The Great Barrier Reef can repair itself, with a little help from science



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How the Great Barrier Reef can be helped to help repair the damaged reef.
AIMS/Neal Cantin, CC BY-ND

Ken Anthony, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Britta Schaffelke, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Line K Bay, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Madeleine van Oppen, Australian Institute of Marine Science

The Great Barrier Reef is suffering from recent unprecedented coral bleaching events. But the answer to part of its recovery could lie in the reef itself, with a little help.

In our recent article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, we argue that at least two potential interventions show promise as means to boost climate resilience and tolerance in the reef’s corals: assisted gene flow
and assisted evolution.

Both techniques use existing genetic material on the reef to breed hardier corals, and do not involve genetic engineering.

But why are such interventions needed? Can’t the reef simply repair itself?

Damage to the reef, so far

Coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017 took its biggest toll on the reef to date, with two-thirds of the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem impacted in these back-to-back events. The consequence was widespread damage.

Bleached corals on the central Great Barrier Reef at the peak of the heat wave in March 2017. Most branching corals in the photo were dead six months later.
Neal Cantin/AIMS, CC BY-ND

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will dampen coral bleaching risk in the long term, but will not prevent it. Even with strong action to tackle climate change, more warming is locked in.

So while emissions reductions are essential for the future of the reef, other actions are now also needed.

Even in the most optimistic future, reef-building corals need to become more resilient. Continued improvement of water quality, controlling Crown-of-Thorns Starfish, and managing no-take areas will all help.

But continued stress from climate change – in frequency and intensity – increasingly overwhelms the natural resilience despite the best conventional management efforts. Although natural processes of adaptation and acclimation are in play, they are unlikely to be fast enough to keep up with any rate of global warming.

So to boost the reef’s resilience in the face of climate change we need to consider new interventions – and urgently.

That’s why we believe assisted gene flow and assisted evolution could help the reef.

Delaying their development could mean that climate change degrades the reef beyond repair, and before we can save key species.

What is assisted gene flow?

The idea here is to move warm-adapted corals to cooler parts of the reef. Corals in the far north are naturally adapted to 1C to 2C higher summer temperatures than corals further south.

This means there is an opportunity to build resistance to future warming in corals in the south under strong climate change mitigation, or to decades of warming under weaker mitigation.

There is already natural genetic connectivity of coral populations across most of the reef. But the rate of larval flow from the warm north to the south is limited, partly because of the South Equatorial Current that flows west across the Pacific.

The South Equatorial Current splits into the north-flowing Gulf of Papua Current and south-flowing East Australian Current off the coast of north Queensland. This means coral larvae spawned in the warm north are often more likely to stay in the north.

So manually moving some of the northern corals south could help overcome that physical limitation of natural north-to-south larval flow. If enough corals could be moved it could help heat-damaged reefs recover faster with more heat-resistant coral stock.

We could start safe tests at a subset of well-chosen reefs to understand how warm-adapted populations can be spread to reefs further south.

These two-year old corals reared in AIMS’s National Sea Simulator are hybrids between different species of the genus Acropora. They are the results of artificial selection under experimental climate change and show tolerance to prolonged heat stress expected in the future.
Neal Cantin/AIMS, CC BY-ND

What is assisted evolution?

While assisted gene flow may be effective for southern or recently degraded reefs, it will not be enough or feasible for all reefs or species. Here, we argue that assisted evolution could help.

Assisted evolution is artificial selection on steroids. It combines multiple approaches that target the coral host and its essential microbial symbionts.

These are aimed at producing a hardier coral without the use of genetic engineering. Experiments at the Australian Institute of Marine Science are already making progress, with results yet to be published.

First, evolution of algal symbionts in isolation from the coral host has been fast-tracked to resist higher levels of heat stress. When symbionts are made to reengage with the coral host, benefits to bleaching resistance are still small, but with more work we expect to see a hardier symbiosis.

Secondly, experiments have created new genetic diversity of corals through hybridisation and researchers have selected these artificially for increased climate resilience.

Natural hybridisation happens only occasionally on the reef, so this result gives us new options for climate hardening corals using existing genetic stocks.

The danger of doing nothing?

The right time to start any new intervention is when the risk of inaction is greater than the risk of action.

Assisted gene flow and assisted evolution represent manageable risk because they use genetic material already present on the reef. The interventions speed up naturally occurring processes and do not involve genetic engineering.


Read more: Back-to-back bleaching has now hit two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef


These interventions would not introduce or produce new species. Assisted gene flow would simply enhance the natural flow of warm-adapted corals into areas on the reef that desperately need more heat tolerance.

Risk of increasing the spread of diseases may also be low because most parts of the Reef are already interconnected. A full understanding of risks is an area of continued research.

The ConversationThese are just two examples of new tools that could help build climate resilience on the reef. Other interventions are developing and should be put on the table for open discussion.

Ken Anthony, Principal Research Scientist, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Britta Schaffelke, Research Program Leader – A Healthy and Sustainable Great Barrier Reef, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Line K Bay, Senior Research Scientist and Team Leader, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Madeleine van Oppen, Marine molecular ecologist, Australian Institute of Marine Science

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

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Climate change has changed the way I think about science. Here’s why



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Science is a human approach to understanding the world.
Nitirak Rakitiworakun/shutterstock

Sophie Lewis, Australian National University

I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was five years old.

My idea of a scientist was someone in a lab, making hypotheses and testing theories. We often think of science only as a linear, objective process. This is also the way that science is presented in peer reviewed journal articles – a study begins with a research question or hypothesis, followed by methods, results and conclusions.

It turns out that my work now as a climate scientist doesn’t quite gel with the way we typically talk about science and how science works.

Climate change, and doing climate change research, has changed the way I see and do science. Here are five points that explain why.


Read more: Australia needs dozens more scientists to monitor climage properly


1. Methods aren’t always necessarily falsifiable

Falsifiability is the idea that an assertion can be shown to be false by an experiment or an observation, and is critical to distinctions between “true science” and “pseudoscience”.

Climate models are important and complex tools for understanding the climate system. Are climate models falsifiable? Are they science? A test of falsifiability requires a model test or climate observation that shows global warming caused by increased human-produced greenhouse gases is untrue. It is difficult to propose a test of climate models in advance that is falsifiable.

Science is complicated – and doesn’t always fit the simplified version we learn as children.
FoxyImage/shutterstock

This difficulty doesn’t mean that climate models or climate science are invalid or untrustworthy. Climate models are carefully developed and evaluated based on their ability to accurately reproduce observed climate trends and processes. This is why climatologists have confidence in them as scientific tools, not because of ideas around falsifiability.

2. There’s lots of ways to interpret data

Climate research is messy. I spent four years of my PhD reconstructing past changes in Australian and Indonesian rainfall over many thousands of years. Reconstructing the past is inherently problematic. It is riddled with uncertainty and subject to our individual interpretations.

During my PhD, I submitted a paper for publication detailing an interpretation of changes in Indonesian climates, derived from a stalagmite that formed deep in a cave.

My coauthors had disparate views about what, in particular, this stalagmite was telling us. Then, when my paper was returned from the process of peer review, seemingly in shreds, it turns out the two reviewers themselves had directly opposing views about the record.

What happens when everyone who looks at data has a different idea about what it means? (The published paper reflects a range of different viewpoints).

Another example of ambiguity emerged around the discussion of the hiatus in global warming. This was the temporary slowdown in the rate of global warming at the Earth’s surface occurring roughly over the 15 year period since 1997. Some sceptics were adamant that this was unequivocal proof that the world was not warming at all and that global warming was unfounded.

There was an avalanche of academic interest in the warming slowdown. It was attributed to a multitude of causes, including deep ocean processes, aerosols, measurement error and the end of ozone depletion.

Ambiguity and uncertainty are key parts of the natural world, and scientific exploration of it.

3. Sometimes the scientist matters as well as the results

I regularly present my scientific results at public lectures or community events. I used to show a photo depicting a Tasmanian family sheltering under a pier from a fire front. The sky is suffused with heat. In the ocean, a grandmother holds two children while their sister helps her brother cling to underside of the pier.

After a few talks, I had to remove the photo from my PowerPoint presentation because each time I turned around to discuss it, it would make me teary. I felt so strongly that the year we were living was a chilling taste of our world to come.

Just outside of Sydney, tinderbox conditions occurred in early spring of 2013, following a dry, warm winter. Bushfires raged far too early in the season. I was frightened of a world 1°C hotter than now (regardless of what the equilibrium climate sensitivity turns out to be).

At public lectures and community events, people want to know that I am frightened about bushfires. They want to know that I am concerned about the vulnerability of our elderly to increasing summer heat stress. People want to know that, among everything else, I remain optimistic about our collective resilience and desire to care for each other.


Read more: Distrust of experts happens when we forget they are human beings


Communicating how we connect with scientific results is also important part of the role of climate scientists. That photo of the family who survived the Tasmanian bushfire is now back in my presentations.

4. Society matters too

In November 2009, computer servers at the University of East Anglia were illegally hacked and email correspondence was stolen.

A selection of these emails was published publicly, focusing on quotes that purported to reveal dishonest practices that promoted the myth of global warming. The “climategate” scientists were exhaustively cleared of wrongdoing.

On the surface, the climategate emails were an unpleasant but unremarkable event. But delving a little deeper, this can be seen as a significant turning point in society’s expectations of science.

While numerous fastidious reviews of the scientists cleared them of wrongdoing, the strong and ongoing public interest in this matter demonstrates that society wants to know how science works, and who “does” science.

There is a great desire for public connection with the processes of science and the outcomes of scientific pursuits. The public is not necessarily satisfied by scientists working in universities and publishing their finding in articles obscured by pay walls, which cannot be publicly accessed.

A greater transparency of science is required. This is already taking off, with scientists communicating broadly through social and mainstream media and publishing in open access journals.

5. Non-experts can be scientists

Climate science increasingly recognises the value of citizen scientists.

Enlisting non-expert volunteers allows researchers to investigate otherwise very difficult problems, for example when the research would have been financially and logistically impossible without citizen participation.


Read more: Exoplanet discovery by an amateur astronomer shows the power of citizen science


The OzDocs project involved volunteers digitising early records of Australian weather from weather journals, government gazettes, newspapers and our earliest observatories. This project provided a better understanding of the climate history of southeastern Australia.

Personal computers also provide another great tool for citizen collaborators. In one ongoing project, climate scientists conduct experiments using publicly volunteered distributed computing. Participants agree to run experiments on their home or work computers and the results are fed back to the main server for analysis.

While we often think of scientists as trained experts working in labs and publishing in scholarly journals, the lines aren’t always so clear. Everyone has an opportunity to contribute to science.

My new book explores this space between the way science is discussed and the way it takes place.

The ConversationThis isn’t a criticism of science, which provides a useful way to explore and understand the natural world. It is a celebration of the richness, diversity and creativity of science that drives this exploration.

Sophie Lewis, Research fellow, Australian National University

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

Scientific integrity must be defended, our planet depends on it



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To conserve Earth’s remarkable species, such as the violet sabrewing, we must also defend the importance of science.
Jeremy Kerr, Author provided

Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Kerr, and Martine Maron, The University of Queensland

Science is the best method we have for determining what is likely to be true. The knowledge gained from this process benefits society in a multitude of ways, including promoting evidence-based decision-making and management. Nowhere is this more important than conservation, as the intensifying impacts of the Anthropocene increasingly threaten the survival of species.

But truth can be inconvenient: conservation goals sometimes seem at odds with social or economic interests. As a result, scientific evidence may be ignored or suppressed for political reasons. This has led to growing global trends of attacking scientific integrity.

Recent assaults on science and scientists under Donald Trump’s US administration are particularly extreme, but extend far more broadly. Rather than causing scientists to shrink from public discussions, these abuses have spurred them and their professional societies to defend scientific integrity.

Among these efforts was the recent March for Science. The largest pro-science demonstration in history, this event took place in more than 600 locations around the world.

We propose, in a new paper in Conservation Biology, that scientists share their experiences of defending scientific integrity across borders to achieve more lasting success. We summarise eight reforms to protect scientific integrity, drawn from lessons learned in Australia, Canada and the US.

March for science in Melbourne.
John Englart (Takver)

What is scientific integrity?

Scientific integrity is the ability to perform, use and disseminate scientific findings without censorship or political interference. It requires that government scientists can communicate their research to the public and media. Such outbound scientific communication is threatened by policies limiting scientists’ ability to publish, publicise or even mention their research findings.

Public access to websites or other sources of government scientific data have also been curtailed. Limiting access to taxpayer-funded information in this way undermines citizens’ ability to participate in decisions that affect them, or even to know why decisions are being made.

News of the rediscovery of the shrub Hibbertia fumana (left) in Australia was delayed until a development at the site of rediscovery had been permitted. Political considerations delayed protection of the wolverine (right) in the United States.
Wolverine – U.S. National and Park Service. _Hibbertia fumana_ – A. Orme

A recent case of scientific information being suppressed concerns the rediscovery, early in 2017, of the plant Hibbertia fumana in New South Wales. Last seen in 1823, 370 plants were found.

Rather than publicly celebrate the news, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage was reportedly asked to suppress the news until after a rail freight plan that overlapped with the plants’ location had been approved.

Protecting scientists’ right to speak out

Scientists employed by government agencies often cannot discuss research that might relate to their employer’s policies. While it may not be appropriate for scientists to weigh in on policy recommendations – and, of course, constant media commentaries would be chaos – the balance has tipped too far towards restriction. Many scientists cannot publicly refer to their research, or that of others, let alone explain the significance of the findings.

To counter this, we need policies that support scientific integrity, an environment of transparency and the public’s right to access scientific information. Scientists’ right to speak freely should be included in collective bargaining agreements.

Scientific integrity requires transparency and accountability. Information from non-government scientists, through submitted comments or reviews of draft policies, can inform the policy process.

Although science is only one source of influence on policy, democratic processes are undermined when policymakers limit scrutiny of decision-making processes and the role that evidence plays in them.

Let science inform policy

Independent reviews of new policy are a vital part of making evidence-based decisions. There is room to broaden these reviews, inviting external organisations to give expert advice on proposed or existing policies. This also means transparently acknowledging any perceived or actual vested interests.

Australian governments often invite scientists and others to contribute their thoughts on proposed policy. The Finkel Review, for example, received 390 written submissions. Of course, agencies might not have time to respond individually to each submission. But if a policy is eventually made that seems to contradict the best available science, that agency should be required to account for that decision.

Finally, agencies should be proactively engaging with scientific groups at all stages of the process.

Active advocacy

Strengthening scientific integrity policies when many administrations are publicly hostile to science is challenging. Scientists are stuck reactively defending protective policies. Instead, they should be actively advocating for their expansion.

The goal is to institutionalise a culture of scientific integrity in the development and implementation of conservation policies.

A transnational movement to defend science will improve the odds that good practices will be retained and strengthened under more science-friendly administrations.

The monarch butterfly, now endangered in Canada, and at risk more broadly.
Jeremy Kerr

Many regard science as apolitical. Even the suggestion of publicly advocating for integrity or evidence-based policy and management makes some scientists deeply uncomfortable. It is telling that providing factual information for policy decisions and public information can be labelled as partisan. Nevertheless, recent research suggests that public participation by scientists, if properly framed, does not harm their credibility.

Scientists can operate objectively in conducting research, interpreting discoveries and publicly explaining the significance of the results. Recommendations for how to walk such a tricky, but vital, line are readily available.

Scientists and scientific societies must not shrink from their role, which is more important than ever. They have a responsibility to engage broadly with the public to affirm that science is indispensable for evidence-based policies and regulations. These critical roles for scientists help ensure that policy processes unfold in plain sight, and consequently help sustain functioning, democratic societies.


The ConversationThe authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Dr Carlos Carroll, a conservation biologist at the Klamath Center for Conservation Research.

Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Kerr, University Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation, University of Ottawa, and Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

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

What our backyards can tell us about the world



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Citizen science projects are a way to contribute to science from your own backyard.
Shutterstock

Kathryn Teare Ada Lambert, University of New England

Our backyards are home to many scuttling, slithering and scampering creatures, which are often the subject of fascination. But they can also play a key role in tracking the changes in the world around us – for science. The Conversation

Science is a vital tool to monitor the world, but scientists can’t do it all alone. Ordinary citizens can help by getting involved in a citizen science project.

People are spending weekends with their friends and families learning more about their backyards and gathering data that would otherwise be inaccessible to scientists.

They’re helping to manage invasive species, tree death, diseases and animal health. And it’s a way to take responsibility for the environment, urban areas, farmland and the creatures that visit our gardens.

Here are just a few ways you can get involved too.

Birds in backyards

Bird feeders and water dispensers are a great way to monitor human interactions with wildlife. If you have them, you can see the effect they have on your garden. You may even get a visit from a threatened species.

This project, created by researchers at Deakin and Griffith universities, aims to find out how people influence bird numbers and species diversity, and to measure the impact of food and water provisions. The organisers are looking for volunteers.

Additionally, BirdLife Australia’s Birds in Backyards is a project that collects reports of backyard bird sightings for analysis through the data-collection site Birdata. The site also contains resources on bird-friendly gardening, a bird finder tool (for identifying that pesky bird), forums and events.

Aggressive birds?

You may have heard the story of the bell miner (Manorina melanophrys), its feeding habits, aggressive behaviour and its association with a plant sickness known as eucalypt dieback.

A bell miner hangs from the trees.
David Cook/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The Bell Miner Colony Project, which I run, looks at the bell miners’ habitat choice and movements, and investigates whether they really cause dieback. The project, developed two years ago, looks to answer questions about bell miner distribution across the east coast of Australia, and helps with managing forests and gardens.

Most people either love or hate bell miners. I personally love them, so I want to find out what they are really doing on a species scale.

One colony lives in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens and another in the Melbourne Zoo, so they are easy to see and visit. They make a distinctive “tink” call throughout the day, which can be used to monitor density. If you have seen any, please report them.

Tracking ferals

If your area seems to be riddled with pests, Feral Scan is a website for surveying and identifying them. The data is compiled and plotted on a map to create a scanner for previous sightings.

Another website for reporting biodiversity sightings is the Atlas of Living Australia. Any species seen in your backyard or during your travels can be added to the searchable database of sightings from across the nation.

Helping wombats

WomSAT maps and record wombats and wombat burrow locations. So if you’ve seen wombats running around, let them know.

A wombat infected with mange.
Upsticksngo/Flickr, CC BY

There is also a call for volunteers in the ACT to help treat wombats with mange infections. Mange is a skin disease caused by mites, which leaves wombats itching until they scab. Volunteers help by applying treatments outside wombat burrows and monitoring the burrows with cameras.

Weed spotting

For those of you who are not into animals, there is a project for detecting new and emerging weeds in Queensland.

Queensland Herbarium teaches weed identification and mapping skills so that you can send your weed specimens and accompanying data to them.

This helps scientists determine where weeds are, how they spread and the best process for large-scale management.

Kathryn Teare Ada Lambert, Ecologist, University of New England

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

Hissstory: how the science of snake bite treatments has changed


Peter Hobbins, University of Sydney

Summer is traditionally Australia’s snake bite season, when both snakes and people become more active. The human death toll is now admirably low, but it wasn’t always so.

Although colonial statistics are highly unreliable, in 1882-1892 about 11 people died from snake bites across Australia a year. Since then, the continent’s population has grown from 2.2 million to 24.3 million, yet on average just two people died from snake bites a year in 2001–2013. While improved transport, communications and ambulance services have all contributed, so have the first aid and medical measures used to counteract snake venom.

Complex colonial remedies

A typical case from 1868 suggests the complexity – and desperation – of colonial remedies. When Victorian railway workers killed a brown snake at Elsternwick Station, they threw its body to stationmaster John Brown. Either the serpent was still alive, or Brown brushed its fangs, when he struck it “with an angry gesture”. The usual signs of envenomation (venom injected into the skin) soon appeared: vomiting, physical weakness then creeping paralysis followed by “coma”. Death, seemingly, was inevitable.

The stationmaster was rushed to nearby Balaclava, where surgeon George Arnold tied a ligature (tourniquet) around Brown’s arm before slicing out the bite site, hoping to remove the venom. He then poured ammonia (a hazardous chemical used today in cleaning) onto the wound to neutralise any remaining venom before urging Brown to drink six ounces (175mL) of brandy to stimulate his circulation.

He waved pungent smelling salts under Brown’s nose then applied a paste-like poultice of mustard to his patient’s hands, feet and abdomen to alleviate internal congestion. Further stimulation followed via electric shocks before the staggering, semi-conscious stationmaster was marched up and down to keep him awake – and alive. Brown, nevertheless, kept deteriorating.

Arnold urgently summoned the colony’s only medical professor, George Halford at Melbourne University, who reluctantly agreed to apply his new snake bite remedy. He opened a vein in Brown’s arm and injected ammonia directly into the bloodstream. The stationmaster revived almost immediately, leading another doctor to assert “the injection of Ammonia saved the man’s life” (do not try this at home).

Name your poison

John Brown’s treatment followed a pattern familiar across Australia from 1800 into the 1960s. While many of the 1868 interventions now seem bizarre – or downright dangerous – they made sense in historical context. Until well into the 20th century, snake bite treatments alternated between three fundamental approaches.

In common with today’s understanding, most European settlers, and many Indigenous cultures, considered venom to be an external “poison” that moved through the body. Physical measures such as ligature or suction were thus common to expel venom or limit its circulation.

A second strand of remedies, from mustard poultices to injected ammonia, sought to counteract its ill effects in the body, often by stimulating heart function and blood flow.

The third approach was to directly neutralise venom itself, for instance, pouring ammonia onto the bite.

Until the 1850s, physical measures dominated, while the next 50 years were the heyday of opposing-action treatments. When Halford’s intravenous ammonia fell from favour (as it didn’t seem to work), it was replaced in the 1890s by injections of another notorious poison: strychnine. At first even more popular than ammonia, this highly toxic plant-based poison was blamed for killing more patients than it saved. Yet by far the most popular colonial remedy, both with practitioners and patients, was drinking copious quantities of alcohol, especially brandy.

The slow premiere of antivenoms

The third approach, directly neutralising venom, underlay both Australia’s hugely popular folk “cures” and the novel “antivenene” technology developed in the 1890s. Now they are known as antivenoms and are created by injecting venom into (generally) horses, prompting an immune response, then purifying antibodies from their blood to inject into snake-bitten patients.

But antivenenes suffered a slow gestation in Australia. The first, targeting black snake venom, was developed in 1897; experimental tiger snake antivenene followed in 1902. But antivenenes are tricky to produce, distribute and store. They also proved difficult to administer, sometimes provoking life-threatening anaphylactic reactions (a severe allergic response).

It wasn’t until 1930 that commercial tiger snake antivenene came onto the Australian market.

Other injections targeting a wider range of serpents. “Polyvalent” antivenene, which is effective against multiple venoms, only emerged from the mid-1950s. Meanwhile, patients continued to undergo various first-aid measures, particularly ligatures and Condy’s crystals (potassium permanganate, used to clean wounds) applied to the bite in the hope of inactivating venom.

Two eternal questions

Current snake bite management only stabilised in the 1980s. Two developments were key: rapid tests to identify the injected venom and a new first-aid strategy.

Scientist Struan Sutherland pioneered the “pressure immobilisation technique”. This recommends tightly wrapping a bandage around the bitten region, adding a splint and minimising movement to slow venom spread.

Not washing or cutting the bite site leaves a venom sample to aid identification and so choose the most appropriate antivenom.

But today’s management is still being evaluated because both venoms and treatments still pose clinical challenges, including severe reactions and long-term damage.

And just as in 1868, two eternal questions remain critical: was it truly a deadly serpent, and did it inject enough venom to kill?

The Conversation

Peter Hobbins, ARC DECRA Fellow, University of Sydney

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

Why I’m spending three months sailing right around Antarctica for science


Nina Schuback, Curtin University

Spending three months inside a metal container on board an icebreaker in the Southern Ocean, filtering water while attempting to ignore freezing temperatures and huge ocean swells outside. It’s not everyone’s idea of fun … but it’s what I’ll be doing next year, in the name of climate science.

From late December 2016 to March 2017 I will be on board the Russian research vessel Akademik Treshnikov, taking part in an expedition that will take me and 54 other scientists from 30 countries on a complete lap of Antarctica – the first international research expedition to circumnavigate the frozen continent.

The Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (with the funky abbreviation ACE) is the first project run by the Swiss Polar Institute, and involves 22 projects covering different aspects of the biology, physics and chemistry of the Southern Ocean.

Rough ride

We’re not expecting the conditions to be particularly fun – but it will be worth it. A better understanding of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean surrounding it is critical – not just for the preservation of this pristine environment but also for the whole planet.

The Akademik Tryoshnikov: home for the first three months of 2017.
Tvabutzku/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The Southern Ocean is massive. It is also really far away from everywhere, which makes it hard for scientists to go there and study it. On top of that, there is no land at these latitudes to stop waves from building up, so waves can get really big, making the Southern Ocean a less than ideal environment for scientific work. I’m expecting that all of us will get seasick at some point.

Because of the size and isolation, our understanding of the physics, chemistry and biology of the Southern Ocean is not very good. What we do know is that this region is disproportionately important for the planet’s climate. For example, it was responsible for storing an estimated 43% of the carbon dioxide produced by humans between 1870 and 2005, and 75% of the overall oceanic heat uptake.

The ACE expedition is a unique opportunity to collect data in the Southern Ocean. The voyage will set off from South Africa, visiting all of the Southern Ocean’s main islands and traversing a range of latitudes – visiting the Antarctic coast just once, at Mertz Glacier in East Antarctica.

By spending three months completing a full circuit of the ocean, we will be able to collect an unprecedented set of samples and measurements, which will greatly improve our understanding of the Southern Ocean.

The planned route of the research cruise.
Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition, Author provided

Productive research

My research is concerned with phytoplankton – microscopic algae that live in the sunlit surface layer of the oceans. Just like plants on land, phytoplankton in the oceans photosynthesise, using the energy from sunlight to “fix” carbon dioxide into organic biomass, producing oxygen as a by-product. The rate of this change in biomass is called primary productivity.

Phytoplankton primary production forms the base of marine food webs, making it a fundamental process of marine ecosystem dynamics and directly relevant to fishery yields.

It is also an important component of the carbon cycle, and therefore global climate dynamics. This is because through a process called the “biological pump” a fraction of the roughly 45 billion tonnes of carbon fixed by phytoplankton every year sinks out of the surface layer and is stored in the deep ocean, away from the atmosphere.

My colleagues and I are trying to improve our understanding of what controls the distribution of phytoplankton, the rates of primary productivity, and the variability in the biological pump in the Southern Ocean.

Unfortunately, even sending a shipload of scientist on a three-month voyage to the Southern Ocean to measure phytoplankton biomass, productivity, and other chemical and physical factors, can only provide a snapshot of what is really going on. Ideally, we need to monitor the whole Southern Ocean over seasons, years, and decades. And this can actually be done, with the help of a technique called satellite ocean colour radiometry.

The main focus of our research is the collection of so-called “bio-optical” data, which will improve our ability to interpret satellite observations and derive better estimates of phytoplankton biomass and productivity in the Southern Ocean. This, in turn, will allow us to use past satellite records to determine how phytoplankton biomass and productivity has changed over the past decades, and help to establish possible connections to ongoing climate change.

It also means that we will be able to use satellite data to monitor, essentially in real time, what is happening to phytoplankton biomass and productivity in the Southern Ocean, without having to rely on frequent and extensive expeditions. But in the meantime, I’ll be more than happy to be part of this adventure.

The Conversation

Nina Schuback, Researcher, Remote Sensing and Satellite Research Group, Curtin University

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

154 Australian scientists demand climate policy that matches the science


James Whitmore, The Conversation

154 Australian experts have signed on open letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull demanding urgent action on climate change that matches the dire warnings coming from climate scientists.

The letter, organised by Australian National University climatologist Andrew Glikson, calls on the federal government to make “meaningful reductions of Australia’s peak carbon emissions and coal exports, while there is still time”.

Signatories include leading climate and environmental scientists such as the Climate Council’s Tim Flannery, Will Steffen, and Lesley Hughes, as well as reef scientists Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and Charlie Veron.

They point out that July 2016 was the hottest month ever recorded, and followed a nine-month streak of record-breaking months. Average carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm) in 2015, and are rising at a rate of nearly 3 ppm each year.

The world is already witnessing the effects of climate change, the letter argues, including an increase in extreme weather events, melting of the polar ice sheets, and ocean acidification.

Australia, along with 179 other nations, has signed the climate treaty brokered in Paris last year, aiming to limit average global warming to “well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5℃”.

However Glikson warned that “the Paris Agreement, being non-binding, is in danger of not being fulfilled by many of the signatories”. The deal will not enter into force until it is ratified by 55 nations accounting for at least 55% of the world’s greenhouse emissions.

Glikson called for action to “transition from carbon-emitting technologies to alternative clean energy as fast as possible, and focus technology on draw-down (sequestration) of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere”.

Australia’s current greenhouse gas target, which it took to December’s Paris climate summit, calls for emissions to be reduced by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030. It has been widely criticised by experts as not ambitious enough.

Andrew Blakers, professor of engineering at the Australian National University, said Australia could reduce emissions by two-thirds by 2030 “at negligible cost”.

He said the falling cost of renewable energy, particularly solar and wind, the replacement of gas with electricity for heating, and the advent of electric vehicles would eliminate most emissions. Solar and wind installation, currently at 1 gigawatt each year, would need to be increased to 2.5 gigawatts each year to reach 100% renewable energy by 2030.

Remaining emissions, from shipping, aviation, and industry, could be eliminated after 2030 at slightly higher costs.

Lesley Hughes, a member of the Climate Council and professor at Macquarie University, said there were a number of factors causing the gap between science and policy, including vested interests, perception of economic downsides of climate action, ideological biases, and inertia in the system from current investment in fossil fuels. But she said the “most important issue” was the difficulty in convincing people to act to reduce risk decades in the future.

The Climate Change Authority, which advises the government on climate policy, in 2014 recommended Australia adopt a target of 40-60% below 2000 levels by 2030.

In a report released yesterday, The Climate Institute highlighted that aiming for 1.5℃ instead of 2℃ would avoid longer heatwaves and droughts, and give the Great Barrier Reef a better chance of survival.

The institute recommended that Australia adopt an emissions reduction target of 65% below 2005 levels by 2030 and phase out coal power by 2035.

The Conversation

James Whitmore, Editor, Environment & Energy, The Conversation

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