Invasive grasses are fueling wildfires across the US



Burning invasive, nonnative grasses on federal land at Lower Table Rock, Oregon.
BLM, CC BY

Emily Fusco, University of Massachusetts Amherst

The Santa Ana winds that help drive fall and winter wildfires in California have died down, providing welcome relief for residents. But other ecological factors contribute to fires in ways that scientists are still discovering.

I study how human actions affect fire regimes – the patterns through which fires occur in a particular place over a specific time period. People alter these patterns by adding ignition sources, such as campfires or sparking power lines; suppressing fires when they develop; and introducing nonnative invasive plants.

My research suggests that nonnative invasive grasses may be fueling wildfires across the United States. Some fires are occurring in areas that rarely burn, like the Sonoran Desert and the semiarid shrublands of the Great Basin, which covers most of Nevada and parts of five surrounding states. In the coming months, some of the grasses that help feed these blazes will germinate, producing tinder for future fires.

The Great Basin.
KMusser/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

In a recent study, I worked with colleagues at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Colorado to investigate how 12 nonnative invasive grass species may be affecting regional fire regimes across the U.S. We found that eight species could be increasing fire in ecosystems across the country.

Altering historical fire patterns

A fire regime is a way to describe fire over space and time or to characterize fire patterns. Understanding fire regimes can help make clear that fire is a natural and integral component of many ecosystems. Knowing historical fire patterns also enables scientists to begin to understand when new or different patterns emerge.

The link between invasive grass and fire is well established. Invasive grasses are novel fuels that can act as kindling in an ecosystem where readily flammable material might not otherwise be present. They can catch a spark that might otherwise have been inconsequential.

For example, in August 2019 the Mercer Fire burned 25 acres in Arizona, scorching native desert plants, including iconic saguaro cacti. A much larger event, the 435,000-acre Martin Fire, destroyed native sagebrush ecosystems in Nevada in July 2018. Invasive grasses helped fuel both fires.

Cheatgrass, which fueled the Martin Fire, is a well-studied invasive grass known to promote fire. But many other invasive grass species have similar potential, and their roles in promoting fire have not been assessed at large scales.

How land managers are fighting invasive grasses across the Great Basin region of the West.

Introducing the suspects

Researchers describe fire regimes in many ways. Our study focused on fire occurrence (whether or not fire occurred), frequency (how many times fires occurred) and size (the largest fire associated with a place) in 29 ecological regions across the U.S. For each location we tested whether invasive grasses were associated with differences in fire occurrence, frequency or size.

A nonnative invasive species typically comes from another continent, has become established, is spreading and has negative impacts. We used an online Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States as a starting point to determine which invasive grass species to investigate.

Next, we searched the scientific literature and the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Effects Information System to see whether there was reason to believe that any of the invasive grass species promoted fire. This process helped narrow our scope from 176 species to 12 that were suitable for our analysis.

Who are these “dirty dozen,” and how did they get here? Buffelgrass is native to Africa and was intentionally introduced to Arizona in the 1930s, probably for erosion control and forage. Japanese stiltgrass and cogongrass are native to much of Asia and were introduced to the southeastern U.S. in the early 1900s, in some instances as packing material. Medusahead, which comes from Eurasia, was introduced to the western U.S. in the late 1800s, probably by accident as a contaminant in seed shipments.

The remaining eight species – giant reed, common reed, silk reed, red brome, cheatgrass, Chinese silvergrass, Arabian schismus and common Mediterranean grass – have similar stories. People introduced them, sometimes accidentally and at other times intentionally, without an understanding of how they could impact their new settings.

Cogongrass, which is invasive in the U.S. Southeast, may burn hot enough to kill native fire-adapted tree species.
Alabama Cooperative Extension System, CC BY-ND

Big data for big questions

Understanding how multiple species influence fire over many years at a national scale requires using big data. One person could not collect information on this scale working alone.

We relied on composite data sets that provided thousands of records of invasive grass occurrence and abundance across the country. Combining these records with agency and satellite fire records helped us determine whether fire occurrence, frequency or size were different in places with and without grass invasions.

We also used statistical models to assess whether human activities and ecological features could be driving observed differences between invaded and uninvaded areas. For example, it was possible that grass invasions were happening near roads, which are also linked with fire ignitions. By including roads with grass invasion in our statistical models, we can be more confident in the role invasive grasses could play in altering fire regimes.

Our results show that eight of the species we studied are associated with increases in fire occurrence. Six of these species are also linked to increases in fire frequency. Invasions seem to be affecting a variety of ecosystems, ranging from buffelgrass in the Sonoran Desert to Japanese stiltgrass in eastern U.S. forests to cogongrass in southeastern pine systems.

Our statistical models suggest that grass invasion, along with human activities, are likely affecting fire patterns in these ecosystems.

Surprisingly, none of the invasive grass species analyzed appeared to influence fire size. We interpret this result to mean that the areas we studied are seeing more of the same types of fires that already occur there, at least in terms of size.

Dispersing seeds over a burned area of the 2015 Soda Fire in southwest Idaho to help stabilize soils and combat invasive weeds such as cheatgrass.
BLM via AP

Factoring invasive grasses into fire planning

People start an estimated 84% of wildfires in the U.S., with the rest ignited by lightning strikes. Studies show that climate change is increasing wildfire activity.

With an understanding of interactions between invasive grasses and fire, agencies that handle either fire or invasive species may find opportunities to work together to control invasions that can lead to more frequent burns. Our research can also strengthen predictions of future fire risk by incorporating the presence of invasive grasses into fire risk models.

Although it sometimes may feel as though the world is on fire, this information can provide potential for remediation, and may help communities prepare more effectively for future wildfires.

[ Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter. ]The Conversation

Emily Fusco, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Massachusetts Amherst

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

Emperor Penguins could march to extinction if nations fail to halt climate change



Emperor Penguin in Antarctica.
Stephanie Jenouvrier, CC BY-ND

Stephanie Jenouvrier, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The concept of a canary in a coal mine – a sensitive species that provides an alert to danger – originated with British miners, who carried actual canaries underground through the mid-1980s to detect the presence of deadly carbon monoxide gas. Today another bird, the Emperor Penguin, is providing a similar warning about the planetary effects of burning fossil fuels.

As a seabird ecologist, I develop mathematical models to understand and predict how seabirds respond to environmental change. My research integrates many areas of science, including the expertise of climatologists, to improve our ability to anticipate future ecological consequences of climate change.

Most recently, I worked with colleagues to combine what we know about the life history of Emperor Penguins with different potential climate scenarios outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement, to combat climate change and adapt to its effects. We wanted to understand how climate change could affect this iconic species, whose unique life habits were documented in the award-winning film “March of the Penguins.”

Our newly published study found that if climate change continues at its current rate, Emperor Penguins could virtually disappear by the year 2100 due to loss of Antarctic sea ice. However, a more aggressive global climate policy can halt the penguins’ march to extinction.

Emperor Penguins breeding on sea ice in Terre Adélie, Antarctica.
Stephanie Jenouvrier, CC BY-ND

Carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere

As many scientific reports have shown, human activities are increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere, which is warming the planet. Today atmospheric CO2 levels stand at slightly over 410 parts per million, well above anything the planet has experienced in millions of years.

If this trend continues, scientists project that CO2 in the atmosphere could reach 950 parts per million by 2100. These conditions would produce a very different world from today’s.

Emperor Penguins are living indicators whose population trends can illustrate the consequences of these changes. Although they are found in Antarctica, far from human civilization, they live in such delicate balance with their rapidly changing environment that they have become modern-day canaries.

A fate tied to sea ice

I have spent almost 20 years studying Emperor Penguins’ unique adaptations to the harsh conditions of their sea ice home. Each year, the surface of the ocean around Antarctica freezes over in the winter and melts back in summer. Penguins use the ice as a home base for breeding, feeding and molting, arriving at their colony from ocean waters in March or April after sea ice has formed for the Southern Hemisphere’s winter season.

54 known Emperor Penguin colonies around Antarctica (black dots) and sea ice cover (blue color).
Stephanie Jenouvrier, CC BY-ND

In mid-May the female lays a single egg. Throughout the winter, males keep the eggs warm while females make a long trek to open water to feed during the most unforgiving weather on Earth.

When female penguins return to their newly hatched chicks with food, the males have fasted for four months and lost almost half their weight. After the egg hatches, both parents take turns feeding and protecting their chick. In September, the adults leave their young so that they can both forage to meet their chick’s growing appetite. In December, everyone leaves the colony and returns to the ocean.

Emperor Penguin fathers incubate a single egg until it hatches.

Throughout this annual cycle, the penguins rely on a sea ice “Goldilocks zone” of conditions to thrive. They need openings in the ice that provide access to the water so they can feed, but also a thick, stable platform of ice to raise their chicks.

Penguin population trends

For more than 60 years, scientists have extensively studied one Emperor Penguin colony in Antarctica, called Terre Adélie. This research has enabled us to understand how sea ice conditions affect the birds’ population dynamics. In the 1970s, for example, the population experienced a dramatic decline when several consecutive years of low sea ice cover caused widespread deaths among male penguins.

Over the past 10 years, my colleagues and I have combined what we know about these relationships between sea ice and fluctuations in penguin life histories to create a demographic model that allows us to understand how sea ice conditions affect the abundance of Emperor Penguins, and to project their numbers based on forecasts of future sea ice cover in Antarctica.

Once we confirmed that our model successfully reproduced past observed trends in Emperor Penguin populations around all Antarctica, we expanded our analysis into a species-level threat assessment.

Climate conditions determine emperor penguins’ fate

When we used a climate model linked to our population model to project what is likely to happen to sea ice if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their present trend, we found that all 54 known Emperor Penguin colonies would be in decline by 2100, and 80% of them would be quasi-extinct. Accordingly, we estimate that the total number of Emperor Penguins will decline by 86% relative to its current size of roughly 250,000 if nations fail to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions.

Without action to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions, sea ice loss (shown in blue) will eradicate most Emperor Penguin colonies by 2100.
Stephanie Jenouvrier, CC BY-ND

However, if the global community acts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and succeeds in stabilizing average global temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius (3 degrees Faherenheit) above pre-industrial levels, we estimate that Emperor Penguin numbers would decline by 31% – still drastic, but viable.

Less-stringent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, leading to a global temperature rise of 2°C, would result in a 44% decline.

Our model indicates that these population declines will occur predominately in the first half of this century. Nonetheless, in a scenario in which the world meets the Paris climate targets, we project that the global Emperor Penguin population would nearly stabilize by 2100, and that viable refuges would remain available to support some colonies.

Global action to limit climate change through 2100 could greatly improve Emperor Penguins’ persistence/viability.
Stephanie Jenouvrier, CC BY-ND

In a changing climate, individual penguins may move to new locations to find more suitable conditions. Our population model included complex dispersal processes to account for these movements. However, we find that these actions are not enough to offset climate-driven global population declines. In short, global climate policy has much more influence over the future of Emperor Penguins than the penguins’ ability to move to better habitat.

Our findings starkly illustrate the far-reaching implications of national climate policy decisions. Curbing carbon dioxide emissions has critical implications for Emperor Penguins and an untold number of other species for which science has yet to document such a plain-spoken warning.

[ You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter. ]The Conversation

Stephanie Jenouvrier, Associate Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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

Aussie scientists need your help keeping track of bees (please)



The Asian honey bee (Apis cerana) has been found in Cairns. It’s just one of the introduced bees buzzing under the radar.
Tobias Smith, Author provided

Manu Saunders, University of New England; Callum McKercher, University of New England; Mark Hall, Western Sydney University; Tanya Latty, University of Sydney, and Tobias Smith, The University of Queensland

Bees get a lot of good press. They pollinate our crops and in some cases, make delicious honey. But bees around the world face serious threats, and the public can help protect them.

Of more than 20,400 known bee species in the world, about 1,650 are native to Australia. But not all bees found in Australia are native. A few species have been introduced: some on purpose and others secretly hitchhiking, usually through international trade routes.

As bee researchers, we’ve all experienced seeing a beautiful, fuzzy striped bee buzzing about our gardens, only to realise it’s an exotic species far from home.




Read more:
The farmer wants a hive: inside the world of renting bees


We need the public’s help to identify the bees in Australian backyards. There’s a good chance some are not native, but are unwanted exotic species. Identifying new intruders before they become established will help protect our native species.

The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) fuels a valuable honey industry and contributes to agricultural pollination. Other introduced species are far less welcome.
Tobias Smith

Exotic bees in Australia

The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the best-known introduced species, first brought to Australia in the early 1800s. It is now well-established throughout the country, with profitable industries built around managed populations.

Other invasive species in Australia are less well known (or loved). The European bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) is present in high numbers in Tasmania, but isn’t thought to be established on mainland Australia.

This bumblebee has caused major harm to native bees in South America, competing for resources and spreading disease.

In northern Queensland, the Asian honey bee (Apis cerana) is established around Cairns and Mareeba, from a single incursion in 2007. The original founding colony is thought to have been a stowaway on a boat that sailed to Cairns from somewhere in southeast Asia or the Pacific, where this bee is widespread.

New Asian honey bee incursions at Australian ports occur almost annually, most recently in Townsville and Melbourne. But swift biosecurity responses have so far stopped them becoming established.

The European bumble bee (Bombus terrestris) lives in large numbers in Tasmania, but is not established on the mainland.
Tobias Smith, Author provided

Why should we care?

Most insects can spread and establish breeding populations before anyone notices them, so it’s important we pay attention to these small intruders.

Introduced species can bring new parasites or diseases into the country that may harm native insects – including our stingless bees that are so vital to crop pollination – or affect the valuable European honey bee industry.

While bumblebees may help commercial pollination in a handful of Australian crops, they and other introduced species can also compete with native species for resources, or spread weeds.

Most resources go to monitoring invasive species with a more dramatic and understood effect on agriculture and the environment. Bees sneak under the radar – but we’re still curious.

Take the African carder bee (Pseudoanthidium repetitum), which arrived in Australia in the early 2000s. Thanks to citizen scientists, we know they are spreading rapidly. In 2014, they were the third most common bee species found in a survey of Sydney community gardens.

An African carder bee spotted in Lismore. They are the third most common bee species in Sydney community gardens.
Tobias Smith, Author provided

Just recently, we found two invasive African carder bees in a backyard in Armidale in northern New South Wales while testing out a new insect monitoring method. There are no confirmed records of this invasive bee in Armidale, although we have seen a few around town since 2017.




Read more:
Bees: how important are they and what would happen if they went extinct?


Although it’s usually exciting to find a new record for a native species, finding an exotic bee where it’s not supposed to be is worrying. How long have they been there, and how many others are there?

The European bumble bee was recently sighted to global biodiversity.

You don’t have to be totally sure what kind of bee you’ve spotted. Just snap some pictures and upload it to a citizen scientist app like iNaturalist with the date and location.
Jean and Fred/Flickr, CC BY

Will you help us keep track?

Anyone can help keep track of potential new invasive species, simply by learning more about the insects in your local area and sharing observations on citizen science platforms such as iNaturalist, or through targeted projects like the African carder bee monitoring project.

You don’t need to be sure exactly what species you’ve seen. Uploading some clear, high-resolution photos, along with the date and location of your observation, will help naturalists and researchers identify it.




Read more:
Wasps, aphids and ants: the other honey makers


You can also participate in events such as the twice-yearly Wild Pollinator Count or local Bioblitzes.

Your efforts can help us detect emerging threats, and add to our records of both native and non-native bees (and other species). Plus it’s a great excuse to get outdoors and learn more about the insect life in your area.


This article was co-written with Karen Retra.The Conversation

Manu Saunders, Research fellow, University of New England; Callum McKercher, PhD Student, University of New England; Mark Hall, Research fellow, Western Sydney University; Tanya Latty, Associate professor, University of Sydney, and Tobias Smith, Ecologist, bee researcher and stingless bee keeper, The University of Queensland

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

Hunter, hunted: when the world catches on fire, how do predators respond?



Some predators, including red foxes, move into burnt areas after fires pass through.
Alexandre Roux/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Ayesha Tulloch, University of Sydney; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University; Tim Doherty, Deakin University, and William Geary, Deakin University

2019 might well be remembered as the year the world caught fire. Some 2.9 million hectares of eastern Australia have been incinerated in the past few months, an area roughly the same size as Belgium. Fires in the Amazon, the Arctic, and California captured global attention.

As climate change continues, large, intense, and severe fires will become more common. But what does this mean for the animals living in fire-prone environments?




Read more:
Drought and climate change were the kindling, and now the east coast is ablaze


Our new research, published recently in the Journal of Animal Ecology, looked at studies from around the world to identify how predators respond to fire.

We found some species seem to benefit from fires, others appear to be vulnerable, and some seem indifferent. In a changing climate, it’s urgent we understand how fires affect predators – and hence potentially their prey –in order to keep ecosystems healthy.

Predators: the good and the bad

Large predators, like wolves and lions, often play important roles in ecosystems, regulating food webs by reducing the numbers or changing the behaviour of herbivores and smaller predators. Many large predators are in dire straits within their native range, while introduced predators, such as feral cats and red foxes, have spread to new regions, where they have devastated native wildlife .

Fires can offer new opportunities as well as problems to predators. Some predators take advantage of charred, more open landscapes to hunt vulnerable prey; others rely on thick vegetation to launch an ambush.

But until now, we have not known which predators are drawn to fire, which are repelled by it, and which don’t care either way. Synthesising information on how different kinds of predators (for example, large or small, pursuit or ambush) respond to fire is vital for both the conservation of top predators and to help protect native prey from introduced predators.

Predators are reacting differently to fire.
Adam Stevenson/Reuters

Some like it hot

Our research reviewed studies from around the world to identify how different vertebrate predators (birds, mammals and reptiles) respond to fire in different ecosystems.

We found 160 studies on the response of 188 predator species to fire, including wolves, coyotes, foxes, cats, hawks, owls, goannas and snakes, amongst others. The studies came from 20 different countries, although most were from North America or Australia, and focused on canine and feline species.

Some predators seem to like fire: they are more abundant, or spend more time in, recently burnt areas than areas that escape fire. Our review found red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) mostly responded positively to fire and become more active in burned areas.

Raptors have even been observed in Northern Australia carrying burning sticks, helping to spread fire and targeting prey as they flee the fire.

For other predators, fire is bad news. Following Californian wildfires, numbers of eastern racer snakes fell in burnt areas. Likewise, lions avoid recently burned areas, because they rely on dense vegetation from which to ambush prey.

A global summary of studies examining predators and fire.

The authors of the papers we reviewed thought food availability, vegetation cover, and competition with other predators were the most important things affecting species’ responses to fire.

But perhaps more surprising was that most species, including bobcats and the striped skunk, appeared largely unaffected by fire. Of the affected species, some (such as spotted owls) responded differently to fire in different places.

Overall, we found it is difficult to predict how a predator species will respond to fire.

We still have a lot to learn

Our results show while many predators appear to adapt to the changes that fires bring about, some species are impacted by fire, both negatively and positively. The problem is that, with a few exceptions, we will struggle to know how a given fire will affect a predator species without local knowledge. This means environmental managers need to monitor the local outcomes of fire management, such as fuel reduction burns.

There may be situations in which predator management needs to be coupled with fire management to help prevent native wildlife becoming fox food after fire. There has even been trials to see if artificial shelters can help protect native wildlife from introduced predators after fire.

Getting our knowledge base right

One thing that has hampered our research is the lack of contextual information in many studies. No two fires are the same – they differ in size, intensity, severity, and season – but these details are often absent. The literature is also biased towards dog-like and cat species, and there are few studies on the response of predators to fire in Africa, Asia, and South America.

It is important to note that some predator responses to fire may be overlooked due to the way experiments were carried out, or because monitoring happened too long after the fire.

Unifying how fire, predator numbers and environmental features are recorded would help future studies predict how predators might react to different types of fires in various situations.




Read more:
Bushfires are pushing species towards extinction


As wildfires become more frequent and severe under climate change, understanding how fire intensity and frequency shapes predator populations and their prey will be critical for effective and informed ecosystem management and conservation.The Conversation

Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney; Dale Nimmo, Associate professor/ARC DECRA fellow, Charles Sturt University; Tim Doherty, Alfred Deakin Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Deakin University, and William Geary, , Deakin University

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

Curious Kids: how do magpies detect worms and other food underground?



Magpies have a few clever tricks to help them find food.
Gisela Kaplan, Author provided

Gisela Kaplan, University of New England


How do magpies detect worms and other food sources underground? I often see them look or listen, then rapidly hop across the ground and start digging with their beak and extract a worm or bug from the earth – Catherine, age 10, Perth.



You have posed a very good question.

Foraging for food can involve sight, hearing and even smell. In almost all cases learning is involved. Magpies are ground foragers, setting one foot before the other looking for food while walking, called walk-foraging. It looks like this:

This is called walk-foraging.
Gisela Kaplan, Author provided

Finding food on the ground, such as beetles and other insects, is not as easy as it may sound. The ground can be uneven and covered with leaves, grasses and rocks. Insects may be hiding, camouflaged, or staying so still it is hard for a magpie to notice them.




Read more:
Curious Kids: why is a magpie’s poo black and white?


Detecting a small object on the ground requires keen vision and experience, to discriminate between the parts that are important and those that are not.

Magpie eyes, as for most birds, are on the side of the head (humans and other birds of prey, by contrast, have eyes that face forward).

A magpie’s eyes are at the side of its head and it can only see something with both eyes if that is straight in front of the bird.
Shutterstock/Webb Photography

To see a small area in front of them, close to the ground, birds use both eyes together (scientists call this binocular vision). But birds mostly see via the eyes looking out to the side (which is called monocular vision).

This picture gives you an idea of what a magpie can see with its left eye, what it can see with its right eye and what area it can see with both eyes working together (binocular vision).

Here’s how a magpie’s field of vision works.
Gisela Kaplan, Author provided

You asked about underground foraging. Some of that foraging can also be done by sight. Worms, for instance, may leave a small mound (called a cast) on the surface and, to the experienced bird, this indicates that a worm is just below.

Magpies can also go a huge step further. They can identify big scarab larvae underground without any visual help at all.

Here is a scarab larva.
Gisela Kaplan, Author provided

Scarab larvae look like grubs. They munch on grassroots and can kill entire grazing fields. Once they transform into beetles (commonly called Christmas beetles) they can do even more damage by eating all the leaves off eucalyptus trees.

Here is the secret: magpies have such good hearing, they can hear the very faint sound of grass roots being chewed.

We know this from experiments using small speakers under the soil playing back recorded sounds of scarab beetle larvae. Magpies located the speaker every time and dug it up.

An Australian magpie digging for food in a lawn.
Flickr/Lance, CC BY-NC-ND

So how do they do it? Several movements are involved.

To make certain that a jab with its beak will hit the exact spot where the juicy grub is, the magpie first walks slowly and scans the ground. It then stops and looks closely at the ground – seemingly with both eyes working together.

Then, holding absolutely still, the magpie turns its head so the left side of the head and ear is close to the ground for a final confirming listen.

Finally, the bird straightens up, then executes a powerful jab into the ground before retrieving the grub.

An Australian magpie digging for food gets a grub.
Wikimedia/Toby Hudson, CC BY-SA

That is very clever of the magpies. Very few animals can extract food they can’t see. Only great apes and humans were thought to have this ability. Clever magpies indeed. And farmers love them for keeping a major pest under control.




Read more:
Curious Kids: Why do birds sing?


Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to curiouskids@theconversation.edu.auThe Conversation

Gisela Kaplan, Emeritus Professor in Animal Behaviour, University of New England

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

#travelgram: live tourist snaps have turned solo adventures into social occasions



If you didn’t post it, did it even happen?
Shutterstock

Michael James Walsh, University of Canberra; Naomi F Dale, University of Canberra, and Raechel Johns, University of Canberra

In the years since selfie sticks went global, it has become clear that the mobile phone has changed the way we travel.
The ubiquity of social media means tourists can now produce content on the move for their networked audiences to view in close to real time.

Where once we shared slideshows post trip and saved prints and postcards as keepsakes, we now share holiday images and selfies from the road, sea or air — expanding the “tourist gaze” from the traveller to include remote audiences back home.




Read more:
#MeTourism: the hidden costs of selfie tourism


Instagram-worthy

Travelling has gone from a solitary quest to a “social occasion”. As such, gazing is becoming inseparably linked with photography. Taking photos has become habitual, rendering the camera as a way of seeing and experiencing new places.

Travellers take selfies that present both locations and people in aesthetically pleasing and positive ways.

Indeed, the “instagrammability” of a destination is a key motivation for younger people to travel there – even if filters and mirrors have been used to create a less than realistic image.

This transforms the relationship between travellers and their social networks in three important ways: between tourists and destination hosts; between fellow tourists; and lastly, between tourists and those that stay home.

The urge to share travel imagery is not without risk. An Australian couple were released from detention in Iran in October, following their arrest for ostensibly flying a drone without a permit.

Other tourists earned derision for scrambling to post selfies at Uluru before it was closed to climbers.

Meanwhile, there is a sad story behind the newly popular travelgram destination Rainbow Mountain in the Peruvian Andes. It has reportedly only recently emerged due to climate change melting its once snowy peaks.

Testing the effects

To understand the way social media photography impacts travelling, we undertook an exploratory study of overnight visitors at zoological accommodation in lavish surrounds.

We divided 12 participants into two groups. One group was directed to abstain from posting on social media but were still able to take photos. The second group had no restrictions on sharing photos. Though the numbers were small, we gathered qualitative information about engagement and attitudes.

Participants were invited to book at Jamala Wildlife Lodge in Canberra. The visit was funded by the researchers — Jamala Wildlife Lodge did not sponsor the research and the interviewees’ stay at the Lodge was a standard visit. We then conducted interviews immediately after their departure from the zoo, critically exploring the full experience of their stay.

The study confirmed that the desire to share travel pictures in close to real time is strongly scripted into the role of the tourist; altering the way travellers engage with sites they are visiting, but also their sense of urgency to communicate this with remote audiences.

Pics or it didn’t happen

Participants Mandy and Amy were among those instructed to refrain from posting pictures to social media while at the zoo. They described having to refrain from social media use as a disappointment, even though it seemed to further their engagement.

Interviewer: Did you look at your social media throughout your stay or did you refrain?

Mandy: A bit yeah. But even then, probably not reading it as much as I often would. I don’t think I commented on anything yeah.

Amy: Even today when we put something up [after staying at the Zoo] about the things we’d done today and only a few people had liked it, there was that little bit of disappointment that ‘Oh more people haven’t liked my post.’ Where we didn’t have that for the previous 24 hours [because of the experiment] … because nobody knew about it.

The tension between capturing and experiencing travel is ever-present.
Shutterstock

The desire for social media recognition resumed after leaving the zoo. For Michelle, posting after the experience presented new concerns:

Interviewer: How did you feel about not being able to post?

Michelle: Spanner in the works! For me personally not being able to post was a negative experience because I wanted to show people what we’re doing, when we’re doing it.

And I also feel, like a couple of people knew we were going to the zoo, right, and knew that we couldn’t use social media. So, when I eventually post it, they’re going to go, ‘She’s been hanging on to those and now she’s posting them and that’s just a bit weird.’ Like, to post it after the event. Everyone normally posts it in real time.

Later, Michelle commented that withholding content from posting to social media also diminished a part of the experience itself:

I sort of feel like if we don’t share the photos it’s like a tree fell down in the forest and no one heard it, like, we’ve had this amazing experience and if I don’t share them, then no one’s going to know that we had this experience, you know, apart from us.

Tips garnered from travelgrammers fill lots of online video tutorials.

Centre Stage

Digital photography and social media transform the relationship between the travelling self and its audience, as individuals have an expanded — and potentially diversified — audience.

Selfies in tourist contexts reflect the tourist gaze back at the tourist, rather than outward.

The perfect digital postcard now incorporates the self centrestage. As one participant suggested:

Shannon: It almost feels like it’s kind of an expected behaviour when you are doing something touristy … We’ve actually had tour guides before … kind of a bit disappointed if you don’t take a photograph.

The purpose of photography has shifted from a memory aid to a way of sharing experience in the moment. There is tension now between the need to capture tourist experiences for digital sharing and individual engagement in the tourist activity. Decrying the desire to use photography as a way of communicating experience will not constructively address this tension.

To ensure tourism sustainability, and engagement with their target market, tourism providers need to explore better ways to manage travellers’ face-to-face and digital engagement.

Digital engagements have become a defining part of travel, and organisations should be encouraged to promote online sharing of experiences — phone charging stations and photo competitions were two suggestions offered by our interviewees.

In contrast, device-free days or activities could be another way to encourage face-to-face engagement and prompt tourists to be more considered with their online sharing.The Conversation

Michael James Walsh, Assistant Professor Social Science, University of Canberra; Naomi F Dale, Associate Professor of Management, University of Canberra, and Raechel Johns, Head of the Canberra Business School and Professor of Marketing and Service Management, University of Canberra

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

Nine things you love that are being wrecked by climate change



If coffee and wine are things you love, then you need to pay attention to climate change.
Shutterstock/Ekaterina Pokrovsky

Rod Lamberts, Australian National University

There are so many stories flying around about the horrors already being wrought by climate change, you’re probably struggling to keep up.

The warnings have been there for decades but still there are those who deny it. So perhaps it’s timely to look at how climate change is affecting you, by wrecking some of the things you love.

1. Not the holiday you hoped for

We often choose holiday destinations with weather in mind. Sadly, climate change may see your usual destinations become less inviting, and maybe even disappear entirely.




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Climate change will make fire storms more likely in southeastern Australia


But there’s more to think about than your favourite beach retreat being drowned, or the Great Barrier Reef decaying before you see it.

Now we have to worry that “extreme weather events pose significant risks to travellers”. The warnings here range from travel disruption, such as delayed flights due to storms, through to severe danger from getting caught in cyclones, floods or snowstorms.

Simply getting where you need to go could become an adventure holiday itself, but not a fun one.

2. Last chance to see some wildlife

There are more and more examples of animals falling victim to climate-change induced extreme weather events, such as the horror of mass “cremations” of koalas in the path of recent Australian bush fires or bats dropping dead during heatwaves.

On top of that, news of the latest climate-related animal extinctions are becoming as common as reports of politicians doing nothing about it.

3. History and heritage at risk

The Italian city of Venice recently experienced its worst flooding since the mid 1960s, and the local mayor clearly connected this with climate change.

Aside from the human calamity unfolding there, we are seeing one of Europe’s most amazing and unique cities and a World Heritage site devastated before our eyes.




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Ignoring young people’s climate change fears is a recipe for anxiety


Climate change threatens more than 13,000 archaeological sites in North America alone if sea levels rise by 1m. That goes up to more than 30,000 sites if sea levels rise by 5m.

UNESCO is worried that climate change also threatens underwater heritage sites, such as ruins and shipwrecks. For example, rising salinity and warming waters increases ship-worm populations that consume wooden shipwrecks in the Baltic sea.

4. Taking the piste

Warming temperatures have already had negative impacts on the US snow sports industry since at least 2001.

Enjoy the skiing while the snow lasts.
Yun Huang Yong, CC BY

In Australia, ski resorts are expected to see significant drops in snow fall by 2040 and, as temperatures warm, they will be unable to compensate for this by snow-making, because it doesn’t work if ambient temperatures are too high.

Perhaps recent efforts to make artificial snow will give us a few more years on the slopes, but I’m not holding my breath.

5. Too hot for sport and exercise

It’s not just snow sports that will be affected. As temperatures warm, simply being outside in some parts of the world will not only be less pleasant, but more harmful, causing greater risk of heat stress doing any sport or exercise.




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What is a ‘mass extinction’ and are we in one now?


That also means lower incentives for – and greater difficult in undertaking – incidental exercise, such as walking to the bus stop.

6. Pay more for your coffee

As the climate changes, your coffee hits will probably become rarer and more expensive, too.

Start saving up for your next coffee.
Flickr/Marco Verch, CC BY

A report by the Climate Institute in 2016 suggested coffee production could drop by 50% by 2050.

Given how rapidly negative climate predictions have been updated in the three years since, this might now be considered optimistic. Yikes.

7. You and your family’s health

As the climate changes, the health of your children, your parents and your grandparents will be at greater risk through increases in air pollution, heatwaves and other factors.

It can be heartening to see the strong, intelligent and positive action being taken by the world’s youth in response to the lack of climate action by many governments.

But the fact this is a result of literal, existential crises becoming a normal part of every day life for young people is utterly horrifying.

8. Home, sweet home

The recent bush fires in Australia and the United States reveal how dramatic and destructive the effects climate change can be to where you live. Hundreds of houses have already burned down in Australia this fire season.

Fires are getting more frequent and more ferocious. The seasonal windows where we safely used controlled burning to clear bushfire fuel are shrinking. It’s not only harder to fight fires when they happen, it’s becoming harder to prevent them as well.

Fires aren’t the only threat to homes. All around the planet, more and more houses are being destroyed by rising seas and increasingly wild storms, all thanks to climate change.

9. Not the wine, please!

Still not convinced climate change is wrecking things you love? What if I told you it’s even coming for your wine.

Less water, soil degradation and higher temperatures earlier in the season all lead to dramatic negative effects on grapes and wine-making.

One small upside is that disruption to traditional wine growing regions is creating opportunities to develop new wine growing areas. But there is no reason to believe these areas will maintain stable grape growing conditions as climate change progresses.

So, what now?

It’s easy to be sad. But to change our trajectory, it’s better to be mad. In the words of that great English singer songwriter John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), “anger is an energy”.




Read more:
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So maybe use this list as motivation to think, talk and act. Use it as fuel to make small, large or a combinationof changes.

Share your concerns, share your solutions, and do this relentlessly.

What’s happening right now is huge, overwhelming, and also inevitable without concerted action. There’s no sugar-coating it: climate change is wrecking the things we love. Time to step it up a notch.The Conversation

Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

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

Wrong way, go back: a proposed new tax on electric vehicles is a bad idea


Jake Whitehead, The University of Queensland

In recent years, false claims have circulated that electric vehicles are “breaking our roads” because they don’t use fuel and so their drivers don’t pay fuel excise.

Heeding such concerns, both the Victorian and New South Wales governments are reportedly considering a new tax for electric vehicles. It follows a report by Infrastructure Partnerships Australia which recommended a per-kilometre tax for electric vehicles.




Read more:
Don’t trust the environmental hype about electric vehicles? The economic benefits might convince you


But this shortsighted approach risks killing the golden goose of our transport system. Such a tax would limit the economic, health and environmental benefits promised by electric vehicles which, together, far exceed any loss in fuel excise.

Instead, Australia needs a mature public discussion about holistic road tax reform to find a fair and sensible way forward.

Electric vehicle owners do not incur petrol costs.
ganzoben/Shutterstock

The problem is structural

Fuel excise is built into petrol and diesel prices, charged at around 40 cents per litre. For more than 20 years – well before the introduction of electric vehicles – net fuel tax revenue has been declining, largely due to improvements in vehicle efficiency, meaning engines use less fuel.

But if we take into account fuel tax credits – subsidies for fuel used in machinery, heavy vehicles and light vehicles on private roads – gross fuel tax revenue has actually increased in recent years.

This suggests the tax suffers from a structural problem. Simply applying a new tax to electric vehicles won’t fix it.




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Australians could have saved over $1 billion in fuel if car emissions standards were introduced 3 years ago


It’s also worth remembering that while electric vehicle owners don’t pay fuel excise, they generally pay more in purchase taxes such as GST, because their vehicles tend to be more expensive to buy.

The federal government should encourage uptake of electric vehicles.
AAP

Benefits of electric vehicles

Electric vehicles help reduce our dependency on foreign oil and save owners over 70% in fuel costs by swapping petrol for electricity. Electric vehicles also lead to cleaner air, resulting in significant savings in health costs. They create new local jobs in mining and local energy, and importantly, are key to meeting global climate change targets.




Read more:
Clean, green machines: the truth about electric vehicle emissions


Comparison of annual road accident fatalities vs premature deaths due to vehicle emissions in NSW.
Asthma Australia/Electric Vehicle Council.

An electric vehicle tax would increase costs for motorists, curb sales and may even encourage the purchase of cheap, fuel-efficient vehicles, driving fuel tax revenue down even further.

Congestion is the bigger problem

The proposed taxes will do nothing to tackle the biggest problem with Australia’s transport system: road congestion.

Sweden, where I lived for several years, offers a possible way forward. In 2006, the city of Stockholm introduced a congestion pricing scheme which charged vehicles for driving in and out of the city centre at peak times.




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Traffic congestion: is there a miracle cure? (Hint: it’s not roads)


The scheme meant normal weekday traffic was considerably lighter. Low-emission vehicles were also temporarily exempted from the charge to encourage sales.

Unfortunately, despite the proven benefits, Australia is unlikely to introduce such a scheme due to a lack of public and political support.

Towards a sustainable road tax

The transport sector faces massive disruption in the near future, from electrified vehicles, automated vehicles, and the shift to shared vehicles.

Focusing solely on electric vehicles misses the broader point: we need to proactively prepare for the transition to a new transport system. This means ditching our unfair, outdated and unsustainable road tax model while reducing congestion.




Read more:
Utopia or nightmare? The answer lies in how we embrace self-driving, electric and shared vehicles


Instead of simply penalising electric vehicle owners, I suggest an approach where electric vehicle owners could voluntarily opt-in to a new road tax model. Here’s how it would work:

  • the tax would include a low per-kilometre fee for all travel, and an additional fee for inner-city travel during peak weekday periods

  • in exchange for opting in, owners would be exempted from the old road tax system, that is: vehicle registration, stamp duty, import tax, luxury car tax, fringe benefits tax, fuel excise, and road tolls.

  • to ensure a true financial incentive to opt-in to the new road tax model, a significant discount would initially apply. This discount would gradually be phased out as electric vehicle uptake increases, as has occurred with similar overseas schemes

  • the new road tax model could easily be extended in the future to apply to automated vehicles, and to more accurately reflect the burden transport poses in terms of congestion and pollution.




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This is just one example of a balanced approach that would encourage both local adoption of electric vehicles, and public support for fairer road taxes.

Such holistic reform would enable a future transport system with less road congestion, quicker travel times, cleaner air, lower costs and a sustainable road revenue stream.

Let’s be smart and not miss this golden opportunity.The Conversation

Jake Whitehead, Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

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

‘The size, the grandeur, the peacefulness of being in the dark’: what it’s like to study space at Siding Spring Observatory



Today we hear about some of the fascinating space research underway at Siding Spring Observatory – and how, despite gruelling hours and endless paperwork, astronomers retain their sense of wonder for the night sky.
Shutterstock

Cameron Furlong, The Conversation and Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation

How did our galaxy form? How do galaxies evolve over time? Where did the Sun’s lost siblings end up?

Three hours north-east of Parkes lies a remote astronomical research facility, unpolluted by city lights, where researchers are collecting vast amounts of data in an effort to unlock some of the biggest questions about our Universe.

Siding Spring Observatory, or SSO, is one of Australia’s top sites for astronomical research. You’ve probably heard of the Parkes telescope, made famous by the movie The Dish, but SSO is also a key character in Australia’s space research story.

In this episode, astrophysics student and Conversation intern Cameron Furlong goes to SSO to check out the huge Anglo Australian Telescope (AAT), the largest optical telescope in Australia.

Siding Spring Observatory, north east of Parkes.
Shutterstock



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And we hear about Huntsman, a new specialised telescope that uses off-the-shelf Canon camera lenses – a bit like those you see sports photographers using at the cricket or the footy – to study very faint regions of space around other galaxies.

Students use telescopes to observe the night sky near Coonabarabran, not far from SSO.
Cameron Furlong

Listen in to hear more about some of the most fascinating space research underway in Australia – and how, despite gruelling hours and endless paperwork, astronomers retain their sense of wonder for the night sky.

“For me, it means remembering how small I am in this enormous Universe. I think it’s very easy to forget, when you go about your daily life,” said Richard McDermid, an ARC Future Fellow and astronomer at Macquarie University.

“It’s nice to get back into it to a dark place and having a clear sky. And then you get to remember all the interesting and fascinating things, the size, the grandeur and the peacefulness of being in the dark.”

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Additional audio

Kindergarten by Unkle Ho, from Elefant Traks.

Lucky Stars by Podington Bear from Free Music Archive.

Slimheart by Blue Dot Sessions from Free Music Archive.

Illumination by Kai Engel from Free Music Archive.

Phase 2 by Xylo-Ziko from Free Music Archive.

Extra Dimensions by Kri Tik from Free Music Archive.

Pure Water by Meydän, from Free Music Archive.

Images

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Cameron Furlong




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The Conversation


Cameron Furlong, Editorial Intern, The Conversation and Sunanda Creagh, Head of Digital Storytelling, The Conversation

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

New study: changes in climate since 2000 have cut Australian farm profits 22%



The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences farmpredict model finds that changes in climate conditions since 2000 have cut farm profits by 22% overall, and by 35% for cropping farms..
ABARES/Shutterstock

Neal Hughes, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

The current drought across much of eastern Australia has demonstrated the dramatic effects climate variability can have on farm businesses and households.

The drought has also renewed longstanding discussions around the emerging effects of climate change on agriculture, and how governments can best help farmers to manage drought risk.

A new study released this morning by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences offers fresh insight on these issues by quantifying the impacts of recent climate variability on the profits of Australian broadacre farms.




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The results show that changes in temperature and rainfall over the past 20 years have had a negative effect on average farm profits while also increasing risk.

The findings demonstrate the importance of adaptation, innovation and adjustment to the agriculture sector, and the need for policy responses which promote – and don’t unnecessarily inhibit – such progress.

Measuring the effects of climate on farms

Measuring the effects of climate on farms is difficult given the many other factors that also influence farm performance, including commodity prices.

Further, the effects of rainfall and temperature on farm production and profit can be complex and highly location and farm specific.

To address this complexity, ABARES has developed a model based on more than 30 years of historical farm and climate data—farmpredict — which can identify effects of climate variability, input and output prices, and other factors on different types of farms.

Cropping farms most exposed

The model finds that cropping farms generally face greater climate risk than beef farms, but also generate higher average returns.

Cropping farm revenue and profits are lower in dry years, with large reductions in crop yields and only small savings in input costs.


Effect of climate variability on rate of return


Based on historical climate conditions (1950 to 2019), holding non-climate factors constant. See report for more detail. ABARES FarmPredict

In contrast, drought has a smaller immediate effect on beef farm revenue, because in dry years farmers can increase the quantity of livestock sold.

However, drought also lowers herd numbers, which lowers farm profit when herd value is accounted for.

Higher temperatures, lower winter rainfall

Australian average temperatures have increased by about 1°C since 1950.

Recent decades have also seen a trend towards lower average winter rainfall in the southwest and southeast.

This drying trend has been linked to atmospheric changes associated with global warming.

However, while global climate models generally predict a decline in winter season rainfall across southern Australia and more time spent in drought, there is still much uncertainty about what will happen in the long term, particularly to rainfall.

Climate shifts have cut farm profits

ABARES has assessed the effect of climate variability on farm profits over the period 1950 to 2019, holding all other factors constant including commodity prices and farm management practices.

We find that the shift in climate conditions since 2000 (from conditions in the period 1950-1999 to conditions in the period 2000-2019) has had a negative effect on the profits of both cropping and livestock farms.


Effect of 2000 – 2019 climate conditions on average farm profit


“Farm profit percentiles for the period 2000-2019 relative to 1950-1999, holding non-climate factors constant. See report for more detail. ABARES

We estimate that the shift in climate has cut average annual broadacre farm profits by around 22%, which is an average of $18,600 per farm per year, controlling for all other factors.

The effects have been most pronounced in the cropping sector, reducing average profits by 35%, or $70,900 a year for a typical cropping farm.

At a national level this amounts to an average loss in production of broadacre crops of around $1.1 billion a year.

Although beef farms have been less affected than cropping farms overall, some beef farming regions have been affected more than others, especially south-western Queensland.




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Like previous ABARES research this study finds evidence of adaptation, with farmers reducing their sensitivity to dry conditions over time.

Our results suggest that without this adaptation the effects of the post-2000 climate shift would have been considerably larger, particularly for cropping farms.


Effect of post-2000 climate on average annual farm profits


Per cent change relative to 1950-1999 climate, holding non-climate factors constant. See report for more detail. ABARES FarmPredict

Risk and income volatility have also increased

The changed climate conditions since 2000 have also increased risk and income volatility.

This is particularly so for cropping farms, where we find the chance of low-profit years has more than doubled as a result of the change in climate conditions.


Effect of climate variability on typical cropping farm


Distribution of farm profits for 1950-1999 climate and 2000-2019 climate. See report for more detail. ABARES FarmPredict

Handle with care – the drought policy dilemma

Drought policy faces an almost unavoidable dilemma, that providing relief to farm businesses and households in times of drought risks slowing industry structural adjustment and innovation.

Adjustment, change and innovation are fundamental to improving agricultural productivity; maintaining Australia’s competitiveness in world markets; and providing attractive and financially sustainable opportunities for farm households.




Read more:
Helping farmers in distress doesn’t help them be the best: the drought relief dilemma


For these reasons, the strategic intent of drought policy has shifted away from seeking to protect and insulate farmers towards the promotion of drought preparedness and self‑reliance.

The best options for reconciling the drought policy dilemma focus on boosting the resilience of farm businesses and households to future droughts and climate variability, including through action and investment when farmers are not in drought.

The government’s Future Drought Fund, which will support research and innovation, is a good example of this approach.

Developing new insurance options is one worthwhile avenue of research which could provide farmers a way to self-manage risk. It would require investments in data and knowledge to support viable weather insurance markets: where farmers pay premiums sufficient to cover costs over time.




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Better data would help crack the drought insurance problem


Supporting farm households experiencing hardship is legitimate and important, but for the long term health of the farm sector this needs to be done in ways that promote resilience and improved productivity and allow for long term adjustment to change.The Conversation

Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Executive Director, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

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