In a land of ancient giants, these small oddball seals once called Australia home


Artwork by Peter Trusler, Author provided

James Patrick Rule, Monash University; Erich Fitzgerald, Museums Victoria, and Justin W. Adams, Monash University

When most of us think of the prehistoric past, we envision a world of bizarre, often fearsome giants. From dinosaurs to mammoths and even penguins, life then seemed larger than life today.

Millions of years ago in Australia, giant goannas, kangaroos and diprotodontids (wombat relatives) roamed the landscape. The seas teemed with gargantuan predators such as the infamous “megalodon” shark and so-called giant killer sperm whales.

Fossils from this lost world can be found in sandstone rocks, between five million and six million years old, at Beaumaris – a bayside suburb in Melbourne and one of Australia’s most significant urban fossil sites. Here, fossils of ancient marine animals often wash ashore, eroded out of rocks by the tides.

However, some of these fossils are now revealing “jumbo” was not the only size for extinct animals. Our team’s research, published today in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, reports nine new seal fossils from Beaumaris, which we suspect came from nine different individuals.

The findings paint a picture of a relatively small animal, making its way through a world of giants.




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More than doubling the seal fossil record

Melburnians have been collecting fossils from Beaumaris for more than 100 years. Yet it continues to produce remarkable and scientifically important finds.

A beach foreshore in Melbourne.
The fossils we studied were found on the foreshore of Beaumaris, Melbourne.
Erich Fitzgerald, Author provided

This includes extremely rare fossils of animals such as seals. Previously, scientists had studied only one seal fossil from this site.

The nine new fossils detailed in our research were collected and donated to Museums Victoria by local scientists and citizen scientists over the past 88 years. They have more than doubled the known fossil record of seals in Australia.

These fossils represent the oldest evidence of seals in Australia and were identified as “true seals”, a group mostly known from the Arctic and Antarctic. True seals belong to a different group to Australia’s fur seals and sea lions (eared seals), which only arrived in the region about 500,000 years ago.

Seal fossil specimens
In total, we found nine seal fossil specimens from Beaumaris, from potentially nine different individuals.
Erich Fitzgerald and James Rule, Author provided

In particular, one of the fossils we identified is a monachine (a southern true seal). Today, these are represented by animals such as leopard or elephant seals in the Southern Ocean surrounding the Antarctic, to which they are related.

Size estimates found the Beaumaris monachines to have been quite small, at only 1.7 metres long. This is similar to the size of today’s Northern Hemisphere seals such as the harbour seal.

However, the Beaumaris seal’s living relatives are much larger – usually 3m long or more. Modern leopard seals can grow to more than 3m long, while elephant seals can reach up to a gigantic 5m in length.

Most fossil whales found at Beaumaris are also smaller than their living counterparts.

This is the opposite trend to many other animal groups with fossils found there, including some sharks and seabirds, wherein the extinct animals were much larger than those alive today.

The extinct Beaumaris seal was much smaller than its living relatives today.
Art by Peter Trusler, Author provided

An uncertain future for marine life

Why is finding small seals at Beaumaris important?

Five million years ago, before the ice ages, the average annual temperature in southeast Australia was about 2–4°C warmer than it is today, with sea levels up to 25m higher.

These warmer oceans supported a greater diversity of marine megafauna than today, with longer but less energy-efficient food chains. These chains only had room for a few large top predators, such as megalodon sharks. And this may have limited the size of other top predators, including seals.

This chart shows the history of seals’ size evolution in Australia, compared to large sharks.
Peter Trusler and James Rule, Author provided

This is important. It suggests the large size of Antarctic seals living in the Southern Ocean today is due to colder oceans with more energy-efficient food chains, in which more food is available for marine animals.

If climate change continues to warm the oceans, food chains may once again start to become less energy efficient, resulting in a loss of the resources today’s large seals rely on for survival.

The discovery of seal fossils at Beaumaris has implications for not only unlocking the past, but also for contextualising the future.

It shows the biodiversity and ecology of marine megafauna off southern Australia originated during the long-term transition from a warmer to colder world – a process that only recently began changing trajectory.

To this day, the fossil site at Beaumaris continues to reveal scientifically important finds, thanks to members of the public working with scientists from Museums Victoria.




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The Conversation


James Patrick Rule, Palaeontology PhD Candidate, Monash University; Erich Fitzgerald, Senior Curator, Vertebrate Palaeontology, Museums Victoria, and Justin W. Adams, Senior Lecturer, Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, Monash University

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

340,000 Melburnians have little or no parkland within 5km of their home


Ali Lakhani, La Trobe University; Dennis Wollersheim, La Trobe University; Elizabeth Kendall, Griffith University, and Prosper Korah, Griffith University

Under the stage 4 restrictions enforced throughout metropolitan Melbourne, residents can exercise for one hour each day, within five kilometres of their home.

While such restrictions are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, they can potentially harm people’s physical and mental well-being.

Parks are great for exercising, getting fresh air, and getting close to nature, all of which boost our physical and mental health.

Unfortunately, some Melburnians have little or no access to parkland within their permitted 5km radius, meaning they are likely to miss out on these benefits.

Space to breathe

Our map analysis looked at mesh blocks, the smallest geographical area defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, typically containing 30-60 homes.

For each mesh block zoned as residential, we tallied up the total area zoned as parkland within a 5-kilometre radius. The results are shown in the interactive map below, in which darker greens indicate a larger area of available parkland (very light green: 0-4.5 sq km; light green: 4.5-9.2 sq km; mid-green: 9.2-13.2 sq km; dark green: 13.2-19 sq km; very dark green: more than 19 sq km).

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Of the 42,199 residential mesh blocks currently under stage 4 restrictions, 3,496 have between 0 and 4.5 square kilometres of parkland within 5km. This equates to about 135,000 homes or 340,000 people with little or no access to parks within their permitted area for exercising.

On average, residents in Cardinia, Mornington Peninsula and Melton have the least parkland within a 5km radius, whereas those in Knox, Yarra and Banuyle have the most.

Haves and have-nots

Our findings confirm that some Melburnians are more fortunate than others in their ability to access urban green space during stage 4 lockdown.

For those less fortunate, the state government should consider replacing the blanket 5km rule with a special provision that allows people to travel outside this radius if they would otherwise be unable to access a park.




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Bespoke rules could also help others, such as residents with a disability or older Melburnians who use a mobility aid. While many members of these groups might have plentiful parks within their 5km radius, they may have problems accessing them. Issues can include uneven pavements, kerbs without ramps, or steeply sloped paths.

The state government could help these people by auditing public spaces to establish where structural barriers exist, and then work to remedy them. Alternatively, once again, the blanket 5km rule could be amended with a special provision that allows older Melburnians, or those with a disability, to travel outside their 5km radius to get to the most suitable nearby park.The Conversation

Ali Lakhani, Senior Lecturer in Public Health, La Trobe University; Dennis Wollersheim, Lecturer, Health Information Management, La Trobe University; Elizabeth Kendall, Professor, The Hopkins Centre, Menzies Health Institute Queensland, Griffith University, and Prosper Korah, PhD Researcher, Urban Studies and Planning, Griffith University

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

These historic grasslands are becoming a weed-choked waste. It could be one of the world’s great parks



Adrian Marshall, Author provided

Adrian Marshall, University of Melbourne

Volcanic plains stretching from Melbourne’s west to the South Australian border were once home to native grasslands strewn with wildflowers and a vast diversity of animals. Today, this grassland ecosystem is critically endangered.

To protect the last remaining large-scale patch, the Victorian government proposed the “Western Grassland Reserve”. But in June, a damning Auditor General’s report revealed this plan has fallen flat.




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With weeds choking the native grasses and many animals now locally extinct, the deteriorating reserve represents a failure of imagination.

Debate has raged about funding, timelines and bureaucratic processes. But what the debate is missing is a new vision, with funding and management models, for the Western Grassland Reserve, that recognises its deep culture and history, and its potential to be one of the great parks of the world.

Failing our flora and fauna

The Victorian government’s plan was to acquire 15,000 hectares of mostly farmland beyond Melbourne’s outer limit between 2010 and 2020. The money is coming from offsets, where developers are, in effect, charged a fee to be allowed to destroy federally protected remnant grassland within the urban growth boundary.

But the Auditor General’s report found a scant 10% of Western Grassland Reserve land has been purchased, with little offset money remaining for further purchases.

In addition, delays in purchasing land are costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars because of rising land prices. A predicted substantial downturn in development further exposes the flaws of a funding model inadequate to its conservation task.




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We urgently need to investigate new funding and management models that embrace the reserve as a cultural landscape for people.

A quintessential Australian experience

As a patchwork of farms overlaid on traditional Wathaurong land, the Western Grassland Reserve could be shaped into one of the greatest large parks of the world – a cultural landscape capturing a quintessential Australian experience, speaking of Indigenous culture, our colonial past, and who we are today.

A well-designed reserve could show us the history of grassland pastoralism that gave rise to the saying “Australia rides on the sheep’s back”. It could immerse us in Dorothea MacKellar’s “land of sweeping plains”. It can give us back the immense flowered landscape that so stunned the explorer Thomas Mitchell, he coined the phrase “Australia Felix”, which means “happy Australia”.

And it could show us something of the profound knowledge Indigenous people hold. Few know this, but the Wurdi Youang stone circle near Little River – though as yet undated – may well be one of the oldest known astronomical structures in the world, far predating Stonehenge or the pyramids.

Dark boulders on grasslands represent the Wurdi Youang stone circle
Part of the Wurdi Youang stone circle, that may be one of the oldest astronomical structures in the world.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Imagine its potential

Imagine a picnic under a spreading gum beside an old farm dam. There’s a bluestone dairy repurposed to fine dining, a grand farmhouse for overnight stays, bike trails, and a series of regional playgrounds emphasising natureplay and adventure for all abilities.

With the right conservation, ephemeral wetlands and creeklines could be bursting with birdlife and ready to explore, and even working farms retained for school visits.

Nearby, at Mount Rothwell, a fenced conservation area contains almost extinct small marsupials – bandicoots, potoroos and apex predator quolls. These were once commonplace, and still a night visit is an unforgettable experience, yet one few Melburnians have enjoyed.

A small brown bird with a spotted neck walks on the ground
The critically endangered plains wanderer, the world’s most unique bird, once lived in these grasslands.
Shutterstock

Innovation in management

Part of a bigger picture for the Western Grassland Reserve is a new management model beyond a poorly-funded Parks Victoria asset being managed solely for environmental values.

Options abound for innovation and leadership here. We can create a well-coordinated network of different management approaches and protection levels with traditional publicly owned national parks, conservation reserves, private land covenants, private protected areas and Indigenous protected areas.

Funding for management also needs rethinking. Market-driven models can ensure performance-based outcomes. For example, farmers can be paid to graze sustainably. And a new model leveraging resources and expertise could encourage the involvement of NGOs, traditional owners and community groups, species-specific teams, the Royal Botanic Gardens, with research input by universities.

Built-in commercial seed production, which is fundamental to restoring degraded areas, can kick-start the native seed industry in a win–win for commerce and the environment.

These sorts of alternative management and funding have been achieved in the south of France, within the Carmague and the stony plains of Le Crau. There, 10,000 hectares of grassland and wetland complexes are managed by broad alliance of NGOs and conservation agencies across defence land, national parks and private protected areas.

And in the USA, the largest tallgrass prairie in the country is managed by Kansas State University and the Nature Conservancy, with federal and philanthropic input. It also has an educational program that brings in more than 100 school and public events a year.

So what are we waiting for? The Great Ocean Road was built during the Great Depression, let the Western Grassland Reserve be a visionary project for these difficult times under COVID-19.The Conversation

Adrian Marshall, Academic, Landscape Architecture and Urban Ecology, University of Melbourne

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

The Leadbeater’s possum finally had its day in court. It may change the future of logging in Australia



Shutterstock

Julia Dehm, La Trobe University

The Federal Court last week ruled that VicForests – a timber company owned by the Victorian government – breached environmental laws when they razed the habitat of the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum and the vulnerable greater glider.

Environmentalists welcomed the judge’s decision, which sets an important legal precedent.

Under so-called “regional forest agreements”, a number of logging operations around Australia are exempt from federal environment laws. This effectively puts logging interests above those of threatened species. The court ruling narrows these exemptions and provides an opportunity to create stronger forestry laws.

A legal loophole

Since 1971, the Leadbeater’s possum has been the faunal emblem of Victoria. But only about 1,200 adults are left in the wild, almost exclusively in the Central Highlands region.




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Official conservation advice identifies the greatest threat to the species as habitat loss and fragmentation caused by the collapse of hollow-bearing trees, wildfire, logging and climate change.

Australia’s federal environmental laws require environmental impact assessment of any action likely to significantly impact a matter of national environmental significance, such as a listed threatened species.

But thanks to exemptions under regional forest agreements, logging has continued in the Central Highlands – even in the aftermath of this summer’s devastating bushfires.

So what are regional forest agreements?

Regional forest agreements were designed as a response to the so-called “forest wars” of the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1995, after logging trucks blockaded parliament, then Prime Minister Paul Keating offered a deal to the states: the federal government would accredit state forest management systems, and in return federal law would no longer apply to logging operations. Drawing up regional forest agreements between state and federal governments achieved this.




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Between 1997 and 2001, ten different agreements were signed, covering logging regions in Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia. These agreements were for 20 years, which means many have now either expired and been renewed or extended, or are about to expire.

The agreements are supposed to satisfy a number of conditions. This includes that they’re based on an assessment of environmental and social values of forest areas. They should also provide for the ecologically sustainable management and use of forested areas, and the long-term stability of forest and forest industries.

But conservation experts argue the agreements have failed both to deliver certainty to forestry operations or to protect environmental values and ensure the conservation of biodiversity.

History of the court case

The legal proceedings against VicForests were initiated in 2017 by Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum, a small community group which relied on crowd funding to cover legal costs.

Initially, the group argued Victoria’s failure to undertake a required review of the Central Highlands regional forest agreements every five years meant the usual exemption to federal environment laws should not apply.




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But in early 2018, Justice Mortimer ruled against this. But she also rejected VicForests’ arguments that any operation in an area covered by a regional forest agreement is automatically exempt from federal law.

She ruled that the logging operations will only be exempt from federal law if they comply with Victoria’s accredited system of forest management. This includes the requirements for threatened species, as specified in official action and management plans.

In response to this ruling, Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum reformulated their claim.

They argued logging operations in 66 coupes (small areas of forest harvested in one operation) didn’t meet these requirements for threatened species, and so the exemption from federal laws didn’t apply.

The court ruling

In her ruling last week, the judge found VicForests unlawfully logged 26 coupes home to the Leadbeater’s possum and greater glider, and that logging a scheduled 41 other sections would put them at risk.

The court found the company breached a number of aspects of the Code of Practice for Timber Production 2014. This code is part of the Victorian regulatory system accredited by the regional forest agreement.

In particular, VicForests had not, as required, applied the “precautionary principle” in planning and conducting logging operations in coupes containing the greater glider.




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Nor had VicForests developed a comprehensive forest survey system, or engaged in a careful evaluation of management options to avoid dangers to these threatened species.

These failures meant the logging operations were not covered by the exemption from federal laws. As such, the court found VicForests had breached federal environmental law, as the logging operation had, or were likely to have, a significant impact on the two threatened species.

What now?

This case will have clear implications for logging operations governed by regional forest agreements.

In fact, the timber industry has called for state and federal governments to urgently respond to the case, and clarify the future of regional forest agreements.




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Arguably, logging operations conducted under a regional forest agreement can no longer rely on the exemption from federal environmental laws if those operations don’t comply with the state regulatory frameworks accredited under the regional forest agreements, especially provisions that protect threatened species.

And while making logging operations subject to federal environmental laws is a good thing, it’s not enough. Federal environmental laws are weak and don’t prevent species extinctions.

In any case, the result is the perfect opportunity for state and federal governments to rethink forest management. That means properly taking into account the ongoing threats to threatened species from climate change, wildfires and habitat loss.The Conversation

Julia Dehm, Lecturer, La Trobe University

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

5 big environment stories you probably missed while you’ve been watching coronavirus



Shutterstock

Rod Lamberts, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Australian National University

Good news: COVID-19 is not the only thing going on right now!

Bad news: while we’ve all been deep in the corona-hole, the climate crisis has been ticking along in the background, and there are many things you may have missed.

Fair enough – it’s what people do. When we are faced with immediate, unambiguous threats, we all focus on what’s confronting us right now. The loss of winter snow in five or ten years looks trivial against images of hospitals pushed to breaking point now.




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As humans, we also tend to prefer smaller, short-term rewards over larger long-term ones. It’s why some people would risk illness and possible prosecution (or worse, public shaming) to go to the beach with their friends even weeks after social distancing messages have become ubiquitous.

But while we might need to ignore climate change right now if only to save our sanity, it certainly hasn’t been ignoring us.

So here’s what you may have missed while coronavirus dominates the news cycle.

Heatwave in Antarctica

Antarctica is experiencing alarmingly balmy weather.
Shutterstock

On February 6 this year, the northernmost part of Antarctica set a new maximum temperature record of 18.4℃. That’s a pleasant temperature for an early autumn day in Canberra, but a record for Antarctica, beating the old record by nearly 1℃.

That’s alarming, but not as alarming as the 20.75℃ reported just three days later to the east of the Antarctic Peninsula at Marambio station on Seymour Island.




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Bleaching the reef

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned a global average temperature rise of 1.5℃ could wipe out 90% of the world’s coral.

As the world looks less likely to keep temperature rises to 1.5℃, in 2019 the five-year outlook for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was downgraded from “poor” to “very poor”. The downgrading came in the wake of two mass bleaching events, one in 2016 and another in 2017, damaging two-thirds of the reef.

And now, in 2020, it has just experienced its third in five years.

Of course, extreme Antarctic temperatures and reef bleaching are the products of human-induced climate change writ large.

But in the short time since the COVID-19 crisis began, several examples of environmental vandalism have been deliberately and specifically set in motion as well.




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Coal mining under a Sydney water reservoir

The Berejiklian government in New South Wales has just approved the extension of coal mining by Peabody Energy – a significant funder of climate change denial – under one of Greater Sydney’s reservoirs. This is the first time such an approval has been granted in two decades.

While environmental groups have pointed to significant local environmental impacts – arguing mining like this can cause subsidence in the reservoir up to 25 years after the mining is finished – the mine also means more fossil carbon will be spewed into our atmosphere.

Peabody Energy argues this coal will be used in steel-making rather than energy production. But it’s still more coal that should be left in the ground. And despite what many argue, you don’t need to use coal to make steel.




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Victoria green-lights onshore gas exploration

In Victoria, the Andrews government has announced it will introduce new laws into Parliament for what it calls the “orderly restart” of onshore gas exploration. In this legislation, conventional gas exploration will be permitted, but an existing temporary ban on fracking and coal seam gas drilling will be made permanent.

The announcement followed a three-year investigation led by Victoria’s lead scientist, Amanda Caples. It found gas reserves in Victoria “could be extracted without harming the environment”.

Sure, you could probably do that (though the word “could” is working pretty hard there, what with local environmental impacts and the problem of fugitive emissions). But extraction is only a fraction of the problem of natural gas. It’s the subsequent burning that matters.




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Trump rolls back environmental rules

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Trump administration is taking the axe to some key pieces of environmental legislation.

One is an Obama-era car pollution standard, which required an average 5% reduction in greenhouse emissions annually from cars and light truck fleets. Instead, the Trump administration’s “Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles” requires just 1.5%.

The health impact of this will be stark. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the shift will mean 18,500 premature deaths, 250,000 more asthma attacks, 350,000 more other respiratory problems, and US$190 billion in additional health costs between now and 2050.

And then there are the climate costs: if manufacturers followed the Trump administration’s new looser guidelines it would add 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the equivalent of 17 additional coal-fired power plants.




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And so…

The challenges COVID-19 presents right now are huge. But they will pass.

The challenges of climate change are not being met with anything like COVID-19 intensity. For now, that makes perfect sense. COVID-19 is unambiguously today. Against this imperative, climate change is still tomorrow.

But like hangovers after a large celebration, tomorrows come sooner than we expect, and they never forgive us for yesterday’s behaviour.The Conversation

Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Senior Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

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

Victoria quietly lifted its gas exploration pause but banned fracking for good. It’s bad news for the climate


Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

Amid coronavirus chaos, the Victorian government announced its decision earlier this week to lift the ban on onshore gas exploration, but also to make the temporary state-wide ban on fracking permanent.

This decision was made three years after an investigation found gas reserves in the state could be extracted without any environmental impacts, and new laws will be introduced to parliament for drilling to start in July next year.




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The state government first introduced the moratorium (temporary ban) on onshore conventional and unconventional gas production in 2017, enshrined in the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Act 1990. It effectively made it an offence to either conduct coal seam gas exploration or hydraulic fracturing (fracking) until June 2020.

The ban was originally imposed amid strong concerns about the environmental, climate and social impacts of onshore gas expansion. But lifting the ban to allow conventional gas exploration while banning fracking and unconventional gas (coal seam gas), doesn’t remove these concerns.

The fracking ban isn’t so permanent

The new laws seek to do two things: lift the ban on conventional onshore gas production, and to entrench a ban on fracking and coal seam gas exploration into the state constitution.

The government has stated it wants to make it difficult for future governments to remove the fracking ban. But this is highly unlikely to be legally effective. Unlike the federal constitution, the Victorian constitution is an ordinary act, and so it can be amended by another legal act.

The only way entrenching an amendment in the state constitution so that it is permanent and unchangeable is if it relates to the operation and procedure of parliament. And fracking does not do this.

This raises the spectre of a future government removing the fracking ban in line with an accelerating onshore gas framework.

Conventional vs unconventional gas

The main difference between conventional gas and unconventional gas (coal seam gas) lies in their geology.

Conventional gas can generally be extracted without the need to frack, as gas can move to the surface through gas wells. To release unconventional gas, particularly shale gas, fracking is always required.




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Fracking technologies risk water quality from ground disturbances, spills, the release of chemicals and other fluids, and the underground migration of gases and chemicals.

So lifting the conventional onshore gas ban while keeping the fracking ban will mean less risk to the environment. But extracting conventional gas is still risky.

Greenhouse gas leaks

Extracting conventional gas risks fugitive emissions. This refers to greenhouse gases, such as methane, that can escape into the atmosphere during mining fossil fuels, such as from equipment leaks, deliberate or accidental venting, or from gas flaring.

Precise measurements of the fugitive emissions from onshore conventional gas production are difficult to predict, but their effect on climate change is alarming.

The latest estimates indicate fugitive emissions account for approximately 6% of Australia’s national greenhouse gas emissions. Fugitive emissions also have about 27 times the greenhouse harming potential of carbon dioxide.

In 2017, the Australian Gas Industry argued well managed sites produce little fugitive emissions, and poorly managed sites were responsible for 75% of fugitive emissions.

This means any expansion of onshore conventional gas must be accompanied by strict management and regulation. But there’s no industry-wide code of practice in Victoria focused on reducing this emissions risk.

Increasing annual emissions

Even in the unlikely scenario of zero or limited fugitive emissions, expanding conventional gas exploration will still add to Victoria’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposed laws follow the conclusions of a three-year study that reviewed the climate, environmental, economic and social impacts of gas exploration in Victoria.

The report suggested a slight increase in absolute annualised greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, Victoria’s annual greenhouse gas emissions would be proportionately increased by lifting the ban.

It also suggested expanding gas development would contribute between only 0.1% and 0.2% of Victoria’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, and that this wouldn’t affect Victoria’s 2050 net-zero target.

But 0.1% to 0.2% still amounts to releasing an additional 122,000 to 329,000 tonnes of CO₂ equivalent into the atmosphere.

What’s more, this assessment completely ignores emissions released through increased gas usage within the community. Globally, CO₂ emissions from natural gas use rose almost 200 million metric tons in 2019 and were responsible for two-thirds of the global emissions increase.

What it means for the community

The report predicts 242 jobs, A$312 million in gross regional product and A$43 million in royalties for Victoria. But overall, gas prices in the east coast market won’t change.




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The additional 128-830 petajoules (a joule is a measure of thermal energy and a petajoule is a million billion joules) that is potentially capable of being produced by lifting the moratorium will not be enough to address the forecast shortfall.

For the communities around the gas exploration sites, the report indicates the social impact of lifting the moratorium would be manageable.

The report indicates that 80% of the south-west and Gippsland communities – from more than 800 engagements with industry, farmers, local school students, and environmental community groups – either supported or tolerated onshore conventional gas development if noise or disturbances were appropriately addressed through regulation. But industry wide codes of behaviour are yet to be implemented.




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At what cost?

Lifting the ban on onshore conventional gas in Victoria comes at a time when the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is profoundly important.

Climate change is accelerating. While gas may be an important resource as we transition to renewable energy, accelerating its production, particularly in the absence of stringent regulatory controls, comes at a very high price.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

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

One little bandicoot can dig up an elephant’s worth of soil a year – and our ecosystem loves it



Catching The Eye/Flickr, CC BY

Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Amy Coetsee, University of Melbourne; Anthony Rendall, Deakin University; Duncan Sutherland, University of Melbourne, and Leonie Valentine, University of Western Australia

On Churchill Island, southeast of Melbourne, small cone-shaped, shallow holes (digs) puncture the grass. They’re widespread, and reveal moist soil below the surface. A soil heap at the entrance of a dig is a sign it was made recently.

Older digs are filled with leaves, grass, spiders, beetles and other invertebrates. They are made by hungry eastern barred bandicoots – small, roughly rabbit-sized digging marsupials – looking for a juicy worm or grub.




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It turns out these bandicoot digs are far from just environmental curiosities – they can improve the properties and health of soils, and even reduce fire risk.

But eastern barred bandicoots are under threat from introduced predators like foxes and cats. In fact, they’re considered extinct in the wild on mainland Australia, so conservation biologists are releasing them on fox-free islands to help establish new populations and ensure the species is conserved long-term.

Our recent research on Churchill Island put a number on just how much the eastern barred bandicoot digs – and the results were staggering, showing how important they are for the ecosystem. But more on that later.

A dig from an eastern barred bandicoot.
Amy Coetsee

Why you should dig marsupial diggers

Digging mammals – such as bettongs, potoroos, bilbies and bandicoots – were once abundant and widespread across Australia, turning over large amounts of soil every night with their strong front legs as they dig for food or create burrows for shelter.




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Their digs improve soil health, increase soil moisture and nutrient content, and decrease soil compaction and erosion. Digs also provide habitat for invertebrates and improve seed germination.

What’s more, by digging fuel loads (dry, flammable vegetation, such as leaves) into the soil, they can help bring down the risk of fire.

Rather than leaves and other plant matter accumulating on the soil surface and drying out, this material is turned over faster, entering the soil when the badicoots dig, which speeds up its decay. Research from 2016 showed there’s less plant material covering the soil surface when digging mammals are about. Without diggers, models show fire spread and flame height are bigger.

In fact, all their functions are so important ecologists have dubbed these mighty diggers “ecosystem engineers”.

How bandicoot digs affect soil.
Leonie Valentine, Author provided

Losing diggers leads to poorer soil health

Of Australia’s 29 digging mammals, 23 are between 100 grams and 5 kilograms. Most are at risk of cat and fox predation, and many of these are officially listed as threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Since European settlement, six of Australia’s digging mammals have gone extinct, including the lesser bilby, desert rat kangaroo and pig-footed bandicoots. Many others have suffered marked population declines and extensive range contraction through habitat destruction and the introduction of foxes and cats.




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Tragically, the widespread decline and extinction of many digging mammals means soil and ecosystem health has suffered as well.

Soils that were once soft textured, easy to crumble, rich and fertile are now often compact, repel water and nutrient poor, impeding seed germination and plant growth. Fuel loads are also likely to be much higher now than in the past, as less organic matter is dug into the soil.

To date, most research on digging mammals has focused on arid environments, with much less known about how digging influences wetter (mesic) environments. But our recently published study on eastern barred bandicoots provides new insights.

Just how much do bandicoots dig anyway?

In 2015, 20 mainland eastern barred bandicoots were released onto Churchill Island in Victoria’s Westernport Bay.

When eastern barred bandicoots were released on Churchill Island.

On mainland Australia, fox predation has driven this species to near extinction, and it’s classified as extinct in the wild. All Victoria’s islands are beyond the historic range of eastern barred bandicoots, but fox-free islands could be how we recover them.

Introducing bandicoots on Churchill Island presented the perfect opportunity to quantify how they influence soil properties when digging for food.




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To do this we recorded the number of digs bandicoots made each night and measured the volume of soil they displaced through digging. We also compared soil moisture and compaction within the digs, versus un-dug soil – and we didn’t expect what we found.

In one night on Churchill Island, one bandicoot can make 41 digs an hour. That’s nearly 500 digs a night, equating to around 13 kilograms of soil being turned over every night, or 4.8 tonnes a year. That’s almost as much as the average weight of a male African elephant.

Bandicoots turn over huge amounts of soil in their search for food.
Amy Coetsee

So, an astonishing amount of soil is being turned over, especially considering these bandicoots typically weigh around 750 grams.

If you multiply this by the number of bandicoots on Churchill Island (up from 20 in 2015 to around 130 at the time of our study in 2017), there’s a staggering 1,690 kilos of soil being dug up every night. That’s some major earthworks!

However, we should note our study was conducted during the wetter months, when soils are typically easier to dig.

In summer, as soil becomes harder and drier on Churchill Island, digging may become more difficult. And bandicoots, being great generalists, feed more on surface invertebrates like beetles and crickets, resulting in fewer digs. So we expect in summer that soil is less disturbed.

Bandicoots might help agriculture too

All this digging was found to boost soil health on Churchill Island. This means eastern barred bandicoots may not only play an important role in ecosystem health and regeneration, but also potentially in agriculture by assisting pasture growth and condition, reducing topsoil runoff, and mitigating the effects of trampling and soil compaction from livestock.

One of 20 eastern barred bandicoots being released on Churchill Island.
Zoos Victoria

The benefits bandicoot digs have across agricultural land is of particular importance now that eastern barred bandicoots have also been released on Phillip Island and French Island, and are expected to extensively use pasture for foraging.

These island releases could not just help to ensure eastern barred bandicoots avoid extinction, but also promote productive agricultural land for farmers.




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So, given the important ecological roles ecosystem engineers like bandicoots perform, it’s also important we try to reestablish their wild populations on the mainland and outside of fenced sanctuaries so we can all benefit from their digging, not just on islands.


Lauren Halstead is the lead author of the study reported, which stemmed from her honours research at Deakin University. She also contributed to the writing of this article.The Conversation

Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Amy Coetsee, Threatened Species Biologist, University of Melbourne; Anthony Rendall, Associate Lecturer in Conservation Biology, Deakin University; Duncan Sutherland, Deputy Director of Research, Phillip Island Nature Parks; Research Fellow, University of Melbourne, and Leonie Valentine, Research Associate, School of Plant Biology, University of Western Australia

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

Four bins might help, but to solve our waste crisis we need a strong market for recycled products


Jenni Downes, Monash University

Australia is still grappling with what to do with the glut of recyclable material after China closed most of its market to our recycling in 2018.

Now the Victorian government has released the first major change to state recycling policy: a consistent kerbside four bin system by 2030, and a container deposit scheme.

So what’s the proposed new kerbside bin system, and will it help alleviate Australia’s recycling crisis? Here’s what you need to know about the extra bin coming your way.




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The problems with our recycling system

There are two big problems – particularly since the China ban.

One is about supply. The quality of materials we have for recycling is quite poor, partly from the design of the products, and partly how we collect and sort waste items.

The other is demand. There’s not enough demand for recycled materials in new products or infrastructure, and so the commodity value of the materials, even high quality, is low.

And even though many of us think we’re good at recycling, many households aren’t getting recycling exactly right because they put things that don’t belong in the recycling bin, such as soft plastics.

One reason is because of the confusion about what can be recycled, where and when. A standardised system of collection (no matter how many bins) will go a long way to improving this, and the most exciting aspect of the Victorian announcement is the strong leadership towards consistency across the state.




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This means by 2030, no matter where Victorians live or visit, they’ll have a consistent kerbside bin system.

But to boost our recycling capacity, we need consistency across the country. New South Wales, South Australian and Western Australian governments are already supporting combined food and garden organics bins, and other states are likely to follow as the evidence of the benefits continues to accumulate.

What will change?

Details are still being ironed out, but essentially, the new system expands the current two or three bins most Victorian houses have to four bins.

While paper, cardboard and plastic or metal containers will still go in the yellow bin, glass containers will now have their own separate purple bin (or crate). A green bin, which some Victorians already have for garden vegetation, will expand to collect food scraps.

Victoria’s 4 bin plans.
Adapted by author from vic.gov.au/four-bin-waste-and-recycling-system

The purple bin will come first, with the gradual roll-out starting next year as some Victorian councils’ existing collection contracts come to a close. The service is expected to be fully in place by 2027 (some remote areas may be exempt).

And the expanded green bin service accepting food scraps for composting will be rolled out by 2030, unless councils choose to move earlier (some are already doing so).

How extra bins will make a difference

A 2015 report on managing household waste in Europe showed separating our waste increases the quality of material collected. Some countries even have up to six bins (or crates, or sacks).

That’s because it’s easier for people to sort out the different materials than for machines, particularly food and the complex packaging we have today.

A separate bin for food (plus garden organics) will help recover Victoria’s share of the 2.5 million tonnes of food and scraps Australian households chuck out each year.




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And a separate bin for glass will help with glass breaking in the yellow bin or collection truck, contaminating surrounding paper and cardboard with tiny glass shards that renders them unrecyclable. It should also boost how much glass gets recycled, according to Australia’s largest glass reprocesser.

Most Melbourne households have only two bins: one for mixed recycling and the other for general waste.
Shutterstock

What do they need to get right?

To make sure the transition to the new system is smooth, councils and the Victorian government must consider:

  • the space needed for four bins

Not everyone has enough space (inside or outside). This may require creative council and household solutions like those already found overseas (stackable crates and segregated bins).

  • the collection schedule

Does the new purple bin mean we’ll see a another truck, or perhaps a special multi-compartment recycling truck? And once councils have food waste in a weekly green bin, will the red bin collection go fortnightly? This actually makes sense because 3560% of the red bin is food scraps, which will be gone.

  • correct disposal of food waste

Many councils that have already added food waste to the green bin report contamination issues as people get their head around the transition, such as putting food wrappers in with the food scraps.

  • correct sorting of recycling

Putting the wrong thing in the recycling bin is a problem across the country, and taking glass out of the yellow bin won’t solve this issue. While this is already being tackled in government campaigns and council trials, we’ll likely need more government effort at both a systems and household level.

Five things never to put in a recycling bin.
Sustainability Victoria, sustainability.vic.gov.au/recycling

Better collection won’t mean much without demand

Collection is only one piece of the puzzle. Government support is needed to make sure all this recycling actually ends up somewhere. Efforts to improve the “supply-side” aspects of recycling can go to waste if there’s no demand for the recycled materials.

Environmental economists have long pointed out that without government intervention, free markets in most countries will not pay enough or use enough recycled material when new, or “virgin”, materials are so cheap.




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What’s great for Victoria is the new four bin system is only one pillar of the state’s new recycling policy.

It also includes many demand-side initiatives, from market development grants and infrastructure funding, to developing a Circular Economy Business Innovation Centre. The policy also deems waste management to be an “essential service” and has left space for strong procurement commitments. Today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged the importance of procurement when he announced an overhaul of the Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines at the National Plastics Summit, to boost demand for recycled products.

Stepping up to the challenge

But to effectively combat Australia’s recycling crisis, more must be done. This includes reinvestment of landfill levies; standards for recycled materials, and at a federal level; clear strategies to improve product design ; and funding to support the waste and recycling industry to meet the export ban.




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We also need regulation on the use of recycled material in products. For example, through mandated targets or fiscal policies like a tax on products made from virgin materials.

Since 2018 when China stopped taking most of our recycling, the level of industry, community and media interest has created a strong platform for policy change. It’s exciting to see Victoria responding to the challenge.The Conversation

Jenni Downes, Research Fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia (Monash Sustainable Development Institute), Monash University

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

2℃ of global warming would put pressure on Melbourne’s water supply



Sunburnt Victorian fields are set to become more common under climate change.
Fir0002/Flagstaffotos/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC-SA

Ben Henley, University of Melbourne; Andrew King, University of Melbourne; Anna Ukkola, Australian National University; Murray Peel, University of Melbourne, and Rory Nathan, University of Melbourne

Melbourne’s existing water supplies may face pressure if global warming hits the 2℃ level, according to our new research published today in Environmental Research Letters.

The effects of drying and warming in southern Australia are expected to reduce natural water supplies. If we overshoot 2℃ of warming, even the desalination plant might not provide enough drinking water to a growing population.

However, keeping warming to 1.5℃ would help avoid many of these negative consequences. This brings home the local benefits of acting swiftly to limit global warming. Luckily, there are options available to secure our water supply.

Warming and drying effects

The Earth has warmed by about 1.1℃ since pre-industrial times, causing ongoing global changes to our atmospheric composition. The Paris Agreement commits the world to holding the increase to “well below” 2℃, and “pursuing efforts” to limit the increase to 1.5℃.

While we’re confident there will be more hot extremes and fewer cold extremes as global temperatures rise, the consequences of further global warming for other climate extremes – such as drought – in different parts of the world are harder to pinpoint.




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Our study uses climate models to identify the possible changes in average rainfall and temperature in four different worlds:

  • the “Natural” world, where humans have had no influence on the climate,

  • the “Current” world, which approximates the impacts humans have had to date, and

  • two future worlds, which are “1.5℃” and “2.0℃” warmer than pre-industrial times.

In line with previously published results, southern Australia is projected to undergo drying and warming. But we are not alone. The Mediterranean and Southwestern North America are also predicted to dry out.

Desalination is increasingly important

Most Australians recall the severity and length of the Millennium Drought. This event severely stressed agricultural and natural systems, and led to the commissioning of desalination plants in the five largest cities in Australia, at a cost of several billion dollars.

Desalination offers an important lifeline. Although it comes with high short-term costs, it supplies vital water security over the long term. Successful efforts to improve water-use efficiency have reduced per capita demand rates, but growing populations in major centres will lead to increasing water demand.

Rainfall deficiencies over Australia for the 18 months between 1 Feb 2018 and 31 July 2019.
Bureau of Meteorology

Right now, large parts of southeastern Australia are in the grips of another drought. Although drought is a common natural feature of Australia’s climate, in recent decades we have observed long-term drying trends over much of southern Australia.

Currently, all capital city urban reservoir systems in southern Australia are below 60%, and several are nearing or below 50%. The Victorian government recently ordered 125 gigalitres of water from the desalination plant.

Urban water storage levels for Australia’s capital cities.
Bureau of Meteorology

With these challenges in mind, our paper explores the effects of future climate change on the surface water supply infrastructure for Melbourne.

Climate models and hydrological models together indicate future declines in catchment inflows as global warming increases from 1.5℃ to 2℃. The good news is when desalination is added to the mix, which it is, pressure on our water storage is dramatically reduced. However, population growth and climate change remain key challenges into the future.

The buffer is shrinking

The take-home message is, if global warming approaches 2℃ and beyond, the combined impacts of climate change and population growth will ultimately begin to outstrip the buffer desalination provides for us without ongoing investment in water security. Fortunately, desalination plants, storm water, water recycling and continuing to improve efficiency are all viable options.

To ensure our water security, and with it, the safety and prosperity of the urban centres which are the engine houses of the Australian economy, we all need to be vigilant in managing water resources.

We also all need to play an active part in the global effort to reduce the impacts of climate change. The commitments by the world’s nations for the 2020-30 period remain insufficient to achieve the temperature goals. Global emission rates continue to rise, and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are steadily accelerating.

The task of turning around our emissions in time to avert many of the serious impacts of climate change is becoming ever more implausible. In the coming 10–20 years, we expect to shoot past 1.5℃.




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With so much momentum in both human and natural systems it is becoming increasingly unlikely that we will avoid warming beyond 1.5℃. However, if we can achieve it, the list of benefits includes greatly reduced stress on the water supplies we rely on for our very existence.The Conversation

Ben Henley, Research Fellow in Climate and Water Resources, University of Melbourne; Andrew King, ARC DECRA fellow, University of Melbourne; Anna Ukkola, Research Associate, Climate Change Research Centre, Australian National University; Murray Peel, Senior lecturer, University of Melbourne, and Rory Nathan, Associate Professor Hydrology and Water Resources, University of Melbourne

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