Why scientists need your help to spot blue whales off Australia’s east coast


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Vanessa Pirotta, Macquarie UniversityBlue whales, the largest animals to ever live, are surprisingly elusive.

They’re bigger than the biggest dinosaur ever was, capable of growing over 30 metres long and can weigh over 100 tonnes — almost as long as a 737 plane and as heavy as 40 elephants. They also have one of the loudest voices, and can talk to each other hundreds of kilometres across the sea.

Why, then, are they so difficult to find in some parts off Australia?

My new research paper recorded only six verified sightings of the pygmy blue whale off Sydney in the last 18 years. Two of these occurred just last year. This blue whale subspecies is known to mostly occur along Australia’s west coast.

Rare sightings like these are important because pygmy blue whales are a “data deficient” animal. Every opportunity we have to learn about them is crucial to help us better protect them.

Blue whales down under

Don’t let its name fool you, the pygmy blue whale can still grow shockingly large, up to 24 metres in length. It’s one of two blue whale subspecies that occur in Australian waters – the other being the Antarctic blue whale, the biggest whale of them all at around 33 metres long.

A blue whale lunging for krill.

Unfortunately, historical whaling hunted blue whales to near extinction in the Southern Ocean. The Antarctic blue whale was depleted to only a few hundred individuals and, while they’re slowly bouncing back, they’re still listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

In contrast, we know little about pre- and post-whaling numbers for pygmy blue whales. Their listing as a data deficient species by the IUCN means we don’t have a full understanding of their population status.

Blue whales can grow to around 30 metres, almost the same length as a 737 plane.
Vanessa Pirotta, Author provided

One reason may be because blue whales are logistically challenging to study. For example, blue whales don’t just hang around in one area all the time. They’re capable of swimming thousands of kilometres for food and to breed.

They can also hold their breath for up to 90 minutes underwater, which can make them hard to spot unless they’re near the surface. To see them, people need to be in the right place at the right time.

This may require scientists to be on dedicated research vessels or in a plane to spot them, which can be expensive and weather-dependent.




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This also makes learning about them much harder compared to other, more accessible species, such as coastal bottlenose dolphins.

To learn more about pygmy blue whales in Australia, marine scientists have developed a variety of techniques, including listening to whales talking, taking skin samples and satellite tagging.

While this work is useful, it has focused mainly in areas where pygmy blue whales are known to occur, such as southern and western Australian waters.

Pygmy blue whales are known to feed in the Perth Canyon, Western Australia, and between the Great Australian Bight and Bass Strait during summer. They most likely breed in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans during winter.

But we don’t know much about pygmy blue whale presence in other parts of Australian waters, such as the east coast.

Two bottle nose dolphins
Bottlenose dolphins are more commonly seen.
Shutterstock

How can we conserve a species we know very little about?

Well, it can be tricky. The more information we know, the better we’re placed to assess their conservation needs. But focusing our efforts on species we know nothing about may require a conservative approach until we learn more.

Some would argue it’s better to protect a species we know needs our conservation dollar before spending precious resources on something uncertain.




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Fortunately, Australia has some of the world’s best protection policies for marine mammals, including whales. This means a precautionary approach is already in place to protect these creatures.

Since blue whales are listed as a threatened species, they’re protected under Australia’s primary environment law, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

And on an international level, Australia is a signatory to the International Whaling Commission (the global body for whale conservation) and the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (which ensures wildlife trade doesn’t threaten endangered species).

Two blue whales near a boat
Citizen science sightings help contribute to our understanding of blue whale distributions in Australian waters.
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To help uphold this international and national protection, scientists must continue to learn more about data-deficient animals like the pygmy blue whale to help safeguard against known and future threats.

This includes collisions with ships, overfishing, entanglement with fishing gear, increased human activity in the ocean, and climate change, which may affect when and where whales occur.

We need extra eyes

There are more than 14,600 animal species listed as data deficient by the IUCN.

Some, like the pygmy blue whale, are poorly studied. One reason is because they’re cryptic or boat shy, such as the Australian snubfin dolphin.

Or, they might be tricky to see, such as the false killer whale, whose sightings remain irregular in Australian coastal waters. Opportunities to learn more about them occur when they become stranded.

A false killer whale pokes its head out of the water
False killer whales are another data-deficient marine animal.
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So while citizen science sightings of pygmy blue whales may be rare off the Australian east coast, they do help contribute to our understanding of their distribution in Australian waters.

The two sightings of pygmy blue whales off Maroubra, Sydney, last year were within two months of each other. This was thanks to drones (flown under state rules).




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This prompted my research review of blue whale sightings off Sydney, which found citizen scientists made similar sightings in 2002 – the first official sighting from land off Sydney — and between 2012-14.

We don’t know exactly what type of pygmy blue whales these are (three distinct groups are recognised: the Indo-Australian, New Zealand and Madagascar groups). However, whale calls detected along Australia’s east coast in previous years suggest they’re most likely New Zealand pygmy blue whales, and they could have been heading to breeding waters north of Tonga.

So, the next time you are by the sea, keep a look out and tell a scientist via social media if you see something interesting. You just never know when the world’s biggest, or shiest, animal may turn up out of the blue.




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The Conversation


Vanessa Pirotta, Wildlife scientist, Macquarie University

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

About 500,000 Australian species are undiscovered – and scientists are on a 25-year mission to finish the job


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Kevin Thiele, The University of Western Australia and Jane Melville, Museums VictoriaHere are two quiz questions for you. How many species of animals, plants, fungi, fish, insects and other organisms live in Australia? And how many of these have been discovered and named?

To the first, the answer is we don’t really know. But the best guess of taxonomists – the scientists who discover, name, classify and document species – is that Australia’s lands, rivers, coasts and oceans probably house more than 700,000 distinct species.

On the second, taxonomists estimate almost 200,000 species have been scientifically named since Europeans first began exploring, collecting and classifying Australia’s remarkable fauna and flora.

Together, these estimates are disturbing. After more than 300 years of effort, scientists have documented fewer than one-third of Australia’s species. The remaining 70% are unknown, and essentially invisible, to science.

Taxonomists in Australia name an average 1,000 new species each year. At that rate, it will take at least 400 years to complete even a first-pass stocktake of Australia’s biodiversity.

This poor knowledge is a serious threat to Australia’s environment. And a first-of-its kind report released today shows it’s also a huge missed economic opportunity. That’s why today, Australia’s taxonomists are calling on governments, industry and the community to support an important mission: discovering and documenting all Australian species within 25 years.

Australia: a biodiversity hotspot

Biologically, Australia is one of the richest and most diverse nations on Earth – between 7% and 10% of all species on Earth occur here. It also has among the world’s highest rates of species discovery. But our understanding of biodiversity is still very, very incomplete.

Of course, First Nations peoples discovered, named and classified many species within their knowledge systems long before Europeans arrived. But we have no ready way yet to compare their knowledge with Western taxonomy.

Finding new species in Australia is not hard – there are almost certainly unnamed species of insects, spiders, mites and fungi in your backyard. Any time you take a bush holiday you’ll drive past hundreds of undiscovered species. The problem is recognising the species as new and finding the time and resources to deal with them all.

Taxonomists describe and name new species only after very careful due diligence. Every specimen must be compared with all known named species and with close relatives to ensure it is truly a new species. This often involves detailed microscopic studies and gene sequencing.

More fieldwork is often needed to collect specimens and study other species. Specimens in museums and herbaria all over the world sometimes need to be checked. After a great deal of work, new species are described in scientific papers for others to assess and review.

So why do so many species remain undiscovered? One reason is a shortage of taxonomists trained to the level needed. Another is that technologies to substantially speed up the task have only been developed in the past decade or so. And both these, of course, need appropriate levels of funding.

Of course, some groups of organisms are better known than others. In general, noticeable species – mammals, birds, plants, butterflies and the like – are fairly well documented. Most less noticeable groups – many insects, fungi, mites, spiders and marine invertebrates – remain poorly known. But even inconspicuous species are important.

Fungi, for example, are essential for maintaining our natural ecosystems and agriculture. They fertilise soils, control pests, break down litter and recycle nutrients. Without fungi, the world would literally grind to a halt. Yet, more than 90% of Australian fungi are believed to be unknown.




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fungi on log
Fungi plays an essential ecosystem role.
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Mind the knowledge gap

So why does all this matter?

First, Australia’s biodiversity is under severe and increasing threat. To manage and conserve our living organisms, we must first discover and name them.

At present, it’s likely many undocumented species are becoming extinct, invisibly, before we know they exist. Or, perhaps worse, they will be discovered and named from dead specimens in our museums long after they have gone extinct in nature.

Second, many undiscovered species are crucial in maintaining a sustainable environment for us all. Others may emerge as pests and threats in future; most species are rarely noticed until something goes wrong. Knowing so little about them is a huge risk.

Third, enormous benefits are to be gained from these invisible species, once they are known and documented. A report released today
by Deloitte Access Economics, commissioned by Taxonomy Australia, estimates a benefit to the national economy of between A$3.7 billion and A$28.9 billion if all remaining Australian species are documented.

Benefits will be greatest in biosecurity, medicine, conservation and agriculture. The report found every $1 invested in discovering all remaining Australian species will bring up to $35 of economic benefits. Such a cost-benefit analysis has never before been conducted in Australia.

The investment would cover, among other things, research infrastructure, an expanded grants program, a national effort to collect specimens of all species and new facilities for gene sequencing.




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Two scientists walk through wetlands holding boxes
Discovering new species often involves lots of field work.
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Mission possible

Australian taxonomists – in museums, herbaria, universities, at the CSIRO and in
government departments – have spent the last few years planning an ambitious mission to discover and document all remaining Australian species within a generation.

So, is this ambitious goal achievable, or even imaginable? Fortunately, yes.

It will involve deploying new and emerging technologies, including high-throughput robotic DNA sequencing, artificial intelligence and supercomputing. This will vastly speed up the process from collecting specimens to naming new species, while ensuring rigour and care in the science.

A national meeting of Australian taxonomists, including the young early career researchers needed to carry the mission through, was held last year. The meeting confirmed that with the right technologies and more keen and bright minds trained for the task, the rate of species discovery in Australia could be sped up by the necessary 16-fold – reducing 400 years of effort to 25 years.

With the right people, technologies and investment, we could discover all Australian species. By 2050 Australia could be the world’s first biologically mega-rich nation to have documented all our species, for the direct benefit of this and future generations.




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The Conversation


Kevin Thiele, Adjunct Assoc. Professor, The University of Western Australia and Jane Melville, Senior Curator, Terrestrial Vertebrates, Museums Victoria

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

Scientists are more likely to study bold and beautiful blooms, but ugly flowers matter too


Myricaria germanica is a rare and endangered species hit hard by climate change, but little research is undertaken to help save it.
Martino Adamo, Author provided

Kingsley Dixon, Curtin UniversityWe all love gardens with beautiful flowers and leafy plants, choosing colourful species to plant in and around our homes. Plant scientists, however, may have fallen for the same trick in what they choose to research.

Our research, published today in Nature Plants, found there’s a clear bias among scientists toward visually striking plants. This means they’re more likely chosen for scientific study and conservation efforts, regardless of their ecological or evolutionary significance.

To our surprise, colour played a major role skewing researcher bias. White, red and pink flowers were more likely to feature in research literature than those with dull, or green and brown flowers. Blue plants — the rarest colour in nature — received most research attention.

But does this bias matter? Plants worldwide are facing mass extinction due to environmental threats such as climate change. Now, more than ever, the human-induced tide of extinction means scientists need to be more fair-handed in ensuring all species have a fighting chance at survival.

Hidden plants in carpets of wildflowers

I was part of an international team that sifted through 280 research papers from 1975 to 2020, and analysed 113 plant species found in the southwestern Alps in Europe.

The Alps is a global biodiversity hotspot and the subject of almost 200 years of intensive plant science. But climate change is now creating hotter conditions, threatening many of its rarest species.

White flower with mountains in background
Edelweiss is a charismatic plant of the Alps that heralds spring.
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Carpeted in snow for much of the year, the brief yet explosive flowering of Europe’s alpine flora following the thaw is a joy to behold. Who was not bewitched when Julie Andrews danced in an alpine meadow in its full spring wildflower livery in The Sound of Music? Or when she sung “edelweiss”, one of the charismatic plants of the Alps that heralds spring?




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Hidden in these carpets of bright blue gentians and Delphiniums, vibrant daisies and orchids, are tiny or dull plants. This includes small sedges (Carex species), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla species) or the snake lily (Fritillaria) with its sanguine drooping flowers on thin stems.

Many of these “uncharismatic plants” are also rare or important ecological species, yet garner little attention from scientists and the public.

Close-up of a blue flower
Bellflowers (Campanula) are conspicuous and prominent in the Alps.
Martino Adamo, Author provided

The plants scientists prefer

The study asked if scientists were impartial to good-looking plants. We tested whether there was a relationship between research focus on plant species and characteristics, such as the colour, shape and prominence of species.

Along with a bias towards colourful flowers, we found accessible and conspicuous flowers were among those most studied (outside of plants required for human food or medicine).

Blue flowers
Bold and beautiful flowers in alpine meadows win scientific attention.
Martino Adamo, Author provided

This includes tall, prominent Delphinium and larkspurs, both well-known garden delights with well-displayed, vibrant flowers that often verge on fluorescent. Stem height also contributed to how readily a plant was researched, as it determines a plant’s ability to stand out among others. This includes tall bellflowers (Campanula species) and orchids.

But interestingly, a plant’s rarity didn’t significantly influence research attention. Charismatic orchids, for example, figured prominently despite rarer, less obvious species growing nearby, such as tiny sedges (Cypreaceae) and grass species.

The consequences of plant favouritism

This bias may steer conservation efforts away from plants that, while less visually pleasing, are more important to the health of the overall ecosystem or in need of urgent conservation.

In this time of urgent conservation, controlling our bias in plant science is critical. While the world list of threatened species (the IUCN RED List) should be the basis for guiding global plant conservation, the practice is often far from science based.

Mat rush with brown flowers
Mat rushes are home for rare native sun moths.
Shutterstock

We often don’t know how important a species is until it’s thoroughly researched, and losing an unnoticed species could mean the loss of a keystone plant.

In Australia, for example, milkweeds (Asclepiadaceae) are an important food source for butterflies and caterpillars, while grassy mat rushes (dull-flowered Lomandra species) are now known to be the home for rare native sun moths. From habitats to food, these plants provide foundational ecological services, yet many milkweed and mat rush species are rare, and largely neglected in conservation research.




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Likewise, we can count on one hand the number of scientists who work on creepy fungal-like organisms called “slime molds”, compared to the platoons of scientists who work on the most glamorous of plants: the orchids.

Yet, slime molds, with their extraordinary ability to live without cell walls and to float their nuclei in a pulsating jelly of cytoplasm, could hold keys to all sorts of remarkable scientific discoveries.

Yellow slime on tree trunk
Slime molds could hold the key to many scientific discoveries, but the organisms are understudied.
Shutterstock

We need to love our boring plants

Our study shows the need to take aesthetic biases more explicitly into consideration in science and in the choice of species studied, for the best conservation and ecological outcomes.

While our study didn’t venture into Australia, the principle holds true: we should be more vigilant in all parts of the conservation process, from the science to listing species for protection under the law. (Attractiveness bias may affect public interest here, too.)

So next time you go for a bushwalk, think about the plants you may have trodden on because they weren’t worth a second glance. They may be important to native insects, improve soil health or critical for a healthy bushland.




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The Conversation


Kingsley Dixon, John Curtin Distinguished Professor, Curtin University

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

Scientists at work: Sloshing through marshes to see how birds survive hurricanes



A clapper rail with a fiddler crab in its bill.
Michael Gray, CC BY-ND

Scott Rush, Mississippi State University and Mark Woodrey, Mississippi State University

When storms like Huricane Zeta menace the Gulf Coast, residents know the drill: Board up windows, clear storm drains, gas up the car and stock up on water, batteries and canned goods.

But how does wildlife ride out a hurricane? Animals that live along coastlines have evolved to deal with a world where conditions can change radically. This year, however, the places they inhabit have borne the brunt of 10 named storms, some just a few weeks apart.

As wildlife ecologists, we are interested in how species respond to stresses in their environment. We are currently studying how marsh birds such as clapper rails (Rallus crepitans) have adapted to tropical storms along the Alabama and Mississippi Gulf coast. Understanding how they do this entails wading into marshes and thinking like a small, secretive bird.

Least bittern in marsh grass
A least bittern, one of the smallest species of heron.
Michael Gray, CC BY-ND

Mucky and full of life

Coastal wetlands are critically important ecosystems. They harbor fish, shellfish and wading birds, filter water as it flows through and buffer coastlines against flooding.

You wouldn’t choose a Gulf Coast salt marsh for a casual stroll. There are sharp-pointed plants, such as black needlerush​, and sucking mud. In summer and early fall the marshes are oppressively hot and humid. Bacteria and fungi in the mud break down dead material, generating sulfurous-smelling gases. But once you get used to the conditions, you realize how productive these places are, with a myriad of organisms moving about.

Marsh birds are adept at hiding in dense grasses, so it’s more common to hear them than to see them. That’s why we use a process known as a callback survey to monitor for them.

First we play a prerecorded set of calls to elicit responses from birds in the marsh. Then we determine where we think the birds are calling from and visually estimate the distance from the observer to that spot, often using tools such as laser range finders. We also note the type of ecosystem where we detect the birds – for example, whether they’re in a tidal marsh with emergent vegetation or out in the open on mud flats.

Adult clapper rail calling.

Through this process we’ve been able to estimate the distributions of several species in tidal marshes, including clapper rails, least bitterns (Ixobrychus exilis) and seaside sparrows (Ammospiza maritima). We’ve also plotted trends in their abundance and identified how their numbers can change with characteristics of the marsh.

We’ve walked hundreds of miles through marshes to locate nests and to record data such as nest height, density of surrounding vegetation and proximity to standing water, which provides increased foraging opportunities for rails. Then we revisit the nests to document whether they produce young that hatch and eventually leave. Success isn’t guaranteed: Predators may eat the eggs, or flooding could wash them out of the nest and kill the developing embryos inside.

Salt marshes shelter many types of plants, birds, animals, fish and shellfish.

Rails in the grass

Our research currently focuses on clapper rails, which look like slender chickens with grayish-brown feathers and short tails. Like many other marsh birds, they have longish legs and toes for walking across soft mud, and long bills for probing the marsh surface in search of food. They are found year-round along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Clapper rails typically live in tidal marshes where there is vegetation to hide in and plenty of fiddler crabs, among their frequent foods. Because they are generally common and rely on coastal marshes, they are a good indicator of the health of these coastal areas.

Scientist in marsh holding live Clapper Rail
Ecologist Scott Rush with clapper rail, Pascagoula River Marshes, Mississippi.
Mark Woodrey, CC BY-ND

Water levels in tidal marshes change daily, and clapper rails have some adaptations that help them thrive there. They often build nests in areas with particularly tall vegetation to hide them from predators. And they can raise the height of the nest bowl to protect it against flooding during extra-high or “king” tides and storms. The embryos inside their eggs can survive even if the eggs are submerged for several hours.

When a tropical storm strikes, many factors – including wind speed, flooding and the storm’s position – influence how severely it will affect marsh birds. Typically birds ride out storms by moving to higher areas of the marsh. However, if a storm generates extensive flooding, birds in affected areas may swim or be blown to other locations. We saw this in early June when Hurricane Cristobal blew hundreds of clapper rails onto beaches in parts of coastal Mississippi.

Clapper rails hiding under a breakwater
Clapper rails on a Mississippi beach after Hurricane Cristobal in June 2020.
Mark Woodrey, CC BY-ND

In coastal areas immediately to the east of the eye of a tropical cyclone we typically see a drop in clapper rail populations in the following spring and summer. This happens because the counterclockwise rotation of the storms results in the highest winds and storm surge to the north and east of the eye of the storm.

But typically there’s a strong bout of breeding and a population rebound within a year or so – evidence that these birds are quick to adapt. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005, however, depending on the type of marsh, it took several years for rail populations to return to their pre-Katrina levels.

Now we’re radio-tagging clapper rails and collecting data that allow us to determine the birds’ life spans. This information helps us estimate when large numbers of birds have died – information that we can correlate with events like coastal hurricanes.

2020 Atlantic hurricane paths
Summary map of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, updated Oct. 27.
Master0Garfield/Wikipedia

Losing parts

Tropical storms have shaped coastal ecosystems since long before recorded history. But over the past 150 years humans have complicated the picture. Coastal development – draining marshes, building roads and reinforcing shorelines – is altering natural places that support marsh birds.

Clapper rails and other species have evolved traits that help them offset population losses due to natural disasters. But they can do so only if the ecosystems where they live keep providing them with food, breeding habitat and protection from predators. Coastal development, in combination with rising sea levels and larger tropical storms, can act like a one-two punch, making it increasingly hard for marshes and the species that live in them to recover.

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Biologist Paul Ehrlich has compared species at risk to rivets on an airplane. You might not need every rivet in place for the airplane to fly, but would you fly it through a cyclone if you knew that 10% of its rivets were missing? What about 20%, or 30%? At some point, Ehrlich asserts, nature could lose so many species that it becomes unable to provide valuable services that humans take for granted.

We see coastal marshes as an airplane that humans are piloting through storms. As species and ecosystem services are pummeled, rivets are failing. No one knows where or how the aircraft will land. But we believe that preserving marshes instead of weakening them can improve the chance of a smooth landing.The Conversation

Scott Rush, Assistant Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management, Mississippi State University and Mark Woodrey, Assistant Research Professor, Mississippi State University

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

Research reveals shocking detail on how Australia’s environmental scientists are being silenced



Authors provided

Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Bob Pressey, James Cook University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Noel D Preece, James Cook University

Ecologists and conservation experts in government, industry and universities are routinely constrained in communicating scientific evidence on threatened species, mining, logging and other threats to the environment, our new research has found.

Our study, just published, shows how important scientific information about environmental threats often does not reach the public or decision-makers, including government ministers.

In some cases, scientists self-censor information for fear of damaging their careers, losing funding or being misrepresented in the media. In others, senior managers or ministers’ officers prevented researchers from speaking truthfully on scientific matters.

This information blackout, termed “science suppression”, can hide environmentally damaging practices and policies from public scrutiny. The practice is detrimental to both nature and democracy.

A scientist kneels by a stream
When scientists are free to communicate their knowledge, the public is kept informed.
University of Queensland/AAP

Code of silence

Our online survey ran from October 25, 2018, to February 11, 2019. Through advertising and other means, we targeted Australian ecologists, conservation scientists, conservation policy makers and environmental consultants. This included academics, government employees and scientists working for industry such as consultants and non-government organisations.

Some 220 people responded to the survey, comprising:

  • 88 working in universities
  • 79 working in local, state or federal government
  • 47 working in industry, such as environmental consulting and environmental NGOs
  • 6 who could not be classified.

In a series of multiple-choice and open-ended questions, we asked respondents about the prevalence and consequences of suppressing science communication.




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About half (52%) of government respondents, 38% from industry and 9% from universities had been prohibited from communicating scientific information.

Communications via traditional (40%) and social (25%) media were most commonly prohibited across all workplaces. There were also instances of internal communications (15%), conference presentations (11%) and journal papers (5%) being prohibited.

A video explaining the research findings.

‘Ministers are not receiving full information’

Some 75% of respondents reported having refrained from making a contribution to public discussion when given the opportunity – most commonly in traditional media or social media. A small number of respondents self-censored conference presentations (9%) and peer-reviewed papers (7%).

Factors constraining commentary from government respondents included senior management (82%), workplace policy (72%), a minister’s office (63%) and middle management (62%).

Fear of barriers to advancement (49%) and concern about media misrepresentation (49%) also discouraged public communication by government respondents.

Almost 60% of government respondents and 36% of industry respondents reported unduly modified internal communications.

One government respondent said:

Due to ‘risk management’ in the public sector […] ministers are not receiving full information and advice and/or this is being ‘massaged’ by advisors (sic).

University respondents, more than other workplaces, avoided public commentary out of fear of how they would be represented by the media (76%), fear of being drawn beyond their expertise (73%), stress (55%), fear that funding might be affected (53%) and uncertainty about their area of expertise (52%).

One university respondent said:

I proposed an article in The Conversation about the impacts of mining […] The uni I worked at didn’t like the idea as they received funding from (the mining company).

vehicle operating at a coal mine
A university researcher was dissuaded from writing an article for The Conversation on mining.
Dave Hunt/AAP

Critical conservation issues suppressed

Information suppression was most common on the issue of threatened species. Around half of industry and government respondents, and 28% of university respondents, said their commentary on the topic was constrained.

Government respondents also reported being constrained in commenting on logging and climate change.

One government respondent said:

We are often forbidden (from) talking about the true impacts of, say, a threatening process […] especially if the government is doing little to mitigate the threat […] In this way the public often remains ‘in the dark’ about the true state and trends of many species.

University respondents were most commonly constrained in talking about feral animals. A university respondent said:

By being blocked from reporting on the dodgy dealings of my university with regards to my research and its outcomes I feel like I’m not doing my job properly. The university actively avoids any mention of my study species or project due to vested financial interests in some key habitat.

Industry respondents, more than those from other sectors, were constrained in commenting on the impacts of mining, urban development and native vegetation clearing. One industry respondent said:

A project […] clearly had unacceptable impacts on a critically endangered species […] the approvals process ignored these impacts […] Not being able to speak out meant that no one in the process was willing or able to advocate for conservation or make the public aware of the problem.

a dead koala in front of trees
Information suppression on threatened species was common.

The system is broken

Of those respondents who had communicated information publicly, 42% had been harassed or criticised for doing so. Of those, 83% believed the harassers were motivated by political or economic interests.

Some 77 respondents answered a question on whether they had suffered personal consequences as a result of suppressing information. Of these, 18% said they had suffered mental health effects. And 21% reported increased job insecurity, damage to their career, job loss, or had left the field.

One respondent said:

I declared the (action) unsafe to proceed. I was overruled and properties and assets were impacted. I was told to be silent or never have a job again.

Another said:

As a consultant working for companies that damage the environment, you have to believe you are having a positive impact, but after years of observing how broken the system is, not being legally able to speak out becomes harder to deal with.

a scientist tests water
Scientists want to have a positive impact on environmental outcomes.
Elaine Thompson/AP

Change is needed

We acknowledge that we receive grants involving contracts that restrict our academic freedom. And some of us self-censor to avoid risks to grants from government, resulting in personal moral conflict and a less informed public. When starting this research project, one of our colleagues declined to contribute for fear of losing funding and risking employment.

But Australia faces many complex and demanding environmental problems. It’s essential that scientists are free to communicate their knowledge on these issues.




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Conservation scientists are grieving after the bushfires — but we must not give up


Public servant codes of conduct should be revised to allow government scientists to speak freely about their research in both a public and private capacity. And government scientists and other staff should report to new, independent state and federal environment authorities, to minimise political and industry interference.

A free flow of information ensures government policy is backed by the best science. Conservation dollars would be more wisely invested, costly mistakes avoided and interventions more effectively targeted.

And importantly, it would help ensure the public is properly informed – a fundamental tenet of a flourishing democracy.The Conversation

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Bob Pressey, Professor and Program Leader, Conservation Planning, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Noel D Preece, Adjunct Asssociate Professor, James Cook University

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

Scientists hate to say ‘I told you so’. But Australia, you were warned



Without a radical change of course on climate change, Australians will struggle to survive on this continent, let alone thrive.
AAP/Dave Hunt

Will Steffen, Australian National University

Those who say “I told you so” are rarely welcomed, yet I am going to say it here. Australian scientists warned the country could face a climate change-driven bushfire crisis by 2020. It arrived on schedule.

For several decades, the world’s scientific community has periodically assessed climate science, including the risks of a rapidly changing climate. Australian scientists have made, and continue to make, significant contributions to this global effort.

I am an Earth System scientist, and for 30 years have studied how humans are changing the way our planet functions.




Read more:
Conservation scientists are grieving after the bushfires — but we must not give up


Scientists have, clearly and respectfully, warned about the risks to Australia of a rapidly heating climate – more extreme heat, changes to rainfall patterns, rising seas, increased coastal flooding and more dangerous bushfire conditions. We have also warned about the consequences of these changes for our health and well-being, our society and economy, our natural ecosystems and our unique wildlife.

Today, I will join Dr Tom Beer and Professor David Bowman to warn that Australia’s bushfire conditions will become more severe. We call on Australians,
particularly our leaders, to heed the science.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison comforting a man evacuated from his home during then recent bushfires.
Darren Pateman/AAP

The more we learn, the worse it gets

Many of our scientific warnings over the decades have, regrettably, become reality. About half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef have been killed by underwater heatwaves. Townsville was last year decimated by massive floods. The southeast agricultural zone has been crippled by intense drought. The residents of western Sydney have sweltered through record-breaking heat. The list could go on.

All these impacts have occurred under a rise of about 1℃ in global average temperature. Yet the world is on a pathway towards 3℃ of heating, bringing a future that is almost unimaginable.

How serious might future risks actually be? Two critical developments are emerging from the most recent science.

First, we have previously underestimated the immediacy and seriousness of many risks. The most recent assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that as science progresses, more damaging impacts are projected to occur at lower increases in temperature. That is, the more we learn about climate change, the riskier it looks.




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‘This crisis has been unfolding for years’: 4 photos of Australia from space, before and after the bushfires


For Australia, a 3℃ world would likely lead to much harsher fire weather than today, more severe droughts and more intense rainfall events, more prolonged and intense heatwaves, accelerating sea-level rise and coastal flooding, the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and a large increase in species extinctions and ecosystem degradation. This would be a tough continent to survive on, let alone thrive on.

The city I live in, Canberra, experienced an average seven days per year over 35℃ through the 1981-2010 period. Climate models projected that this extreme heat would more than double to 15 days per year by 2030. Yet in 2019 Canberra experienced 33 days of temperatures over 35℃.

Second, we are learning more about ‘tipping points’, features of the climate system that appear stable but could fundamentally change, often irreversibly, with just a little further human pressure. Think of a kayak: tip it a little bit and it is still stable and remains upright. But tip it just a little more, past a threshold, and you end up underwater.

Features of the climate system likely to have tipping points include Arctic sea ice, the Greenland ice sheet, coral reefs, the Amazon rainforest, Siberian permafrost and Atlantic Ocean circulation.

Dogs hauling a sled through meltwater on coastal sea ice during an expedition in northwest Greenland in June last year.
STEFFEN M. OLSEN/DANISH METEOROLOGICAL INSTITUTE

Heading towards ‘Hothouse Earth’?

These tipping points do not act independently of one another. Like a row of dominoes, tipping one could help trigger another, and so on to form a tipping cascade. The ultimate risk is that such a cascade could take the climate system out of human control. The system could move to a “Hothouse Earth” state, irrespective of human actions to stop it.

Hothouse Earth temperatures would be much higher than in the pre-industrial era – perhaps 5–6℃ higher. A Hothouse Earth climate is likely to be uncontrollable and very dangerous, posing severe risks to human health, economies and political stability, especially for the most vulnerable countries. Indeed, Hothouse Earth could threaten the habitability of much of the planet for humans.

Tipping cascades have happened in Earth’s history. And the risk that we could trigger a new cascade is increasing: a recent assessment showed many tipping elements, including the ones listed above, are now moving towards their thresholds.

Beachgoers swim as smoke haze from bushfires blanketed Sydney last month.
Steven Saphore/AAP

It’s time to listen

Now is the perfect time to reflect on what science-based risk assessments and warnings such as these really mean.

Two or three decades ago, the spectre of massive, violent bushfires burning uncontrollably along thousands of kilometres of eastern Australia seemed like the stuff of science fiction.




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Now we are faced with more than 10 million hectares of bush burnt (and still burning), 29 people killed, more than 2,000 properties and several villages destroyed, and more than one billion animals sent to a screaming, painful death.

Scientists are warning that the world could face far worse conditions in the coming decades and beyond, if greenhouse gas emissions don’t start a sharp downward trend now.

Perhaps, Australia, it’s time to listen.The Conversation

Will Steffen, Emeritus Professor, Australian National University

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

Conservation scientists are grieving after the bushfires — but we must not give up



Glossy black cockatoo populations on Kangaroo Island have been decimated. But a few precious survivors remain.
Flickr

Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Martine Maron, The University of Queensland, and Sarah Legge, Australian National University

That a billion animals may die as a result of this summer’s fires has horrified the world. For many conservation biologists and land managers, however, the unprecedented extent and ferocity of the fires has incinerated much more than koalas and their kin.

The scale of the destruction has challenged what is fundamentally an optimistic worldview held by conservationists: that with sufficient time and money, every species threatened by Australia’s 250 years of colonial transformation cannot just be saved from extinction, but can flourish once again.

The nation’s silent, apocalyptic firescapes have left many conservation biologists grieving – for the animals, the species, their optimism, and for some, lifetimes of diligent work.

So many of us are wondering: have lives spent furthering conservation been wasted? Should we give up on conservation work, when destruction can be wrought on the environment at such unprecedented scales?

The answer is, simply, no.

A brushtail possum with ears and legs burnt in a bushfire in January.
STEVEN SAPHORE

Acknowledge the grief

Federal government figures released on Monday showed more than half of the area occupied by about 115 threatened species has been affected by fire. Some of these species will now be at significantly greater threat of extinction. They include the long-footed potoroo, Kangaroo Island’s glossy black-cockatoo and the East Lynne midge orchid.

Some field ecologists lost study populations of species that had been researched and monitored for decades. Anecdotally, the fires have affected the best known population of the northern corroboree frog. Others lost substantial amounts of field equipment such as long-established automatic cameras needed to monitor wildlife responses to fire.




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Of course, action is an effective therapy for grief. There is plenty to do: assess the extent of damage, find and nurture the unburned fragments, feed the survivors, and limit further damage to burned but recovering areas of native vegetation.

The official recovery response has been swift. Victoria,
New South Wales and now the Commonwealth have all issued clear statements about what’s happened and how they’re responding. The determination and unity among government agencies, researchers and conservation groups has been remarkable.

A dead koala after the Kangaroo Island bushfires.
David Mariuz/AAP

However, busyness may just be postponing the grief. Many universities have rightly offered counselling to affected staff – as, presumably, have other institutions. Many researchers are bereft and questioning their chosen vocation.

But as we grieve, we must also remember that decades of conservation work has not been in vain. Some populations and species may indeed have been lost in the recent fires – we shall not know until long after the smoke clears. But the conservation efforts of the past mean fewer species have been lost than would have been the case otherwise.

Focus on survivors

Take the subspecies of glossy black cockatoos endemic to Kangaroo Island. Up to 80% of the area the cockatoos occupy has been burnt – but some survivors have been sighted.

Decades of work by researchers, conservation managers and the community had reportedly brought the cockatoos’ numbers from about 150 to 400. Without this extraordinary effort,
there would have been no cockatoos to worry about during these fires, no knowledge of how to help survivors and no community of cockatoo lovers to pick up the work again.

Or take the southern corroboree frog. At Melbourne Zoo, a giant black and yellow frog guards the entrance to a facility where the species is being bred for release. This success is the result of decades of research into this highly imperilled species.




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A season in hell: bushfires push at least 20 threatened species closer to extinction


The captive colony was established exactly because a catastrophic event could overwhelm the species in the wild. This fire season is the latest in a sequence of existential threats.

This hard-won knowledge of threats is also improving the nature and speed of fire response. For example, there is now far greater awareness of the damage introduced predators can wreak, especially after severe fires when animals are exposed and vulnerable in a burnt landscape. Control of feral cats and foxes will be critical. Effective fox control immediately following fires in 2003 was likely to have been critical in the persistence and then recovery of the endangered Eastern Bristlebird.

Introduced herbivores such as deer and horses will remove food resources for native herbivores, damage fire-sensitive soils, and weeds will take advantage of the cleared ground. Managing these threats at large scale soon after fires have been extinguished will be needed.

A wildlife volunteer nurses a rescued flying fox earlier this month.
Stephen Saphore/AAP

Outside the fire zones

The conservation focus of late has, understandably, been on areas burnt. But it is also critical to continue conservation efforts away from the fire zones.

A recent analysis of the 20 species of mammals and birds most likely to become extinct in the next 20 years showed they are scattered across the
country
, mostly in places far from those recently burnt.

The bushfires require large-scale urgent action. But we must not withdraw attention and resources from species elsewhere that need saving. If anything, now we know the unprecedented scale of threats such as fire, more conservation funds are required across the board to prepare for similar events.

A rare pygmy possum found after bushfires swept through Kangaroo Island.
David Mariuz/AAP

We must not give up

Biodiversity loss is mounting across the world. If this generation is to pass on its biological inheritance to the next, more conservation science and management is urgently needed.

History does not have to repeat itself. Conservation programs have been severely set back, and people are right to mourn the severe impacts on biodiversity. But they should also take solace that their earlier efforts have not been wasted, and should recommit to the fight for recovery.




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Animal response to a bushfire is astounding. These are the tricks they use to survive


In future fire seasons, the emergency response is likely to be better prepared to protect natural assets, as well as life and property. For example, the extraordinary emergency operation to protect the Wollemi pine in NSW could be carried out for multiple species.

Those involved in conservation should lose neither hope nor ambition. We should learn from these fires and ensure that losses are fewer next time.The Conversation

Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, Professor Conservation Ecology, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland, and Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University

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

Aussie scientists need your help keeping track of bees (please)



The Asian honey bee (Apis cerana) has been found in Cairns. It’s just one of the introduced bees buzzing under the radar.
Tobias Smith, Author provided

Manu Saunders, University of New England; Callum McKercher, University of New England; Mark Hall, Western Sydney University; Tanya Latty, University of Sydney, and Tobias Smith, The University of Queensland

Bees get a lot of good press. They pollinate our crops and in some cases, make delicious honey. But bees around the world face serious threats, and the public can help protect them.

Of more than 20,400 known bee species in the world, about 1,650 are native to Australia. But not all bees found in Australia are native. A few species have been introduced: some on purpose and others secretly hitchhiking, usually through international trade routes.

As bee researchers, we’ve all experienced seeing a beautiful, fuzzy striped bee buzzing about our gardens, only to realise it’s an exotic species far from home.




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We need the public’s help to identify the bees in Australian backyards. There’s a good chance some are not native, but are unwanted exotic species. Identifying new intruders before they become established will help protect our native species.

The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) fuels a valuable honey industry and contributes to agricultural pollination. Other introduced species are far less welcome.
Tobias Smith

Exotic bees in Australia

The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the best-known introduced species, first brought to Australia in the early 1800s. It is now well-established throughout the country, with profitable industries built around managed populations.

Other invasive species in Australia are less well known (or loved). The European bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) is present in high numbers in Tasmania, but isn’t thought to be established on mainland Australia.

This bumblebee has caused major harm to native bees in South America, competing for resources and spreading disease.

In northern Queensland, the Asian honey bee (Apis cerana) is established around Cairns and Mareeba, from a single incursion in 2007. The original founding colony is thought to have been a stowaway on a boat that sailed to Cairns from somewhere in southeast Asia or the Pacific, where this bee is widespread.

New Asian honey bee incursions at Australian ports occur almost annually, most recently in Townsville and Melbourne. But swift biosecurity responses have so far stopped them becoming established.

The European bumble bee (Bombus terrestris) lives in large numbers in Tasmania, but is not established on the mainland.
Tobias Smith, Author provided

Why should we care?

Most insects can spread and establish breeding populations before anyone notices them, so it’s important we pay attention to these small intruders.

Introduced species can bring new parasites or diseases into the country that may harm native insects – including our stingless bees that are so vital to crop pollination – or affect the valuable European honey bee industry.

While bumblebees may help commercial pollination in a handful of Australian crops, they and other introduced species can also compete with native species for resources, or spread weeds.

Most resources go to monitoring invasive species with a more dramatic and understood effect on agriculture and the environment. Bees sneak under the radar – but we’re still curious.

Take the African carder bee (Pseudoanthidium repetitum), which arrived in Australia in the early 2000s. Thanks to citizen scientists, we know they are spreading rapidly. In 2014, they were the third most common bee species found in a survey of Sydney community gardens.

An African carder bee spotted in Lismore. They are the third most common bee species in Sydney community gardens.
Tobias Smith, Author provided

Just recently, we found two invasive African carder bees in a backyard in Armidale in northern New South Wales while testing out a new insect monitoring method. There are no confirmed records of this invasive bee in Armidale, although we have seen a few around town since 2017.




Read more:
Bees: how important are they and what would happen if they went extinct?


Although it’s usually exciting to find a new record for a native species, finding an exotic bee where it’s not supposed to be is worrying. How long have they been there, and how many others are there?

The European bumble bee was recently sighted to global biodiversity.

You don’t have to be totally sure what kind of bee you’ve spotted. Just snap some pictures and upload it to a citizen scientist app like iNaturalist with the date and location.
Jean and Fred/Flickr, CC BY

Will you help us keep track?

Anyone can help keep track of potential new invasive species, simply by learning more about the insects in your local area and sharing observations on citizen science platforms such as iNaturalist, or through targeted projects like the African carder bee monitoring project.

You don’t need to be sure exactly what species you’ve seen. Uploading some clear, high-resolution photos, along with the date and location of your observation, will help naturalists and researchers identify it.




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Wasps, aphids and ants: the other honey makers


You can also participate in events such as the twice-yearly Wild Pollinator Count or local Bioblitzes.

Your efforts can help us detect emerging threats, and add to our records of both native and non-native bees (and other species). Plus it’s a great excuse to get outdoors and learn more about the insect life in your area.


This article was co-written with Karen Retra.The Conversation

Manu Saunders, Research fellow, University of New England; Callum McKercher, PhD Student, University of New England; Mark Hall, Research fellow, Western Sydney University; Tanya Latty, Associate professor, University of Sydney, and Tobias Smith, Ecologist, bee researcher and stingless bee keeper, The University of Queensland

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

11,000 scientists warn: climate change isn’t just about temperature



Land clearing, cattle populations and carbon emissions stand alongside temperature as important measures of climate change.
DAN PELED/AAP

Thomas Newsome, University of Sydney and William Ripple, Oregon State University

Exactly 40 years ago, a small group of scientists met at the world’s first climate conference in Geneva. They raised the alarm about unnerving climate trends.

Today, more than 11,000 scientists have co-signed a letter in the journal BioScience, calling for urgently necessary action on climate.

This is the largest number of scientists to explicitly support a publication calling for climate action. They come from many different fields, reflecting the harm our changing climate is doing to every part of the natural world.




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Why no change?

If you’re thinking not much has changed in the past 40 years, you might be right. Globally, greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, with increasingly damaging effects.

Much of the focus to date has been on tracking global surface temperatures. This makes sense, as goals like “prevent 2℃ of warming” create a relatively simple and easy-to-communicate message.

However, there’s more to climate change than global temperature.

In our paper, we track a broader set of indicators to convey the effects of human activities on greenhouse gas emissions, and the consequent impacts on climate, our environment, and society.

The indicators include human population growth, tree cover loss, fertility rates, fossil fuel subsidies, glacier thickness, and frequency of extreme weather events. All are linked to climate change.

Troubling signs over the past 40 years

Profoundly troubling signs linked to human activities include sustained increases in human and ruminant populations, global tree cover loss, fossil fuel consumption, number of plane passengers, and carbon dioxide emissions.

The concurrent trends on the actual impacts of climate change are equally troubling. Sea ice is rapidly disappearing, and ocean heat, ocean acidity, sea level, and extreme weather events are all trending upwards.

These trends need to be closely monitored to assess how we are responding to the climate emergency. Any one of them could hit a point of no return, creating a catastrophic feedback loop that could make more regions of Earth uninhabitable.




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The need for better reporting

We urge national governments to report on how their own results are trending. Our indicators will allow policymakers and the public to better understand the magnitude of this crisis, track progress, and realign priorities to alleviate climate change.

Some of the indicators could even be presented monthly to the public during news broadcasts, as they are arguably more important than the trends in the stock exchange.

It’s not too late to act

In our paper we suggest six critical and interrelated steps that governments, and the rest of humanity, can take to lessen the worst effects of climate change:

  1. prioritise energy efficiency, and replace fossil fuels with low-carbon renewable energy sources,

  2. reduce emissions of short-lived pollutants like methane and soot,

  3. protect and restore the Earth’s ecosystems by curbing land clearing,

  4. reduce our meat consumption,

  5. move away from unsustainable ideas of ever-increasing economic and resource consumption, and

  6. stabilise and ideally, gradually reduce human populations while improving human well-being.

We recognise that many of these recommendations are not new. But mitigating and adapting to climate change will entail major transformations across all six areas.

How can you help?

Individuals can make a difference by reducing meat consumption, voting for political parties and members of government bodies who have clear climate change policies, rejecting fossil fuels where possible, using renewable and clean sources of energy, reducing car and air travel, and joining citizen movements.

Lots of small changes will help inspire larger scale shifts in policy and economic frameworks.

We are encouraged by a recent global surge of concern. Some governments are declaring climate emergencies. Grassroots citizen movements are demanding change.




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As scientists, we urge widespread use of our indicators to track how changes across the six areas above will start to change our ecosystem trajectories.The Conversation

Thomas Newsome, Lecturer, University of Sydney and William Ripple, Distinguished Professor and Director, Trophic Cascades Program, Oregon State University

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

‘This situation brings me to despair’: two reef scientists share their climate grief



A researcher completing bleaching surveys in the southern Great Barrier Reef after a major bleaching event.
ARC CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE FOR CORAL REEF STUDIES

Jon Brodie, James Cook University and Alana Grech, James Cook University

Few feel the pain of the Great Barrier Reef’s decline more acutely than the scientists trying to save it. Ahead of next week’s UN climate summit, two researchers write of their grief, and hope.

Jon Brodie

Professorial Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

As I write this, much of inland eastern Australia is enduring what is likely to be the worst drought ever recorded. Bushfires are devastating parts of New South Wales and southern Queensland, tearing through rainforest that should not be dry enough to burn. Major towns will probably soon run out of water. The condition of the vital Murray-Darling river system is dire.

Some federal government MPs have responded by questioning whether these events are linked to anthropogenic, or man-made, climate change. Others deny the science outright. Now we have a politically motivated Senate inquiry into water quality on the Great Barrier Reef.

This situation brings me to despair. For the past 45 years I have researched and managed coral reef water quality in Australia and overseas. Now 72, I see that much of my work, and that of my colleagues, has not led to a bright future for coral reefs. In decades to come they will probably still contain some corals, but ecologically speaking they will not be growing, or even functioning.

Coral bleaching at Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016.
XL CATLIN SEAVIEW SURVEY

Official assessments appear to confirm the reef’s inexorable demise. A five-yearly outlook report from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority this month declared the outlook was “very poor” – a decline from “poor” in 2014. A joint federal-Queensland government report released on the same day found “minimal progress” in addressing water quality – the second most serious threat to the reef.




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The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in October last year that a global temperature rise of 2℃ above pre-industrial levels will decimate coral growth. It said we must stay below 1.5℃ of warming for coral reefs to have a reasonable chance for a future.

Flood plume extending 60km offshore after an extreme monsoon weather event, February 2019. Such events can seriously damage water quality.
Matt Curnock

About 1.2℃ of this warming has already occurred; on current policies, the world is on track for a 3℃ temperature rise.

I feel guilty when discussing this situation with young scientists. I worry that my legacy is such that they will spend their professional lives studying and documenting the terminal decline of coral reefs.

I feel the same sense of guilt towards my 19-year-old grandson, who is in his first year of university studying mathematics. The outlook is grim, not just for coral reefs but for society in general.

My life’s work, spent mostly outside, has taken a toll on my health. I’ve had several skin cancers excised over the past 25 years and in recent years have undergone major skin cancer surgery. I have recovered well and still come to James Cook University every day. But the combination of ill-health, coupled with political inaction over the dire state of the environment, only compounds a feeling that I can’t really make a difference anymore.




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But on a more positive note, the Great Barrier Reef is more than just coral. It includes a wonderful array of seagrass, dugongs, turtles, fish, dolphins, birds, and whales – and this is not a complete list.

Many of these species are also in decline. But good water quality management will, for example, help encourage the growth of seagrass on which dugongs and green turtles rely for food. The overall picture may be grim, but there are small spots of hope.

A researcher surveys the aftermath of coral bleaching at Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016.
XL CATLIN SEAVIEW

Alana Grech

Assistant Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

I spent last weekend on Magnetic Island, just a short ferry ride from my Townsville home. With great joy I sat with our infant under a beach tent and watched my older son happily snorkel among the corals and fish.

The intergenerational inequalities posed by climate change have become all the more real since I became a mum. The reef my son swam over is fundamentally different from reefs that existed when my parents were children, and they are continuing to change.

As the wet season approaches, my anxiety, and that of my colleagues, increases at the prospect of another extreme marine heatwave. Two consecutive summers of coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017 severely damaged two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef. Some researchers who bore witness to these events experienced “ecological grief”: a profound sense of loss at the environmental harm that global warming brings.

Damage to the Great Barrier Reef threatens the region’s economy, including the fishing and tourism industries.
AAP

In much the same way, a large proportion of north Queensland residents and tourists experience significant grief associated with coral bleaching and mortality. Biodiversity loss also affects Traditional Owners, impacting their connection to Sea Country.

Extreme weather events associated with climate change jeopardise the tourism and fishing industries, and coastal infrastructure that underpin the region’s economy. Insurance premiums are already higher in northern Australia than in the rest of the country, and some places may one day become uninsurable.

However, my children were born in a wealthy country that is likely to withstand and recover from climate impacts that affect their basic needs. This privilege is not shared by the majority of reef-dependent coastal communities in the world’s tropics.

Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama warns: “Our region remains on the front line of humanity’s greatest challenges”

I come from a family of healthcare professionals, but felt a career in environmental science offered the potential to make a broader impact. The state of the planet and human health and well-being are inextricably linked.

I continue to be motivated by my research on the Great Barrier Reef. But I am deeply concerned about rising mistrust in the scientific process, despite unequivocal evidence of the reef’s decline and the impacts of climate change. It is particularly distressing when members of the federal government undermine the science that informs their own policies – including North Queensland politicians advocating for a national watchdog to verify scientific papers.

Clownfish in the Great Barrier Reef. Sediment is damaging fish gills and causing disease.
AAP/James Cook University

If our political leaders want to support community adaptation and resilience to climate change, they should build, rather than erode, public trust in the evidence that underpins reef management and policy.


This piece is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.The Conversation

Jon Brodie, Professorial Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University and Alana Grech, Assistant Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

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