How to know if we’re winning the war on Australia’s fire ant invasion, and what to do if we aren’t


Fire ants like these can give a nasty bite.
Shutterstock/SweetCrisis

Daniel Spring, University of Melbourne and Jonathan Keith, Monash University

More than A$400 million of government funding is being invested in the latest round of the fire ant program in the hope of eradicating the invasive pests by 2027.

But recent reports on the ABC suggest the invasion is spreading beyond containment lines in south-east Queensland, and there are delays in responding to public reports of new ant infestations.

The claims are denied by Graeme Dudgeon, the new general manager of Queensland Government’s National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program.




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Fire ants are native to South America but nests were first discovered in Brisbane in 2001. It’s thought they arrived via shipping at the Port of Brisbane.

They’re regarded as one of the world’s worst invasive species and have a painful bite which is why the Queensland Government has been trying to wipe them out here.

Is eradication possible?

An independent review in 2016 found the fire ants were confined to a region of south east Queensland and said there was an opportunity to eradicate the pests.

But the latest debate raises the question of whether eradication is the best plan, or would further containing the spread of the fire ants be a more practicable solution?

To achieve its aim of eradicating the fire ant problem, the program needs to progressively shrink the invasion.

If the invasion is shrinking too slowly (or is expanding), eradication won’t be achieved by 2027. Without ongoing monitoring of the invasion’s size, the program might be failing without the general public knowing.

But knowing the fire ant invasion’s size isn’t easy because there isn’t enough funding to survey all locations that might have them.

Estimates of the invasion

Using records of past fire ant detections, we have demonstrated how to estimate the invasion’s size when only part of the managed area is surveyed.

Our inference of the boundary of the fire ant invasion in April 2015. The different coloured polygons correspond to different levels of credibility that the boundary contains the invasion, with the outermost boundary corresponding to the highest credibility. Small crosses represent sites where nests have been detected, with the most recent detections in red and the oldest in brown.
Nature/Authors provided, CC BY

If this approach to estimating the invasion boundary is applied each year during the current program, we could estimate whether the invasion is shrinking fast enough to be gone by 2027.

The importance of this issue demands a rigorous scientific analysis using transparent data and methods. Without this, anecdotal evidence that the current invasion is spreading is all we have to indicate whether eradication efforts are failing.

The size of the fire ant invasion should not only be measured in terms of the total area within its estimated boundary but also the density of nests within this area.

Eradication won’t be achieved if both the invasion boundary and the density within it are increasing. This straightforward test to determine whether the program is failing has not yet been applied.

But such a test could be done if updated records of the fire ant invasion are regularly made available to allow for periodic estimation of updated maps of the invasion.

Never give up

Even if eradication by 2027 is unlikely, this does not mean we should give up, provided future control efforts can contain the invasion at an affordable cost.

If the current program fails to eradicate the fire ants, it may still set the stage for effective long-term containment of the invasion.

A poor outcome will result if current management efforts are spread thinly over the infested area, reducing the density of nests but not eradicating them from any suburbs.

A better outcome would involve shrinking the infested area, that is, eradicating the ants from many or most suburbs, so that subsequent containment efforts can focus resources on a smaller area.

Is it still early enough in Australia to shrink the fire ant invasion to a manageably small area and thereby protect most homes and most of the environment for a long time? The required information to answer this question is not yet available.




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But if Queensland’s eradication program has substantially slowed the spread so far, this provides confidence that continuing the program could effectively suppress the invasion. If so, we need to estimate what it will cost to keep out fire ants from most homes and most of the environment for a long time.

It’s often claimed that removing the last 1% of invaders costs as much as removing the previous 99%. If the current program removes all ants from most areas by 2027, this may provide large benefits without the extra cost of finding the last few ants in all infested areas.

Even if we do eradicate fire ants this time, it’s almost certain they will be back because they can readily hitchhike rides on ships.

So if governments can keep fire ant numbers down through ongoing containment, a lot of people and a lot of native species will benefit.The Conversation

Daniel Spring, Research Fellow, School of Biosciences, University of Melbourne and Jonathan Keith, Associate Professor, School of Mathematical Sciences, Monash University

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

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New research shows that Antarctica’s largest floating ice shelf is highly sensitive to warming of the ocean



Since the last ice age, the ice sheet retreated over a thousand kilometres in the Ross Sea region, more than any other region on the continent.
Rich Jones, CC BY-ND

Dan Lowry, Victoria University of Wellington

Scientists have long been concerned about the potential collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and its contribution to global sea level rise. Much of West Antarctica’s ice lies below sea level, and warming ocean temperatures may lead to runaway ice sheet retreat.

This process, called marine ice sheet instability, has already been observed along parts of the Amundsen Sea region, where warming of the ocean has led to melting underneath the floating ice shelves that fringe the continent. As these ice shelves thin, the ice grounded on land flows more rapidly into the ocean and raises the sea level.

Although the Amundsen Sea region has shown the most rapid changes to date, more ice actually drains from West Antarctica via the Ross Ice Shelf than any other area. How this ice sheet responds to climate change in the Ross Sea region is therefore a key factor in Antarctica’s contribution to global sea level rise in the future.

Periods of past ice sheet retreat can give us insights into how sensitive the Ross Sea region is to changes in ocean and air temperatures. Our research, published today, argues that ocean warming was a key driver of glacial retreat since the last ice age in the Ross Sea. This suggests that the Ross Ice Shelf is highly sensitive to changes in the ocean.




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History of the Ross Sea

Since the last ice age, the ice sheet retreated more than 1,000km in the Ross Sea region – more than any other region on the continent. But there is little consensus among the scientific community about how much climate and the ocean have contributed to this retreat.

Much of what we know about the past ice sheet retreat in the Ross Sea comes from rock samples found in the Transantarctic Mountains. Dating techniques allow scientists to determine when these rocks were exposed to the surface as the ice around them retreated. These rock samples, which were collected far from where the initial ice retreat took place, have generally led to interpretations in which the ice sheet retreat happened much later than, and independently of, the rise in air and ocean temperatures following the last ice age.

But radiocarbon ages from sediments in the Ross Sea suggest an earlier retreat, more in line with when climate began to warm from the last ice age.

An iceberg floating in the Ross Sea – an area that is sensitive to warming in the ocean.
Rich Jones, CC BY-ND

Using models to understand the past

To investigate how sensitive this region was to past changes, we developed a regional model of the Antarctic ice sheet. The model works by simulating the physics of the ice sheet and its response to changes in ocean and air temperatures. The simulations are then compared to geological records to check accuracy.

Our main findings are that warming of the ocean and atmosphere were the main causes of the major glacial retreat that took place in the Ross Sea region since the last ice age. But the dominance of these two controls in influencing the ice sheet evolved through time. Although air temperatures influenced the timing of the initial ice sheet retreat, ocean warming became the main driver due to melting of the Ross Ice Shelf from below, similar to what is currently observed in the Amundsen Sea.

The model also identifies key areas of uncertainty of past ice sheet behaviour. Obtaining sediment and rock samples and oceanographic data would help to improve modelling capabilities. The Siple Coast region of the Ross Ice Shelf is especially sensitive to changes in melt rates at the base of the ice shelf, and is therefore a critical region to sample.




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Implications for the future

Understanding processes that were important in the past allows us to improve and validate our model, which in turn gives us confidence in our future projections. Through its history, the ice sheet in the Ross Sea has been sensitive to changes in ocean and air temperatures. Currently, ocean warming underneath the Ross Ice Shelf is the main concern, given its potential to cause melting from below.

Challenges remain in determining exactly how ocean temperatures will change underneath the Ross Ice Shelf in the coming decades. This will depend on changes to patterns of ocean circulation, with complex interactions and feedback between sea ice, surface winds and melt water from the ice sheet.

Given the sensitivity of ice shelves to ocean warming, we need an integrated modelling approach that can accurately reproduce both the ocean circulation and dynamics of the ice sheet. But the computational cost is high.

Ultimately, these integrated projections of the Southern Ocean and Antarctic ice sheet will help policymakers and communities to develop meaningful adaptation strategies for cities and coastal infrastructure exposed to the risk of rising seas.The Conversation

Dan Lowry, PhD candidate, Victoria University of Wellington

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