Friday essay: species sightings

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An echidna in the Western Granites at Jam Tree Gully.
John Kinsella

John Kinsella, Curtin University

A Rare Sight

The bird seen first time here
in forty years sings lightly
on the wire, you turn to touch
the shoulder of a friend
and turning back together
find nothing but sky
and wire trembling.

Brushtail possum evidenced. We had not seen one here in nine years, and there might not have been a sighting long before this. But there might have been. A possum or possums may have been driven out, removed from the roof cavity — there are, sadly, people who will do this and then exterminate them. But this too is conjecture, we’re only going here on the general condition of the bush block when we arrived — the 170 years of colonial erosion, the running of cattle and sheep and horses, the fencing, cropping (to a lesser extent because we are on the rocky northern face of a valley — that happens on the other side of the hills, a couple of kilometres away), and the machinery of colonial domestic presence — house, sheds, driveway, firebreaks.

Once, this area in the Western Australian wheatbelt, like nearby Goomalling (“Place of possums”), was prime habitat for brushtail possums. Even now residual and remnant York gum and jam tree woodland, granite boulders and granite outcrops, in patches of greater and lesser density, provide enough for native fauna to retain a hold.

Since we’ve been at Jam Tree Gully, we have removed internal fences, planted trees and — through not farming animals — allowed the beginning of a return of undergrowth. It’s an agonisingly slow process; this year is the first in nine years that we have actually seen, through self-generation, the reappearance of the shy sun orchid (a single example), scarlet runner (running postman) and a native fern.

Looking south across Jam Tree Gully.
John Kinsella

I am talking about Ballardong Noongar boodja (country), and not “ours” but by the colonial reality of surveys and land titles, “allocated” as our domestic jurisdiction, the act of survey and property hierarchising entitlement (though mining companies believe they have even more entitlement than that, as, of course, does the state, as anyone can tell you who had “their” land reclaimed as part of the Cathedral Avenue widening of the road from York to Quairading and the destruction of hundreds of old-growth salmon gums, wandoos and York gums). As far as I and my family are concerned, we have an obligation to return this land to a health that though distant from its pre-colonial state of health, at least gestures towards it.

One of the dominant linguistic behaviours of our family residency in the area, of our presence, is to discuss what other living things we see every day, and how they relate to the country we see them on. Our son Tim, an avid birdwatcher and naturalist, walks the block every day and reports back, verbally and on film, about what he’s observed. These are intricate and informed observations, cross-referenced with what is likely to be seen, differences in, say, behaviour (mating plumage, nesting processes, shifts in song, etc), numbers, and implication. Like his parents, Tim sees language as part of presence, and these observations are an essential part of his own poetry-making.

John Kinsella.
Tracy Ryan

Similarly, I spend my time out on the block doing restorative tasks and acts, and working their language into the matrix of my writing. The language is in flux because rather than a taxonomy, a nomenclature of seeing and presence, what happens is that experience of habitat loss, and attempts at habitat restoration, place words, syntax and utterance as we have it under pressure.

Something else emerges, an active language of presence that needs to critique the ironies of its own impact, of its own vicarious (and direct) participation in the ongoing dynamics of dispossession and acquisition.

Neologisms and new nomenclature might be one outcome, but more often it’s a shift in what constitutes the observing eye and voice, what makes the self in the process. In poetics, we talk about the “I” in the context of the unified self and challenging the primacy of personal observation when language itself creates at the very least a simulacrum of self in which the poem is a cybernetic producer of opinions, surprise correlations and yokings, undoings and interjections. The poem itself is alive — made by the writer, it takes on a life of its own.

So, does this mean I am suggesting the poem itself, for example, channels the disturbances and distresses of country? Well, yes, up to a point.

The wasp making its mud cells and inserting caterpillars or spiders, stunned but alive with a wasp egg laid inside their bodies, to be eaten alive — in a state of life suspended — by wasp grubs, which break out of their dark cells into the light.
It’s a poem that needs no explanation if “made” — it works on levels of allegory, symbol, a glimpse of habitat, and so on. Or maybe something a little more acceptable to a readership which ultimately looks for affirmation of connection with the natural world while benefiting from capitalist exploitation of place (look around us), an echidna moving rapidly downhill, its quills liquid in the fractured light of late afternoon sun streaming over the rim of valley, through the York gum canopy.

Read more:
Australia’s species need an independent champion

We don’t see echidnas often here, but we see evidence of their diggings for ants and termites almost daily. And we see their scats. In fact, coming across scats is how we identify so much, including the brushtail possum. Scats, footprints, scratchings and sounds, especially at night. These languages are outside direct encounter, and often outside a description we might offer. Echidna sightings are coming less often, though evidence of their presence remains strong.

The poem interprets this as avoidance and strategy on the part of the echidna — we respect the not-seeing, and delight in the evidence of presence. Same with kangaroos. But in the case of eagles, the (illegal) killing of an eagle in a pair that were resident for many, many years, is an undoing that is hard to resolve under habitat-loss pressure. It is brutal. But writing about this loss, about the wrong done, cannot be a fait accompli — it must believe in the imagined presence as likely “return” as species, at least.

Roos at Jam Tree Gully just before the fences came down.
John Kinsella

All life we see on the block is vulnerable to human violence — thrill-killings of animals are sadly not uncommon, and there seems a strong link between far-right politics of patriotism and shooting around the district.

Scramble-biking, bush-bashing and remorseless clearing are changing habitat around the zone we “protect” at a far greater pace than when we arrived. It’s easy to use the “fly-in fly-out” dynamic as a distraction for the massive abuse that mining is in Australia, and to separate social issues of employment and purpose when discussing the obvious (“clear-cut”) environmental abuses of miners and their protectors, but nonetheless it is a real impact on ecologies that needs to be factored in.

The psychology of the mine

The impact of flying, the obvious impacts of the mines themselves, but also the psychology of purchasing a country property within a couple of hours’ reach of the city airport to use as a base. So many of the farmlets and blocks around where we live appear to have been bought by FIFO (fly in fly out) workers (real estate ads often overtly pitch to FIFO buyers, and I offer anecdotal evidence of conversations direct and indirect with and involving neighbours), and in many circumstances the psychology of the mine looks as if it has been brought to those blocks — substantial bush clearing, clear indifference to wildlife, and a psychology of control, ownership and what manifests by intent or default as a disrespect of Aboriginal land rights.

Of course, such attitudes to country are not unique to FIFO miners, far from it, and they have found around them a context of receptivity to such ways. And I do not blame the individual miners for this per se, but I do blame the mining companies and those who facilitate the abuses of land by those miners. A work psychology too readily becomes a life psychology.

An Inland Thornbill at Jam Tree Gully.
John Kinsella

In creating writing that acts as witness to species loss, we too easily become contributors to the archive, to the seedbank of metaphors that substitute for the real thing. It’s like repugnant natural history collections that give us a record of so many lost species when the very process of collecting has been a part of that species loss. Science bears many moral ironies that I feel an active, restorative poem should not. I am not saying a poem shouldn’t ironise the limitations of its own production, its impacts on ecologies; in fact, the opposite. I am saying it should be aware of them and critique its own role in the destruction.

A poem having a role in destruction? I hear you wonder. How so? Because industrialised consumer life is impacting and many, even the most environmentally-minded, make their art through the tools of exploitation.

It becomes a question of genuinely weighing up the cost in terms of the benefit to the environment. Does getting the message out there regarding habitat destruction cost more morally and literally than not doing so? The notion of “costs” needs to be placed under pressure before we begin. An economics of the figurative needs to be held accountable, scrutinised.

Read more:
More sightings of an endangered species don’t always mean it’s recovering

Which brings me back to the language of participation, observation and instruction I intimated when talking of our son Tim and writing what’s happening on the block. My partner Tracy and I are often confronted with the horror of having to say, “We saw a lot of those (birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, trees, shrubs, flowers etc) when we were kids, but not often now, or not at all.”

In many cases, flora and fauna we knew as children are now endangered or verging on extinction, not only within the physical areas with which we were most familiar, but across their range.

An example is the brown bittern, which I used to see and hear as a child when around swampy areas, and which is now almost extinct, certainly in the Northam region. Yet Tracy and I, travelling with Tim, had the remarkable experience of very likely seeing (unconfirmed sighting) a black or brown bittern between Toodyay and Perth last year. Tim, a most observant person, didn’t see it because he was studying something else outside the opposite window, and has been quizzing us about the sighting ever since. He has done a vast amount of research, and we have considered all other possibilities (too big for a little bittern, not the right size and shape for a night heron, a bird I know well), and so on. It was really, a notifiable sighting. Not in the sense of an “invasive species” (the irony!), but as an almost extinct species.

Echidna in the Western Granites.
John Kinsella

Would such notification lead to an invasiveness that affected its habitat more, or would it lead to protection? I consider recent sightings of night parrots in northern Australia, and wonder. The “understanding” to “save” can be so destructive — life, persisting against the odds, suddenly disturbed, fetishised, made vulnerable with over-attention. The “leave alone and stay away” approach can often be more effective. At least until the bulldozers arrive, which I’ve learnt over my life is eventually.

So, what do we do? Write a poem of resistance, of embodying the bird but not appropriating it in a poem, of keeping an eye on habitat and acting if it looks under threat?. Where a creature once was, a creature might be. Belonging and the marks of the endemic cannot be erased entirely with all the brutal means of survey and development, though the modus operandi of the state and its private apparatuses is to achieve that, and to convince us it’s been achieved. They want no comeback, to retrospective protections, and certainly no memorialising that cedes authority.

Brushtail possum evidenced. The nature of our interaction yet to be decided — largely by possum, but also by us. Possum enters poems, enters essays, enters stories. But does it become just a word, just an idea separated from its living life, it’s actuality? So easily, yes. Yet tense has a lot to do with it. As an active presence, not a thing of the past, and as a generator of sounds, movement and language. It is not an addition to here; it is here. It is not an exercise of painting a landscape; it is the land.

Read more:
Hidden housemates: when possums go bump in the night

Language used in the poem needs to be alive to the visceral, to a future in which it is not archival but an active presence, a declaration of rights. How can this be achieved? That poem is trying to write itself at the moment, and is finding its feet, its fur, its eating-places and shitting-places. There is an obligation in how we write, and a social implication in all we write.

In the community of the poem, which is both inside the text and outside, a knowledge of species loss and its prevalence might inform an observing, interaction with and imagining of a creature (or plant) as not only at risk, and on the verge of loss, but also as a resistance to collecting, archiving and relegating. The creature isn’t “was” but “is”, always now. We, the readers and hearers, participate in the speech-making of the poem, participate in this “imagining, and acting, in a world”. There’s one biosphere of many worlds. In our writings we need to make the leaps, the segues, the conversations between the one and the many. Brushtail possum evidenced. Listen, listen — on the roof, now, tomorrow!

The ConversationThis is an edited version of a paper given at the Australian Academy of the Humanities’ 48th Annual Symposium, Humanitarianism and Human Rights, held November 15 to 17, 2017, in Western Australia. The poem A Rare Sight is from John Kinsella’s The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony (Fremantle Press, 1995).

John Kinsella, Professor of Literature and Environment, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Is Perth really running out of water? Well, yes and no

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The future of Perth’s urban wetlands is in doubt.
Orderinchaos/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Don McFarlane, University of Western Australia

As Cape Town counts down to “day zero” and the prospect of its taps being turned off, there have inevitably been questions about whether the same fate might befall a major Australian city. The most striking parallels have been drawn with Perth – unsurprisingly, given its drying climate, rising evaporation rates (which increase consumption and reduce water yields) and growing population.

So is Perth really running out of water? The answer depends on what type of water is being considered, and what constitutes “running out”.

Read more:
Cape Town is almost out of water. Could Australian cities suffer the same fate?

When faced with this question most people think of drinking water, which is of course essential for household use.

It often ignores non-potable groundwater that is heavily relied upon in Perth to irrigate gardens, lawns, ovals, golf courses and market gardens. This water is also used by light and heavy industry, as well as being crucial to the health of wetlands and vegetation across the coastal plain.

Lake Jualbup in Perth’s western suburbs showing periods of low and high water level. Photos by Geoffrey Dean., Author provided

Perth’s drinking water supplies are largely safe, thanks to early investment in the use of groundwater and in technologies such as desalination. But somewhat ironically, as this recent book chapter explains, the future supply of lower-quality water for irrigation and to support ecosystems looks far less assured.

A drying climate

Perth’s annual rainfall has been declining by about 3mm per year on average, while the number of months receiving at least 200mm of rain has halved. Meanwhile, the annual mean temperature anomaly has increased by 1℃ in southwest Western Australia in the past 40 years and possibly by more in Perth, given the urban heat island effect.

Perth’s rainfall trend, as measured at Perth Airport’s rain gauge.
Bureau of Meteorology

The overall effect is that soils and vegetation are often dry, meaning that rainfall will be lost to evapotranspiration rather than running off into rivers and dams, or recharging underground aquifers.

At the same time, Perth has made major changes to its drinking water supply. The city now relies chiefly on groundwater and desalination rather than dams. For a variety of reasons, drinking water use per person has declined, most notably since the early 2000s when sprinkler restrictions were introduced. Some have switched to self-supply sources such as backyard bores, so for them total water use may even have increased.

Perth’s trends in runoff, population, and water supply.
Water Corporation

The reduction in per capita use of drinking water is just as well, because inflows into Perth dams have fallen from 300 billion litres a year to less than 50 billion. This disproportionate drop in stream flows, even against the backdrop of declining rainfall, means that evaporation from reservoirs can exceed inflows in very dry years.

Since the late 1970s, Perth has increasingly used groundwater rather than dam water. Seawater desalination has also grown to almost half of total supply. Even more recently Perth began trialling a groundwater replenishment scheme to recharge aquifers with treated wastewater.

With the declines in rainfall and streamflow predicted to continue, water security will continue to be an important policy issue over the next few decades. Although both are much more expensive than dam water, desalination and groundwater replenishment look set to secure Perth’s drinking supply, because seawater is virtually unlimited, and wastewater availability increases in line with the city’s growth.

Read more:
This is what Australia’s growing cities need to do to avoid running dry

Why are non-drinking water supplies less secure?

Boosting drinking water supplies with desalination or groundwater replenishment is unlikely to resolve the pressures on non-potable supplies. To understand why, it is necessary to understand Perth’s unusual hydrology.

Most of Perth is built on permeable sand dunes, which can soak up even the heaviest rainfall. This allows runoff from roofs and roads to be directed into nearby soak wells and absorption basins.

As well as cheap disposal of stormwater, the sands provide Perth with a place to store excess water from winter rains, which is then relied upon for summer irrigation. As a result, local governments have been able to provide many irrigated parks and sports ovals, and more than a quarter of Perth households use a private bore to water their gardens.

This arrangement isn’t as sustainable as it once was. Groundwater levels are falling under many parts of Perth, forcing the state government to reduce allocations and to introduce a range of water-saving measures such as winter sprinkler bans.

Unlike dam inflows, we don’t yet know the full scale of the reduction in natural groundwater recharge rates. But the question still remains: what can we do to halt the decline of this important water store, particularly as Perth’s population is expected to grow to 3.5 million by 2050?

About 70% of local road runoff and half of roof runoff already recharges the shallow unconfined aquifer, because it is the cheapest way to dispose of excess water in areas with sandy soils. As well as reducing discharge costs, this practice helps to ensure that bores do not run dry in summer.

Perth also has large main drains that are designed to lower groundwater levels in swampy areas and prevent inundation. Some of these waters could be redirected into the aquifer where there is a suitable site.

Don’t waste wastewater

About 140 billion litres of treated wastewater are discharged into the ocean every year in the Perth-Peel region. A further 7 billion litres are infiltrated into the sands as a means of disposal where there isn’t an option for ocean outfall. Recent investigations of these land disposal sites have shown them to be effective in protecting wetlands from drying and providing water for public and private irrigation.

Investigations have also shown that the quality of treated wastewater can be greatly improved when infiltrated through the yellow sands into the limestone aquifer in the western part of Perth. It is suitable for irrigation after a few weeks’ residence within the aquifer.

Read more:
‘Drought-proofing’ Perth: the long view of Western Australian water

Without these kinds of measures, local governments will struggle to water parks and sports ovals, to protect Perth’s remaining wetlands, and to safeguard the trees that help keep us cool.

The ConversationSo while drinking water supplies for an affluent city like Perth are reasonably secure, our vital non-drinking water supplies need to be augmented using some of the water we currently discharge into the ocean. As Perth gets even hotter and drier, and green spaces and wetlands are needed to provide much-needed cooling, we can no longer afford to let any water go to waste.

Don McFarlane, Adjunct professor, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Lucky winner: why this beach in WA claims the crown of Australia’s whitest sand

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The winner! Lucky Bay, Cape Le Grand National Park, Esperance WA.
Peter Masters

Noel Schoknecht, Murdoch University

In 2005, when I was chair of the National Committee on Soil and Terrain, I started a debate: where is Australia’s whitest beach? This was a diversion from the committee’s normal business of looking at the sustainable management of Australia’s soils, but it led down a path I hadn’t expected.

What began as a bit of after-hours banter became a serious look across Australia in search of our whitest beaches. New South Wales had already laid claim to the title, arguing that Hyams Beach at Jervis Bay has the whitest sand in the world, purportedly backed up by Guinness World Records.

As it turned out, both claims were false. Guinness World Records has no such category, and the whitest beach (as we found) is actually elsewhere.

Hyams beach in Jervis Bay, NSW, has been rumoured to have the whitest sand in Australia.
Kristina Kl./Flickr, Author provided

So we drafted terms of reference, and the search for Australia’s Whitest Beach began. Over the next year samples were collected across the nation. The criteria were simple: samples had to be taken from the swash zone (the gently sloping area between the water and the dunes) and the samples could not be treated in any way apart from air-drying. No bleaching. No sieving out of impurities. Marine environment only.

The results of the first judging in 2006 were startling. Of all the states and territories, the much promoted Hyams Beach in New South Wales came in fourth. Third was Victoria, second Queensland, and first Western Australia.

The other states and territories came in at Tasmania fifth, Northern Territory sixth, and South Australia seventh. The ACT didn’t have a beach to sample, although technically some of the Commonwealth lands around our coasts could possibly come in under their banner (but that’s another debate altogether).

A sample of the main contenders for the whitest beach in Australia. Unfortunately, samples submitted from South Australia didn’t make the final cut.
Photo: Noel Schoknecht, Author provided

The winning beach was Lucky Bay in Cape Le Grand National Park on WA’s south coast, but in reality any of the beaches in this area could have been winners – Hellfire Bay, Thistle Cove and Wharton’s beach (just to name a few) are all magnificently white.

A quick qualification here: the southwestern end of Lucky Bay, where many people enter the beach, is covered with seaweed – not the whitest bit! I should also note that all of the finalists in the whitest beach challenge were in their own right fabulously white. But when compared side-by-side, some beaches are clearly whiter than others.

The Queensland team felt aggrieved, so in 2007 I carried out a repechage with new samples from Queensland at Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays, and Lake McKenzie on Fraser Island. Lake McKenzie was ultimately disallowed as it is a freshwater lake and the rules stipulated a marine environment. Meanwhile, Whitehaven didn’t quite cut the mustard in the judging and Lucky Bay in WA was again the winner.

Whitehaven beach in Queensland just missed out on the top spot in the recount.
Jared Yeh/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

So what makes a beach white, and is it important anyway?

The assessments were based on a visual comparison, so to remove any possible visual bias after the 2007 challenge all the samples were scanned for their reflectance – how much light bounced off the sand, essentially – in the visible and infrared wavelengths. Our assumption was that higher reflectance throughout the visual spectrum correlates with greater whiteness.

As it turned out, the results from the scanning exactly correlated with the visual assessments. The eye is quite good at discerning small differences in colour and reflectance. (More background and the results from the competition are available here.)

So what makes a beach white? Obviously, a pristine environment helps. Another factor is the distance from rivers, which deliver coloured organic and clay contaminants to the coast.

The geology of the area and the source of the sand are also critical, with quartz seemingly a major requirement for fine sands. Most white sandy beaches are derived from granitic, or less commonly sandstone, geologies that weather to produce fine, frosted quartz sand grains. Interestingly, sands made from shell or coral fragments just aren’t as white.

The source of the sand is very important; sand made from shells or coral aren’t as white as quartz.
Tracey Croke/Flickr, CC BY

Is it important?

While this competition began in fun, I do believe it’s important. Beaches are places of refuge in this crazy world, and a pristine white beach indicates a cleanliness that is worth striving for. The reflectance of light off these sands through shallow waters near the beach creates a surreal, magical turquoise colour. White beaches are like the canary in the coalmine – once they’re spoiled, we know we’re in trouble.

Even though this study was a first look at some of Australia’s whitest beaches, and sampling was limited, it did highlight the sheer number of wonderful sandy beaches that Australia has.

The story’s not finished though. There are many white beaches out there yet to be sampled, and if you’d like to alert me to your potentially award-winning beach please email me or leave a comment on the whitest beach website.

It’s our responsibility, and I believe honour, to protect these amazing places. I’m sure there are more wonderful beaches out there that we haven’t sampled which may defeat Lucky Bay.

The ConversationShelburne Bay in northern Queensland, for example, is a contender yet to be sampled, and there are some magnificent beaches on the east coast of Tasmania. Whatever the outcome, let’s celebrate the natural wonders that surround our country.

Noel Schoknecht, Senior research associate, Murdoch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Why scientific monitoring of the effects of industry on our priceless WA rock art is inadequate

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The Burrup Peninsula, or Murujuga, contains over a million individual works of rock art by the Yaburara people.

John Black, University of Western Australia

Scientific studies used to monitor the impact of industry on Aboriginal rock art in north west Western Australia are inadequate, potentially exposing more than a million individual artworks to damage, according to a recent paper published by myself and co-authors in the journal Rock Art Research.

The rock art is located near the towns of Dampier and Karratha and is known as the Burrup Peninsula, or Murujuga. It is a priceless, irreplaceable, cultural and archaeological treasure. The peninsula is also home to industry including an iron ore export port, natural gas processing, liquefying and export facilities, an ammonia-urea fertiliser plant and most recently, an ammonium nitrate production facility for explosives.

The industry and port produce thousands of tonnes of acid-forming emissions each year, permitted under environmental regulations. The impact of these emissions has been monitored through several scientific studies, which claimed there was no consistent impact on the rock art.

However our paper shows that the four main studies cannot be used to monitor the impact of industry on the art due to methodological errors. For example, one study subjected rocks to acid-forming emissions and concluded that there was no consistent change in colour. But there were just not enough repeat measurements to gain any sensible conclusion about the effect of emissions on rock colour.

Another experiment examining the effects of varying acid and other chemical concentrations was conducted using iron ore, which has no relevance to the rocks on which the art is situated. Measurements of colour change between 2004 and 2014 were also made on the rock art and background rock at seven different sites. But the instruments used for measuring change in rock surface colour were designed for indoor use and were inappropriate for the highly variable, hot rock surfaces of Murujuga. Typically, instruments were located at only one place on the rock surface during a measurement each year and this was insufficient to represent the highly variable rock surface.

These studies form the basis for government regulation, which permits industry to release acid-forming emissions. While there is no conclusive evidence that industry emissions have damaged the rock art, recent measurements of the surface of rocks near industry by Dr Ian MacLeod, former Director of the Western Australian Maritime Museum, found acidity to have increased 1,000 times above pre-industrial levels.

We showed in another scientific paper published earlier this year that acid dissolves the outer surface layer of the rocks causing them to become thinner, lighter in colour and to flake away. Once the outer surface layer is removed, the rock art is lost.

The federal government is conducting a senate inquiry into the health of the Murujuga rock art, with a delayed final report due in late November. I argue that, at the very least, industry must install technology to reduce acid emissions and ammonium nitrate dust particles to virtually zero. Other rock art experts have called for a cessation of all industry on the peninsula in a recent editorial in Rock Art Research.

Priceless history

The Murujuga rock art captures over 45,000 years of human culture, activity and spiritual beliefs through ever changing environments from when the sea was more than 100 km from its current position and through the last ice age, 20,000 years ago.

The petroglyphs include some of the oldest known representations of the human face in the world. There are images of extinct mammals including megafauna, the fat-tailed kangaroo and thylacine. There are elaborate geometric designs that could have been used for navigation or an early form of mathematics. There are many depictions of hunting and cultural ceremonies as well as existing animals, birds and sea creatures.

Artwork depicting a thylacine, a species which has been extinct in the Pilbarra for 3,000 years.
Friends of Australian Rock Art

The Murujuga inhabitants created this rock art until February 1868, when virtually the entire Yaburara indigenous population was exterminated in a massacre.

Massacre of the Yaburara, only three years after European settlement in 1865, has deprived us from knowing the storylines and cultural meaning of the petroglyphs. Equally significantly, the massacre broke continuous inhabitation of the area, which has allowed successive Western Australian governments to develop in the midst of the rock art one of the largest industrial complexes in the Southern Hemisphere.

Industry and art

Construction of the industries is estimated by archaeologists working on Murujuga to have resulted in the destruction of over 30,000 petroglyphs through removal and physical damage. Atmospheric emissions from the industries are immense.

Dampier port, which is adjacent to the petroglyphs, is one of the busiest bulk-ports in the world with over 19,000 ship movements each year. These ships burn high sulphur bunker fuel, with one ship emitting as much as 5,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide per year.

The gas and fertiliser plants emit around 34,000 tonnes of acid forming compounds into the air each year. The recent starting up of the ammonium nitrate plant revealed a huge yellow-orange cloud of nitrogen dioxide with concentrations of over 1,000 parts per million. The emission of nitrogen dioxide from the plant will occur around six times each year, whenever certain industrial chemicals needed for ammonium nitrate production require replacing.

These emissions are permitted under state and federal environmental regulation. Both nitrogen and sulphur dioxide react with water to form acids which are deposited on the rock surfaces.

The construction of the LNG facility in 2008.
Friends of Australian Rock Art

Extraordinary origins

The rock art at Murujuga is threatened by acid because of its unique geological properties. The natural blue-grey rock, formed from cooling magma, weathers very slowly to form a yellow coloured weathering rind, which may grow by 5 mm in 30,000 years.

The yellow coloured rind is covered with a dark brown-black coating called a patina or rock varnish. The petroglyphs were formed by using hard pieces of rock to break through the patina and expose the rind.

This patina is an extraordinary substance. It is formed by specialised bacteria and fungi on the rock surface, where there is seldom moisture and rock temperatures can exceed 70℃. To survive the harsh conditions, the organisms build a mineral sheath. When they die, their body and sheath combine with clay from the dust to form the hard, dark-coloured patina.

Destruction of the outer patina results in disappearance of the rock art. There is evidence that the patina is flaking on some rocks with petroglyphs. The patina becomes thin and flakes away under acidic conditions.

Protecting the art

Elsewhere in the world countries have been vigilant in protecting natural and cultural heritage from acid emissions. In the US cars are banned or severely limited in many national parks because the acid formed from nitrogen dioxide, produced from vehicle exhaust, will damage the forests.

In France, the 1.4 million annual visitors to the 17,000-year-old Lascaux cave paintings do not see the actual paintings, but a replica in an adjoining cave because of the damage caused by emissions from human breath.

Similarly, the UK government announced in January this year they are building a £1.4 billion tunnel to remove cars form the vicinity of their 4,500-year-old heritage in Stonehenge.

The ConversationWhile removing industry may be the best solution to ensure the rock art’s safety, it may not be practical. Governments and industry must recognise their social responsibilities and ensure sufficient technology is in place to reduce acid forming emissions to near zero.

John Black, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


El Niño in the Pacific has an impact on dolphins over in Western Australia

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Leaping bottlenose dolphins.
Kate Sprogis/MUCRU, Author provided

Kate Sprogis, Murdoch University; Fredrik Christiansen, Murdoch University; Lars Bejder, Murdoch University, and Moritz Wandres, University of Western Australia

Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) are a regular sight in the waters around Australia, including the Bunbury area in Western Australia where they attract tourists.

The dolphin population here, about 180km south of Perth, has been studied quite intensively since 2007 by the Murdoch University Cetacean Unit. We know the dolphins here have seasonal patterns of abundance, with highs in summer/autumn (the breeding season) and lows in winter/spring.

But in winter 2009, the dolphin population fell by more than half.

A leaping bottlenose dolphin.
Kate Sprogis/MUCRU, Author provided

This decrease in numbers in WA could be linked to an El Niño event that originated far away in the Pacific Ocean, we suggest in a paper published today in Global Change Biology. The findings could have implications for future sudden drops in dolphin numbers here and elsewhere.

Read more: Tackling the kraken: unique dolphin strategy delivers dangerous octopus for dinner

A Pacific event

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) results from an interaction between the atmosphere and the tropical Pacific Ocean. ENSO periodically fluctuates between three phases: La Niña, Neutral and El Niño.

During our study from 2007 to 2013, there were three La Niña events. There was one El Niño event in 2009, with the initial phase in winter being the strongest across Australia.

The blue vertical line shows the decline in dolphin numbers (d) during the 2009 El Niño event.
Kate Sprogis, Author provided

Coupled with El Niño, there was a weakening of the Leeuwin Current, the dominant ocean current off WA. There was also a decrease in sea surface temperature and above average rainfall.

ENSO is known to affect the strength of the south-ward flowing Leeuwin Current.

During La Niña, easterly trade winds pile warm water on the western side of the Pacific Ocean. This westerly flow of warm water across the top of Australia through the Indonesian Throughflow results in a stronger Leeuwin Current.

During El Niño, trade winds weaken or reverse and the pool of warm water in the Pacific Ocean gathers on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean. This results in a weaker Indonesian Throughflow across the top of Australia and a weakening in strength of the Leeuwin Current.

A chart showing sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies off Western Australia. Note the extremes for the moderate El Niño in 2009 (blue rectangle), and the strong La Niña in 2011 (red rectangle)
Moritz Wandres, Author provided

The strength and variability of the Leeuwin Current coupled with ENSO affects species biology and ecology in WA waters. This includes the distribution of fish species, the transport of rock lobster larvae, the seasonal migration of whale sharks and even seabird breeding success.

The question we asked then was whether ENSO could affect dolphin abundance?

What happened during the El Niño?

These El Niño associated conditions may have affected the distribution of dolphin prey, resulting in the movement of dolphins out of the study area in search of adequate prey elsewhere.

A surfacing bottlenose dolphin.
Kate Sprogis/MUCRU, Author provided

This is similar to what happens for seabirds in WA. During an El Niño event with a weakened Leeuwin Current, the distribution of prey changes around seabird’s breeding colonies resulting in a lower abundance of important prey species, such as salmon.

This in turn negatively impacts seabirds, including a decrease in reproductive output and changes in foraging.

In southwestern Australia, the amount of rainfall is strongly connected to sea surface temperature. When the water temperature in the Indian Ocean decreases, the region receives higher rainfall during winter.

High levels of rainfall contribute to terrestrial runoff and alters freshwater inputs into rivers and estuaries. The changes in salinity influences the distribution and abundance of dolphin prey.

This is particularly the case for the river, estuary, inlet and bay around Bunbury. Rapid changes in salinity during the onset of El Niño may have affected the abundance and distribution of fish species.

In 2009, there was also a peak in strandings of dead bottlenose dolphins in WA (between 1981-2010), but the cause of this remains unknown.

Of these strandings, in southwest Australia, there was a peak in June that coincided with the onset of the 2009 El Niño.

Specifically, in the Swan River, Perth, there were several dolphin deaths, with some resident dolphins that developed fatal skin lesions that were enhanced by the low-salinity waters.

What does all this mean?

Our study is the first to describe the effects of climate variability on a coastal, resident dolphin population.

A group of bottlenose dolphins.
Kate Sprogis/MUCRU, Author provided

We suggest that the decline in dolphin abundance during the El Niño event was temporary. The dolphins may have moved out of the study area due to changes in prey availability and/or potentially unfavourable water quality conditions in certain areas (such as the river and estuary).

Read more: Explainer: El Niño and La Niña

Long-term, time-series datasets are required to detect these biological responses to anomalous climate conditions. But few long-term datasets with data collected year-round for cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are available because of logistical difficulties and financial costs.

Continued long-term monitoring of dolphin populations is important as climate models provide evidence for the doubling in frequency of extreme El Niño events (from one event every 20 years to one event every ten years) due to global warming.

The ConversationWith a projected global increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (such as floods, cyclones), coastal dolphins may not only have to contend with increasing coastal human-related activities (vessel disturbance, entanglement in fishing gear, and coastal development), but also have to adapt to large-scale climatic changes.

Kate Sprogis, Research associate, Murdoch University; Fredrik Christiansen, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Murdoch University; Lars Bejder, Professor, Cetacean Research Unit, Murdoch University, Murdoch University, and Moritz Wandres, Oceanographer PhD Student, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Writing the WA wheatbelt, a place of radical environmental change

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A message ploughed in the land calls on the federal government to help drought-affected farmers near the wheatbelt town of Kondinin in 2001.
Liza Kappelle/AAP

Tony Hughes-D’Aeth, University of Western Australia

What can creative literature tell us about radical environmental change? Most people accept that literature can be closely connected to places. Whether it is Dickens’s London or Hardy’s Wessex, we also accept that imaginative works deliver something about the nature of place that does not necessarily come to us by any other means. The Conversation

How then does this work in Australia? I have spent the past decade writing a literary history of the Western Australian wheatbelt and have sought in various ways to answer this question.

It is a regional literary history that nevertheless encompasses some of the nation’s finest writers — Albert Facey, Dorothy Hewett, Peter Cowan, Jack Davis, Randolph Stow, Elizabeth Jolley, Tom Flood, John Kinsella. Facey’s A Fortunate Life (1981) is a landmark in Australian autobiography; Hewett, Cowan and Stow helped define literary modernism in Australia; Jack Davis was a leading figure in the Aboriginal literary renaissance; and Jolley’s The Well (1986) and Flood’s Oceana Fine (1990) both won the Miles Franklin literary award.

What unites these works? Is it simply a quirk of fate that a sparsely populated hinterland in Australia’s most isolated state produces a body of literature that rivals in many ways the literary outputs of the great Australian metropolitan centres in Melbourne and Sydney?

For the answer to this question one has to understand the history of the WA wheatbelt. In two 30-year periods (1900-1930 and 1945-1975) an area of land roughly the size of Britain was stripped of its native vegetation for the production of grain and livestock. It is a crescent of land that begins just north of Geraldton on the west coast and sweeps south and east to Esperance on the south coast.

When the Swan River Colony was founded in 1829, six years before Melbourne, it was with the intention of forming an agricultural colony of closely settled yeoman farmers, who would own their own land and congregate in small, nicely spaced villages.

The clearing of the wheatbelt during the 20th century.

However, the antique soil of WA bore almost no resemblance to the fertile soils of recently glaciated northern Europe. Four to five more or less rainless months, where dry desert winds blow steadily across the vegetation was also an unprecedented challenge to farming methods learned in the British Isles. Lastly, there were almost no rivers to speak of, and permanent summer water was a rare commodity.

WA Government land advertisement from 1904.

For all these reasons, the agricultural dream of WA remained largely unrealized. The game-changing event was the goldrush of the 1890s. The population of the colony trebled between 1889 and 1896, from 44,000 to 138,000.
Knowing that the gold would be dug out before too long but wanting to capture this new cache of colonists, the colonial government passed the Homesteads Act in 1893 to parcel out land, and established an Agricultural Bank in 1894 to finance farmer-settlers. An army of land surveyors fanned out through the southwest and provisions for water, fertilizer and rail transit were quickly put into motion. Towns were gazetted, one-teacher schools popped up and WA took the lead in distance learning.

Albert Facey’s uncle Archie McCall had come over from South Australia to work the goldfields and was one of those who leapt at the land offer. Dorothy Hewett’s grandparents had made their money selling goods to diggers heading out to the goldfields at Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie and with this they purchased an extensive parcel of prime land at Yealering not far from McCall’s farm at Wickepin.

The dream refracted

What we get in both of these very different writers is a distinct picture of the dream of the wheatbelt. It is this dream — a settler-colonial ideology of farming independence — that we see refracted through the wheatbelt writers all the way through the 20th century.

The animating vision of the wheatbelt was an amalgam of ideals. On the one hand, it appealed to the basic material prospect of upward mobility. In the late 19th and early 20th century, opportunities for advancement through education were not generally available.

But the wheatbelt vision seemed even more deeply situated than this, offering itself as an antidote to the ills of modern city life. As the various states all moved to convert low-yield pastoral production to high-yield cash-cropping, there emerged a veritable ideology of wheat in the post-Federation years, and right through to the Depression.

C.J. Dennis joined the chorus in his bouncy ballad simply called Wheat from 1918:

Tho’ it ain’t a life o’ pleasure,

An’ there’s little time for leisure,

It’s contentin’, in a measure, is the game of growin’

Dennis and others helped to drag crop-farming away from its associations with European peasant drudgery and into the noble task of nation-building and feeding the “bread-eating” (i.e. European or European-derived) countries of the world.

Dorothy Hewitt, 1965.
University of Western Australia archives.

For Facey, even though his memoir was not published until 1981 (the year before he died), the dream of the wheatbelt and the ideology of wheat remain preserved as if in amber. The basic tasks of “clearing” the wheatbelt — particularly the regimes of annual burning and cutting — are remembered with particular pride by Facey.

Born a generation and a half later, Hewett grew up in a farm that was already in place. Although she left Lambton Downs (as it was dubbed) at the age of 11, Hewett’s writing returned again and again to the wheatbelt. Hewett’s wheatbelt had a mythic, gothic flavour in which the dream of it is present but often in inverted form. This wheatbelt is beset by a pernicious fatality and mired in the sexual miseries of her extended family.

Hewett deserves credit for being the first writer to take seriously the fact that the wheatbelt was built on land whose traditional owners had not disappeared but were still there, either impoverished in fringe-camps or incarcerated in government or church institutions.

The other side of the farming frontier

But it was the emergence of Aboriginal writing in the generation politicized by the citizenship referendum that brought a powerful voice from the other side of the wheatbelt frontier. Jack Davis had spent time in the notorious Moore River Native Settlement on the edge of the mid-northern wheatbelt, and then (after the untimely death of his father), with relatives of his mother’s sister at the Brookton reserve in the Avon valley. There he did the usual itinerant work that Aboriginal families did in the wheatbelt’s early years — clearing, fencing, shearing, rabbiting.

What Davis gives us in his poetry of the 1970s and the great plays of the 80s is a completely alternative vision of the wheatbelt. It doesn’t look like wheatbelt literature for the simple reason that it does not proceed either positively or negatively from the wheatbelt dream. Instead, it proceeds from Aboriginal presence in the land.

The tragedy of the Noongar is shown in all its woeful extremity, but tempered by Davis’s astringent sense of humour—his black humour if you like. But really Jack Davis is writing about survival. His example has provided a platform for a writer like Kim Scott to foster new forms of Noongar creative re-emergence, and also new forms of penetrating critique.

At the same time that a consciousness of Aboriginal dispossession began to force its way into the understanding of the wheatbelt, a much sharper sense of its ecological cost was also starting to emerge. Certainly, right through my literary history of the wheatbelt there was a realization that the waving fields of wheat were planted on lands stripped of their native ecosystems.

Everyone knew this because everyone spent a considerable part of each year toiling to clear the land. But the view tended to be that there was always more bush. Each bit of clearing was a merely local matter. Likewise, as rising salinity became directly associated with the clearing of native perennial vegetation, it was repeatedly explained away as a small, local, confined phenomenon.

Environmental destruction

But in the writing of Peter Cowan and that of the naturalist, Barbara York Main, the full picture of environmental destruction began to appear without the customary euphemism. It would be wrong to say that public opinion, particularly in the wheatbelt, changed decisively in the 1960s or even the 1970s. The cart-blanche denial, however, of environmental value — that the natural world of the wheatbelt had a value — became harder and harder to maintain.

By the 1980s, the wheatbelt had become uncanny. No longer the sign of the natural cycles of life replenishing the earth with seasonal regularity, but a vast and even repellent monocultural expanse. The wheatbelt was something profoundly unnatural in the eyes of writers like Elizabeth Jolley, Tom Flood and John Kinsella.

Of these, it has been Kinsella who has proved to be both durable and prolific. His poems, stories and other writings specify a wheatbelt that exists in strange cross-currents of science, tradition and avarice. The natural world is prised out of its familiar romantic categories and, in his remarkable work, exists in eerie counterpoise to the techno-scientific mania of modern agribusiness.

The central fact of the wheatbelt is radical disappearance. On one hand there was the destruction of the sovereign culture of the Noongar, custodians for millennia. Noongar people continue to practice and uphold their culture in spite of everything and the land continues to speak through them.

But on the other hand we must also contend with the fact that in the central wheatbelt shires, at least, only something like 7% of the natural vegetation (and the animal habitat it provides) remains. This, in a place that has a biodiversity as stunning as a rainforest canopy.

Charred timber after the ‘burn’.
State Library of Western Australia

Literature cannot, in and of itself, make these losses good. A thousand novels cannot replace one extinct species. But in human terms there is hope. The Noongar language is being revitalized. And here literature certainly does have a role to play. Jack Davis used Noongar in his plays and provided his own glossaries. Kim Scott’s fiction, and occasional poetry, gives its readers Noongar — in fact teaches its readers Noongar and the deft sonics of a language adapted to country. And many of today’s farmers are now at the forefront of conservation initiative and Landcare groups.

The role, though, that I see for literature in coming to terms with the facts of the wheatbelt lies in its capacity to continuously disabuse us of the complacent certitudes by which we think we know the world. It need not require the experimental bravura of Kinsella’s postmodern verse to do this unsettling. Even the older writing does it in surprising ways.

Only 7% of the central wheatbelt’s natural vegetation is left.
Google Earth.

What Dorothy Hewett and Jack Davis do within the broad parameters of theatrical realism nevertheless succeeds in unpicking the simple pouches we tend to pack our conceptions in. Barbara York Main’s natural histories throw open the dazzling singularity of wheatbelt life forms, and at the same time their intricate interconnections. Peter Cowan’s quietist studies of disillusioned loneliness, defamiliarises the wheatbelt just as certainly as Facey’s childhood glee at burning the bush to smouldering ashes.

It is not a particular kind of literature that gets to the “heart” of the wheatbelt. It is the fact that the wheatbelt falls into the prism of literature that allows us to see this place in terms other than the ones it gave itself via its animating dream of agricultural plenitude and generational continuity.

Creative writing is not blind to the natural or economic forces that determine the fate of the wheatbelt, but it will always approach the matter through the medium of human subjectivity. In this sense, it is only literature that allows us to see inside the wheatbelt that was created, geologically speaking, in the blink of an eye.

Tony Hughes-D’Aeth, Associate Professor, English and Cultural Studies, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Still here: Night Parrot rediscovery in WA raises questions for mining

Robert Davis, Edith Cowan University

The Night Parrot is unquestionably one of Australia’s most enigmatic, elusive and enthralling species. The final frontier of Australian ornithology, this cryptic parrot eluded dedicated expeditions to find it for nearly half a century. The Conversation

Last week, a momentous chapter in the Night Parrot story was written, with the first photograph of a live Night Parrot in Western Australia. The photos come in the wake of several other recent sightings, including the parrot’s rediscovery in Queensland in 2013.

Despite media reports, the parrot has never been officially listed as extinct, with sporadic evidence of its existence throughout the 20th century.

But now we know for sure that the parrots are alive and found across the continent, we can move on to making sure they remain so in the future.

Mystery bird

We know that Night Parrots favour spinifex or tussock grasslands, often close to inland wetland systems. But the areas of potential habitat are vast throughout inland Australia.

The Night Parrot has been listed as endangered in the Action Plan for Australian Birds since 1992. It is listed as endangered under federal legislation.

It has never been listed as “presumed extinct” or “extinct”. Reliable ongoing reports and the well-known cryptic nature of the species meant that the ornithological community considered it likely to have survived, albeit incredibly hard to spot.

The Night Parrot has been known to exist in WA since at least 2005, when a colleague and I clinched the first peer-accepted sighting in recent Australian history during an environmental impact assessment for the Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) Cloudbreak mine.

Fortescue Marshes, where the Night Parrot was first seen again in WA in 2005.
Robert Davis

This was by no means the first sighting of Night Parrots in WA, with regular and reliable reports since at least the 1980s. But until 2005 none had provided sufficient detail to eliminate other possibilities. Further sightings have been monitored at another location in the arid zone since 2009 and that work is pending publication.

The significance of the latest find is immense. A dedicated team of birdwatchers (Adrian Boyle, Bruce Greatwich, Nigel Jackett and George Swann) has confirmed the existence of a population in WA. The discovery, resulting from a well-planned expedition, is the start of a real dialogue about Night Parrot conservation in WA.

The latest record cements the fact that Night Parrots are present at several locations in WA and potentially throughout arid Australia, including in regions rich in mineral resources.

In contrast to the Queensland populations, which have so far been found in national parks and pastoral leases, the WA situation sets up a quandary for how to manage development, Night Parrots and mining.

Mining and conservation

Our 2005 sighting was important because, given the parrot’s endangered status, FMG was required to provide offsets for potential disturbance to Night Parrot habitat. The offsets included avoiding areas of likely habitat on the Fortescue Marshes, and funding follow-up surveys throughout the areas surrounding the proposed mine. These unfortunately did not find further evidence of Night Parrots.

Research offsets from FMG also funded the writing of a national research plan for Night Parrots. This was later followed by on-ground research on Night Parrots at Pullen Pullen Reserve in Queensland, the population found by naturalist John Young in 2013.

Recent developments by other WA resource companies have seldom considered Night Parrots. My personal experience is that surveys usually look for endangered mammals such as Northern Quolls and Bilbies, but rarely search properly for Night Parrots. This is likely due to two main reasons.

The first is the incredibly cryptic nature of the Night Parrot. Clearly the species has evaded detection for so long because it is difficult to find.

The second is what I term “the Thylacine factor”. The only equivalent species in Australia that has the same degree of scepticism and mythology is the Thylacine.

Thylacines have (so far) not been rediscovered. But developers, consultants and regulators take the same attitude to Night Parrot sightings. The parrots are often seen as a mythical animal that doesn’t exist. The idea of looking for them is met with mirth.

Finding the parrots

Recent findings from research by Steve Murphy in Queensland, and other recent work in WA, are slowly providing us with the tools to overcome both of these issues. With better knowledge of their specific habitat requirements, including a need for long-unburned grasslands close to water sources, we can reduce the daunting challenge of Night Parrots potentially existing anywhere that spinifex is found.

Fire is one of the threats facing the Night Parrot.
Robert Davis

The recent release of calls from the Queensland population and a new recording of calls from the WA population provide the most powerful tool yet for doing surveys. Playing back the calls can be used to elicit a response from any Night Parrots in the area. The call can also be used to identify calls from deployed remote recording devices.

As more populations are discovered and more evidence becomes available, this will help convince the public and decision-makers that the parrots are (hopefully) found across a wide range and need careful management, despite the difficulty of observing them.

Let’s hope government bodies will strongly enforce the requirement to search for Night Parrots in all areas of potential habitat within their known current and historic range. This should ensure that we don’t lose any parrots before they are even found.

Robert Davis, Senior Lecturer in Vertebrate Biology, Edith Cowan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.