‘It is not easy’: how science and courage saved the stunning Australian Alps



National Library of Australia

Philip Gibbons, Australian National University

Most people probably associate the Australian Alps with skiing and snow. Others might think of the Man from Snowy River legend or the engineering feats of the Snowy Hydro-Electric Scheme.

But few people know the region’s history of exploitation and overuse, nor the courage of those who fought to save this precious wilderness area. A new book, Kosciuszko: A Great National Park, tells that important story. The result, by authors Deirdre Slattery and Graeme L. Worboys, is a positive yet cautionary tale.

Today, the park is largely protected – yet threats such as ski tourism, feral horses and the Snowy 2.0 scheme still loom. And climate change has left the region highly vulnerable, as shown by declining snow depths and a massive bushfire that tore through the Snowy Mountains last summer.

The book shows how Kosciuszko National Park is the product of robust science and hard-fought battles by dedicated individuals – battles that continue to this day.

A ranger-guided tour leaving for the Kosciuszko summit in 1964.
A ranger-guided tour leaving for the Kosciuszko summit in 1964.
Gare collection in Kosciuszko: A Great National Park

A long history of occupation

The Australian Alps in southeast New South Wales is the traditional home of three Aboriginal groups: the Ngarigo, Walgalu and Djilamatang people. It is home to Australia’s highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko.

The book describes how squatters with cattle occupied the region from the 1820s. By 1840, the Snowy region had been stocked with 200,000 sheep, 75,000 cattle and 3,000 horses which grazed in the mountains each summer.




Read more:
We need our Alps, so why aren’t we looking after them?


The discovery of gold in 1860 brought another 10,000 people to the Snowy Mountains. By the turn of the 20th century, the mountains were also a playground for recreation. Hotel Kosciusko, with 93 bedrooms, a ballroom, museum, skating rink and tennis courts, catered for an upmarket clientele.

In 1949 the mountains became the site for the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme: 16 dams, 80 kilometres of aqueducts and more than 140 kilometres of tunnels.

By then, the signs of overuse were evident. Soils were eroding, streams became silted and unique alpine flora was diminishing.

Cattle grazing at Club Lake believed to be during the Federation Drought (1897-1903).
Cattle grazing at Club Lake believed to be during the Federation Drought (1897-1903).
Kerry Studio/Costin collection in Kosciuszko: A Great National Park.

The long conservation fight

Tannat William Edgeworth David, a professor at the University of Sydney, was one of the first to document the unique values of the Snowy Mountains and call for their protection.

In the 1800s, the notion that an ice age once gripped Australia was considered preposterous. The book tells how David and colleagues put the matter “absolutely beyond dispute” when they mapped, on Kosciuszko’s main range, the undeniable signature left by glaciers.

In the early 1900s, David urged that the alpine area be preserved:

[I]t would be wise policy, in the interest of people and of science, to reserve from occupation and even from the depasturing of stock, all the highest points of our alpine plateau, so that this floral wonderland may be preserved intact for posterity…

It took almost 50 years before this advice was heeded. Kosciuszko State Park — later Kosciuszko National Park – was proclaimed in 1944. A decade of further scientific research led to the end of summer grazing leases above 1,350 metres in 1958.

One of the first park managers was Neville Gare. As the book notes, Gare quickly learned that feelings over management of the mountains ran deep. Soon after rangers started impounding stock found illegally in the park, an effigy of a park ranger swinging from a hangman’s noose was installed on the veranda of the Jindabyne Hotel.




Read more:
Fire almost wiped out rare species in the Australian Alps. Feral horses are finishing the job


In 1950, Gare resisted a plan by head of the Ski Tourers Association, Charles Anton, to build a network of ski lodges. The book recounts how the tensions culminated at a public function when Anton snipped Gare’s tie in half to “indicate his indifference to Gare’s authority”. Some lodges were later built.

In his unpublished memoir, Gare wrote “it is not easy to conserve something and use it too”. In future years, this observation would prove all too true.

Stock illegally moved into the park after grazing leases ended in 1958.
Stock illegally moved into the park after grazing leases ended in 1958.
Alec Costin in Kosciuszko: A Great National Park

Ongoing battles

Gare and the Kosciusko State Park Trust developed the first formal plan of management for the park in 1965. The park was divided into zones for different uses: wilderness, conservation of exceptional natural and historic features, development, hydro-electricity and tourism.

This zoning was radical thinking at the time but has since been widely adopted in park management across Australia.

The plan of management for Kosciuszko National Park has been frequently amended to accommodate more tourism facilities, and the threat of further development is ever-present. As the authors note, further pressure is also coming via Snowy 2.0, a A$5 billion proposal to expand the current hydroelectric scheme.

Climate change is also a threat. Rising temperatures have triggered a 15% decline in the annual maximum snow depth, relative to the 1961-90 average.

Skiers at Perisher Valley
Climate change is reducing the snow depth in the region.
Perisher/AAP

Climate change is also making the threat of bushfires worse. In January, the massive Adaminaby Complex fire burned through more than 93,000 hectares in the Snowy region, affecting swathes of bush. It also devastated populations of several threatened species, including the corroboree frog and the stocky galaxias fish.

And the lethal chytrid fungus, introduced to Australia, has pushed the park’s southern corroboree frog to the brink of extinction.




Read more:
NSW has approved Snowy 2.0. Here are six reasons why that’s a bad move


In 2018, the NSW government declared feral horses in the park a protected species. The population has quickly grown to about 19,000, representing a considerable threat to several species.

The book reminds us that today, as throughout history, Kosciuszko National Park needs protecting. And key to that are courageous, committed individuals – and robust science.The Conversation

A scenic view of the Snowy Mountains
The Snowy Mountains are protected, but threats remain.
Schopier/Wikimedia

Philip Gibbons, Professor, Australian National University

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

How a scientific spat over how to name species turned into a big plus for nature



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Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University; Les Christidis, Southern Cross University; Richard L. Pyle, University of Hawaii, and Scott Thomson, Universidade de São Paulo

Taxonomy, or the naming of species, is the foundation of modern biology. It might sound like a fairly straightforward exercise, but in fact it’s complicated and often controversial.

Why? Because there’s no one agreed list of all the world’s species. Competing lists exist for organisms such as mammals and birds, while other less well-known groups have none. And there are more than 30 definitions of what constitutes a species. This can make life difficult for biodiversity researchers and those working in areas such as conservation, biosecurity and regulation of the wildlife trade.

In the past few years, a public debate erupted among global taxonomists, including those who authored and contributed to this article, about whether the rules of taxonomy should be changed. Strongly worded ripostes were exchanged. A comparison to Stalin was floated.

But eventually, we all came together to resolve the dispute amicably. In a paper published this month, we proposed a new set of principles to guide what one day, we hope, will be a single authoritative list of the world’s species. This would help manage and conserve them for future generations.

In the process, we’ve shown how a scientific stoush can be overcome when those involved try to find common ground.

Baby crocodile emerging from egg.
Scientists worked out a few differences over how to name species.
Laurent Gillieron/EPA

How it all began

In May 2017 two of the authors, Stephen Garnett and Les Christidis, published an article in Nature. They argued taxonomy needed rules around what should be called a species, because currently there are none. They wrote:

for a discipline aiming to impose order on the natural world, taxonomy (the classification of complex organisms) is remarkably anarchic […] There is reasonable agreement among taxonomists that a species should represent a distinct evolutionary lineage. But there is none about how a lineage should be defined.

‘Species’ are often created or dismissed arbitrarily, according to the individual taxonomist’s adherence to one of at least 30 definitions. Crucially, there is no global oversight of taxonomic decisions — researchers can ‘split or lump’ species with no consideration of the consequences.

Garnett and Christidis proposed that any changes to the taxonomy of complex organisms be overseen by the highest body in the global governance of biology, the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS), which would “restrict […] freedom of taxonomic action.”




Read more:
Taxonomy, the science of naming things, is under threat


An animated response

Garnett and Christidis’ article raised hackles in some corners of the taxonomy world – including coauthors of this article.

These critics rejected the description of taxonomy as “anarchic”. In fact, they argued there are detailed rules around the naming of species administered by groups such as the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature and the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. For 125 years, the codes have been almost universally adopted by scientists.

So in March 2018, 183 researchers – led by Scott Thomson and Richard Pyle – wrote an animated response to the Nature article, published in PLoS Biology.

They wrote that Garnett and Christidis’ IUBS proposal was “flawed in terms of scientific integrity […] but is also untenable in practice”. They argued:

Through taxonomic research, our understanding of biodiversity and classifications of living organisms will continue to progress. Any system that restricts such progress runs counter to basic scientific principles, which rely on peer review and subsequent acceptance or rejection by the community, rather than third-party regulation.

In a separate paper, another group of taxonomists accused Garnett and Christidis of trying to suppress freedom of scientific thought, likening them to Stalin’s science advisor Trofim Lysenko.

Sea sponge under a microscope
Taxonomy can influence how conservation funding is allocated.
Queensland Museum

Finding common ground

This might have been the end of it. But the editor at PLoS Biology, Roli Roberts, wanted to turn consternation into constructive debate, and invited a response from Garnett and Christidis. In the to and fro of articles, we all found common ground.

We recognised the powerful need for a global list of species – representing a consensus view of the world’s taxonomists at a particular time.




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Such lists do exist. The Catalogue of Life, for example, has done a remarkable job in assembling lists of almost all the world’s species. But there are no rules on how to choose between competing lists of validly named species. What was needed, we agreed, was principles governing what can be included on lists.

As it stands now, anyone can name a species, or decide which to recognise as valid and which not. This creates chaos. It means international agreements on biodiversity conservation, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), take different taxonomic approaches to species they aim to protect.

We decided to work together. With funding from the IUBS, we held a workshop in February this year at Charles Darwin University to determine principles for devising a single, agreed global list of species.

Pengiuns embracing each other.
The sparring scientists came together to develop agreed principles.
Shutterstock

Participants came from around the world. They included taxonomists, science governance experts, science philosophers, administrators of the nomenclatural (naming) codes, and taxonomic users such as the creators of national species lists.

The result is a draft set of ten principles that to us, represent the ideals of global science governance. They include that:

  • the species list be based on science and free from “non-taxonomic” interference
  • all decisions about composition of the list be transparent
  • governance of the list aim for community support and use
  • the listing process encompasses global diversity while accommodating local knowledge.

The principles will now be discussed at international workshops of taxonomists and the users of taxonomy. We’ve also formed a working group to discuss how a global list might come together and the type of institution needed to look after it.

We hope by 2030, a scientific debate that began with claims of anarchy might lead to a clear governance system – and finally, the world’s first endorsed global list of species.


The following people provided editorial comment for this article: Aaron M Lien, Frank Zachos, John Buckeridge, Kevin Thiele, Svetlana Nikolaeva, Zhi-Qiang Zhang, Donald Hobern, Olaf Banki, Peter Paul van Dijk, Saroj Kanta Barik and Stijn Conix.

The Conversation

Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University; Les Christidis, Professor, Southern Cross University; Richard L. Pyle, Associate lecturer, University of Hawaii, and Scott Thomson, Research associate, Universidade de São Paulo

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

Australia listened to the science on coronavirus. Imagine if we did the same for coal mining



Dan Peled/AAP

Matthew Currell, RMIT University; Adrian Werner, Flinders University; Chris McGrath, The University of Queensland, and Dylan Irvine, Flinders University

Australia’s relative success in stopping the spread of COVID-19 is largely due governments taking expert advice on a complex problem. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of decisions on projects that threaten the environment – most notably, Adani’s Carmichael coal mine.

Our research published today in Nature Sustainability documents how state and federal governments repeatedly ignored independent scientific advice when assessing and approving the Adani mine’s groundwater plans.

We interrogated scientific evidence available to governments and Adani over almost a decade. Our analysis shows governments failed to compel Adani to fully investigate the environmental risks posed by its water plans, despite concerns raised by scientists.

There is also evidence the government approval decisions were influenced by the political climate and pressure exerted by members of government.

Our findings come as the Morrison government conducts a ten-yearly review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. It is critical these laws – Australia’s most important environmental legislation – are reformed to put rigorous, independent science at the core.

Advice ignored

In mid-2019, the federal and Queensland governments approved groundwater management plans for Adani’s Carmichael coal mine. It granted the company unlimited access to groundwater in central Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

We and other experts warned the mine threatens to damage aquifers, rivers and ecosystems – in particular, the Doongmabulla Springs Complex. This system contains more than 150 wetlands which support rare plant communities found nowhere else on earth.

The springs are of major cultural significance to the Wangan and Jagalingou people.

We analysed the full suite of evidence on the groundwater plans from agencies and scientists with expertise in hydro-geology. The evidence, provided to state and federal environment ministers, spanned almost a decade and included at least six independent scientific reviews.

The evidence highlighted major shortcomings, and gaps in knowledge and data.




Read more:
Unpacking the flaws in Adani’s water management plan


For example in 2013, the federal government’s Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (IESC) said key geological characteristics in Adani’s groundwater model were not consistent with available field data.

Expert evidence from court-appointed hydro-geology witnesses in the Land Court of Queensland reiterated this concern and raised new questions over whether the source aquifer for the Doongmabulla Springs had been incorrectly identified.

Subsequent joint reviews by CSIRO and Geoscience Australia in February and June 2019 found Adani had failed to conclusively resolve these issues. The agencies also identified further flaws in Adani’s modelling, including interaction between groundwater and the Carmichael River that was again not consistent with field evidence.

The CSIRO and Geoscience Australia concluded the model was “not suitable to ensure the outcomes sought by the EPBC Act conditions are met”.

Moses 3 Lagoon in the Doongmabulla Springs Complex. Source: Land Services of Coast and Country Inc (2014)

Governments under pressure

The federal government received the reviews from CSIRO and Geoscience Australia in February 2019. It did not publicly release them until then-environment minister Melissa Price announced approval of the groundwater plans on April 8. This was effectively the final federal approval the mine needed to proceed.

Media reports at the time suggested Price had been pressured by members of her government to issue approval before the election. What’s more, her department reportedly pushed the CSIRO to endorse Adani’s plans in just hours, and in the absence of critical information.

Within 48 hours of Adani’s approval being announced, the government called a federal election.




Read more:
Morrison government approves next step towards Adani coal mine


The Coalition was returned to power at the election. Federal Labor suffered heavy losses in regional Queensland – a result many claimed was due to their lukewarm support for the Adani mine.

The Queensland Labor government was also required to sign off on the groundwater plans. Following the federal election result, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk directed that the assessment be completed quickly. The state approved the plans within four weeks.

This was despite being provided a scientific analysis by authors of this article and others, outlining key remaining scientific deficiencies in the groundwater plans.

Once-in-a-decade chance

Our analysis exposes flaws in how evidence informs major government decisions. It also shows why reform of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is so urgent.

The laws are currently under review. Many reputable organisations and scholars have proposed ways the legislation can better protect the environment, increase its independence from government and put science at the core.

Independent scientific committees, such as the federal IESC, are commissioned by governments to advise on mining proposals. We suggest such committees be granted greater powers to request specific data and studies from mining companies to address knowledge gaps before advice is issued.

Alternatively – or in addition – a new independent national commission should be established to oversee environmental impact assessments conducted by mining and other development proponents.

This commission should be empowered to interrogate and resolve key scientific uncertainties, free from political interference. Its recommendations to government should take into account a wide range of expert advice and public feedback.

Doongmabulla Springs, a desert oasis scientists say is at risk from the Adani mine.
Flickr

This would not only improve the evidence base for decisions, but may also speed up assessments – ensuring more effective resolution of uncertainties that often lead to protracted conflict and debate about a mine’s impacts.

Such reform is urgently needed. Australia is suffering unprecedented water stress, environmental harm and declining trust in government.

Australian governments listened to the science when it needed to flatten the curve of COVID-19. The same approach is needed if we’re to preserve the places we love and the ecosystems we depend on.




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An Adani spokesperson provided the following response to the claims raised by the authors:

Adani’s Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems Management Plan (GDEMP) was finalised and approved by both the Australian and Queensland governments almost 12 months ago, bringing to an end more than eight years of heavily scrutinised planning and approvals processes.

The approvals were confirmation that the GDEMP complies with all regulatory conditions, following an almost two-year process of rigorous scientific inquiry, review and approvals. This included relevant independent reviews by Australia’s pre-eminent scientific organisations CSIRO and Geoscience Australia.

There are more than 270 conditions within the mine approvals to protect the natural environment and more than 100 of those relate to groundwater.

We’re now getting on with construction of the Carmichael Mine and Rail project, having awarded more than $750 million in contracts to the benefit of regional Queenslanders.

We remain on track to create more than 1,500 direct jobs during the construction and ramp up of our project and some further 6,750 indirect jobs. At a time when our country is facing some of its toughest challenges, we’re determined to deliver on our commitments of jobs and opportunities.The Conversation

Matthew Currell, Associate Professor in Environmental Engineering, School of Engineering, RMIT University; Adrian Werner, Professor of Hydrogeology, Flinders University; Chris McGrath, Associate Professor in Environmental and Planning Regulation and Policy, The University of Queensland, and Dylan Irvine, Senior lecturer in hydrogeology, Flinders University

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

The burn legacy: why the science on hazard reduction is contested


Kevin Tolhurst, University of Melbourne

When it comes to reducing the extent of bushfires, scientists disagree on the best way to do it. Hazard-reduction burning (also known as “prescribed burning” or “controlled burning”) is controversial and, depending on the scientific paper, it’s shown to either be effective or not work at all.

Hazard-reduction burning is the process of removing vegetation that would fuel a fire – the “hazard” – through burning, slashing or grazing. It’s one of the ways state governments try to prepare for looming bushfire seasons.




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The Climate Council published a fact sheet in January this year titled “Setting the record straight on hazard reduction”. It concluded that, while important, in future “no amount of hazard reduction will protect human lives, animals and properties from catastrophic fires”.

But this is at odds with empirical studies in Victoria and Western Australia, which found otherwise, after taking a wider view on the issue.

So why are there conflicting views?

Hazard-reduction burns don’t help: a 2015 study

For its report, the Climate Council relied heavily on a 2015 study based on fire and weather records from southeastern Australia over a period of 34 years. This is a relatively short time when it comes to ecosystem cycles – the earth’s natural recycling process of resources like water and carbon.

The researchers of this study used a metric called “leverage” to evaluate the effect of hazard-reduction burning on reducing the extent of wildfires. “Leverage” in this context refers to the ratio between the area burnt by wildfires and the area burnt by prescribed burning.

And they concluded hazard-reduction burning has a statistically significant effect on the extent of wildfires, but only in forested areas with distinct annual drought periods.




Read more:
A surprising answer to a hot question: controlled burns often fail to slow a bushfire


The leverage measure implies that prescribed burning only increases the total area burnt, and is therefore ineffective in reducing fire extent.

Like all scientific papers, the conclusions of the 2015 paper are drawn from several assumptions. And while the conclusions are valid for the researchers’ focus, several assumptions don’t work in a land management context. For instance, it’s assumed only the extent of the area burnt is important, rather than the severity.

But the recovery of the plants, animals, nutrients and habitat after low-intensity fire is much quicker than after high-intensity wildfire, according to a long-term Victorian study.

Several other assumptions were also made in the 2015 study, and it is such assumptions that lead to conflicting conclusions with others. While this study is valid within the context in which it was undertaken and includes useful analysis, the conclusions the Climate Council draws from it aren’t supported.

Hazard-reduction burns do help: a 2009 study

A 2009 study looking at 52 years of fire history in southwest Western Australia identified the benefits of hazard-reduction burns. This includes it leading to fewer fires starting and a greater ability to suppress fires in prescribed burnt areas.

A big reason for the different findings is because, unlike the 2009 study, the 2015 study didn’t explicitly consider how past prescribed burns lower the severity of new high-intensity fires when they move in. This helps fire suppression efforts and helps reduce the spread of wildfires.

The 2009 study showed prescribed burning less than about 4% of a million hectares of forested landscape per year wasn’t enough to show trends in reducing wildfires.




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There’s only one way to make bushfires less powerful: take out the stuff that burns


But in the 2015 study the Climate Council used, only included 2% of prescribed burning in the forested landscape of southeast Australia, so a conclusion that prescribed burning was ineffective could have been expected.

In other words, not enough of the landscape was prescribed burnt to have a measureable effect, so it cannot be concluded that prescribed burning is ineffective at reducing the impact of bushfires from this analysis.

The Climate Council should have taken a broader view of the available scientific studies before drawing its conclusions.

So should we use hazard-reduction burns?

There are many dimensions to the debate about whether to use hazard-reduction burns to mitigate and prepare for wildfires. And not all scientific studies will be equally relevant in addressing particular issues.




Read more:
To fight the catastrophic fires of the future, we need to look beyond prescribed burning


So before we decide whether hazard-reduction burning for land management is a good thing, we need to consider all of the variables. This includes increased ecosystem resilience, mitigation of wildfire number and extent, impact on human health, economic value, social impact, Traditional Owner culture, and more.

The Climate Council’s conclusions are drawn only from the consideration of reduced wildfire extent.

In debating the value or otherwise of prescribed burning, we need to use good scientific evidence, but our decisions must be based on the whole picture, not just a selective part of it.The Conversation

Kevin Tolhurst, Hon. Assoc. Prof., Fire Ecology and Management, University of Melbourne

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

The science of drought is complex but the message on climate change is clear



Detecting human fingerprints on complex events like droughts is not straightforward.
AAP Image/Dan Peled

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

The issue of whether Australia’s current drought is caused by climate change has been seized on by some media commentators, with debate raging over a remark from eminent scientist Andy Pitman that “there is no link between climate change and drought”. Professor Pitman has since qualified, he meant to say “there is no direct link between climate change and drought”.

A highly politicised debate that tries to corner scientists will not do much to help rural communities struggling with the ongoing dry. But it is still worthwhile understanding the complexity of how climate change relates to drought.




Read more:
Is Australia’s current drought caused by climate change? It’s complicated


So, why the contention?

It may seem like splitting hairs to focus on single words, but the reality is drought is complex, and broad definitive statements are difficult to make. Nevertheless, aspects of drought are linked with climate change. Let us try to give you a taste of the complexity.

First, it’s important to understand that drought is a manifestation of interactions between the atmosphere, ocean, and land. In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology uses rainfall deficiencies to identify regions that are under drought conditions. Anyone on the land doesn’t need to be reminded, but the current drought is seriously bad. These maps show the patterns of rainfall deficiency over the past 36 and 18 months, highlighting the severity and extent of what we call meteorological drought.

Widespread rainfall deficiencies over the last 36 months (left) and 18 months (right)
Australian Bureau of Meteorology

But along with the main driver – low rainfall – droughts can also be exacerbated by water loss through evaporation. This depends not only on temperature but also humidity, wind speeds, and sunshine. Temperature will clearly continue to rise steadily almost everywhere. For the other factors, the future is not quite as clear.

Water loss also varies according to vegetation cover. Plants respond to higher carbon dioxide levels and drought by closing the tiny holes in their leaves (the stomata) and this can actually reduce water loss in wet environments. However, in water-stressed environments, projected long-term declines in rain may be compounded by plants using more water, further reducing streamflow. Actually, we can glean a lot from studying hydrological drought, which is measured by a period of low flow in rivers.

The point here is droughts are multidimensional, and can affect water supply on a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. A seasonal-scale drought that reduces soil moisture on a farm, and a decade-long drought that depletes reservoirs and groundwater supplies, can each be devastating, but in different ways.

Is climate change affecting Australian droughts?

Climate change may affect drought metrics and types of drought differently, so it can be hard to make general statements about the links between human-induced climate change and all types of drought, in all locations, on all timescales.

Southern Australia, and in particular the southwest, has seen a rapid decline in winter rainfall and runoff that has been linked to climate change. In the southeast there has also been a substantial decline in winter rainfall and total runoff in recent decades. Although the reductions are consistent with climate change projections, the trend so far is harder to distinguish from the year-to-year variability.

There is some evidence to suggest that widespread and prolonged droughts, like the Millennium Drought, are worse than other droughts in past centuries, and may have been exacerbated by climate change.




Read more:
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But the role of climate change in extended drought periods is difficult to discern from normal variations in weather and climate. This is particularly true in Australia, which has a much more variable climate than many other parts of the world.

What does the future hold?

Climate models project increasing temperature across Australia and a continuing decline in cool-season rainfall over southern Australia over the next century. This will lead to more pressure on water supplies for agriculture, the environment, and cities such as Melbourne at the Paris Agreement’s target of 2℃, relative to the more ambitious target of 1.5℃ of global warming.




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


Rainfall is projected to become more extreme, with more intense rain events and fewer light rain days. Declining overall rainfall is predicted to reduce river flows in southeastern Australia. While we can expect the largest floods to increase with climate change, smaller floods are decreasing due to drier soils, and it is these smaller floods that top up our water supply systems.

Action needed

We might not know enough about droughts to be certain about exactly how they will behave in the future, but this does not affect the message from the science community on climate change, which remains crystal clear.

Rainfall intensification, sea level rise, ocean acidification, hotter days, and longer and more intense heatwaves all point to the fact that climate change presents a major threat to Australia and the world.

In response to these threats, we need deep and sustained greenhouse gas emissions cuts and proactive adaptation to the inevitable effects of climate change. This includes a focus right now on the practical measures to help our rural communities who continue to feel the pinch of a dry landscape.




Read more:
Why 2℃ of global warming is much worse for Australia than 1.5℃


The Conversation


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

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

40 years ago, scientists predicted climate change. And hey, they were right



It’s been four decades since the first credible, global report on the effect of carbon dioxide on the global climate.
Shutterstock

Neville Nicholls, Monash University

This month the world has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Moon. But this week sees another scientific anniversary, perhaps just as important for the future of civilisation.

Forty years ago, a group of climate scientists sat down at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts for the first meeting of the “Ad Hoc Group on Carbon Dioxide and Climate”. It led to the preparation of what became known as the Charney Report – the first comprehensive assessment of global climate change due to carbon dioxide.




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It doesn’t sound as impressive as landing on the Moon, and there certainly weren’t millions waiting with bated breath for the deliberations of the meeting.

But the Charney Report is an exemplar of good science, and the success of its predictions over the past 40 years has firmly established the science of global warming.

What is this ‘greenhouse gas’ you speak of?

Other scientists, starting in the 19th century, had already demonstrated that carbon dioxide was what we now call a “greenhouse gas”. By the 1950s, scientists were predicting warming of several degrees from the burning of fossil fuels. In 1972 John Sawyer, the head of research at the UK Meteorological Office, wrote a four-page paper published in Nature summarising what was known at the time, and predicting warming of about 0.6℃ by the end of the 20th century.

But these predictions were still controversial in the 1970s. The world had, if anything, cooled since the middle of the 20th century, and there was even some speculation in the media that perhaps we were headed for an ice age.

The meeting at Woods Hole gathered together about 10 distinguished climate scientists, who also sought advice from other scientists from across the world. The group was led by Jule Charney from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the most respected atmospheric scientists of the 20th century.

The Report lays out clearly what was known about the likely effects of increasing carbon dioxide on the climate, as well as the uncertainties. The main conclusion of the Report was direct:

We estimate the most probable warming for a doubling of CO₂ to be near 3℃ with a probable error of 1.5℃.

In the 40 years since their meeting, the annual average CO₂ concentration in the atmosphere, as measured at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, has increased by about 21%. Over the same period, global average surface temperature has increased by about 0.66℃, almost exactly what could have been expected if a doubling of CO₂ produces about 2.5℃ warming – just a bit below their best estimate. A remarkably prescient prediction.


Author provided/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Reception of the article

Despite the high regard in which the authors of the Charney Report were held by their scientific peers at the time, the report certainly didn’t lead to immediate changes in behaviour, by the public or politicians.

But over time, as the world has continued to warm as they predicted, the report has become accepted as a major milestone in our understanding of the consequences our actions have for the climate. The current crop of climate scientists revere Charney and his co-authors for their insight and clarity.

Strong science

The report exemplifies how good science works: establish an hypothesis after examining the physics and chemistry, then based on your assessment of the science make strong predictions. Here, “strong predictions” means something that would be unlikely to come true if your hypothesis and science were incorrect.

In this case, their very specific prediction was that warming of between 1.5℃ and 4.5℃ would accompany a doubling of atmospheric CO₂. At the time, global temperatures, in the absence of their hypothesis and science, might have been expected to stay pretty much the same over the ensuing 40 years, cooled a bit, possibly even cooled a lot, or warmed a lot (or a little).

In the absence of global warming science any of these outcomes could have been feasible, so their very specific prediction made for a very stringent test of their science.

The Charney Report’s authors didn’t just uncritically summarise the science. They also acted sceptically, trying to find factors that might invalidate their conclusions. They concluded:

We have tried but have been unable to find any overlooked or underestimated physical effects that could reduce the currently estimated global warmings due to a doubling of atmospheric CO₂ to negligible proportions or to reverse them altogether.

The report, and the successful verification of its prediction, provides a firm scientific basis for the discussion of what we should do about global warming.

Over the ensuing 40 years, as the world warmed pretty much as Charney and his colleagues expected, climate change science improved, with better models that included some of the factors missing from their 1979 deliberations.




Read more:
Climate change or climate crisis? To really engage people, the media should talk about solutions


This subsequent science has, however, only confirmed the conclusions of the Charney Report, although much more detailed predictions of climate change are now possible.The Conversation

Neville Nicholls, Professor emeritus, School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, Monash University

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

How indigenous expertise improves science: the curious case of shy lizards and deadly cane toads



File 20190408 2901 1tbo2ex.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The Balanggarra Rangers are land management representatives of the Balanggarra people, the indigenous traditional owners of the East Kimberley. (L-R) Wes Alberts, Bob Smith (coordinator) James ‘Birdy’ Birch, Isiah Smith, Quentin Gore.
The Kimberley Land Council, Author provided

Georgia Ward-Fear, University of Sydney and Rick Shine, University of Sydney

It’s a common refrain – western ecologists should work closely with indigenous peoples, who have a unique knowledge of the ecosystems in their traditional lands.

But the rhetoric is strong on passion and weak on evidence.

Now, a project in the remote Kimberley area of northwestern Australia provides hard evidence that collaborating with Indigenous rangers can change the outcome of science from failure to success.




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We’ve cracked the cane toad genome, and that could help put the brakes on its invasion


Fighting a toxic invader

This research had a simple but ambitious aim: to develop new ways to save at-risk predators such as lizards and quolls from the devastating impacts of invasive cane toads.

Cane toads are invasive and highly toxic to Australia’s apex predators.
David Nelson

All across tropical Australia, the arrival of these gigantic alien toads has caused massive die-offs among meat-eating animals such as yellow-spotted monitors (large lizards in the varanid group) and quolls (meat-eating marsupials). Mistaking the new arrivals for edible frogs, animals that try to eat them are fatally poisoned by the toad’s powerful toxins.

Steep population declines in these predators ripple out through entire ecosystems.

But we can change that outcome. We expose predators to a small cane toad, big enough to make them ill but not to kill them. The predators learn fast, and ignore the larger (deadly) toads that arrive in their habitats a few weeks or months later. As a result, our trained predators survive, whereas their untrained siblings die.




Read more:
What is a waterless barrier and how could it slow cane toads?


Conservation ‘on Country’

But it’s not easy science. The site is remote and the climate is harsh.

We and our collaborators, the Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, decided at the outset that we needed to work closely with the Indigenous Traditional Owners of the east Kimberley – the Balanggarra people.

So as we cruised across the floodplain on quad bikes looking for goannas, each team consisted of a scientist (university-educated, and experienced in wildlife research) and a Balanggarra Indigenous ranger.

Although our study species is huge – a male yellow-spotted monitor can grow to more than 1.7 metres in length and weigh more than 6kg – the animals are well-camouflaged and difficult to find.

Over an 18-month study, we caught and radio-tracked more than 80 monitors, taught some of them not to eat toads, and then watched with trepidation as the cane toad invasion arrived.




Read more:
Yes, you heard right: more cane toads really can help us fight cane toads


Excitingly, the training worked. Half of our trained lizards were still alive by the end of the study, whereas all of the untrained lizards died soon after toads arrived.

That positive result has encouraged a consortium of scientists, government authorities, conservation groups, landowners and local businesses to implement aversion training on a massive scale (see www.canetoadcoalition.com), with support from the Australian Research Council.

A yellow-spotted monitor fitted with a radio transmitter in our study. This medium-sized male was trained and lived for the entirety of the study in high densities of cane toads.
Georgia Ward-Fear, University of Sydney



Read more:
Teaching reptiles to avoid cane toads earns top honour in PM’s science prizes


Cross-cultural collaboration key to success

But there’s a twist to the tale, a vindication of our decision to make the project truly collaborative.

When we looked in detail at our data, we realised that the monitor lizards found by Indigenous rangers were different to those found by western scientists. The rangers found shyer lizards, often further away from us when sighted, motionless, and in heavy cover where they were very difficult to see.

Gregory Johnson, Balanggarra elder and ranger.
Georgia Ward-Fear

We don’t know how much the extraordinary ability of the rangers to spot those well-concealed lizards was due to genetics or experience – but there’s no doubt they were superb at finding lizards that the scientists simply didn’t notice.

And reflecting the distinctive “personalities” of those ranger-located lizards, they were the ones that benefited the most from aversion training. Taking a cautious approach to life, a nasty illness after eating a small toad was enough to make them swear off toads thereafter.

In contrast, most of the lizards found by scientists were bold creatures. They learned quickly, but when a potential meal hopped across the floodplain a few months later, the goanna seized it before recalling its previous experience. And even holding a toad briefly in the mouth can be fatal.

Comparisons of conditions under which lizards were initially sighted in the field by scientists and Indigenous rangers (a) proximity to lizards in metres (b) density of ground-cover vegetation (>30cm high) surrounding the lizard (c) intensity of light directly on lizard (light or shade) (d) whether the lizard was stationary or moving (i.e. walking or running). Sighting was considered more difficult if lizards were further away, in more dense vegetation, in shade, and stationary.
Georgia Ward-Fear, University of Sydney

As a result of the intersection between indigenous abilities and lizard personalities, the overall success of our project increased as a result of our multicultural team.

If we had just used the conventional model – university researchers doing all of the work, indigenous people asked for permission but playing only a minor role – our project could have failed, and the major conservation initiative currently underway may have died an early death.

So our study, now published in Conservation Letters, provides an unusual insight – backed up by evidence.

Moving beyond lip service, and genuinely involving Indigenous Traditional Owners in conservation research, can make all the difference in the world.

Georgia Ward-Fear (holding a yellow-spotted monitor) with Balanggarra Rangers Herbert and Wesley Alberts.
David Pearson, WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions

This research was published in collaboration with James “Birdy” Birch and his team of Balanggarra rangers in the eastern Kimberley.The Conversation

Georgia Ward-Fear, Post doctoral fellow and Conservation Ecologist , University of Sydney and Rick Shine, Professor in Evolutionary Biology, University of Sydney

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

Taxonomy, the science of naming things, is under threat



File 20181112 83564 1tqrdu4.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Museum collections are repositories of specimens and data, including specimens, tissue samples and vocal recordings.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

Nic Rawlence

Museums are cathedrals of science, but they are under threat worldwide as part of a malaise of undervaluing museum collections and the field of taxonomy, the science of naming biodiversity.

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is the latest example. Te Papa confirmed a restructure in July, following leaked reports. Facing sustained backlash and disquiet in the science community, the museum announced an international review of its collections and has since scaled back its restructure plans.

But jobs remain on the line even though the review panel found the museum didn’t have enough staff to look after all of its collections.




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From Joseph Banks to big data, herbaria bring centuries-old science into the digital age


Taxonomy a keystone of natural history

Taxonomy underpins everything from health to conservation, and biosecurity to the economy.

The international review shows Te Papa is doing a good job in most areas, but needs to improve on several aspects, including access to collections, cataloguing a backlog of specimens and digitisation.

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, in Wellington.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

These areas of concern were seriously exacerbated by the panel’s finding that Te Papa is understaffed.

The review panel was not asked to comment on the restructure. At that stage, the proposal was to cut 25 positions, 10 of which were in the collections team. This has now been scaled back to at least five jobs in the collections team.

Staff whose positions may be affected were told only a day before the review recommendations were made public.




Read more:
Museum or not? The changing face of curated science, tech, art and culture


Museum collections more than sum of parts

Te Papa’s latest leaked restructure document remains a cause for concern. Curators are no longer in the firing line. However, the five natural history collections managers are gone, to be replaced by three assistant curators and two general technical positions. All of this would appear to fall at a lower pay scale.

I congratulate Te Papa on listening to internal and external feedback and increasing their curatorial expertise in neglected strengths, such as marine mammals and seaweeds. Ironically, in the case of marine mammals, this seems to rectify a mistake in making the previous marine mammal expert redundant in 2013.

A member of the international review panel, Tim White at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, told the public broadcaster RNZ:

Te Papa could use more professional collections staff. If they are going to promote the use of their collections … then they need
to think creatively about how they could get more staff.

Taking into account the recently published Decadal Plan for Taxonomy and Biosystematics and the 2015 Royal Society Te Apārangi report on National Taxonomic Collections in New Zealand, this is a good opportunity to increase collections staff rather than, at best, approximate the status quo.

It is my hope that the filling of positions in the proposed structure will not result in a loss of areas of taxonomic expertise. Many of Te Papa’s scientists are leaders in their fields, including in areas where Te Papa leads the way internationally. One should not boost the curatorial team at the expense of collections management.

The bigger picture

As an isolated archipelago with unique flora and fauna, New Zealand needs diverse taxonomic expertise to appropriately handle biosecurity and conservation crises. If Te Papa, or museums in general, shed their taxonomic expertise like an unwanted sloughed-off snake skin, it will be up to other institutions to pick up the slack. If not, our biodiversity will suffer.

The greyling is New Zealand’s only extinct freshwater fish.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

There has already been a 10% decline in the taxonomic workforce in Australia in the past 25 years, with declines of around 22% in New Zealand over a similar time period. In both countries, a steadily increasing proportion (currently around a quarter) of taxonomists are unpaid or retired. Let’s not make it any worse.

Undervaluing museum collections and taxonomic expertise is not just limited to New Zealand. The scientific world does not want to see another museum disaster, like the preventable fire that destroyed Brazil’s National Museum.

Whether it is collections under threat or museum libraries being lost in the digital age, or even false assumptions resulting in the closure of a museum, if chief executives and museum boards listen to their scientists and the scientific community, hope remains.The Conversation

Nic Rawlence, Lecturer in Ancient DNA

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

The science is clear: we have to start creating our low-carbon future today


Alan Finkel, Office of the Chief Scientist

This week’s release of the special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put scientific evidence on the front page of the world’s newspapers.

As Australia’s Chief Scientist, I hope it will be recognised as a tremendous validation of the work that scientists do.

The people of the world, speaking through their governments, requested this report to quantify the impacts of warming by 1.5℃ and what steps might be taken to limit it. They asked for the clearest possible picture of the consequences and feasible solutions.




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The UN’s 1.5°C special climate report at a glance


It is not my intention in this article to offer a detailed commentary on the IPCC’s findings. I commend the many scientists with expertise in climate systems who have helped Australians to understand the messages of this report.

My purpose is to urge all decision-makers – in government, industry and the community – to listen to the science.

Focus on the goal

It would be possible for the public to take from this week’s headlines an overwhelming sense of despair.

The message I take is that we do not have time for fatalism.

We have to look squarely at the goal of a zero-emissions planet, then work out how to get there while maximising our economic growth. It requires an orderly transition, and that transition will have to be managed over several decades.

That is why my review of the National Electricity Market called for a whole-of-economy emissions reduction strategy for 2050, to be in place by the end of 2020.




Read more:
The Finkel Review at a glance


We have to be upfront with the community about the magnitude of the task. In a word, it is huge.

Many of the technologies in the IPCC’s most optimistic scenarios are at an early stage, or conceptual. Two that stand out in that category are:

  • carbon dioxide removal (CDR): large-scale technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

  • carbon capture and sequestration (CCS): technology to capture and store carbon dioxide from electricity generation.

It will take a decade or more for these technologies to be developed to the point at which they have proven impact, then more decades to be widely deployed.

The IPCC’s pathways for rapid emissions reduction also include a substantial role for behavioural change. Behavioural change is with us always, but it is incremental.

Driving change of this magnitude, across all societies, in fundamental matters like the homes we build and the foods we eat, will only succeed if we give it time – and avoid the inevitable backlash from pushing too fast.

The IPCC has made it clear that the level of emissions reduction we can achieve in the next decade will be crucial. So we cannot afford to wait.

Many options

No option should be ruled off the table without rigorous consideration.

In that context, the Finkel Review pointed to a crucial role for natural gas, particularly in the next vital decade, as we scale up renewable energy.

The IPCC has made the same point, not just for Australia but for the world.

The question should not be “renewables or coal”. The focus should be on atmospheric greenhouse emissions. This is the outcome that matters.

Denying ourselves options makes it harder, not easier, to get to the goal.

There also has to be serious consideration of other options modelled by the IPCC, including biofuels, catchment hydroelectricity, and nuclear power.

My own focus in recent months has been on the potential for clean hydrogen, the newest entrant to the world’s energy markets.




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How hydrogen power can help us cut emissions, boost exports, and even drive further between refills


In future, I expect hydrogen to be used as an alternative to fossil fuels to power long-distance travel for cars, trucks, trains and ships; for heating buildings; for electricity storage; and, in some countries, for electricity generation.

We have in Australia the abundant resources required to produce clean hydrogen for the global market at a competitive price, on either of the two viable pathways: splitting water using solar and wind electricity, or deriving hydrogen from natural gas and coal in combination with carbon capture and sequestration.

Building an export hydrogen industry will be a major undertaking. But it will also bring jobs and infrastructure development, largely in regional communities, for decades.

So the scale of the task is all the more reason to press on today – at the same time as we press on with mining lithium for batteries, clearing the path for electric vehicles, planning more carbon-efficient cities, and so much more.

There are no easy answers. I hope, through this and other reports, there are newly determined people ready to contribute to the global good.The Conversation

Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Office of the Chief Scientist

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

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.




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$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.