Cities can grow without wrecking reefs and oceans. Here’s how



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Cairns has lots of hard grey infrastructure but much less green infrastructure that would reduce the impacts of the city’s growth.
Karine Dupré, Author provided

Silvia Tavares, James Cook University and Karine Dupré, Griffith University

What happens if the water temperature rises by a few degrees?” is the 2018 International Year of the Reef leading question. While the ocean is the focus, urbanisation is the main reason for the rising temperatures and water pollution. Yet it receives little attention in this discussion.

In turn, rising temperatures increase downpours and urban floods, adding to the pressures on urban infrastructure.




Read more:
Design for flooding: how cities can make room for water


Protecting the reef as Cairns grows

Cairns is an expanding Queensland city located between two World Heritage sites – the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. While important research focuses on these sites themselves, not much is known about how the surrounding urban areas influence these natural environments. Similarly, little is known about how urban planning and design contribute to the health of the inner city and surrounding water bodies, including the ocean.

Cairns is a major Australian tourism destination with a unique coastal setting of rainforest and reef. This attracts growing numbers of visitors. One effect of this success is increased urbanisation to accommodate these tourists.

There are many opportunities to promote sustainable and socially acceptable growth in Cairns. Yet this growth is not without challenges. These include:

  • impacts of climate change, including sea-level rise and ocean warming
  • lack of comprehensive urban infrastructure strategy
  • lack of comprehensive assessment of the benefits of integrated urban design to maximise coastal resilience and the health of streams and oceans.
Rain gardens are common in Singapore.
Roger Soh/Flickr, CC BY-SA

As with most Australian cities, Cairns has an urban layout based on wide streets, mostly with little or no greenery. Rain gardens, for instance, are rare. Bioswales that slow and filter stormwater are present along highways, but seldom within the city.

The arguments for not adding greenery to the urban environment are familiar. These typically relate to costs of implementation and maintenance, but also to the speed with which water is taken out of streets during the tropical rainy season. This is because green stormwater solutions, if not well planned, can slow down the water flow, thus increasing floods.

However, cities can be designed in a way to imitate nature with solutions that are an integral part of the urban system. This can include dedicated areas of larger wetlands and parks, which capture water and filter pollution and undesired nutrients more efficiently, reducing polluted runoff to the reef.




Read more:
If planners understand it’s cool to green cities, what’s stopping them?


Integrated urban design

Integrated urban design is an aspect of city planning and design that could be further developed to ensure the whole system works more efficiently. This involves integrating the three elements that make up urban infrastructure:

  1. the green – parks, residential gardens, rain gardens, green roofs and walls, bioswales, etc
  2. the grey – built drains, footpaths, buildings, underground vacuum
    system
    , etc
  3. the blue – streams, stormwater systems, etc.
A rain garden, which absorbs rain and stores water to help control run-off from impervious hard surfaces, in Wellington, New Zealand.
Karine Dupré

Urban infrastructure, therefore, can and should be planned and designed to provide multiple services, including coastal resilience and healthier water streams and oceans. To achieve this, a neighbourhood or city-wide strategy needs to be implemented, instead of intermittent and ad hoc urban design solutions. Importantly, each element should coordinate with the others to avoid overlaps, gaps and pitfalls.

This is what integrated urban design is about. So why don’t we implement it more often?

Challenges and opportunities

Research has shown that planning, designing and creating climate-resilient cities that are energy-optimised, revitalise urban landscapes and restore and support ecosystem services is a major challenge at the planning scale. To generate an urban environment that promotes urban protection and resilience while minimising urbanisation impacts and restoring natural systems, we need to better anticipate the risks and have the means to take actions. In other words, it is a two-way system: well planned and designed green and blue infrastructures not only deliver better urbanised areas but will also protect the ocean from pollution. Additionally, it helps to manage future risks of severe weather.

The uncertainties of green infrastructure capacity and costs of maintenance, combined with inflexible finance schemes, are obstacles to integrated urban solutions. Furthermore, the lack of inter- and transdisciplinary approaches results in disciplinary barriers in research and policymaking to long-term planning of the sort that generates urban green infrastructure and its desired outcomes.

On the bright side, there is also strong evidence to suggest sound policy can help overcome these barriers through technical guides based on scientific research, standards and financial incentives.




Read more:
Here’s how green infrastructure can easily be added to the urban planning toolkit


Collaborative partnerships are promising, too. Partnerships between academia and industry tend to be more powerful than streamlined industry project developments.

Finally, and very promisingly, Australia has its own successful green infrastructure examples. Melbourne’s urban forest strategy has been internationally acclaimed. Examples like these provide valuable insights into local green infrastructure governance.

Cairns has stepped up with some stunning blue infrastructure on the Esplanade which raises awareness of both locals and visitors about the protection of our oceans.

This is only the start. Together academics, local authorities, industry stakeholders and communities can lead the way to resilient cities and healthier oceans.

Cairns Esplanade Lagoon helps raise awareness of the need to protect the ocean as the city grows.
Karine Dupré, Author provided



Read more:
How green is our infrastructure? Helping cities assess its value for long-term liveability


The Conversation


Silvia Tavares, Lecturer in Urban Design, James Cook University and Karine Dupré, Associate Professor in Architecture, Griffith University

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

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How to grow crops on Mars if we are to live on the red planet



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We can create the right kind of food plants to survive on Mars.
Shutterstock/SergeyDV

Briardo Llorente, Macquarie University

Preparations are already underway for missions that will land humans on Mars in a decade or so. But what would people eat if these missions eventually lead to the permanent colonisation of the red planet?

Once (if) humans do make it to Mars, a major challenge for any colony will be to generate a stable supply of food. The enormous costs of launching and resupplying resources from Earth will make that impractical.

Humans on Mars will need to move away from complete reliance on shipped cargo, and achieve a high level of self-sufficient and sustainable agriculture.




Read more:
Discovered: a huge liquid water lake beneath the southern pole of Mars


The recent discovery of liquid water on Mars – which adds new information to the question of whether we will find life on the planet – does raise the possibility of using such supplies to help grow food.

But water is only one of many things we will need if we’re to grow enough food on Mars.

What sort of food?

Previous work has suggested the use of microbes as a source of food on Mars. The use of hydroponic greenhouses and controlled environmental systems, similar to one being tested onboard the International Space Station to grow crops, is another option.

This month, in the journal Genes, we provide a new perspective based on the use of advanced synthetic biology to improve the potential performance of plant life on Mars.

Synthetic biology is a fast-growing field. It combines principles from engineering, DNA science, and computer science (among many other disciplines) to impart new and improved functions to living organisms.

Not only can we read DNA, but we can also design biological systems, test them, and even engineer whole organisms. Yeast is just one example of an industrial workhorse microbe whose whole genome is currently being re-engineered by an international consortium.

The technology has progressed so far that precision genetic engineering and automation can now be merged into automated robotic facilities, known as biofoundries.

These biofoundries can test millions of DNA designs in parallel to find the organisms with the qualities that we are looking for.

Mars: Earth-like but not Earth

Although Mars is the most Earth-like of our neighbouring planets, Mars and Earth differ in many ways.




Read more:
Dear diary: the Sun never set on the Arctic Mars simulation


The gravity on Mars is around a third of that on Earth. Mars receives about half of the sunlight we get on Earth, but much higher levels of harmful ultraviolet (UV) and cosmic rays. The surface temperature of Mars is about -60℃ and it has a thin atmosphere primarily made of carbon dioxide.

Unlike Earth’s soil, which is humid and rich in nutrients and microorganisms that support plant growth, Mars is covered with regolith. This is an arid material that contains perchlorate chemicals that are toxic to humans.

Also – despite the latest sub-surface lake find – water on Mars mostly exists in the form of ice, and the low atmospheric pressure of the planet makes liquid water boil at around 5℃.

Plants on Earth have evolved for hundreds of millions of years and are adapted to terrestrial conditions, but they will not grow well on Mars.

This means that substantial resources that would be scarce and priceless for humans on Mars, like liquid water and energy, would need to be allocated to achieve efficient farming by artificially creating optimal plant growth conditions.

Adapting plants to Mars

A more rational alternative is to use synthetic biology to develop crops specifically for Mars. This formidable challenge can be tackled and fast-tracked by building a plant-focused Mars biofoundry.

Such an automated facility would be capable of expediting the engineering of biological designs and testing of their performance under simulated Martian conditions.

With adequate funding and active international collaboration, such an advanced facility could improve many of the traits required for making crops thrive on Mars within a decade.

This includes improving photosynthesis and photoprotection (to help protect plants from sunlight and UV rays), as well as drought and cold tolerance in plants, and engineering high-yield functional crops. We also need to modify microbes to detoxify and improve the Martian soil quality.

These are all challenges that are within the capability of modern synthetic biology.

Benefits for Earth

Developing the next generation of crops required for sustaining humans on Mars would also have great benefits for people on Earth.




Read more:
Before we colonise Mars, let’s look to our problems on Earth


The growing global population is increasing the demand for food. To meet this demand we must increase agricultural productivity, but we have to do so without negatively impacting our environment.

The best way to achieve these goals would be to improve the crops that are already widely used. Setting up facilities such as the proposed Mars Biofoundry would bring immense benefit to the turnaround time of plant research with implications for food security and environmental protection.

The ConversationSo ultimately, the main beneficiary of efforts to develop crops for Mars would be Earth.

Briardo Llorente, CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Fellow, Macquarie University

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

Tropical thunderstorms are set to grow stronger as the world warms



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A supercell thunderstorm in the US state of Oklahoma.
Hamish Ramsay, Author provided

Martin Singh, Monash University

Thunderstorms are set to become more intense throughout the tropics and subtropics this century as a result of climate change, according to new research.

Thunderstorms are among nature’s most spectacular phenomena, producing lightning, heavy rainfall, and sometimes awe-inspiring cloud formations. But they also have a range of important impacts on humans and ecosystems.

For instance, lightning produced by thunderstorms is an important trigger for bushfires globally, while the hailstorm that hit Sydney in April 1999 remains Australia’s costliest ever natural disaster.


Read more: To understand how storms batter Australia, we need a fresh deluge of data


Given the damage caused by thunderstorms in Australia and around the world, it is important to ask whether they will grow in frequency and intensity as the planet warms.

Our main tools for answering such questions are global climate models – mathematical descriptions of the Earth system that attempt to account for the important physical processes governing the climate. But global climate models are not fine-scaled enough to simulate individual thunderstorms, which are typically only a few kilometres across.

But the models can tell us about the ingredients that increase or decrease the power of thunderstorms.

Brewing up a storm

Thunderstorms represent the dramatic release of energy stored in the atmosphere. One measure of this stored energy is called “convective available potential energy”, or CAPE. The higher the CAPE, the more energy is available to power updrafts in clouds. Fast updrafts move ice particles in the cold, upper regions of a thunderstorm rapidly upward and downward through the storm. This helps to separate negatively and positively charged particles in the cloud and eventually leads to lightning strikes.

To create thunderstorms that cause damaging wind or hail, often referred to as severe thunderstorms, a second factor is also required. This is called “vertical wind shear”, and it is a measure of the changes in wind speed and direction as you rise through the atmosphere. Vertical wind shear helps to organise thunderstorms so that their updrafts and downdrafts become physically separated. This prevents the downdraft from cutting off the energy source of the thunderstorm, allowing the storm to persist for longer.

By estimating the effect of climate change on these environmental properties, we can estimate the likely effects of climate change on severe thunderstorms.

Stormy forecast

My research, carried out with US colleagues and published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, does just that. We examined changes in the energy available to thunderstorms across the tropics and subtropics in 12 global climate models under a “business as usual” scenario for greenhouse gas emissions.

In every model, days with high values of CAPE grew more frequent, and CAPE values rose in response to global warming. This was the case for almost every region of the tropics and subtropics.

These simulations predict that this century will bring a marked increase in the frequency of conditions that favour severe thunderstorms, unless greenhouse emissions can be significantly reduced.

Change in frequency (in days per year) of favourable conditions for severe thunderstorms for 2081-2100, compared with 1981-2000 averaged across 12 climate models under the RCP8.5 greenhouse-gas concentration scenario. Stippling indicates regions where 11 of the 12 models agree on the sign of the change.
CREDIT, Author provided

Previous studies have made similar predictions for severe thunderstorms in eastern Australia and the United States. But ours is the first to study the tropics and subtropics as a whole, a region that is characterised by some of the most powerful thunderstorms on Earth.

What drives the increased energy?

Different climate models, constructed by different research groups around the world, all agree that global warming will increase the energy available to thunderstorms – a prediction underlined by our new research. But we need to understand why this happens, so as to be sure that the effect is real and not a product of faulty model assumptions.

My colleagues and I previously proposed that high levels of CAPE can develop in the tropics as a result of the turbulent mixing that occurs when clouds draw in air from their surroundings. This mixing prevents the atmosphere from dissipating the available energy too quickly. Instead, the energy builds up for longer and is released in less frequent but more intense storms.

As the climate warms, the amount of water vapour required for cloud formation increases. This is the result of a well-known thermodynamic relationship called the Clausius-Clapeyron relation. In a warmer climate this means the difference in the humidity between the clouds and their surroundings becomes larger. As a result, the mixing mechanism becomes more efficient in building up the available energy. This, we argue, accounts for the increase in CAPE seen in our model simulations.

In our new study, we tested this idea in a global climate model by artificially increasing the strength of the mixing between clouds and their surroundings. As expected, this change produced a large increase in the energy available to thunderstorms in our model.


Read more: Australia faces a stormier future thanks to climate change


Another prediction of our hypothesis is that days with both high values of CAPE and heavy precipitation tend to occur when the atmosphere is least humid in its middle levels (at altitudes of a few kilometres). Using real data from weather balloons, we confirmed that this is the case across the tropics and subtropics.

What this means for future thunderstorms

The models predict that the energy available for thunderstorms will increase as the Earth warms. But how much more intense will storms actually become as a result?

The answer to that question is currently uncertain, and answering it is the next job for me, and other researchers around the world.

The ConversationBut it is clear that through our continued greenhouse gas emissions, we are increasing the fuel available to the strongest thunderstorms. Exactly how much stronger our future thunderstorms will ultimately become remains to be seen.

Martin Singh, Lecturer, School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, Monash University

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

Antarctica: Weed Invasion Threat


The article below reports on the threat to Antarctica posed by weeds brought in by human visitors. This is a threat that will continue to grow with climate change.

See also:
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/20/opinion/seeding-the-southern-continent.html