Great Barrier Reef Foundation chief scientist: science will lie at the heart of our decisions


Peter J Mumby, The University of Queensland

Much has been made of the federal government’s decision to invest A$500m into management of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), A$443.3m of it to be administered by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, of which I am the chief scientist.

If my conversations with colleagues in the reef research field are any guide, there is still a lot of confusion over the intended use of these funds, the disbursement process, and whether big business will interfere with how the reef is managed.

Filling funding gaps

Over the past five years, the foundation has funded or managed multiple research projects that aim to support long-term management of the reef. Many of these projects would be considered either too risky or not “pure science” enough to be funded by the Australian Research Council (the exception being the ARC Linkage program).

I mean “risky” not in the sense of posing a risk to the GBR, but rather to describe research plans that are at the cutting edge, where the potential rewards are high but so is the risk of failure.

In this way, the GBR Foundation has filled a critical gap in funding researchers who are working at the interface of science, climate change, and reef management. This has included teams from multiple universities, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), and CSIRO.

Decisions over funding allocations are made through a conventional procedure involving external and internal review and two scientific advisory committees with representatives from each of the major research organisations (the University of Queensland, James Cook University, AIMS and CSIRO), the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and an independent chair.




Read more:
$500 million for the Great Barrier Reef is welcome, but we need a sea change in tactics too


As a professor of coral reef ecology at the University of Queensland, I participated in the foundation’s technical advisory group for several years and collaborated on several of the funded projects. As my own research focus includes how management can improve coral reef resilience, I was invited some months ago to serve as the GBR Foundation’s chief scientist, a part-time role alongside my main job as a University of Queensland professor.

I accepted this position for several reasons. First, scientists and practitioners have been calling for a major government investment in the GBR and I am keen to help steer the process in the most cost-effective way possible. I can help by ensuring that the right people are engaged in the process and that projects are subject to intense scientific scrutiny.

Second, having been involved with the GBR Foundation for some time, I know that its approach is both inclusive and merit-based, soliciting the best minds irrespective of which insitution they work for. This is important if we are to deliver the best value for taxpayers’ money.

Third, the foundation’s decision-making process is science-led, and I have never seen any interference from the board. Although some people have expressed concerns over the board’s links to the fossil fuel industry, climate change has been the focus of the foundation’s funded research for as long as I can remember.

Funding focus

The government’s decision to entrust environmental management and research to a private foundation is not unprecedented internationally. The US National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, for example, receives funds from both government agencies and private donations, which it uses to fund a range of conservation programs.

The A$443.3m provided to the GBR Foundation is intended to pursue a range of aims:

  • improving the quality of freshwater reaching the reef (A$201m)

  • reducing the impact of crown-of-thorns starfish (A$58m)

  • engaging traditional owners and the broader community in reef conservation (A$22.3m)

  • improving monitoring of reef health (A$40m)

  • supporting scientific research into reef restoration, with a specific focus on tackling challenges created by climate change (A$100m).

The latter is particularly significant because this program aims to expand the toolbox of interventions available to reef managers as climate change continues to intensify.

Of course, reef researchers and managers can’t fix climate change on their own. Other funding and incentives will also be needed to help our wider society reduce greenhouse emissions.

But here’s the important point: dealing with climate change will necessitate a wide range of responses, both to address the root cause of the problem and to adapt to its effects. The A$443.3m will help Australia do the latter for the GBR.

Clarifying misconceptions

I’d like to clarify some of the misconceptions I have heard around the funding awarded to the GBR Foundation.

The funds do indeed consider the impacts of climate change, specifically in helping coral reefs – and the associated management practices – adapt to the coming changes.

Science will lie at the heart of the decisions over how best to parcel out the funds, and although the foundation’s board will sign off on the approvals, it will have no say in what is proposed for funding.

Those research and management projects that do receive funding will be carried out by the most appropriate agencies available, whether that be universities, small or large businesses, other charities, AIMS, CSIRO, Natural Resource Management organisations, and so on. All of these agencies are well used to applying for funding under schemes like this.




Read more:
The science and art of reef restoration


Finally, I have heard concerns about the involvement of major corporations on the Foundation’s board. Everyone is, of course, entitled to their view on the appropriateness of this. But for what it’s worth, my own is that progress on climate change will be strengthened, not weakened, by a close dialogue between those responsible for managing the impacts of climate change and those in a position to exert significant change in our society.

Many of world’s greatest innovations occur in major industry, and I hope this will also apply to the Great Barrier Reef.The Conversation

Peter J Mumby, Chair professor, The University of Queensland

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

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Politicised science on the Great Barrier Reef? It’s been that way for more than a century



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Successive governments have seen the Great Barrier Reef not just as a scientific wonder, but as a channel to further economic development.
Superjoseph/Shutterstock.com

Rohan James Lloyd, James Cook University

The controversy surrounding the A$444 million given to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation by the federal government shows how politicised science has become on the Great Barrier Reef.

One reef scientist, who declined to be named, was quoted saying that the grant was “obviously” political, and accused the federal government of seeking to deny the opposition the chance to make the Great Barrier Reef an election issue.

But the politicisation of reef science, and particularly the Great Barrier Reef itself, is not new. It has a long history, stretching back to the time when the British empire was at its most powerful.




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In the nineteenth century, scientists studying the Great Barrier Reef were driven by the political winds and whims of British colonialists. For the most part, these scientists aided the mission of exploration and settlement. With every exploratory voyage, the value of the Great Barrier Reef as an arm of the empire grew, as scientists began to weave their insights into the reef’s biology and geology with evocations of its potential resources and suitability for settlement. Scientists such as Joseph Beete Jukes were particularly important in illuminating the Great Barrier Reef’s scientific mysteries and economic possibilities.

Around the time of federation in 1901, however, the politics of reef science took on a heightened nationalistic and provincial tone. Scientists asserted that the Great Barrier Reef’s value to Queensland and the nation lay specifically in its exploitable resources, and argued that it was the government’s responsibility to develop them.

As the science was in its infancy, reef scientists imagined that their field would inevitably develop in concert with the establishment of reef-based industries such as fishing and coral rubble mining.




Read more:
Death on the Great Barrier Reef: how dead coral went from economic resource to conservation symbol


In the early twentieth century, scientists suggested that a research station needed to be established along the Queensland coast. The idea was championed by natural historian Edmund Banfield, who wrote that it would “demonstrate how best the riches of the Great Barrier Reef might be exploited”.

Many scientists of the day believed that the government had failed to sufficiently develop the Great Barrier Reef, and feared that its dormant resources were at risk of plunder by our northern Asian neighbours. Reef science became caught up in the prevailing discourse of an empty and undeveloped northern Australia.

In response, Queensland-based scientists established the Great Barrier Reef Committee in 1922. The committee saw itself as having two roles: “pure” scientific research on the reef’s biology and geology; and the identification of commercial products that the reef could provide.

In 1928 the committee, backed by the British, Australian and Queensland governments, organised a research expedition to Low Isles, off the coast of Port Douglas.

The year-long expedition, led by British-born marine scientist Charles Maurice Yonge, aimed to find evidence of the reef’s economic potential. But the research, while significant to coral-reef science, offered little advice for the Queensland government despite its significant financial investment.

Nonetheless, the Great Barrier Reef Committee continued to leverage the state government’s interest in developing northern Queensland, and in 1950 it secured a lease on Heron Island. The committee was also given funding to build a research station on the island, after promising that it would reveal commercial products and boost tourism.

Heron Island, where the research station is still operating, now run by the University of Queensland.
UQ/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The Heron Island research station was built at a time when only a few Australian universities offered full courses in marine biology. Reef science had always been dominated by geology, as researchers sought to understand how coral reefs were formed.

After the second world war, aided by more sophisticated drilling equipment, and governments eager to locate local oil reserves, scientists such as the Queensland geologist Dorothy Hill began studying the Great Barrier Reef’s mineral and petroleum reserves, and recommended several sites for further exploration.

Between 1959 and 1967 three exploration wells were drilled along the reef, but none showed signs of oil or gas. In the same period, the Queensland government granted 37 prospecting and exploration permits, 23 of them in the vicinity of the Great Barrier Reef.

Geologists’ role in this exploration meant that they were viewed with suspicion by their marine biologist colleagues when the “Save the Reef” campaign began in 1967.

Geologists were largely seen as sympathetic to the oil industry’s interests, whereas marine biologists typically aligned themselves with the views of conservationists. At the same time, scientists found themselves taking sides in response to the first outbreak of Crown of Thorns starfish in the 1960s.

Robert Endean, the scientist who campaigned for government intervention in the outbreak, found himself marginalised by the scientific community, faced backlash from tourist operators concerned by his claims of dying reefs, and eventually lost government support for his research.

During both the Save the Reef campaign and the Crown of Thorns outbreak, scientists were publicly scrutinised for how their research, and their public comments, impacted the debate. A similar pattern has played out over the mass coral bleaching that hit the Great Barrier Reef in 2016.

Today, it seems governments are seeking to make the Great Barrier Reef appear to be protected while scientists themselves leverage the political and public fascination, with the result that the Great Barrier Reef accounts for a significant proportion of Australia’s entire marine research output.

The issues of sediment and nutrient run-off, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, Crown of Thorns starfish, coal mines, and port developments have all complicated the politics of reef science.




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Not out of hot water yet: what the world thinks about the Great Barrier Reef


For half a century, the science has been overlaid with a wider discourse about the need to preserve the Great Barrier Reef. This idea, championed by scientists, politicians and civil society, shows no sign of subsiding.

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The Conversation

Today, the amounts of money involved may well be unprecedented. But the idea of reef science coming with political strings attached is nothing new.

Rohan James Lloyd, Adjunct Lecturer, James Cook University

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

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight: the science of beautiful sunsets



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If you live in a place where the weather moves west to east, then an old proverb could help you predict the weather.
TimOve/flickr

Adam Morgan, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

“A red sky at night is a shepherd’s delight! A red sky in the morning is a shepherd’s warning.”

Perhaps this saying came to mind if you caught a spectacular sunrise or sunset recently.

Since biblical times and probably before, proverbs and folklore such as this developed as a way for societies to understand and foretell prevailing weather conditions.

The “red sky” proverb has endured across cultures for centuries, and modern science can explain why this is so.




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What causes a red sky at sunrise and sunset?

The Sun is low on the horizon at sunrise and sunset. At these times of the day, sunlight has had to travel through more of the atmosphere to reach us. When light hits the atmosphere it is scattered, particularly when dust, smoke and other particles are in the air.

This scattering affects the blue part of the light spectrum the most. So by the time the sunlight reaches our eyes there is generally more of the red and yellow parts of the spectrum remaining.

Dust and smoke particles commonly build up in the atmosphere beneath high-pressure systems, which are generally associated with dry and settled weather.

If you’ve ever been to Darwin in the Northern Territory during the dry season (the period between May and September), you’ll know glorious red and orange sunsets are an almost daily occurrence.

This makes sense – the sky across the Top End at this time of year is often full of dust particles whipped up off the land by dry southeasterly winds, as well as smoke from bushfires burning through the landscape.

What can red sky tell us about the weather?

In areas of the world where weather systems move routinely from the west to the east, including across southern areas of Australia, the “red sky” proverb often holds true.

A red sky sunrise suggests that an area of high pressure and fine weather, with its trapped dust and other particles, has moved out towards to the east. This allows for an area of lower pressure and deteriorating weather – perhaps a cold front and band of rain – to move in from the west during the day.

On the other hand, a red sky sunset tells us the worst of the weather has now eased, with higher pressure and improving weather approaching from the west for the following day.

Across northern Australia and other areas of the tropics, the “red sky” proverb is an unreliable method to predict the weather. In these regions, weather patterns are often very localised, moving in no particular direction at all, and larger tropical weather systems usually move from east to west.

Red skies and cloud

What often makes red sky sunrises and sunsets even more spectacular is the position of the Sun in the sky, relative to cloud.

When the Sun is low on the horizon, rays of light shine back up onto the underside of cloud high in the sky, reflecting back those bright orange and red colours that make it look as if the sky has turned to fire.

With a red sky sunrise, the eastern sky is more likely to be cloud-free with finer weather, allowing the Sun to shine upon the higher cloud moving in with the deteriorating weather from the west.

With a red sky sunset, it’s the western sky more likely to be clear, with the Sun’s rays shining up onto cloud further east.

So the next time you spot a spectacular sunrise or sunset, keep the “red sky” proverb in mind and you’ll become a pro at forecasting the weather in no time!




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The Conversation

Adam Morgan, Senior Meteorologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

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

The science and art of reef restoration



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Silent Evolution by Jason deCaires Taylor. Taylor makes sculptures and sinks them beneath the sea to create artificial reefs.
© Jason deCaires Taylor

Adam Smith, James Cook University and Ian McLeod, James Cook University

Coral reefs around the world are in crisis. Under pressure from climate change, overfishing, pollution, introduced species and apathy, coral colonies and fish communities are steadily deteriorating.

Coral cover in the Great Barrier reef has declined by an alarming 50% since the 1980s. Some leading scientists believe that the Great Barrier Reef is at a terminal stage.




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$500 million for the Great Barrier Reef is welcome, but we need a sea change in tactics too


One way to address this is through reef restoration. At its simplest, this involves the addition of coral or habitat to a reef. It’s generally undertaken on existing coral reefs, but can also be done on rocky reefs or bare sand.

We have looked back through the decades to celebrate the history of reef restoration, not just in science but also in art, business and politics.

Gardener, by Jason deCaires Taylor.
© Jason deCaires Taylor

Band-aid or reef revolution?

Just as there is no magic solution in human healthcare, there is likewise no magic solution in caring for corals. You do what you can with the resources you have.




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Some scientists have argued that reef restoration is a Band-Aid for the enormous problems that reefs face. We can agree with this point of view, but there are times when a band aid is very useful – and may prevent much more serious injuries.

Reef restoration makes an important local difference, as seen here at Koh Tao, Thailand.
Author provided

Earlier this year the federal government allotted an unprecedented A$500 million dollars to the Great Barrier Reef. This included A$100 million focused on restoration to improve the health of the reef.

Reef restoration science and projects complement community efforts. There is an increasing focus on addressing local issues such as water quality, overfishing, and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish.




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When scientists, industry and government work with local communities we can accelerate the recovery of local reefs.

To do this, we need people who want to make a difference. Once we recognise a degraded ecosystem, we work to reduce stress (like pollution in the water) and add new habitat or helpful species.

Artist Jason deCaires Taylor builds breathtaking underwater sculptures that double as artificial coral reefs.

The history of reef restoration

People have been restoring ecosystems and degraded land for thousands of years. Reef restoration, on the other hand, is relatively new and rarely documented.

Our research indicates that in the modern era there have been three major waves of reef restoration. The first wave started in the 1970s and ‘80s, as scientists were able to easily SCUBA dive and new protective legislation was introduced around the world. This largely involved the addition of new habitats. These could be coral transplants, or artificial constructs likes shipwrecks, concrete pipes, tyres and a purpose built structure called a reef ball.

The second wave from 2000-2010 was associated with scientists and conservationists responding to local concerns from cyclone damage, overfishing, introduced species and over-crowding at tourism sites, particularly in the Caribbean. Restoration methods at this point expanded to removing items as well as adding them, including algae, crown-of-thorns and lionfish.

Reef restoration has evolved over decades.
Author provided

The third wave, from 2016, has focused on new scientific technology such as micro-fragmentation: breaking coral into small pieces so it grows faster. It also emphasises partnerships between government-business-community to reduce threats and restore reefs.

This era also sees a huge increase in communication. Increasingly, we are influenced by social sciences and marketing rather than science and biology in our search for coral reef solutions. Organisations such as Rare, Citizens of the GBR and Reef Check are using citizen scientists, campaigns and pledges to reduce human impact and improve reefs’ health. As an example, the rapid phase out of plastic bags has been led by social media – not science.

Celebrating the Reef restoration Leaders

Documenting the history of reef restoration is important because it allows us to understand our past and be more informed and inspired to take action in the future.

Sculpture at the Underwater Museum at Lanzarote Rubicon.
© Jason deCaires Taylor

The great men and women in our history were innovators who responded to crisis and went against convention by restoring reefs.

We reviewed academic literature and conducted a global survey to find the pioneers who led reef restoration science, management, business and communication. These include Drs Austin Bowden-Kerby, David Vaughan, Todd Barber, Barach Rinkievich and Kristen Marhaver.




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An idea without action is just a dream. Similarly, an idea that has not been communicated widely and is not known and adopted by the general community cannot result in changed behaviour. Increasingly we recognise that good science and management is not enough without community support and action.


The authors would like to acknowledge the valuable contribution of Nathan Cook, Senior Marine Scientist at Reef Ecologic, to this article.

A presentation on the history of Reef Restoration will occur at the Great Barrier Reef Restoration Symposium, July 16-19, Cairns.

Thanks to Jason deCaires Taylor for the use of images. See more at underwatersculpture.com.

The ConversationThis article was updated on July 25 to clarify the location of the reef pictured demonstrating the impact of restoration.

Adam Smith, Adjunct Associate Professor, James Cook University and Ian McLeod, Senior Research Scientist – Coastal Restoration, James Cook University

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

How to break up with plastics (using behavioural science)



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Single-use plastics are convenient, but it’s time to phase them out.
Photo by Sander Wehkamp/Unsplash

Kim Borg, Monash University

Australia is responsible for over 13 thousand tonnes of plastic litter per year. At the end of June 2018, the Australian government released an inquiry report on the waste and recycling industry in Australia. One of the recommendations was that we should phase out petroleum-based single-use plastics by 2023.

This means a real social shift, because the convenient plastic products that we use once and throw away are ubiquitous in Australia.




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Bans, as Coles and Woolworths recently adopted for plastic bags, are one option – but are not suitable for every situation. They can also feel like an imposition, which can inspire backlash if the community is not on board. Behavioural science can offer a path to curb our plastic use.

Technology alone is not the solution

First off, plastic is not evil: it’s flexible, durable, waterproof and cheap. The issue is the way we dispose of it. Because plastic is so versatile it has been adopted across a range of single-use “throw away” consumer products.

Many people are working on technological solutions to our plastic problems. These range from better recycling techniques and biodegradable “plastics” made from algae or starch, to (my favourite) using the wax moth caterpillar or “mutant bacteria” to consume plastic waste.

But these options are slow and expensive. They can also have other environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions and resource consumption.

There are lots of reusable alternatives to many single-use products. The challenge is getting people to use them.

Behavioural science to the rescue

My research involves applying insights from various disciplines (like economics, psychology, sociology or communication) to understand how governments and businesses can encourage people to change their behaviour for environmental, social and economic benefits.




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Research has found that simply providing information through awareness campaigns is unlikely to change behaviour. What media attention and campaigning can do is increase the public visibility of an issue. This can indirectly influence our behaviour by making us more open to other interventions and by signalling social norms – the unwritten rules of acceptable behaviour.

Successful behaviour change campaigns must empower individuals. We should be left feeling capable of changing, that changing our behaviour will impact the problem, and that we are not alone. One positive example is modelling sustainable behaviours, like using KeepCups or beeswax wraps, in popular TV shows.

Once we’re aware of an issue, we may need a little help to move from intention to action. One strategy for providing this push is a small financial disincentive, like Ireland’s famous “plastax” on single-use plastic bags. Many cafés also offer discount coffees to reward bringing reusable cups.

We can also encourage retailers to “change the default”. Japan increased the refusal rate of plastic bags to 40% after six months of cashiers simply asking people if they wanted a bag.

This approach could be used for other products too. For example, imagine your drink not coming with a straw unless you specifically ask for it. This would cut down on waste, while also avoiding the unintended consequences of banning a product that is important for people with a disability.

Given that there is already strong support for reducing our reliance on single-use plastics, another simple solution would be to provide prompts in key locations, like carparks and workplaces, to remind people to bring their reusables.

While we may have the best of intentions to carry reusables, our old habits can often get in the way. Defaults and prompts can help to bring our good intentions in line with our actual behaviours.

Consumer demand also encourages manufacturers to make more convenient reusable options, like collapsible coffee cups and metal keychain straws. Businesses can also make reusables more accessible by introducing product-sharing schemes like the Freiburg Cup in Germany or Boomerang Bags in Australia.

No ‘one size fits all’ solution

Different situations need different solutions. Product sharing or reusable coffee cups might work in an office or café where the same customers return regularly, but would be impractical at a gallery or museum where customers vary each day.

For societal-level change multiple approaches are more effective than any one initiative alone. For example, if we wanted to phase out plastic cutlery nationally, we could start with an awareness campaign that encourages people to carry reusable alternatives. Then, once the community is on board, implement a small fee with some reminder prompts, and finally move to a ban once the majority have already changed their behaviour.




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The ConversationThe key to successfully phasing out our reliance on single-use plastic products is to change the norm. The more we talk about the problem and the solutions, the more businesses will seek out and offer alternatives, and the more likely we are to mobilise together.

Kim Borg, Doctoral Candidate & Research Officer at BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University

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

IPCC cities conference tackles gaps between science and climate action on the ground



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The IPCC’s first cities conference revealed the challenges in bridging the gaps between scientific knowledge and policy practice, and between cities in developed and developing nations.
Cities IPCC/Twitter

Jago Dodson, RMIT University

Some 600 climate scientists, urban researchers, policymakers and practitioners attended the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) first ever conference on cities last week. Hosted in Edmonton, Canada, it was organised as a forum to share knowledge and advice in support of the sixth IPCC Assessment Report (AR6) due in 2021.

The significance of a UN-organised global scientific conference on climate change and cities should not be underestimated. Urbanisation has been a United Nations concern since 1963. Policy attention strengthened in the 1970s when the UN Habitat agency was established. This focus was redoubled in the mid-2000s when it was reported that more than half of the global population was now urban.

Climate change has been a topic of UN action since 1988, with policy attention intensifying in the late 1990s and mid-2010s. Appreciation has since grown that with 55% of the world’s people now living in cities, this is where where efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change must be focused.




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This is why we cannot rely on cities alone to tackle climate change


A collision of science, practice and politics

By venturing onto urban terrain the IPCC faces some interesting scientific questions. To a large degree biological or physical systems can be studied as objective phenomena that behave according to discoverable and predictable patterns. Carbon dioxide objectively traps solar radiation leading to climatic warming; biological species die at temperatures above their tolerance.

By contrast cities are riven with historical, social, economic, cultural and political dynamics. The theoretical and conceptual frames that scientists apply to cities are subject to many biases.

We certainly can calculate the emissions a city produces and chart the likely impacts on it from a changing climate. But the reasons why a city came to emit so much and how it responds to the need to reduce emissions and adapt to impacts are highly contingent. Objective validation and verification are difficult. Identifying causality and forward pathways is very difficult.

There is also a vast divide between the physical and social science of cities and the policymakers and practitioners who shape urban development. Research shows that most urban professionals simply do not read urban science. Instead they draw on practice knowledge acquired from peer practitioners via an array of non-scientific channels and networks.

These difficulties were observable at the IPCC cities conference. It was scientific in purpose but a subtle politics was at play. Rather than being convened by a scientific body, the conference was co-ordinated as an instrument of the world’s national polities and the IPCC, organised by a mix of UN organisations and NGO networks, and sponsored by a local, provincial and national government.

Fewer than two-thirds of delegates were scientists; the remaining 40 per cent were policy officials and practitioners. The problem of connecting scientific and practice knowledge was often on display.

Many cities have accepted the clear scientific evidence on climate change and accompanying global targets. These cities are striving at the local scale to cut emissions and adapt to changing climate patterns. For many, their main need is for knowledge of practical policies and programs, rather than more evidence of climate change impacts or mitigation technologies.

Often these cities are racing far ahead of slow and certain science. They are sharing practical experience of mitigation and adaptation strategies via self-organising peer-city networks. Finding ways to link inventive but unsystematic practice knowledge with the formal peer-reviewed processes of orthodox science will be a critical task for climate change scientists and policymakers.




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Policymakers are also grappling with how to implement global agreements within complex international arrangements. There face myriad tiers of national, regional, city and local governance, involving a plethora of discrete public, private and civic actors.

For this group, their priorities at the IPCC cities conference concerned policy processes and institutional design, political commitment and implementation instruments. Their needs are for policy, institutional and political science as much as for further scientific detail on climate change.

What did these encounters reveal?

The conference generated many fascinating insights. One major theme was the question of informality.

Many cities beyond the developed world are weakly governed. Multiple dimensions of urban life, including housing and infrastructure, are organised via informal institutions. Achieving effective action in these circumstances is a considerable policy problem.

A related problem is the gross geographical imbalance in scientific effort and focus on urban climate questions. Most research focuses on the cities of the developed West. And most of those are comparatively well resourced to respond to climate change.

In contrast, the cities of the developing world lack a systematic data and research base to enable effective and timely climate action. Yet these are the cities where many of the most severe climate impacts will be felt. Resolving this inequity is a fundamental international scientific challenge, as is growing the capacity to build a better evidence base.

Another question the IPCC needs to navigate is the boundary between science and politics in urban climate policy. During conference plenaries, the moderator — a former city mayor — excluded questions about specific political representatives’ stances on climate change according to apolitical IPCC rules. Yet questions about the effects on cities of neoliberalism were deemed permissible.

Urban scientists will require an especially nuanced framing of their research agenda if they are to address the very material politics of urban climate policy via theoretical abstraction alone.




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The conference also provided some memorable highlights. William Rees, the originator of ecological footprint theory, lambasted delegates for not adequately appreciating the absolute material limits to resource exploitation. And the youth delegates received a standing ovation as the cohort who will be grappling with urban climate effects long after their older peers have departed.

William Rees explains the origins of the ecological footprint.

An agenda for urban climate action

The conference released a research agenda. This outlines the urgent need for inclusive and socially transformative action on climate change, improved evidence and information to support climate responses, and new funding and finance mechanisms to make this possible. It’s a very high-level guide for climate and urban scientists seeking to better understand climate change impacts on cities.

The conference appears to have met the IPCC’s needs to compile and review a large volume of scientific and practice insight for its assessment reporting. Whether it will have a wider effect on climate policy and action in cities remains unclear.

The ConversationThe participating scientists and practitioners certainly shared a general commitment to advancing the urban climate agenda. But it remains uncertain whether methodical scientific processes will be timely enough to meet the accelerating and expanding demands of urgent urban climate action.

Jago Dodson, Professor of Urban Policy and Director, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

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

The science of landslides, and why they’re so devastating in PNG



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A magnitude 7.5 earthquake took place on February 25, 81km southwest of Porgera, Papua New Guinea.
US Geological Survey

Benjy Marks, University of Sydney

A magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck the Southern Highlands region of Papua New Guinea on February 25, 2018. This was followed by a series of aftershocks, producing widespread landslides that have killed dozens and injured hundreds. The same landslides have cut off roads, telecommunications and power to the area.

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The PNG government has declared a state of emergency in the region. There is growing concern over several valleys that have been dammed by landslides and are beginning to fill with water – now ready to collapse and surge downstream, directly towards more villages.

Why is Papua New Guinea so susceptible to landslides? It’s a combination of factors – steep terrain, earthquakes and aftershocks plus recent seasonal rains have created an environment that is prone to collapse.




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How land becomes unstable

The Earth around us is generally pretty stable, but when the ground shakes during an earthquake it can start to move in ways we don’t expect.

Pressure changes during an earthquake create an effect in the soil called liquefaction, where the soil itself acts as a fluid.

When wet soil is exposed to physical pressure, other physical changes take place.

When lots of water is present in the soil, as is the case now during the monsoon season in Papua New Guinea, liquefaction can happen even more easily.

When liquefaction occurs, the earthquake creates changes due to friction. Imagine a visit to the greengrocer, where an accidental bumping of a carefully stacked pile of apples can cause cause them all to suddenly collapse. What was holding the pile together was friction between the individual apples – and when this disappears, so does the pile.

In an earthquake, two tectonic plates slip past one another deep underground, rubbing together and cracking the nearby rocks. The effects of this movement up at the surface can vary depending on the nature of the earthquake, but one feature is fairly common: small objects bounce around. The sand grains just below the surface do the same thing, but a bit less excitedly. A few metres down, grains could be bouncing around just enough to lose contact with each other, removing the friction, and becoming unstable.

A 2012 landslide in the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea.
dfataustralianaid/flickr, CC BY

Things are normally stable because they’re sitting on top of something else. When that support suddenly disappears, things tend to fall down – this is the classic dodgy folding chair problem experienced by many.

In engineering, we call this “failure” – and in the building industry it usually occurs immediately before the responsible engineer receives a call from a lawyer. Mechanically, this failure happens when the available friction isn’t enough to support the weight of the material above it.




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When soil acts like fluid

Once a slope fails, it starts to fall downhill. If it really slides, then we’re back to the same situation of grains bouncing around. Now, none of the grains are resting against each other, and the whole thing is acting like a fluid.

A couple of interesting things happen at this point. First, as the grains are bouncing around, small particles start to fall through all the newly formed holes that have opened up. This occurs for the same reason that you find all the crumbs at the bottom of your cereal box, and all of the unpopped kernels at the bottom of your bowl of popcorn. Once these smaller fragments accumulate at the bottom of the flowing landslide, they can help it slide more easily, accelerating everything and increasing its destructive power.

Second, landslides typically flow faster at the surface than below, so as large particles accumulate at the top they are also the ones moving the fastest, and they start to collect at the front of the landslide. These large particles, often boulders and trees, can be incredibly damaging for any people or structures in their path.

Simulation of a landslide impacting a structure.
Benjy Marks/USyd

The image above shows a laboratory simulation of a landslide flowing down a slope and hitting a fixed wall. The spherical particles are coloured by size (small is yellow; large is blue). Data from these sorts of studies can help predict the forces that an object will feel if it gets hit by a landslide.

Watching and waiting

These complex dynamics mean that we really need to know a lot about the geography and geology of a particular slope before any kind of reliable prediction could be made about the behaviour of a particular landslide.

In the remote areas of Papua New Guinea, accumulating this data at every point on every slope is a tough challenge. Luckily, huge advancements have recently been made in remote sensing, so that planes and satellites can be used to extract this vital information.

Using sophisticated sensors, they can see past foliage and map the ground surface in high resolution. As satellites orbit quite regularly, small changes in the surface topography can be monitored. Scientists hope that by using this information, unstable regions that haven’t yet failed can be identified and monitored.




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Papua New Guinea is located on an active fault line and has had nine major earthquakes in the past five years. Combined with the often remote and steep terrain, together with a monsoon season that delivers repeated heavy rainfall events, it is a particularly active area for landslides to develop.

The ConversationThe dry season in Papua New Guinea will not arrive until June. During the current wet season we may see even more slopes fail due to destabilisation by the recent earthquakes.

Benjy Marks, Lecturer in Geomechanics, University of Sydney

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