Social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram could be a rich source of free information for scientists tasked with monitoring the health of coral reefs and other environmental assets, our new research suggests.
Ecosystems are under pressure all over the world, and monitoring their health is crucial. But scientific monitoring is very expensive, requiring a great deal of expertise, sophisticated instruments, and detailed analysis, often in specialised laboratories.
This expense – and the need to educate and engage the public – have helped to fuel the rise of citizen science, in which non-specialist members of the public help to make observations and compile data.
Our research suggests that the wealth of information posted on social media could be tapped in a similar way. Think of it as citizen science by people who don’t even realise they’re citizen scientists.
Smartphones and mobile internet connections have made it much easier for citizens to help gather scientific information. Examples of environmental monitoring apps include WilddogScan, Marine Debris Tracker, OakMapper and Journey North, which monitors the movements of Monarch butterflies.
Meanwhile, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr host vast amounts of information. While not posted explicitly for environmental monitoring, social media posts from a place like the Great Barrier Reef can contain useful information about the health (or otherwise) of the environment there.
Twitter is a good resource for this type of “human sensing”, because data are freely available and the short posts are relatively easy to process. This approach could be particularly promising for popular places that are visited by many people.
In our research project, we downloaded almost 300,000 tweets posted from the Great Barrier Reef between July 1, 2016 and March 17, 2017.
After filtering for relevant keywords such as “fish”, “coral”, “turtle” or “bleach”, we cut this down to 13,344 potentially useful tweets. Some 61% of these tweets had geographic coordinates that allow spatial analysis. The heat map below shows the distribution of our tweets across the region.
Twitter is known as place for sharing instantaneous opinions, perceptions and experiences. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if someone posts a tweet about the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns they are talking about a nearby part of the reef, so we can use the tweet’s geocoordinates as indicators of the broad geographic area to which the post is referring. Images associated with such tweets would help to verify this assumption.
Our analysis provides several interesting insights. First, keyword frequencies highlight what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef are most talked about, including activities such as diving (876 mentions of “dive” or “diving”, and 300 of “scuba”), features such as “beaches” (2,909 times), and favoured species such as “coral” (434) and “turtles” (378).
The tweets also reveal what is not talked about. For example, the word “bleach” appeared in only 94 of our sampled tweets. Furthermore, our results highlighted what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef people are most happy with, for example sailing and snorkelling, and which elements had negative connotations (such as the number of tweets expressing concern about dugong populations).
Casting the net wider
Clearly, this pool of data was large enough to undertake some interesting analysis. But generally speaking, the findings are more reflective of people’s experiences than of specific aspects of the environment’s health.
The quality of tweet information with regard to relevant incidents or changes could, however, be improved over time, for example with the help of a designated hashtag system that invites people to post their specific observations.
Similar alert systems and hashtags have been developed for extreme events and emergency situations, for example by the New South Wales Fire Service.
Tweets also often contain photographs – as do Instagram and Flickr posts – which can carry useful information. An image-based system, particularly in cases where photos carry time and location stamps, would help to address the lack of expertise of the person posting the image, because scientists can analyse and interpret the raw images themselves.
The Great Barrier Reef is, of course, already extensively monitored. But social media monitoring could be particularly beneficial in countries where more professional monitoring is unaffordable. Popular destinations in the Pacific or Southeast Asia, for example, could tap into social media to establish systems that simultaneously track visitors’ experiences as well as the health of the environment.
While it is early days and more proof-of-concept research is needed, the technological possibilities of Big Data, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence will almost certainly make socially shared content a useful data source for a wide range of environmental monitoring in the future.
Tularemia is a disease that affects humans and other animals. It is caused by infection with the bacterium Francisella tularensis and is commonly spread by biting insects or by direct contact with an infected animal.
Human infection is less common than infection in small animals like rabbits and rodents. But it is important human cases are recognised and diagnosed quickly because without appropriate treatment the disease can be life-threatening.
Our team has recently confirmed its presence in Australia in samples taken from ringtail possums who died in two outbreaks in early 2000.
While this is clearly a newly identified risk to public health, it’s important to recognise how rare the disease is and how well the infection responds to treatment.
How is it transmitted to humans?
Tularemia is a “zoonotic disease”, an animal disease that can be transmitted to humans. The most common way someone might be infected is by being directly exposed to an infected animal through a bite or scratch, or even handling infected tissue, like when hunters skin animals.
Human infections can also occur indirectly from an animal through a biting insect vector, like ticks or deer flies. So, a fly might feed on an infected animal then also bite a human, transferring the bacterium via its mouth parts.
Humans can also catch the disease from animals by coming into contact with environmental sources such as water or soil that have been contaminated by an infected carcass. The bacteria might then infect humans through the eye, or an open wound, or even if digested from contaminated food.
Australia has long been considered tularemia-free. So, it was surprising when, in 2011, two human cases were reported in Tasmania after exposure to ringtail possums.
While diagnostic tests on the patients’ samples suggested an infection with the bacterium, no samples were obtained from the offending possums to corroborate the unusual infection.
More importantly, researchers couldn’t grow and isolate the bacteria from any of the patients’ samples. Follow-up surveys of native animals in the area failed to detect the organism. So, the story of tularemia in Australia had, until recently, remained somewhat of a mystery.
How can I protect myself?
While our study has confirmed the presence of tularemia in Australia and identified ringtail possums as a reservoir for the disease, no-one knows if it’s present in other wildlife along the east coast.
So, to minimise the chances of infection, take care when handling sick, distressed or dead animals. Similarly, when travelling in an area with ticks or other biting insects, wear protective clothing and repellents.
How do I know if I’m infected?
In humans, tularaemia symptoms can vary but typically depend on how someone was exposed.
The most common form of disease in humans is known as ulceroglandular tularemia, which develops after an infected animal or insect bites or wounds you. As the name suggests, you develop a sudden fever, an ulcer forms at the site of infection, and the lymph glands near the wound swell.
Another and perhaps more serious form of the disease is pneumonic tularemia. This can occur when you breathe in bacteria from contaminated dust or aerosols, and your lungs become infected. Symptoms include cough, chest pain and difficulty breathing, and can be difficult to treat.
Yes, it can be treated
While infection can potentially cause severe disease and can kill, timely treatment with commonly available antibiotics should clear the infection. However, it is important the disease is correctly diagnosed as the most effective antibiotics (such as streptomycin) are often different to those used to treat other bacterial skin or wound infections.
There have been no reported cases of humans infecting other humans. While being exposed to someone infected with tularemia might pose some risk, the rarity of the cases and the effectiveness of antibiotic treatments to control the infection minimise this.
Looking to the future
What our study highlights more than anything is the need to investigate wildlife disease to understand potential risks to our environment and our own health.
So, we plan to conduct further surveys of animal and tick-borne diseases to explore undiscovered pathogens that may affect public health or impact our native animal populations.
We are also applying the same technology used to confirm the presence of tularemia in Australian wildlife for the first time to investigate other cold cases of the animal disease world – neglected and undiagnosed animal diseases.
We do this using a powerful technique called “RNA-Seq”, short for RNA sequencing, to analyse samples. With RNA-Seq, there’s no need to know what diseases might be present; researchers sequence all the genetic material in the sample, whether it has come from a host such as a human or animal, or from an infecting organism such as a virus, bacteria, or parasite.
This “metagenome” data is then pieced together and compared to databases containing genome data from previously sequenced pathogens.
Through these studies, we hope to reveal the full diversity of pathogens present in our native wildlife, and particularly, those that sit at the human-animal interface, a fault line that allows microbes to flow from one host to another. Most novel emerging diseases are spill-overs from zoonotic sources, so this research is critical for human health.
If we are to slow these disturbing trends and stabilise the climate at a level with which we might be able to cope, only a relatively small amount of the world’s remaining coal, oil and gas reserves can actually be used.
The majority must be left unburned in the ground, without developing vast new coal deposits such as those in the Galilee Basin.
To give ourselves just a 50% chance of staying within the 2℃ Paris target, we can burn only 38% of the world’s existing fossil fuel reserves. When this budget is apportioned among the various types of fossil fuels, coal is the big loser, because it is more emissions-intensive than other fuels. Nearly 90% of the world’s existing coal reserves must be left in the ground to stay within the 2℃ budget.
When the carbon budget is apportioned by region to maximise the economic benefit of the remaining budget, Australian coal in particular is a big loser. More than 95% of Australia’s existing coal reserves cannot be burned, and the development of new deposits, such as the Galilee Basin, is ruled out.
The health case
Exploiting coal is very harmful to human health, with serious impacts all the way through the process from mining to combustion. Recently the life-threatening “black lung” (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis) has re-emerged in Queensland, with 21 reported cases. Across Australia, the estimated costs of health damages associated with the combustion of coal amount to A$2.6 billion per year.
In India, the country to which coal from the proposed Carmichael mine would likely be exported, coal combustion already takes a heavy toll. An estimated 80,000-115,000 deaths, as well as 20 million cases of asthma, were attributed to pollutants emitted from coal-fired power stations in 2010-11. Up to 10,000 children under the age of five died because of coal pollution in 2012 alone.
Compared with the domestic coal resources in India, Carmichael coal will not reduce these health risks much at all. Galilee Basin coal is of poorer quality than that from other regions of Australia. Its estimated ash content of about 26% is double the Australian benchmark.
This is bad news for children in India or in any other country that ends up burning it.
The economic case for the Carmichael mine doesn’t stack up either. Converging global trends all point to rapidly reducing demand for coal.
The cost of renewable energy is plummeting, and efficient and increasingly affordable storage technologies are emerging. Coal demand in China is dropping as it ramps up the rollout of renewables. India is moving towards energy independence, and is eyeing its northern neighbour’s push towards renewables.
All of these trends greatly increase the risk that any new coal developments will become stranded assets. It’s little wonder that the financial sector has turned a cold shoulder to the Carmichael mine, and Galilee Basin coal development in general. Some 17 banks worldwide, including the “big four” in Australia, have ruled out any investment in the Carmichael mine.
From any perspective – climate, health, economy – the proposed mine is hard to justify. And yet the project keeps on keeping on.
Urban bushland has health benefits beyond being a great place to go for a walk. It filters our air and water, helps cities avoid extremes in temperatures, and is linked to lower rates of chronic disease.
But these and other health benefits are virtually never accounted for in local and state land development processes.
Urban planners need to consider these health benefits when making decisions about the future of our cities.
What do we mean by urban bushland?
Urban bushland ranges from a bush park of native trees, to wetlands – in fact any native vegetation characteristic of the local region. With its undisturbed soils and associated wildlife, urban bushland is more diverse than other types of green spaces in our cities, like parks. So it adds significantly to neighbourhood biodiversity.
The more unfragmented the landscape, or unaltered the bushland, the more likely it will be to retain its biodiversity. Hills, watercourses and gullies, or a mixed forest, have greater biodiversity than flat land or a plantation of trees. Landscapes that change by the season add to that diversity.
The health benefits of green spaces (and urban bushland) partly comes from this biodiversity.
In cities, health benefits work at two levels. Not only do local residents receive health benefits when they use urban green spaces, the wider urban population also feels the health effects.
The closer residents live to green space, particularly if it is accessible or usable, the better they report their health.
For an individual, access to green spaces contributes in multiple ways: it reduces stress, it helps us recover from illness or injury, and our thinking abilities improve when we are more contemplative and mindful of our green surroundings.
The quality of green spaces plays a role in the health benefits for locals. For example, views of diverse vegetation more effectively lowers stress compared with less-diverse vegetation.
Exposure to biodiversity from the air, water, soils, vegetation, wildlife and landscape, and all the microbes associated with them (the sort retained in uncleared bushland and wetlands) enhances our immunity. This is thought to be the key to the health benefits of nature.
But many studies take wealth into account, with the weight of evidence suggesting a direct health benefit from exposure to biodiversity.
So if the health benefits are due to the urban green spaces itself (and not related to wealth), they should be spread more evenly across the population.
Perhaps the health of poorer city dwellers will improve by living near to diverse green spaces, like bushland. Failing to provide access to nature entrenches health inequalities.
Urban bushland provides health benefits not just for local residents but for the whole city.
Forests and woodlands clean our urban air by removing particles and absorbing carbon dioxide. This reduces premature death, acute respiratory symptoms and asthma exacerbation across the city.
A recent review highlights the host of physical health problems that are reduced in urban areas with more nature, including less heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Mental health is also improved in urban areas where people are living with more green space.
Urban bushland improves city water. Wetlands and the vegetation around them clean our water by filtering, reducing exposure to pollutants carried in groundwater or surface water run-off.
Where new suburbs are developed on the outskirts of cities, the end result is usually near-complete clearing. Urban bushland is replaced with smaller, fragmented, more sanitised, open and neat spaces.
These are designed for a narrower (but still important) set of usable attributes, like a bike path, lawns and a playground. But the original values of the bushland are lost. This pattern is repeated in the expanding suburbs of cities across Australia.
If some urban bushland, wetlands or other landscape assets have been retained, the pressure on them from development is relentless, as seen recently in Western Australia where a highway is due to be extended through the Beeliar Wetlands.
Planning for better planning
Planning processes need to use ways to assess what we might lose and what we might gain from clearing bushland.
This could involve asking what types of services existing bushland provide for local residents and the city in general. These will include their role in providing clean air and water, controlling floods, cycling nutrients, as well as their recreational or spiritual services.
These could be compared with services the proposed development offers. The comparison should make decision makers, and more importantly the public, better able to judge the true worth or cost of a development.
Such cost-benefit analyses are usually used somewhere in planning processes but rarely, if ever, are the values of biodiversity and ecosystem services considered, or the cost savings from health benefits of bushland.
These sorts of cost-benefit analyses can also be used to account for the health effects associated with local bushland. Such health assessments (or health impact assessments) need to be more widely used. And where land subdivision, road building and suburban housing developments are planned, health assessments may need to be compulsory to better account for the contribution of urban bushland to health.
See also tomorrow’s article on green spaces in our cities
The cheapest way for Australia to cut greenhouse gas emissions is to put a cap on car emissions. It would be so cheap, in fact, that it will save drivers money.
According to analysis from ClimateWorks, the toughest proposed standard would help Australia achieve about 6% of its 2030 emission reduction target, and save drivers up to A$500 each year on fuel.
The federal government is looking at policy options to meet Australia’s 2030 emissions target of 26-28% below 2005 levels. Last year it established a ministerial forum to look at vehicle emissions and released a draft Regulation Impact Statement for light vehicles (cars, SUVs, vans and utilities) in December.
There is no reason for the government to delay putting the most stringent emissions standard on cars.
Cars getting cleaner, but not in Australia
Australia currently does not have carbon dioxide emission standards on light vehicles. CO₂ standards work by improving the overall efficiency of the vehicle (the amount of CO₂ emitted per kilometre). These are different from fuel quality standards, which regulate the quality of fuels used by vehicles, and noxious emissions standards, which monitor a car’s emissions of noxious gases and particulates.
Currently, CO₂ emission standards cover over 80% of the global light automotive market. The lack of standards here means that Australia’s cars are less efficient than in many other countries, and this gap is set to widen.
In 2015, the average efficiency of new cars sold in Australia (in grams of CO₂ emitted per km) was 184g per km. In the European Union, the average efficiency of new cars was 120g per km for passenger vehicles and 168g per km for light commercial vehicles (such as vans used as couriers). In the United States – the spiritual home of the gas-guzzler – it is 183g per km and set to improve to 105g per km in 2025.
Australia’s cars account for about 10% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, which are set to grow to 2030 if the market is left to its own devices.
Helping meet Australia’s climate target
In our submission to the draft Regulation Impact Statement, we confirmed that if the most stringent proposed target (105g per km) were introduced as proposed from 2020 to 2025, it would deliver 6% of Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target. This would save A$49 per tonne of CO₂. Although there would be some costs in introducing the scheme, it would save A$13.9 billion by 2040 overall.
This saves an extra additional 41 million tonnes of CO₂ by 2030, 140 million tonnes by 2040, and an extra A$8.1 billion overall by 2040 compared with the least stringent proposed target (135g per km by 2025).
However, we found that a two-year delay would add an extra 18 million tonnes of CO₂ to the atmosphere, or 2% of the government’s 2030 carbon budget.
Any reductions not achieved in vehicle emissions will need to be made up in other sectors, or purchased through international carbon permits, most likely at a higher cost.
Savings on fuel and health
The most stringent target delivers A$27.5 billion in total fuel savings by 2040, A$16.7 billion more than the least stringent standard.
The draft regulations show that for an average car this is equal to a saving of A$197-295 a year for a driver doing 15,000km per year, and A$328-493 for a driver doing 25,000km per year.
To put this in context, based on 2012 household energy costs data, this would cut household energy costs by up to 10%, with even greater savings for low-income households.
But a two-year delay of the most stringent standard would also result in new car owners paying an extra A$4.9 billion in fuel costs by 2030, and an extra A$8.3 billion to 2040.
The reduction in fuel use will also potentially reduce air pollution, resulting in better health outcomes.
The most stringent standard will save deliver 2.6 times as much fuel as the least stringent standard, so should reduce health costs by a similar proportion. However, the introduction of emissions standards would need to occur in a way that does not increase noxious emissions such as nitrogen oxides.
No reason to delay
Given the enormous benefit of a more stringent standard, the government should also investigate an even more ambitious target.
Our research shows a standard of 95g per km by 2025 will deliver even greater benefits and is technically feasible based on achievements in other markets. The EU is aiming for this level by 2020.
While we also support improving fuel quality to reduce noxious emissions, research by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) shows that we do not need to improve Australia’s fuel quality standards before the introduction of standards to improve the overall efficiency of the vehicle.
Similarly, despite discrepancies between on-road and in-lab performance of vehicles as seen in the Volkswagen emissions scandal, a standard will still provide significant savings to consumers and the environment.
Standards alone are not the silver bullet. We’ll need a range of other measures to support emissions standards on cars to help improve efficiency and build consumer awareness of fuel-efficient vehicles.
With Australian car manufacturing due to cease by the end of 2017, it is an ideal time to ensure that new cars bought into Australia are the most efficient available. This will set us on the path towards lower vehicle emissions while reducing costs for motorists and improving health.