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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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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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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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.




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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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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.

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



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

Neville Nicholls, Monash University

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

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




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

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

What is this ‘greenhouse gas’ you speak of?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Author provided/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Reception of the article

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

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

Strong science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

Sit! Seek! Fly! Scientists train dogs to sniff out endangered insects


Julia Mynott, La Trobe University

Three very good dogs – named Bayar, Judd and Sasha – have sniffed out the endangered Alpine Stonefly, one of the smallest animals a dog has been trained to successfully detect in its natural habitat.

The conservation of threatened species is frequently hampered by the lack of relevant data on their distributions. This is particularly true for insects, where the difficulty of garnering simple information means the threatened status of many species remains unrecognised and unmanaged.




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In alpine areas there is a pressing need for innovative methods to better reveal the distribution and abundance of threatened insects.

Alpine regions rely on cool temperatures, and since climate change will bring warmer weather and lower rainfalls, insects like the Alpine Stonefly, which lives in the alpine freshwater system, will struggle to survive.

And while insects might not be appealing to everyone, they are extremely important for ecosystem function.

Traditional survey detection methods are often labour intensive, and hard-to-find species provide limited information. This is where the labrador, border collie and samoyed came to the rescue.

La Trobe’s Anthrozoology Research Group Dog Lab in Bendigo, Victoria have been training a pool of local community volunteers and their dogs in conservation detection to use with environmental DNA sampling. Using both environmental DNA and detection dogs has the potential to generate a lot of meaningful data on these threatened stoneflies.

For seven weeks in a special program, dogs were trained to memorise the odour of the Alpine Stonefly (Thaumatoperla alpina), a threatened but iconic insect in the high plains.

The dogs have previously been trained to sniff out animal nests or faeces but not an animal itself, so this was a new approach and an Australian first.

Stoneflies are hard to catch

The Alpine Stonefly are brightly coloured aquatic insects and are difficult to find, especially as larvae in water where they live as predators for up to two years in the streams on the Bogong High Plains, Mount Buller-Mount Stirling, Mt Baw Baw and the Yarra Ranges.

They often burrow underneath cobbles, boulders and into the stream bed while the adults only emerge from the water for a few months between January and April to reproduce.

With all this in mind, it’s easy to understand why traditional detection methods can be time consuming and often ineffective.

We predominately focused on the endangered Alpine Stonefly, found across the Bogong High Plains. Their restricted distribution and habitat made them an ideal candidate to trial detection dogs and environmental DNA techniques.




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How dogs and environmental DNA help

We collected water samples from across the Bogong High Plains, Mount Buller and Mount Stirling with trace DNA, such as cells shed from the insect. The ability to quickly take these samples from a broad area to indicate the presence of a species is important to understand distribution. But this approach limits the amount of ecological information that is gathered.

Initial training introduced the dogs to the odour of the Alpine Stonefly in a controlled laboratory setting. Then they graduated from the laboratory to small areas of bushland to search for the insect.

Once the dogs successfully completed their training, it was time to trial the dogs in the alpine environment and survey Alpine Stoneflies in their natural environment.

The trial was conducted at Falls Creek with the dogs’ three volunteer handlers. And the surveys were successful, with all three dogs finding Alpine Stoneflies in their natural habitats.

So could this success be transferred to a similar species?

Absolutely. In preliminary trials, Bayar, Judd and Sasha detected the Stirling Stonefly, a related species of Thaumatoperla that lives in Mount Buller and Mount Stirling, suggesting detection dogs can transfer their conservation training from one species to another.

This is a great find as it means this technique can be used to survey yet another species of Thaumatoperla that lives in Mt Baw Baw and the Yarra Ranges.




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Our research is showing that these new sampling techniques supporting conservation are an important part of keeping biodiversity protected in alpine regions.

Now that we’ve successfully trained three dogs, we’re hoping to secure funding to conduct future and more thorough surveys on the Alpine and Stirling Stonefly, and eventually on the third species of stonefly.

By developing creative techniques to detect these species, we boost our ability to document them and, importantly, to protect them.The Conversation

Julia Mynott, Research Officer, Centre for Freshwater Ecosystems, La Trobe University

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