Giant bird-eating centipedes exist — and they’re surprisingly important for their ecosystem


Luke Halpin, Monash University; Rohan Clarke, Monash University, and Rowan Mott, Monash UniversityGiant bird-eating centipedes may sound like something out of a science-fiction film — but they’re not. On tiny Phillip Island, part of the South Pacific’s Norfolk Island group, the Phillip Island centipede (Cormocephalus coynei) population can kill and eat up to 3,700 seabird chicks each year.

And this is entirely natural. This unique creature endemic to Phillip Island has a diet consisting of an unusually large proportion of vertebrate animals including seabird chicks.

Phillip Island in the Norfolk Island group, with a valley of iconic Norfolk Island Pine trees.
Luke Halpin

As large marine predators, seabirds usually sit at the top of the food chain. But our new study, published in The American Naturalist, demonstrates this isn’t always the case.

We show how large, predatory arthropods can play an important role in the food webs of island ecosystems. And the Phillip Island centipede achieves this through its highly varied diet.




Read more:
Ancient marvels: the first shell-crushing predators ground up their prey between their legs


A well-armed predator stirs in the night

This centipede can grow to almost one foot (or 30.5cm) in length. It is armed with a potent venom encased in two pincer-like appendages called “forcipules”, which it uses to immobilise its prey. Its body is protected by shield-like armoured plates that line each of the many segments that make up its length.

On warm and humid nights, these strictly nocturnal arthropods hunt through thick leaf litter, navigating a labyrinth of seabird burrows peppered across the forest floor. A centipede on the prowl will use its two ultra-sensitive antennae to navigate as it seeks prey.

The centipede hunts an unexpectedly varied range of quarry, from crickets to seabird chicks, geckos and skinks. It even hunts fish — dropped by seabirds called black noddies (Anous minuta) that make their nests in the trees above.

A frightful discovery

Soon after we began our research on the ecology of Phillip Island’s burrowing seabirds, we discovered chicks of black-winged petrels (Pterodroma nigripennis) were falling prey to the Phillip Island centipede.

We knew this needed further investigation, so we set out to unravel the mystery of this large arthropod’s dietary habits.

Black-winged petrel chick just prior to being weighed on Phillip Island.
Trudy Chatwin

To find out what these centipedes were eating, we studied their feeding activities at night and recorded the prey species they were targeting. We also monitored petrel chicks in their burrow nests every few days, for months at a time.

We eventually began to see consistent injury patterns among chicks that were killed. We even witnessed one centipede attacking and eating a chick.

From the rates of predation we observed, we calculated that the Phillip Island centipede population can kill and eat between 2,109 and 3,724 petrel chicks each year. The black-winged petrels — of which there are up to 19,000 breeding pairs on the island — appear to be resilient to this level of predation.

Envenomation of a black-winged petrel nestling by a Phillip Island centipede. (Video by Daniel Terrington)

And the predation of black-winged petrels by Phillip Island centipedes is an entirely natural predator-prey relationship. By preying on vertebrates, the centipedes trap nutrients brought from the ocean by seabirds and distribute them around the island.

In some sense, they’ve taken the place (or ecological niche) of predatory mammals, which are absent from the island.

Luke Halpin monitoring black-winged petrel chicks on Phillip Island.
Trudy Chatwin

Restoration and recovery

Up until just a few decades ago the Phillip Island Centipede was very rare. In fact, it was only formally described as a species in 1984.

After an intensive search in 1980, only a few small individuals were found. The species’s rarity back then was most likely due to severely degraded habitats caused by pigs, goats and rabbits introduced by humans to the island.

The removal of these invasive pests enabled black-winged petrels to colonise. Their population has since exploded and they’re now the most abundant of the 13 seabird species that breed on Phillip Island.

They provide a high-quality food source for the Phillip Island centipede and have therefore likely helped centipede population to recover.

Black-winged petrels on Phillip Island are active both during the day and at night. (Video by Luke Halpin)

Ancient bone deposits in the soil suggest that prior to the black-winged petrel’s arrival, Phillip Island was home to large numbers of other small burrow-nesting seabird species. It’s likely the Phillip Island centipede preyed on these seabirds too.

Now, thanks to the conservation efforts of Norfolk Island National Park, the island’s forest is regenerating alongside endemic species like the centipede, as well as the critically endangered Phillip Island hibiscus (Hibiscus insularis).

The endemic Phillip Island hibiscus.
Luke Halpin

As a driver of nutrient transfer, the persistence of the Phillip Island centipede (and its healthy appetite) might just be key to the island’s ecosystem recovery. But we’ll need to do more research to fully understand the intricate links in this bustling food web.




Read more:
These underwater photos show Norfolk Island reef life still thrives, from vibrant blue flatworms to soft pink corals


The Conversation


Luke Halpin, Ecologist, Monash University; Rohan Clarke, Director, Monash Drone Discovery Platform, and Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Monash University, and Rowan Mott, Biologist, Monash University

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

Victoria’s wild storms show how easily disasters can threaten our water supply


Ian Wright, Western Sydney UniversityThe wild storms that recently raged across eastern Victoria caused major property and environmental damage, and loss of lives. They’ve also triggered serious water contamination incidents.

Yarra Valley Water issued an urgent health warning to not to drink tap water — not even if it’s boiled — in three affected suburbs: Kalista, Sherbrooke and The Patch.

So what caused this incident? Yarra Valley Water says the severe weather led to an equipment failure, with potentially unsafe water entering the drinking water system.

I spoke to the water authority about the nature of the contamination, and they did not provide any more detail. But based on my three decades of experience in the water industry, I can offer some insight into how disasters create contamination crises, and Australia’s vulnerabilities.

Does boiling water help?

Despite recent health warnings, it’s worth pointing out that Australia’s water supply is generally safe and reliable, with few exceptions. Still, this is hardly the first time disasters have disrupted water supply, whether from droughts, storms and floods, or bushfires.

For example, the Black Summer bushfires damaged water supply infrastructure for many communities, such as in Eden and Boydtown on the south coast of New South Wales. The Bega Valley Shire Council issued a boil water notice, as the loss of electricity stopped chlorinating the water supply, which is needed to maintain safe disinfection levels.

Boil water alerts indicate harmful pathogens may be present in the water, and you should boil water for at least one minute to kill them.




Read more:
Better boil ya billy: when Australian water goes bad


In inland and remote communities, drinking water contamination can be more common and very difficult to resolve.

For example, many remote Western Australian towns have chronic water quality problems, with drinking water often failing to meet Australian standards. And in 2015, the WA Auditor General reported the water in many Indigenous communities contains harmful contaminants, such as uranium and nitrates.

The source of this contamination is often naturally occurring chemical compounds in the local geology of ground water supplies.

One of the biggest contamination incidents in Australia occurred in August and September in 1998. A series of extreme wet weather events after a long drought triggered the contamination of Sydney’s drinking water with high levels of protozoan parasites, which can cause serious diseases such as gastroenteritis or cryptosporidiosis. It resulted in boil water alerts across much of the Sydney metropolitan area.

But what makes this latest incident in Victoria so concerning is that authorities have warned even boiling will not reduce contamination. This suggests contamination may be due to the presence of a harmful chemical, or high levels of sediment particles.

Sediment in water — measured as “turbidity” — can be hazardous because these particles can hold other contaminants, or even shield pathogens from disinfection.

Yarra Valley Water’s advice for the affected suburbs is to avoid using water in any cooking, making ice, brushing teeth or mixing baby formula, and for people to take care not to ingest water in the shower or bath. Emergency drinking water is being supplied by Yarra Valley Water in some locations.

So why do disasters threaten our drinking water?

This latest incident is another reminder that our drinking water is vulnerable to disruption from extreme weather.

This is almost certain to continue, and worsen, as the the Bureau of Meterology’s State of the Climate 2020 report predicts more extreme weather — including drought, heatwaves, bushfires, storms, and floods — in Australia’s future.

As these disasters become more frequent and extreme under climate change, impacts on water supplies across Australia are likely to become more destructive.

A good example of how this can unfold was the impact on Canberra’s water supply after the destructive 2003 bushfires.

Fire burned most of the region’s Cotter River catchments, which hold three dams. After fires went out, massive storms eroded the weakened ground, and washed ash, soil and organic debris into the storage reservoirs. It took years for the water supply system to fully recover.

Physical damage to water infrastructure is also a big risk, as modern water supplies are large and complex. For example, a fallen tree could break open the roof of a sealed water storage tank, exposing water to the elements.

Interruptions of electrical supplies after extreme weather are also common, leading to failures of water supply technology. This, for instance, could stop a water pump from operating, or break down the telemetry system which helps control operations.

As difficult as these hits to Australia’s water security are, and will be in future, it’s even more problematic in the developing world, which may not have the resources to recover.

How can we withstand these challenges?

To maintain optimal water quality, we must protect the integrity of water catchments — areas where water is collected by the natural landscape.

For example, damaging logging operations along steep slopes in Melbourne’s biggest water catchment threatens to pollute the city’s drinking water because it increases the risk of erosion during storms.




Read more:
Logging must stop in Melbourne’s biggest water supply catchment


There’s also merit in Australian cities investing in advanced treatment of wastewater for reuse, rather than build infrequently used desalination plants for when there’s drought.

Australia could follow the US state of California which has ambitious targets to reuse more than 60% of its sewage effluent.

And it’s completely safe — Australia has developed guidelines to ensure recycled water is treated and managed to operate reliably and protect public health.




Read more:
Why does some tap water taste weird?


If you’re concerned about water quality from the tap and haven’t received any alerts, you might just not like its taste. If in doubt, contact you local water supplier.


This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. It is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay foundation. You can read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

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

Three weeks without electricity? That’s the reality facing thousands of Victorians, and it will happen again


James Ross/AAP

Anthony Richardson, RMIT UniversityLast week’s storm system wreaked havoc across Victoria. Some 220,000 households and businesses lost power, and residents in the hills on Melbourne’s fringe were warned yesterday it might not be restored for three weeks.

The extreme weather severely damaged the poles and powerlines that distribute electricity, particularly in the Mount Dandenong area. Senior AusNet official Steven Neave said of the region this week, “we basically have no network left, the overhead infrastructure is pretty much gone. It requires a complete rebuild”.

That leaves about 3,000 customers without electricity for weeks, in the heart of winter. The loss of power also cut mobile phone and internet services and reportedly allowed untreated water to enter drinking supplies.

So, could this disaster have been avoided? And under climate change, how can we prepare for more events like this?

fallen tree on powerlines
Fallen trees brought down power lines across Melbourne.
Daniel Pockett/AAP

An uncertain future

The Mount Dandenong area is heavily forested, and the chance of above-ground power infrastructure being hit by falling trees is obviously high.

Without electricity, people cannot turn on lights, refrigerate food or medications, cook on electric stoves or use electric heaters. Electronic banking, schooling and business activities are also badly disrupted. For vulnerable residents, in particular, the implications are profound.

Such disruptions are hard to avoid, at least while the electricity network is above ground. Good management, however, can prevent some trees coming down in storms.

The more pertinent question is: how can we prepare for such an event in the future?

Scientists warn such extreme weather will increase in both frequency and severity as climate change accelerates. The Australian Energy Market Operator is acutely aware of this, warning climate change poses “material risks to individual assets, the integrated energy system, and society”.

However, it’s challenging to predict exactly how future heatwaves, storms, bushfires and floods will affect the power network. As AEMO notes, many climate models related to storms and cyclones involve an element of unpredictability. So, plans to make the electricity system more resilient must address this uncertainty.

As researchers have noted, there is no “one future” to prepare for – we must be ready for many potential eventualities.




Read more:
Victoria’s wild storms show how easily disasters can threaten our water supply


tree fallen on house
Under climate change, extreme weather is predicted to become more severe.
Daniel Pockett/AAP

Yallourn – the bigger problem?

Meanwhile, in Victoria’s LaTrobe Valley, a situation at the Yallourn coal-fired power station which may have even greater consequences for electricity supplies.

A coal mine wall adjacent to the station is at risk of collapse after flooding in the Morwell River caused it to crack. If the wall is breached and the mine is flooded, as happened in 2012, there will be no coal to power the station and almost a quarter of Victoria’s power supply could be out for months.

Victoria’s energy needs are increasingly supplied by renewables. However, losing Yallourn’s generation capacity would reduce the capacity of the network to adapt to other possible disruptions.

If further disruptions seem unlikely, it’s worth noting the Callide Power Station in Queensland is still operating at reduced capacity after a recent fire.




Read more:
An act of God, or just bad management? Why trees fall and how to prevent it


power plant with chimneys
A wall adjacent to the Yallourn power plant may collapse.
Julian Smith/AAP

Look beyond the immediate crisis

The Victorian government has offered up to A$1,680 per week, for up to three weeks, to help families without power buy supplies and find alternative accommodation.

Welfare groups say the assistance could be improved. They have called for changes to make it quicker and easier for people to access money, cash injections to frontline charities and more temporary accommodation facilities for displaced people and their pets.

While no doubt needed, these are all reactive responses targeted at those without electricity. When any system is disrupted, however, the effects can be widespread and felt long after the initial problem has been addressed.

Take dairy farmers in Gippsland, for example, who could not milk their cows without electricity. Cows must be milked regularly or else they stop producing milk – they cannot be “switched back on” when electricity is restored. Longer-term assistance may well be required for farmers facing such ripple effects.

And as welfare groups have noted, power companies should support affected customers over the long-term, with electricity discounts, deferrals and payment plans.




Read more:
No food, no fuel, no phones: bushfires showed we’re only ever one step from system collapse


Sign reading 'power and shower'
Relief centres offer affected residents a hot shower and electricity access, but longer-term solutions are also needed.
Daniel Pockett/AAP

A call for backup

So, what else can be done to prepare for future power disruptions? Those with backup options, such as portable fuel-powered generators, or off-grid household batteries connected to solar panels, will undoubtedly be more resilient in such events.

These are examples of “system redundancy”, providing alternative electricity until the network is restored.

But it costs money to invest in household batteries or a generator that may never be used. Resilience is often a function of wealth, and the less well-off risk being left behind.

Certainly, governments can act to make society as a whole more resilient to power outages. For example, mobile phone towers have backup battery life of just 24 hours. As Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said this week, extending that is something authorities “need to look at”.

Power and communications infrastructure could be moved underground to protect it from storms. While such a move would be expensive, it has been argued not doing so will lead to greater long-term costs under a changing climate.

The recent challenges at Yallourn and Callide show the risks inherent in a centralised electricity network dominated by coal.

Certainly, integrating renewable energy sources into the power network comes with its own challenges. However, expanding energy storage such as batteries, or shifting to small, community-level microgrids will go a long way to improving the resilience of the system.

This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. It is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay Foundation. Find the series here.The Conversation

Anthony Richardson, Researcher and Teacher, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

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

Spiders are cloaking Gippsland with stunning webs after the floods. An expert explains why


Darren Carney

Lizzy Lowe, Macquarie UniversityStunning photographs of vast, ghostly spider webs blanketing the flood-affected region of Gippsland in Victoria have gone viral online, prompting many to muse on the wonder of nature.

But what’s going on here? Why do spiders do this after floods and does it happen everywhere?

The answer is: these webs have nothing to do with spiders trying to catch food. Spiders often use silk to move around and in this case are using long strands of web to escape from waterlogged soil.

This may seem unusual, but these are just native animals doing their thing. It’s crucial you don’t get out the insecticide and spray them. These spiders do important work managing pests, so by killing them off you would be increasing the risk that pests such as cockroaches and mosquitoes will get out of control.




Read more:
After the floods, stand by for spiders, slugs and millipedes – but think twice before reaching for the bug spray


Using silk to move around

What you’re seeing online, or in person if you live locally, is an amazing natural phenomena but it’s not really very complicated.

We are constantly surrounded by spiders, but we don’t usually see them. They are hiding in the leaf litter and in the soil.

Spider webs blanket the ground in Gippsland
When floods happen, spiders use silk to evacuate quickly.
Darren Carney

When these flood events happen, they need evacuate quickly up out of holes they live in underground. They come out en masse and use their silk to help them do that.

You’ll often see juvenile spiders let out a long strand of silk which is caught by the wind and lifted up. The web catches onto another object such as a tree and allows the spider to climb up.

That’s how baby spiders (spiderlings!) disperse when they emerge from their egg sacs — it’s called ballooning. They have to disperse as quickly as possible because they are highly cannibalistic so they need to move away from each other swiftly and find their own sites to hunt or build their webs.

Small spiders have been seen on a post in Gippsland after floods.
AAP Image/JEFF HOBBS

That said, I doubt these webs are from baby spiders. It is more likely to be a huge number of adult spiders, of all different types, sizes and species. They’re all just trying to escape the flood waters. These are definitely spiders you don’t usually see above ground so they are out of their comfort zone, too.

This mass evacuation of spiders, and associated blankets of silk, is not a localised thing. It is seen in other parts of Australia and around the world after flooding.

It just goes to show how versatile spider silk can be. It’s not just used for catching food, it’s also used for locomotion and is even used by some spiders to lay a trail so they don’t get lost.

Don’t spray them!

The most important thing I need readers to know is that this is not anything to be worried about. The worst thing you could do is get out the insecticide and spray them.

These spiders are making a huge contribution to pest control and you would have major pest problems if you get rid of all the spiders. The spiders will disperse on their own very quickly. In general, spiders don’t like being in close proximity to each other (or humans!) and they want to get back to their homes underground.

If you live in Gippsland, you probably don’t even need to clear the webs away with a broom. There’s no danger in doing so if you wish, but I am almost certain these webs will disperse on their own within days.

Until then, enjoy this natural spectacle. I wish I could come down to see them with my own eyes!




Read more:
City spiders are getting bigger — but that’s a good thing


The Conversation


Lizzy Lowe, Researcher, Macquarie University

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

A Victorian logging company just won a controversial court appeal. Here’s what it means for forest wildlife


Brendan Wintle, The University of Melbourne; Laura Schuijers, The University of Melbourne, and Sarah Bekessy, RMIT UniversityAustralia’s forest-dwelling wildlife is in greater peril after last week’s court ruling that logging — even if it breaches state requirements — is exempt from the federal law that protects threatened species.

The Federal Court upheld an appeal by VicForests, Victoria’s state timber corporation, after a previous ruling in May 2020 found it razed critical habitat without taking the precautionary measures required by law.

The ruling means logging is set to resume, despite the threats it poses to wildlife. At particular risk are the Leadbeater’s possum and greater glider — mammals highly vulnerable to extinction that call the forests home.

So let’s take a look at the dramatic implications for wildlife and the law in more detail.

Why is this ruling so significant?

The Federal Court agreed VicForest’s logging failed to meet its environmental legal requirements. In fact, the Federal Court dismissed every single ground of appeal but one. And it takes only one to win.

The ground that won the case was that the federal environmental law designed to protect threatened species — the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act — did not apply to the logging operations due to a forestry exemption.

To understand the significance of these issues, it’s important to know a bit about the context.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, forestry was passed to the states to regulate. So-called regional forest agreements (RFAs) were struck between federal and state governments. The idea was that forestry would be conducted under these state-led RFAs, avoiding federal scrutiny.

This was meant to streamline procedures, and offer a compromise between sometimes conflicting objectives: conservation and commercially profitable forestry.

However, states weren’t necessarily meant to have absolute control, and a check-and-balance system was put in place. If a logging operation doesn’t follow the RFA requirements, then the federal law is called in.

That way, states have control, but there’s a backup safety net for threatened species (which the federal government has an obligation to protect under international law).

This backup safety net is what the original case was testing. Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum sued VicForests, arguing the logging operations breached the Victorian RFA, and the organisation won the case.

In response to the original decision against VicForests, Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie introduced a private members bill, seeking to strengthen logging’s exemption from federal scrutiny.

If passed, the bill would make forestry activities within RFA areas exempt from scrutiny under the EPBC Act, regardless of whether they follow RFA rules.




Read more:
The Leadbeater’s possum finally had its day in court. It may change the future of logging in Australia


Both the court decision and the bill respond to a need for industry certainty and seek to minimise opportunities for legal action against logging under the EPBC Act. But they remove any certainty for environmental protection.

What does this mean for wildlife?

RFAs were established with the best of intentions. But unfortunately, they haven’t been working to protect wildlife — a point made clear in the EPBC Act’s recent ten-year independent review.

As former competition watchdog chair Professor Graeme Samuel, who led the review, said in his final report:

there are fundamental shortcomings in the interactions between RFAs and the EPBC Act.

The RFAs haven’t been updated as they were meant to be, despite dramatic changes in the environment, such as from mega-fires, and the warming and drying climate. These factors totally change the game for forestry and forest-dependent wildlife, such Leadbeater’s possum and the greater glider, which are declining dramatically.

We are currently experiencing a global mass extinction event, and Australia is a global extinction leader. Australia is responsible for 35% of all modern mammal extinctions globally and has seen an average decline of 50% in threatened bird populations since 1985.

Cutting down trees may seem insignificant to some, in the scheme of things. But small effects can accumulate into huge declines, like a death by a thousand cuts.

Both Leadbeater’s possum and the greater glider depend on large old trees with hollows (that take more than 100 years to develop) for shelter. Without many of these trees, they cannot survive.




Read more:
Comic explainer: forest giants house thousands of animals (so why do we keep cutting them down?)


Logging in Victoria has led to a decline in the number and extent of these particular trees, and reduces future large tree numbers. This makes the animals more vulnerable.

To avoid extinctions, we can’t afford to lose more ground by continuing practices that damage or remove habitat.

The writing is on the wall

But things could be changing soon. The Victorian government plans to ban native timber harvesting from 2030. This happens to be the same year a decades-old contract with a wood pulp and paper company expires, currently binding the state to provide pulp logs by a legislated supply agreement.

After 2030, paper, pulp, and timber products would be logged from plantations rather than native forests. The writing is already on the wall.

Protesters in a forest
An anti-logging protest in Toolangi State Forest in response to VicForests winning their appeal in the federal court.
Kira Whittaker

Whether it’s the federal or state governments in charge, forest management needs to be scientifically robust, with strong compliance, enforcement and governance. Otherwise, as we’ve seen, there’s a significant risk of slippage and loss of trust.

Even before the mega-fires of 2019-20, most Australians didn’t support native forest logging. After the fires, their worries increased, with a majority expressing concerns that Australia’s unique environment might never be the same.

And as a result of rising community expectations on how the environment is treated, some businesses have pivoted.




Read more:
Logged native forests mostly end up in landfill, not in buildings and furniture


Many companies now see being associated with environmentally poor outcomes as risky. Bunnings, for example, has already banned VicForests’ native timber. The World Economic Forum places biodiversity loss in the top five risks to the global economy. And a global taskforce is being established that could eventually see environmental disclosures as a new norm.

It’s clear the status quo has led to an alarming rate of species decline. This decline will only be locked in further if legal exemptions make it impossible to hold law-breakers to account.The Conversation

Brendan Wintle, Professor in Conservation Ecology, School of BioSciences, The University of Melbourne; Laura Schuijers, Research Fellow in Environmental Law, The University of Melbourne, and Sarah Bekessy, Professor in Sustainability and Urban Planning, Leader, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group (ICON Science), RMIT University

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

A great start, but still not enough: why Victoria’s new climate target isn’t as ambitious as it sounds


Anita Foerster, Monash University; Alice Bleby, UNSW, and Anne Kallies, RMIT UniversityIn a great start towards net zero emissions by 2050, the Victorian Government recently released their Climate Change Strategy, committing to halving greenhouse emissions by 2030.

Victoria’s leadership, alongside commitments from other Australian states and territories, stands in stark contrast to the poor climate performance of our federal government.

But is it enough? Climate scientists are urging Australia to do more to reduce emissions and to do it quicker if we’re going to avert dangerous global warming. In fact, a recent Climate Council report claims achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is at least a decade too late.

We think the Victorian government has the legal mandate to do more. But we also recognise that ambitious climate action at the state level is hindered by a lack of commitment at the federal level.

Using law to drive emissions reductions

Victoria’s new strategy was developed under the Climate Change Act 2017, state legislation requiring the government to set interim emissions reduction targets on the way to net zero by 2050.

It spreads the job of achieving these targets across the economy, with different ministers responsible for pledging emissions reductions actions and reporting on progress over time.

Laws like this are emerging around the world to set targets and hold governments accountable for delivering on them. They’re a key tool to deliver on international commitments under the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2℃.

Although Australia has set a national target for emissions reduction under the Paris Agreement, it’s widely considered to be inadequate, and there’s currently no framework climate law at the national level. Independent Zali Steggall introduced such a bill in 2020, but the Morrison government hasn’t supported it.

Victoria’s new strategy lacks detail

Victoria’s Climate Change Strategy contains many exciting climate policy announcements, including:

  • renewable energy zones and big batteries in the regions
  • all government operations including schools and hospitals powered by 100% renewables by 2025
  • targets and subsidies for electric vehicle uptake
  • commitments to support innovation in hard-to-abate sectors such as agriculture.

It also recognises the need to phase out natural gas and accelerate Victoria’s renewable hydrogen industry.

These policies are designed to reduce emissions while supporting economic growth and job creation. Yet they are scant on detail.

There’s heavy reliance on achieving emissions reductions in the energy sector — arguably, this is the low-hanging fruit. Policies in transport and agriculture are far less developed, with no quantification of targeted emissions reductions to 2030.

Cows in a paddock
Victoria has committed to support innovation in hard-to-abate sectors such as agriculture.
Shutterstock

This makes it difficult to assess whether the sector pledges will drive enough change to achieve the government’s interim targets (ambitious or otherwise) and support a trajectory to net zero.

It has taken several years to develop the Climate Change Strategy. This makes the lack of detail and the undeveloped nature of some pledges a big concern.

There are also few safeguards in the Climate Change Act to ensure pledges add up to achieving targets, or that ministers across sectors deliver on them. Much depends on the political will of the government of the day.

Why Victoria’s targets aren’t enough

The Victorian Government proposes targets to reduce emissions by 28–33% on 2005 levels by 2025, and by 45–50% on 2005 levels by 2030.

The government claims these targets are ambitious. Compared to current federal government targets, this is true.




Read more:
Australia’s states are forging ahead with ambitious emissions reductions. Imagine if they worked together


However, the target ranges are lower than those recommended in 2019 by the Independent Expert Panel, established under the Climate Change Act to advise the government on target setting.

The panel recommended targets of 32–39% by 2025 and 45–60% by 2030 as Victoria’s “fair share” contribution to limiting warming to well below 2℃ in accordance with Paris Agreement goals. And it acknowledged these recommended ranges still wouldn’t be enough to keep warming to 1.5℃, in the context of global efforts.

Solar panels on a roof
Reducing emissions in the energy sector is low-hanging fruit.
Shutterstock

Ultimately, Victoria’s targets don’t match what scientists are now telling us about the importance of cutting emissions early to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

A pragmatic approach or a missed opportunity?

In setting the targets, the state government has clearly taken a politically pragmatic approach.

The government claims the targets are achievable and suggests they would’ve set more ambitious targets if the federal government made a stronger commitment to climate action.

Yes, the current lack of climate ambition at the federal level in Australia is a very real constraint on progress in some areas such as energy, where a coordinated approach is crucial. But this shouldn’t outweigh aligning to best available science.

State governments have many regulatory, policy and economic levers at their disposal, with opportunities to drive significant change and innovation. And Victoria has already demonstrated strong progress in emissions reduction and renewables in the energy sector, easily meeting and exceeding previous targets.

Under the Climate Change Act, the Victorian Government will need to set new, more ambitious targets in five years.

But waiting five years goes against Victoria’s aim to lead the nation on climate action and contribute fairly to global efforts to mitigate global warming. More ambitious, science-aligned targets now would’ve been a valuable signal for industry and a sign of real climate leadership.

We need stronger laws

Without doubt, the new Climate Change Strategy is a significant step forward on an issue that’s plagued Australian politics for years. Victoria has showed framework climate laws can drive government action on climate change.




Read more:
Conservative but green independent MP Zali Steggall could break the government’s climate policy deadlock


But there are also opportunities to bolster the Climate Change Act by aligning targets to science, strengthening legal obligations to drive timely progress, and including an ongoing role for independent experts to advise on target setting and oversee progress.

Finally, it’s important to get on with the job at a federal level.

Zali Steggall’s Climate Change Bill 2020 picks up on best practice climate laws from around the world. It’s also supported by industry groups and investors.

Victoria’s experience suggests it’s surely time for Australia to take this important step.The Conversation

Anita Foerster, Senior Lecturer, Monash University; Alice Bleby, PhD Candidate, UNSW, and Anne Kallies, Senior Lecturer, RMIT University

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

‘We know our community better than they do’: why local knowledge is key to disaster recovery in Gippsland


Shutterstock

Celeste Young, Victoria University and Roger Jones, Victoria UniversityOvercoming the odds is second nature to the Gippsland community. The people in this region have seen it all — fires, floods, droughts and extreme weather. And every time, these capable, resourceful and independent communities bounce back.

However, recovery from bushfires of the 2019/2020 Black Summer followed by the COVID-19 pandemic has been different.

Even before these events, we were researching vulnerability to natural hazards, risk ownership and diversity and inclusion nationally as part of our work with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.

Through a mix of interviews, focus groups and surveys, we sought insights about communities, how they recover after disaster and what factors have the greatest impact. We focused on community strengths and how to build on them.

Our recently released report, Growing the seeds: recovery, strength and capability in Gippsland communities, highlights that recovery is often non-linear. It’s not just the damage to infrastructure, houses, environment and farmland that makes recovery difficult; the emotional and physical toll is often gruelling as well.

The report identifies several opportunities for change, including the need for a long-term plan (five years minimum) for building community emergency management capability in the region — well before the next disaster strikes.

Our research highlights recovery is often non-linear, an observation well supported by other research in this field.
Growing the seeds report.

A brutal time

The 2019–20 fires damaged over half of the East Gippsland Shire, an area of over
1.16 million hectares. Over 400 dwellings and businesses were lost and four people lost their lives. Areas like Mallacoota were at acute risk. In some areas, communities were under threat for weeks and evacuated repeatedly, exhausting them before the recovery process began.

Then, the pandemic hit, disrupting the established pattern of recovery where people get together to make sense of what has happened and start to rebuild their communities. One person describe the timing as “brutal”. Another said:

When the fires happened, you had a couple of amazing people who stepped up, opened the hall, and everyone was coming in, and they started doing Friday night dinners and everyone was there. There were 200-odd people every Friday night and then COVID ended it.

Via online community consultations, interviews and focus groups, we asked community members to identify strengths that supported recovery and opportunities for change.

We also surveyed 614 people during October 2020 in fire-affected regions of Victoria and New South Wales, with 31% of respondents coming from Victoria and 69% from NSW.

When asked what strengths their community showed following the bushfires, they included generosity and kindness (69%), resilience (61%) and active volunteering (59%).


Growing the seeds report., Author provided

When asked to identify the main challenges since the bushfire, COVID was named as the main challenge (49%), followed by damage to the environment (39%), anxiety (31%) and overall fatigue (26%).


Growing the seeds report., Author provided

The combination of bushfires and the pandemic also created economic risks and disrupted supply chains. Small businesses make up 98% of the local economy, and many are heavily reliant on tourism.

Recovering through community strength and capability

Many of the strengths needed to drive recovery and resilience are already at the heart of these communities. These capabilities are more diverse and widespread than is often assumed.

There is considerable wealth and capacity in some areas, but also a high level of social and economic vulnerability, with some living hand-to-mouth.

There is significant local knowledge of risk management and recovery, which is often overlooked by experts coming in from outside. As one person told us:

You’ve got bureaucracy coming in from Melbourne who think that we’re just a bunch of country bumpkins who don’t quite know what we’re doing, yet we know our community better than they do.

Volunteer and informal economies are significant and underpin community resilience. Yet formal recovery strategies don’t target these areas very well; some people in the informal economy found they did not qualify for economic or business support at all.

The JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs helped maintain employment (albeit at levels of productivity that were lower than in the past). JobKeeper has now ended but support is still needed to boost productivity and help the local economy recover.

We also found:

  • government and some supporting agencies often lacked knowledge about the cultural, physical and social structures of different communities
  • some policies had perverse effects (for example, the HomeBuilder grant resulted in a lack of available builders)
  • programs and communication were often not tailored and did not accommodate the diverse needs of communities or specific cohorts within them
  • a lack of clarity as to what role the community have in response and recovery, and what risks they are responsible for
  • short-term allocation of resources and funding sometimes created an environment of uncertainty; for example, some participants raised concerns vulnerable community members may at risk when contracts for certain programs ran out, as the service offered would either cease or be led by a new contract-holder. As one person told us:

You can’t just bring someone in now and go, ‘Here you go, you take over all my people’, because the relationships and the trust that you build over this time, it’s not something you can hand over to someone else.

Knowing community strengths and supporting them

Recovery processes will never be perfect and we can also no longer assume communities will have time to recover from one disaster before the next arrives. As one person said:

People are suffering collective trauma, which creates anxiety and irritability. So, it is going to be difficult to move forward and I believe [name removed] will be a really changed place, this is something that will echo up and down along all fire-ravaged communities.

In natural hazard prone areas like Gippsland, it’s crucial to know what strengths already exist in the community so they can be harnessed when disaster hits. In other words, we need to find ways to support and grow community capabilities.

Listening to communities

It’s crucial communities, governments and the emergency services have a shared understanding of what the priorities are after a disaster and what can be realistically achieved.

A database of community capabilities would support more effective planning, policy-making and program development, as would a longer term collaborative project to identify and develop community capability.

Through listening to these communities we can learn from their experiences and support the development of community-led pathways to recovery.




Read more:
More than a decade after the Black Saturday fires, it’s time we got serious about long-term disaster recovery planning


If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone
you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.
The Conversation

Celeste Young, Collaborative Research Fellow, Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities (ISILC), Victoria University and Roger Jones, Professorial Research Fellow, Victoria University

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

Victoria’s new feral horse plan could actually protect the high country. NSW’s method remains cruel and ineffective


Shutterstock

Don Driscoll, Deakin UniversityFeral horses are a catastrophic problem for the environment, particularly in the high country that crosses the New South Wales and Victoria border. To deal with this growing issue, the Victorian government has released a draft feral horse action plan, which is open for comment until April 23.

It comes after Victoria’s old action plan from 2018 proved ineffective, with feral horse numbers increasing in the most recent counts in 2019. This is similar to New South Wales’ current performance, where feral horses are legally protected and numbers are essentially unmanaged.

This new Victorian plan has flaws, but it’s still likely to perform better than the old plan (and the very low benchmark set by NSW), as it generally aims to deploy evidence-based management of national parks.

As Victoria gets on top of its feral horse problem, NSW will be left further behind with a degrading environment and rising costs of horse management.

The feral horse threat

Feral horses degrade ecosystems and threaten native Australian species with their heavy trampling and excessive grazing. They damage waterways and streamside vegetation which, in turn, threatens species that live in and alongside the streams, such as the alpine spiny crayfish, the alpine water skink and the Tooarrana broad-toothed rat. All of these are threatened species.

Damage from feral horses could worsen as ecosystems recover from the extensive 2019-20 eastern Australian bushfires. Horse grazing could delay animals’ habitat recovery and horse trampling could exacerbate stream degradation after fires.

In fact, there are 24 species that need protection from feral horses after the fires, as identified by the Australian government’s wildlife and threatened species bushfire recovery expert panel in September.

All of this ecosystem destruction translates into substantial economic costs. Frontier Economics released a report in January this year showing the potential benefits of horse control in Kosciuszko National Park was A$19-50 million per year. The benefits accrue through improved recreational opportunities, improved water quality and reduced car crashes involving feral horses.

In contrast, horse control could cost as little as A$1 million per year and up to $71 million, depending on the methods used. Frontier Economics concluded the costs that are incurred by keeping feral horses far outweigh the cost of eradication.

Alpine water skink
Alpine water skinks are among the vulnerable native species threatened by feral horses.
DEPI/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Victoria’s new feral horse plan

The draft Victorian feral horse action plan aims to:

  1. remove isolated populations on the Bogong High Plains within three years and prevent new populations from establishing
  2. contain and reduce feral horses in the eastern Alps by removing 500 horses in the first year
  3. use the most humane, safe and effective horse control methods.

The first aim makes complete sense. Removing small populations will always be more humane, cheaper and better for the environment than leaving them uncontrolled.

The second aim is perplexing. Based on 2019 surveys, the draft action plan says there are approximately 5,000 horses in the eastern Alps and the population is growing at 15% per year. If the government continues to remove 500 horses per year after the first year, it could see the population rise to more than 9,000 over ten years, despite culling 5,000 horses in that time.




Read more:
Double trouble as feral horse numbers gallop past 25,000 in the Australian Alps


In contrast, removing 2,000 horses per year could see the population controlled within three years. Reducing horse numbers rapidly results in the fewest horses having to be culled in the long term.

The third aim of the Victorian draft action plan gives appropriate and strong emphasis to animal welfare. Controlling horse numbers can be morally challenging, and requires a clear understanding of the trade-offs.

Without horse control, native animals are killed when their habitat is destroyed, unique Australian ecosystems are degraded, horses themselves starve or die of thirst in droughts, and the economic costs of inaction escalate. To avoid these costs, horse numbers must be reduced by culling.

This is the grim reality, but with careful attention to animal welfare, the draft strategy will ensure horse control is managed humanely, with control methods based on evidence rather than hyperbole.

Money wasting in NSW

Victoria’s plan is in stark contrast to the NSW government’s approach. In 2018, the NSW government passed the so-called “brumby bill”, which protects feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park.




Read more:
Passing the brumby bill is a backward step for environmental protection in Australia


The current method of control in NSW is to capture the horses and transport them to an abattoir if they cannot be re-homed. But evidence shows culling has fewer animal welfare concerns than this method.

And in the latest round of money-wasting horse management, the NSW government trapped 574 horses over the past year, but released 192 females and foals back into the park. If the program is aimed at reducing horse numbers, releasing the most fertile animals back into the population is counter-productive.

Regenerating plants and burnt trees in fire-damaged alpine region
Feral horses are exacerbating the damage from recent bushfires in the High Country.
Shutterstock

What’s more, removing 300-400 horses per year has little impact on overall numbers. There are around 14,000 horses in Kosciuszko National Park, with a growth rate of 23% per year. This means more than 3,000 horses must be removed just to prevent the population from getting bigger.

The high country without feral horses

If the Victorian draft plan can be improved to invest in rapid horse reduction and ecosystem restoration, we can expect to see quagmires created by trampling horses return to functioning ecosystems and the recovery of threatened species.

Stream banks can be stabilised and then dense grass tussocks and sedges will return, creating homes for threatened skinks, crayfish and the Tooarrana broad-toothed rat.

While Kosciuszko’s alpine ecosystems continue to decline under the NSW government’s political impasse, the Victorian Alps will become the favoured destination for tourists who want to see Australia’s nature thriving when they visit national parks.




Read more:
To fix Australia’s environment laws, wildlife experts call for these 4 changes — all are crucial


The Conversation


Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University

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

Open data shows lightning, not arson, was the likely cause of most Victorian bushfires last summer



Tracy Nearmy/AAP

Dianne Cook, Monash University

As last summer’s horrific bushfires raged, so too did debate about what caused them. Despite the prolonged drought and ever worsening climate change, some people sought to blame the fires largely on arson.

Federal Coalition MPs were among those pushing the arsonist claim. And on Twitter, a fierce hashtag war broke out: “#ClimateEmergency” vs “#ArsonEmergency”.

Fire authorities rejected the arson claims, saying most fires were thought to be caused by lightning.

We dug into open data resources to learn more about the causes of last summer’s bushfires in Victoria, and further test the arson claim. Our analysis suggests 82% of the fires can be attributed to lightning, 14% to accidents and 1% to burning off. Only 4% can be attributed to arson.

Lightning in the sky
Lightning, not arson, caused most Victorian bushfires last summer.
Twitter

What we did

We started with hotspots data taken from the Himawari-8 satellite, which shows heat source locations over time and space, in almost real time. We omitted hotspots unlikely to be bushfires, and used a type of data mining called “spatiotemporal clustering” – where time dimension is introduced to geographic data – to estimate ignition time and location.

We supplemented this with data from other sources: temperature, moisture, rainfall, wind, sun exposure, fuel load, as well as distance to camp sites, roads and Country Fire Authority (CFA) stations.




Read more:
Bushfires, bots and arson claims: Australia flung in the global disinformation spotlight


Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) holds historical data on bushfire ignition from 2000 to the 2018-19 summer. The forensic research required to determine fire cause is laborious, and remotely sensed data from satellites may be useful and more immediate.

By training our model on the historical data, we can more immediately predict causes of last summer’s fires detected from satellite data. (Note: even though we were analysing events in the past, we use the term “predict” because authorities have not released official data.)

DELWP’s data attributes 41% of fires to lightning, 17% to arson, 34% to accidents and 7% to hazard reduction or back burning which escaped containment lines (which our analysis refers to as burning off).

Causes of fires from 2000-2019. Lightning is most common cause. The number of fires is increasing, and this is mostly due to accidents.
Own work

To make predictions for the 2019-20 bushfires, we needed an accurate model for causes in the historical data. We trained the model to predict one of four causes – lightning, accident, arson, burning off – using a machine learning algorithm.

The model performed well on the historical data: 75% overall accuracy, 90% accurate on lightning, 78% for accidents, and 54% for arson (which was mostly confused with accident, as would make sense).

The most important contributors to distinguishing between lightning and arson (or accident) ignition were distance to CFA stations, roads and camp sites, and average wind speed.

As might be expected, smaller distances to CFA stations, roads and camp sites, and higher than average winds, meant the fire was most likely the result of arson or accident. In the case of longer distances, where bush would have been largely inaccessible to the public, lightning was predicted to be the cause.

Spatial distribution of causes of fires from 2000-2019, and predictions for 2019-2020 season.
Own work

What we found

Our model predicted that 82% of Victoria’s fires in the summer of 2019-2020 were due to lightning. Most fires were located in densely vegetated areas inaccessible by road – similar to the historical locations. (The percentage is double that in the historical data, though, probably because the satellite hotspot data can see fire ignitions in locations inaccessible to fire experts).

All fires in February 2020 were predicted to be due to lightning. Accident and arson were commonly predicted causes in March, and early in the season. Reassuringly, ignition due to burning off was predicted primarily in October 2019, prior to the fire restrictions.

Spatio-temporal distribution of cause predictions for 2019-2020 season. Reassuringly, fires due to burning off primarily occurred in October, prior to fire restrictions. February fires were all predicted to be due to lightning.
Own work

Quicker fire ignition information

Our analysis used open-data and open-source software, and could be applied to fires elsewhere in Australia.

This analysis shows how we can quickly predict causes of bushfires, using satellite data combined with other information. It could reduce the work of fire forensics teams, and provide more complete fire ignition data in future.

The code used for the analysis can be found here. Explore the historical fire data, predictions for 2019-2020 fires, and a fire risk map for Victoria using this app.


This analysis is based on thesis research by Monash University Honours student Weihao Li. She was supervised by the author, and former Principal Inventive Scientist at AT&T Labs Research, Emily Dodwell. The Australian Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers supported Emily’s travel to Australia to start this project. The full analysis is available here.

The Conversation

Dianne Cook, Professor of Business Analytics, Monash University

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