast Asia and the Americas.

Some climate model studies suggest this recent change in El Niño “flavours” could be due to climate change, but until now, long-term observations were limited.




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Our paper, published in Nature Geoscience today, fills this gap using coral records to reconstruct El Niño event types for the past 400 years.

Central Pacific El Niño event frequency relative to Eastern Pacific El Niño event frequency over the past four centuries, expressed as the number of events in 30-year sliding windows.
Author provided

What is El Niño?

El Niño describes an almost year-long warming of the surface ocean in the tropical Pacific. These warming events are so extreme and powerful that their impacts are felt around the globe.

During strong El Niño events, Australia and parts of Asia often receive much less rainfall than during normal years. The opposite applies to the western parts of the Americas, where the stronger rising motion over unusually warm ocean waters often results in heavy rainfall, causing massive floods. At the same time many of the hottest years on record across the globe coincide with El Niño events.

El Niño and its global impacts. Schematic of idealised atmospheric and sea surface temperature conditions during Central (top left) and Eastern Pacific events (top right). Annual global temperature anomalies (lower panel) show the familiar upward trend due to climate change. Many of the hottest years on record coincide with El Niño events.
NOAA National Centers for Environmental information, Climate at a Glance: Global Time Series

The reason for such far-reaching influences on weather is the changes El Niño causes in atmospheric circulation. In normal years, a massive circulation cell, called the Walker circulation, moves air along the equator across the tropical Pacific.




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Warmer waters during El Niño events disrupt or even reverse this circulation pattern. The type of atmospheric disruption and the climate impacts this causes depend in particular on where the warm waters of El Niño are located.

The new ‘flavour’ of El Niño

A new “flavour” of El Niño is now recognised in the tropical Pacific. This type of El Niño is characterised by warm ocean temperatures in the Central Pacific, rather than the more typical warming in the far Eastern Pacific near the South American coast, some 10,000km away.

Although not as strong as the Eastern Pacific version, the Central Pacific El Niño is clearly observed in recent decades, including in 2014-15 and most recently in 2018-19. Over most of the last 400 years, El Niño events happened roughly at the same rate in the Central and Eastern Pacific.

Differences between Central and Eastern Pacific El Niño events and their associated drought impacts.

By the end of the 20th century, though, our research shows a sudden change: a sharp increase of Central Pacific El Niño events becomes evident. At the same time, the number of conventional Eastern Pacific events stayed relatively low, but the three most recent Eastern-type events (in 1982-83, 1997-98 and 2015-16) were unusually strong.

Using coral to unlock the past

Our understanding of the new Central Pacific flavour of El Niño is hindered by the fact that El Niño events happen only every 2-7 years. So during our lifetime we can observe only a handful of events.

This isn’t enough to really understand Central Pacific El Niño, and whether they are becoming more common.

That’s why we look at corals from the tropical Pacific. The corals started growing decades to centuries before we began routinely measuring the climate with instruments. The corals are an excellent archive of changes in water conditions they experience as they grow, including ocean changes related to El Niño. We combined the information from a network of coral records that preserve seasonal histories.

At a seasonal timescale, we can see the characteristic patterns of past El Niño events in the chemistry of the corals. These patterns tell us which El Niño is which over the last 400 years. It is in this continuous picture of past El Niños obtained from coral archives that we found a clear picture of an unusual recent change in the Pacific’s El Niño flavours.

Underwater drilling of corals off Christmas Island (underwater team: Jennie Mallela, Oscar Branson; surface team: Jessica Hargreaves, Nerilie Abram).
Jason Turl, Nerilie Abram

Why do we care?

This extraordinary change in El Niño behaviour has serious implications for societies and ecosystems around the world. For example, the most recent Eastern-Pacific El Niño event in 2015-2016 triggered disease outbreaks across the globe. With the impacts of climate change continuing to unfold, many of the hottest years on record also coincide with El Niño events.




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What’s more, the Pacific Ocean is currently lingering in an El Niño state. With these confounding events, many people around the world are wondering what extreme weather will be inflicted upon them in the months and years to come.

Our new record opens a door to understanding past changes of El Niño, with implications for the future too. Knowing how the different types of El Niño have unfolded in the past will mean we are better able to model, predict and plan for future El Niños and their widespread impacts.The Conversation

Mandy Freund, PhD Researcher, University of Melbourne; Ben Henley, Research Fellow in Climate and Water Resources, University of Melbourne; David Karoly, Leader, NESP Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub, CSIRO; Helen McGregor, ARC Future Fellow, University of Wollongong, and Nerilie Abram, ARC Future Fellow, Research School of Earth Sciences; Chief Investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sexual aggression key to spread of deadly tumours in Tasmanian devils



Both male and female Tasmanian devils can become very violent during sexual interactions.
Shutterstock/PARFENOV

David Hamilton, University of Tasmania; Elissa Cameron, University of Tasmania; Menna Elizabeth Jones, University of Tasmania, and Rodrigo Hamede, University of Tasmania

Tasmanian devils have a reputation as a fearsome animal – most of the time this is undeserved. When it comes to the mating season, however, it’s a fair judgement. Between February and April, mating can be incredibly aggressive, with male and female devils prone to biting one another both during and after the act.

That could be deadly for the devils, according to new research published online in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

Unfortunately, biting drives the spread of devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) a transmissible cancer that has been afflicting the species since the mid-1990s.




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DFTD is highly unusual for a cancer because it can transfer between individual devils and grow in its new host.

The fact that devils regularly bite one another around the mouth means tumour cells can easily transfer from an infected devil to an open wound on a healthy devil. This makes the buildup of wounds in devils extremely important to our understanding of this disease.

When devils mate

In our study, we examined the accumulation of bite wounds in a population of wild devils in northwest Tasmania.

We found males were much more likely than females to pick up high numbers of bite wounds. But these wounds appear to be related to the amount of time males spent in mating season interactions with females, as opposed to fights with other males (as we had previously thought).

In the mating season, after male devils have mated with females, they spend an extended period either confining the female in a den, or closely following her to make sure other males are unable to mate with her.

During our study we found this behaviour could go on for up to two weeks in the wild. The process is known as “mate guarding” and is relatively common in the animal kingdom.

We found the longer males spent engaging in mate guarding behaviour, the more bite wounds they received. This would seem to put successful males, who mate with a high number of females, in the firing line when it comes to acquiring DFTD.

But no pattern of sex bias in DFTD prevalence has ever been observed in the wild.

So how does this fit with our study on the increased vulnerability in males?

A Tasmanian devil with the Devil Facial Tumour Disease.
Menna Jones/PLOS ONE, CC BY

Disease transfer

A crucial unknown in the DFTD transmission process involves directionality – which way the deadly disease is passed on by a devil. There are two possibilities:

  1. an infected devil bites an uninfected animal, transferring tumour cells (from its teeth or saliva) directly into the wound it causes

  2. an uninfected devil bites into tumours on an infected animal, and cells transfer into an open wound inside the biter’s mouth.

The reality is likely to involve a combination of the two.

Our results indicate that most disease transmission occurs during extended mating season interactions, when females appear to be causing high numbers of wounds to their mates.

If DFTD can transfer in either direction during these encounters, then both the males receiving the wounds and the females causing them would be equally at risk of acquiring the disease.

Future of the devil

We have highlighted mating season encounters between the sexes as crucial transmission points for the spread of DFTD. The behaviour of male devils appears to be driving patterns that support transmission of the disease.

This information is important for potential disease management options, as it pinpoints males in good condition – who are likely to be reproductively successful – as targets for management interventions, such as vaccinations.

Most importantly, these results add one more piece to the puzzle of rapid evolution in the Tasmanian devil, in response to the strong evolutionary pressure DFTD is placing on this iconic species. With almost 100% mortality once devils reach breeding age, any advantage an individual devil might have to survive a little longer and reproduce should – over time – spread through the population.

The species has already shown remarkably rapid shifts in their life history and genome, while some are able to mount an immune response and recover from the tumours.

DFTD is spread through biting so we can expect strong evolutionary pressure for devils to become less aggressive towards each other over time.

With these new results, we can now pinpoint for the first time who (healthy, successful males) and when (guarding females after mating) the intense selection pressure on aggressive behaviour in devils will operate.




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Ultimately, devils will solve the DFTD problem themselves by evolving resistance, tolerance and changing their behaviour. One of the best things we can do is let evolution take its course, giving a helping hand along the way via well guided management actions.The Conversation

David Hamilton, PhD Candidate in Zoology, University of Tasmania; Elissa Cameron, Professor of Wildlife Ecology, University of Tasmania; Menna Elizabeth Jones, Associate Professor in Zoology, University of Tasmania, and Rodrigo Hamede, Post Doctoral Research Fellow, Conservation Biology and Wildlife Management, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.