Australia’s Commonwealth Coat of Arms depicts two iconic native animals – the kangaroo and the emu. Both are unquestionably fair dinkum Aussies, unique to this continent and having lived here for a very long time. A “very long time”, according to Australian legislation (the EPBC Act 1999), is any species having been present since before the year 1400.
But in Western Australia, under the state’s Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, no native animal is guaranteed protection. The Act includes a caveat whereby the relevant minister may determine that a native species is in fact, not.
This week, WA’s environment minister Stephen Dawson did just that, declaring that from January 1, 2019, the dingo, Australia’s native canine, will no longer be classified as native fauna.
The dingo does meet the federal government’s criterion, having lived in Australia as a wild canid for an estimated 5,000 years. But under the planned changes in WA, the dingo will lose its current listing as “unprotected fauna”, and will from next year be considered indistinguishable from either the common domestic dog or feral dogs.
But this ability to hybridise is also one of the main justifications cited by the WA government in its decision to revoke the dingo’s citizenship (the fact sheet has since been removed from the website, but can be accessed here). The rationale is that if dingoes and dogs are technically the same species, why should dingoes get special treatment?
However, the biological species concept is problematic when applied to canids. If you lump dingoes and dogs together because they readily interbreed, then logically we must do the same for wolves, coyotes, jackals or other canids that can also interbreed (and have done for millenia).
It’s hard to imagine anyone seriously suggesting that a grey wolf and a pug are the same species. This suggests that this criterion alone is insufficient to solve the conundrum. Indeed, there are at least 32 different species concepts, clearly illustrating the difficulty of defining a single rule by which all organisms should abide.
Despite this, a recent paper that argues the biological species concept should be applied to dingoes, was cited as supporting evidence by the WA government. Adopting this narrow interpretation of taxonomy is perhaps somewhat premature. It ignores other investigations that provide evidence to the contrary. Given the contention around defining species, it seems unwise to determine the species status of dingoes independently of other, more comprehensive evidence and argument.
All canids share similarities, but their differences are also many and marked. The dingo can be distinguished from other dogs in various ways: their appearance, anatomy, behaviour, their role in ecosystems, and their genetics (their evolutionary history and degree of relatedness to other species). Dingoes seem to be largely devoid of many of the signs of domestication.
It is therefore reasonable for the dingo to be considered separately from wolves and domestic dogs, while also acknowledging that they all occupy the same broad species classification, Canis lupus.
Having lived in Australia as free-living, wild populations for around 5,000 years almost exclusively under the forces of natural selection, and separately from any other dog lineage until European arrival, there is no notion of the dingo as a domestic animal gone feral. To classify dingoes as nothing more than “feral domestic dogs” expunges their unique, long and quintessentially wild history. Dingoes are not ecologically interchangeable with any other type of dog, either wild or domesticated.
Labelling the dingo as a feral domestic dog changes their legal status and removes any current obligations for developing appropriate management plans. This demotion of status could lead to intensified lethal control. Indeed, control may even be legally mandated.
Given WA’s remoteness, it remains one of the few bastions of pure dingoes, and as such it presents an opportunity to seek ways to protect them rather than pave the way for their removal. The WA government’s decision also sets a dangerous precedent for the management of dingoes, and indeed other contentious native wildlife, elsewhere in Australia.
How we choose to classify plants and animals might sound like dry science. But it has genuine implications for policy, management and conservation. Our scientific naming systems are vital for helping to organise and understand the rich biological diversity with which we share the planet, but it is important to remember that these systems are informed not just by biology but also by our values.
The West Australian government has committed to pursuing a World Heritage listing for the rock art of Murujuga. Murujuga is the Aboriginal name for the Dampier Archipelago and the Burrup Peninsula in north west WA and is home to at least a million individual works of art.
Australia has some of the world’s richest and most diverse rock art. While rock art is found all around the globe, Australia is relatively unique because here there are still cultural connections between rock art and the people who created it.
At present, Australia has only three cultural World Heritage sites (of which only one – Kakadu – is listed for rock art). In contrast, France has over 30 World Heritage-listed rock art sites.
I and my colleague Peter Veth have argued that Murujuga rock art meets three criteria for outstanding universal value: because of the creative genius and skill of the artwork; the extraordinarily old and continuous engraving tradition; and the combined cultural landscapes of the area, including quarries, living sites, and shell middens.
These illustrate significant transitions in human history in the face of major changes in sea level and surrounding environment.
Animals no longer found
When people first started using this landscape 50,000 years ago, it was located around 100 km from the coast. It was wetter and warmer than it is now – and the archaeological record of the coastal plain at this time demonstrates an entire group of animals no longer found in this part of Australia. Murujuga’s artists painted some of these animals, such as crocodiles.
Then, during the last ice age (between 30,000 and 18,000 years ago), the coastline was even further away (160 km). People were were living in the Murujuga Ranges at this time. There are a number of paintings of animals that are now extinct, such as thylacines and a fat-tailed species of kangaroo, which testify to the changing environment.
Then, as the ice caps melted and the sea level rose, people became more concentrated on the new coastal landscape. Recent studies across the archipelago have demonstrated the scientific significance of the outer and inner islands of this cultural land and seascape.
Dugong, turtles and fish
Around 8,000 years ago, people began to construct houses. Art production at this time was in full swing. The most recent rock art includes dugong, turtles, fish as well as the small rock wallabies and quolls that now live on the islands.
As well as houses there are myriad stone arrangements, standing stones and terraces. This is a monumental hunter-gatherer-fisherperson landscape, which rivals the period in Europe when people were constructing stone monuments such as Stonehenge (except in Europe this occurred thousands of years later).
The artworks in Murujuga were made on the rocks using stone tools. Together they show how people have been living in the region for thousands of years, first as hunter-gatherers, and later with a focus on fishing.
This rock art is still associated with contemporary traditions, ideas, and belief systems of traditional custodians. It is the widely-held belief that many Murujuga engravings represent and embody ancestral beings (Marga), while some of the standing stones are thalu sites, critical for the regeneration of key species such as a range of fish, birds and kangaroo, and even sandflies.
Five local Aboriginal groups hold native title in lands next to the archipelago – the Ngarluma, Yindjibarndi, Yaburara, Mardudhunera and Wong-gg-tt-too. Together, they are represented by Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, which jointly manages Murujuga National Park with the WA state government. The peninsula and the islands are also listed as having National Heritage values. This listing excludes parts of the peninsula that have been previously damaged by industry.
National Heritage listing paves the way for Murujuga to become a World Heritage site. Recently, traditional custodians and others came together for a summit in Karratha and concluded resoundingly that World Heritage listing would be appropriate for Murujuga, and that it would help protect this extraordinary place.
Yesterday’s announcement is a significant moment for WA – which doesn’t have any Aboriginal cultural sites listed as World Heritage. And for the traditional custodians, it is the next step in their quest for recognition and greater protection of this place’s special significance.
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Placing Murujuga on the Tentative List is the beginning of the formal process to achieve World Heritage status. This will still take several years, but as the CEO of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, Peter Jeffries, said yesterday, the traditional owners are now driving the process.
The bird seen first time here
in forty years sings lightly
on the wire, you turn to touch
the shoulder of a friend
and turning back together
find nothing but sky
and wire trembling.
Brushtail possum evidenced. We had not seen one here in nine years, and there might not have been a sighting long before this. But there might have been. A possum or possums may have been driven out, removed from the roof cavity — there are, sadly, people who will do this and then exterminate them. But this too is conjecture, we’re only going here on the general condition of the bush block when we arrived — the 170 years of colonial erosion, the running of cattle and sheep and horses, the fencing, cropping (to a lesser extent because we are on the rocky northern face of a valley — that happens on the other side of the hills, a couple of kilometres away), and the machinery of colonial domestic presence — house, sheds, driveway, firebreaks.
Once, this area in the Western Australian wheatbelt, like nearby Goomalling (“Place of possums”), was prime habitat for brushtail possums. Even now residual and remnant York gum and jam tree woodland, granite boulders and granite outcrops, in patches of greater and lesser density, provide enough for native fauna to retain a hold.
Since we’ve been at Jam Tree Gully, we have removed internal fences, planted trees and — through not farming animals — allowed the beginning of a return of undergrowth. It’s an agonisingly slow process; this year is the first in nine years that we have actually seen, through self-generation, the reappearance of the shy sun orchid (a single example), scarlet runner (running postman) and a native fern.
I am talking about Ballardong Noongar boodja (country), and not “ours” but by the colonial reality of surveys and land titles, “allocated” as our domestic jurisdiction, the act of survey and property hierarchising entitlement (though mining companies believe they have even more entitlement than that, as, of course, does the state, as anyone can tell you who had “their” land reclaimed as part of the Cathedral Avenue widening of the road from York to Quairading and the destruction of hundreds of old-growth salmon gums, wandoos and York gums). As far as I and my family are concerned, we have an obligation to return this land to a health that though distant from its pre-colonial state of health, at least gestures towards it.
One of the dominant linguistic behaviours of our family residency in the area, of our presence, is to discuss what other living things we see every day, and how they relate to the country we see them on. Our son Tim, an avid birdwatcher and naturalist, walks the block every day and reports back, verbally and on film, about what he’s observed. These are intricate and informed observations, cross-referenced with what is likely to be seen, differences in, say, behaviour (mating plumage, nesting processes, shifts in song, etc), numbers, and implication. Like his parents, Tim sees language as part of presence, and these observations are an essential part of his own poetry-making.
Similarly, I spend my time out on the block doing restorative tasks and acts, and working their language into the matrix of my writing. The language is in flux because rather than a taxonomy, a nomenclature of seeing and presence, what happens is that experience of habitat loss, and attempts at habitat restoration, place words, syntax and utterance as we have it under pressure.
Something else emerges, an active language of presence that needs to critique the ironies of its own impact, of its own vicarious (and direct) participation in the ongoing dynamics of dispossession and acquisition.
Neologisms and new nomenclature might be one outcome, but more often it’s a shift in what constitutes the observing eye and voice, what makes the self in the process. In poetics, we talk about the “I” in the context of the unified self and challenging the primacy of personal observation when language itself creates at the very least a simulacrum of self in which the poem is a cybernetic producer of opinions, surprise correlations and yokings, undoings and interjections. The poem itself is alive — made by the writer, it takes on a life of its own.
So, does this mean I am suggesting the poem itself, for example, channels the disturbances and distresses of country? Well, yes, up to a point.
The wasp making its mud cells and inserting caterpillars or spiders, stunned but alive with a wasp egg laid inside their bodies, to be eaten alive — in a state of life suspended — by wasp grubs, which break out of their dark cells into the light.
It’s a poem that needs no explanation if “made” — it works on levels of allegory, symbol, a glimpse of habitat, and so on. Or maybe something a little more acceptable to a readership which ultimately looks for affirmation of connection with the natural world while benefiting from capitalist exploitation of place (look around us), an echidna moving rapidly downhill, its quills liquid in the fractured light of late afternoon sun streaming over the rim of valley, through the York gum canopy.
We don’t see echidnas often here, but we see evidence of their diggings for ants and termites almost daily. And we see their scats. In fact, coming across scats is how we identify so much, including the brushtail possum. Scats, footprints, scratchings and sounds, especially at night. These languages are outside direct encounter, and often outside a description we might offer. Echidna sightings are coming less often, though evidence of their presence remains strong.
The poem interprets this as avoidance and strategy on the part of the echidna — we respect the not-seeing, and delight in the evidence of presence. Same with kangaroos. But in the case of eagles, the (illegal) killing of an eagle in a pair that were resident for many, many years, is an undoing that is hard to resolve under habitat-loss pressure. It is brutal. But writing about this loss, about the wrong done, cannot be a fait accompli — it must believe in the imagined presence as likely “return” as species, at least.
All life we see on the block is vulnerable to human violence — thrill-killings of animals are sadly not uncommon, and there seems a strong link between far-right politics of patriotism and shooting around the district.
Scramble-biking, bush-bashing and remorseless clearing are changing habitat around the zone we “protect” at a far greater pace than when we arrived. It’s easy to use the “fly-in fly-out” dynamic as a distraction for the massive abuse that mining is in Australia, and to separate social issues of employment and purpose when discussing the obvious (“clear-cut”) environmental abuses of miners and their protectors, but nonetheless it is a real impact on ecologies that needs to be factored in.
The psychology of the mine
The impact of flying, the obvious impacts of the mines themselves, but also the psychology of purchasing a country property within a couple of hours’ reach of the city airport to use as a base. So many of the farmlets and blocks around where we live appear to have been bought by FIFO (fly in fly out) workers (real estate ads often overtly pitch to FIFO buyers, and I offer anecdotal evidence of conversations direct and indirect with and involving neighbours), and in many circumstances the psychology of the mine looks as if it has been brought to those blocks — substantial bush clearing, clear indifference to wildlife, and a psychology of control, ownership and what manifests by intent or default as a disrespect of Aboriginal land rights.
Of course, such attitudes to country are not unique to FIFO miners, far from it, and they have found around them a context of receptivity to such ways. And I do not blame the individual miners for this per se, but I do blame the mining companies and those who facilitate the abuses of land by those miners. A work psychology too readily becomes a life psychology.
In creating writing that acts as witness to species loss, we too easily become contributors to the archive, to the seedbank of metaphors that substitute for the real thing. It’s like repugnant natural history collections that give us a record of so many lost species when the very process of collecting has been a part of that species loss. Science bears many moral ironies that I feel an active, restorative poem should not. I am not saying a poem shouldn’t ironise the limitations of its own production, its impacts on ecologies; in fact, the opposite. I am saying it should be aware of them and critique its own role in the destruction.
A poem having a role in destruction? I hear you wonder. How so? Because industrialised consumer life is impacting and many, even the most environmentally-minded, make their art through the tools of exploitation.
It becomes a question of genuinely weighing up the cost in terms of the benefit to the environment. Does getting the message out there regarding habitat destruction cost more morally and literally than not doing so? The notion of “costs” needs to be placed under pressure before we begin. An economics of the figurative needs to be held accountable, scrutinised.
Which brings me back to the language of participation, observation and instruction I intimated when talking of our son Tim and writing what’s happening on the block. My partner Tracy and I are often confronted with the horror of having to say, “We saw a lot of those (birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, trees, shrubs, flowers etc) when we were kids, but not often now, or not at all.”
In many cases, flora and fauna we knew as children are now endangered or verging on extinction, not only within the physical areas with which we were most familiar, but across their range.
An example is the brown bittern, which I used to see and hear as a child when around swampy areas, and which is now almost extinct, certainly in the Northam region. Yet Tracy and I, travelling with Tim, had the remarkable experience of very likely seeing (unconfirmed sighting) a black or brown bittern between Toodyay and Perth last year. Tim, a most observant person, didn’t see it because he was studying something else outside the opposite window, and has been quizzing us about the sighting ever since. He has done a vast amount of research, and we have considered all other possibilities (too big for a little bittern, not the right size and shape for a night heron, a bird I know well), and so on. It was really, a notifiable sighting. Not in the sense of an “invasive species” (the irony!), but as an almost extinct species.
Would such notification lead to an invasiveness that affected its habitat more, or would it lead to protection? I consider recent sightings of night parrots in northern Australia, and wonder. The “understanding” to “save” can be so destructive — life, persisting against the odds, suddenly disturbed, fetishised, made vulnerable with over-attention. The “leave alone and stay away” approach can often be more effective. At least until the bulldozers arrive, which I’ve learnt over my life is eventually.
So, what do we do? Write a poem of resistance, of embodying the bird but not appropriating it in a poem, of keeping an eye on habitat and acting if it looks under threat?. Where a creature once was, a creature might be. Belonging and the marks of the endemic cannot be erased entirely with all the brutal means of survey and development, though the modus operandi of the state and its private apparatuses is to achieve that, and to convince us it’s been achieved. They want no comeback, to retrospective protections, and certainly no memorialising that cedes authority.
Brushtail possum evidenced. The nature of our interaction yet to be decided — largely by possum, but also by us. Possum enters poems, enters essays, enters stories. But does it become just a word, just an idea separated from its living life, it’s actuality? So easily, yes. Yet tense has a lot to do with it. As an active presence, not a thing of the past, and as a generator of sounds, movement and language. It is not an addition to here; it is here. It is not an exercise of painting a landscape; it is the land.
Language used in the poem needs to be alive to the visceral, to a future in which it is not archival but an active presence, a declaration of rights. How can this be achieved? That poem is trying to write itself at the moment, and is finding its feet, its fur, its eating-places and shitting-places. There is an obligation in how we write, and a social implication in all we write.
In the community of the poem, which is both inside the text and outside, a knowledge of species loss and its prevalence might inform an observing, interaction with and imagining of a creature (or plant) as not only at risk, and on the verge of loss, but also as a resistance to collecting, archiving and relegating. The creature isn’t “was” but “is”, always now. We, the readers and hearers, participate in the speech-making of the poem, participate in this “imagining, and acting, in a world”. There’s one biosphere of many worlds. In our writings we need to make the leaps, the segues, the conversations between the one and the many. Brushtail possum evidenced. Listen, listen — on the roof, now, tomorrow!
This is an edited version of a paper given at the Australian Academy of the Humanities’ 48th Annual Symposium, Humanitarianism and Human Rights, held November 15 to 17, 2017, in Western Australia. The poem A Rare Sight is from John Kinsella’s The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony (Fremantle Press, 1995).
As Cape Town counts down to “day zero” and the prospect of its taps being turned off, there have inevitably been questions about whether the same fate might befall a major Australian city. The most striking parallels have been drawn with Perth – unsurprisingly, given its drying climate, rising evaporation rates (which increase consumption and reduce water yields) and growing population.
So is Perth really running out of water? The answer depends on what type of water is being considered, and what constitutes “running out”.
When faced with this question most people think of drinking water, which is of course essential for household use.
It often ignores non-potable groundwater that is heavily relied upon in Perth to irrigate gardens, lawns, ovals, golf courses and market gardens. This water is also used by light and heavy industry, as well as being crucial to the health of wetlands and vegetation across the coastal plain.
Perth’s drinking water supplies are largely safe, thanks to early investment in the use of groundwater and in technologies such as desalination. But somewhat ironically, as this recent book chapter explains, the future supply of lower-quality water for irrigation and to support ecosystems looks far less assured.
The overall effect is that soils and vegetation are often dry, meaning that rainfall will be lost to evapotranspiration rather than running off into rivers and dams, or recharging underground aquifers.
At the same time, Perth has made major changes to its drinking water supply. The city now relies chiefly on groundwater and desalination rather than dams. For a variety of reasons, drinking water use per person has declined, most notably since the early 2000s when sprinkler restrictions were introduced. Some have switched to self-supply sources such as backyard bores, so for them total water use may even have increased.
Since the late 1970s, Perth has increasingly used groundwater rather than dam water. Seawater desalination has also grown to almost half of total supply. Even more recently Perth began trialling a groundwater replenishment scheme to recharge aquifers with treated wastewater.
With the declines in rainfall and streamflow predicted to continue, water security will continue to be an important policy issue over the next few decades. Although both are much more expensive than dam water, desalination and groundwater replenishment look set to secure Perth’s drinking supply, because seawater is virtually unlimited, and wastewater availability increases in line with the city’s growth.
Boosting drinking water supplies with desalination or groundwater replenishment is unlikely to resolve the pressures on non-potable supplies. To understand why, it is necessary to understand Perth’s unusual hydrology.
Most of Perth is built on permeable sand dunes, which can soak up even the heaviest rainfall. This allows runoff from roofs and roads to be directed into nearby soak wells and absorption basins.
About 70% of local road runoff and half of roof runoff already recharges the shallow unconfined aquifer, because it is the cheapest way to dispose of excess water in areas with sandy soils. As well as reducing discharge costs, this practice helps to ensure that bores do not run dry in summer.
Perth also has large main drains that are designed to lower groundwater levels in swampy areas and prevent inundation. Some of these waters could be redirected into the aquifer where there is a suitable site.
Investigations have also shown that the quality of treated wastewater can be greatly improved when infiltrated through the yellow sands into the limestone aquifer in the western part of Perth. It is suitable for irrigation after a few weeks’ residence within the aquifer.
Without these kinds of measures, local governments will struggle to water parks and sports ovals, to protect Perth’s remaining wetlands, and to safeguard the trees that help keep us cool.
So while drinking water supplies for an affluent city like Perth are reasonably secure, our vital non-drinking water supplies need to be augmented using some of the water we currently discharge into the ocean. As Perth gets even hotter and drier, and green spaces and wetlands are needed to provide much-needed cooling, we can no longer afford to let any water go to waste.
In 2005, when I was chair of the National Committee on Soil and Terrain, I started a debate: where is Australia’s whitest beach? This was a diversion from the committee’s normal business of looking at the sustainable management of Australia’s soils, but it led down a path I hadn’t expected.
What began as a bit of after-hours banter became a serious look across Australia in search of our whitest beaches. New South Wales had already laid claim to the title, arguing that Hyams Beach at Jervis Bay has the whitest sand in the world, purportedly backed up by Guinness World Records.
As it turned out, both claims were false. Guinness World Records has no such category, and the whitest beach (as we found) is actually elsewhere.
So we drafted terms of reference, and the search for Australia’s Whitest Beach began. Over the next year samples were collected across the nation. The criteria were simple: samples had to be taken from the swash zone (the gently sloping area between the water and the dunes) and the samples could not be treated in any way apart from air-drying. No bleaching. No sieving out of impurities. Marine environment only.
The results of the first judging in 2006 were startling. Of all the states and territories, the much promoted Hyams Beach in New South Wales came in fourth. Third was Victoria, second Queensland, and first Western Australia.
The other states and territories came in at Tasmania fifth, Northern Territory sixth, and South Australia seventh. The ACT didn’t have a beach to sample, although technically some of the Commonwealth lands around our coasts could possibly come in under their banner (but that’s another debate altogether).
The winning beach was Lucky Bay in Cape Le Grand National Park on WA’s south coast, but in reality any of the beaches in this area could have been winners – Hellfire Bay, Thistle Cove and Wharton’s beach (just to name a few) are all magnificently white.
A quick qualification here: the southwestern end of Lucky Bay, where many people enter the beach, is covered with seaweed – not the whitest bit! I should also note that all of the finalists in the whitest beach challenge were in their own right fabulously white. But when compared side-by-side, some beaches are clearly whiter than others.
The Queensland team felt aggrieved, so in 2007 I carried out a repechage with new samples from Queensland at Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays, and Lake McKenzie on Fraser Island. Lake McKenzie was ultimately disallowed as it is a freshwater lake and the rules stipulated a marine environment. Meanwhile, Whitehaven didn’t quite cut the mustard in the judging and Lucky Bay in WA was again the winner.
So what makes a beach white, and is it important anyway?
The assessments were based on a visual comparison, so to remove any possible visual bias after the 2007 challenge all the samples were scanned for their reflectance – how much light bounced off the sand, essentially – in the visible and infrared wavelengths. Our assumption was that higher reflectance throughout the visual spectrum correlates with greater whiteness.
As it turned out, the results from the scanning exactly correlated with the visual assessments. The eye is quite good at discerning small differences in colour and reflectance. (More background and the results from the competition are available here.)
So what makes a beach white? Obviously, a pristine environment helps. Another factor is the distance from rivers, which deliver coloured organic and clay contaminants to the coast.
The geology of the area and the source of the sand are also critical, with quartz seemingly a major requirement for fine sands. Most white sandy beaches are derived from granitic, or less commonly sandstone, geologies that weather to produce fine, frosted quartz sand grains. Interestingly, sands made from shell or coral fragments just aren’t as white.
Is it important?
While this competition began in fun, I do believe it’s important. Beaches are places of refuge in this crazy world, and a pristine white beach indicates a cleanliness that is worth striving for. The reflectance of light off these sands through shallow waters near the beach creates a surreal, magical turquoise colour. White beaches are like the canary in the coalmine – once they’re spoiled, we know we’re in trouble.
Even though this study was a first look at some of Australia’s whitest beaches, and sampling was limited, it did highlight the sheer number of wonderful sandy beaches that Australia has.
The story’s not finished though. There are many white beaches out there yet to be sampled, and if you’d like to alert me to your potentially award-winning beach please email me or leave a comment on the whitest beach website.
It’s our responsibility, and I believe honour, to protect these amazing places. I’m sure there are more wonderful beaches out there that we haven’t sampled which may defeat Lucky Bay.
Shelburne Bay in northern Queensland, for example, is a contender yet to be sampled, and there are some magnificent beaches on the east coast of Tasmania. Whatever the outcome, let’s celebrate the natural wonders that surround our country.
Scientific studies used to monitor the impact of industry on Aboriginal rock art in north west Western Australia are inadequate, potentially exposing more than a million individual artworks to damage, according to a recent paper published by myself and co-authors in the journal Rock Art Research.
The rock art is located near the towns of Dampier and Karratha and is known as the Burrup Peninsula, or Murujuga. It is a priceless, irreplaceable, cultural and archaeological treasure. The peninsula is also home to industry including an iron ore export port, natural gas processing, liquefying and export facilities, an ammonia-urea fertiliser plant and most recently, an ammonium nitrate production facility for explosives.
The industry and port produce thousands of tonnes of acid-forming emissions each year, permitted under environmental regulations. The impact of these emissions has been monitored through several scientific studies, which claimed there was no consistent impact on the rock art.
However our paper shows that the four main studies cannot be used to monitor the impact of industry on the art due to methodological errors. For example, one study subjected rocks to acid-forming emissions and concluded that there was no consistent change in colour. But there were just not enough repeat measurements to gain any sensible conclusion about the effect of emissions on rock colour.
Another experiment examining the effects of varying acid and other chemical concentrations was conducted using iron ore, which has no relevance to the rocks on which the art is situated. Measurements of colour change between 2004 and 2014 were also made on the rock art and background rock at seven different sites. But the instruments used for measuring change in rock surface colour were designed for indoor use and were inappropriate for the highly variable, hot rock surfaces of Murujuga. Typically, instruments were located at only one place on the rock surface during a measurement each year and this was insufficient to represent the highly variable rock surface.
These studies form the basis for government regulation, which permits industry to release acid-forming emissions. While there is no conclusive evidence that industry emissions have damaged the rock art, recent measurements of the surface of rocks near industry by Dr Ian MacLeod, former Director of the Western Australian Maritime Museum, found acidity to have increased 1,000 times above pre-industrial levels.
We showed in another scientific paper published earlier this year that acid dissolves the outer surface layer of the rocks causing them to become thinner, lighter in colour and to flake away. Once the outer surface layer is removed, the rock art is lost.
The federal government is conducting a senate inquiry into the health of the Murujuga rock art, with a delayed final report due in late November. I argue that, at the very least, industry must install technology to reduce acid emissions and ammonium nitrate dust particles to virtually zero. Other rock art experts have called for a cessation of all industry on the peninsula in a recent editorial in Rock Art Research.
The Murujuga rock art captures over 45,000 years of human culture, activity and spiritual beliefs through ever changing environments from when the sea was more than 100 km from its current position and through the last ice age, 20,000 years ago.
The petroglyphs include some of the oldest known representations of the human face in the world. There are images of extinct mammals including megafauna, the fat-tailed kangaroo and thylacine. There are elaborate geometric designs that could have been used for navigation or an early form of mathematics. There are many depictions of hunting and cultural ceremonies as well as existing animals, birds and sea creatures.
The Murujuga inhabitants created this rock art until February 1868, when virtually the entire Yaburara indigenous population was exterminated in a massacre.
Massacre of the Yaburara, only three years after European settlement in 1865, has deprived us from knowing the storylines and cultural meaning of the petroglyphs. Equally significantly, the massacre broke continuous inhabitation of the area, which has allowed successive Western Australian governments to develop in the midst of the rock art one of the largest industrial complexes in the Southern Hemisphere.
Industry and art
Construction of the industries is estimated by archaeologists working on Murujuga to have resulted in the destruction of over 30,000 petroglyphs through removal and physical damage. Atmospheric emissions from the industries are immense.
Dampier port, which is adjacent to the petroglyphs, is one of the busiest bulk-ports in the world with over 19,000 ship movements each year. These ships burn high sulphur bunker fuel, with one ship emitting as much as 5,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide per year.
The gas and fertiliser plants emit around 34,000 tonnes of acid forming compounds into the air each year. The recent starting up of the ammonium nitrate plant revealed a huge yellow-orange cloud of nitrogen dioxide with concentrations of over 1,000 parts per million. The emission of nitrogen dioxide from the plant will occur around six times each year, whenever certain industrial chemicals needed for ammonium nitrate production require replacing.
These emissions are permitted under state and federal environmental regulation. Both nitrogen and sulphur dioxide react with water to form acids which are deposited on the rock surfaces.
The rock art at Murujuga is threatened by acid because of its unique geological properties. The natural blue-grey rock, formed from cooling magma, weathers very slowly to form a yellow coloured weathering rind, which may grow by 5 mm in 30,000 years.
The yellow coloured rind is covered with a dark brown-black coating called a patina or rock varnish. The petroglyphs were formed by using hard pieces of rock to break through the patina and expose the rind.
This patina is an extraordinary substance. It is formed by specialised bacteria and fungi on the rock surface, where there is seldom moisture and rock temperatures can exceed 70℃. To survive the harsh conditions, the organisms build a mineral sheath. When they die, their body and sheath combine with clay from the dust to form the hard, dark-coloured patina.
Destruction of the outer patina results in disappearance of the rock art. There is evidence that the patina is flaking on some rocks with petroglyphs. The patina becomes thin and flakes away under acidic conditions.
Protecting the art
Elsewhere in the world countries have been vigilant in protecting natural and cultural heritage from acid emissions. In the US cars are banned or severely limited in many national parks because the acid formed from nitrogen dioxide, produced from vehicle exhaust, will damage the forests.
In France, the 1.4 million annual visitors to the 17,000-year-old Lascaux cave paintings do not see the actual paintings, but a replica in an adjoining cave because of the damage caused by emissions from human breath.
Similarly, the UK government announced in January this year they are building a £1.4 billion tunnel to remove cars form the vicinity of their 4,500-year-old heritage in Stonehenge.
While removing industry may be the best solution to ensure the rock art’s safety, it may not be practical. Governments and industry must recognise their social responsibilities and ensure sufficient technology is in place to reduce acid forming emissions to near zero.
But in winter 2009, the dolphin population fell by more than half.
This decrease in numbers in WA could be linked to an El Niño event that originated far away in the Pacific Ocean, we suggest in a paper published today in Global Change Biology. The findings could have implications for future sudden drops in dolphin numbers here and elsewhere.
The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) results from an interaction between the atmosphere and the tropical Pacific Ocean. ENSO periodically fluctuates between three phases: La Niña, Neutral and El Niño.
During our study from 2007 to 2013, there were three La Niña events. There was one El Niño event in 2009, with the initial phase in winter being the strongest across Australia.
Coupled with El Niño, there was a weakening of the Leeuwin Current, the dominant ocean current off WA. There was also a decrease in sea surface temperature and above average rainfall.
ENSO is known to affect the strength of the south-ward flowing Leeuwin Current.
During La Niña, easterly trade winds pile warm water on the western side of the Pacific Ocean. This westerly flow of warm water across the top of Australia through the Indonesian Throughflow results in a stronger Leeuwin Current.
During El Niño, trade winds weaken or reverse and the pool of warm water in the Pacific Ocean gathers on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean. This results in a weaker Indonesian Throughflow across the top of Australia and a weakening in strength of the Leeuwin Current.
The strength and variability of the Leeuwin Current coupled with ENSO affects species biology and ecology in WA waters. This includes the distribution of fish species, the transport of rock lobster larvae, the seasonal migration of whale sharks and even seabird breeding success.
The question we asked then was whether ENSO could affect dolphin abundance?
What happened during the El Niño?
These El Niño associated conditions may have affected the distribution of dolphin prey, resulting in the movement of dolphins out of the study area in search of adequate prey elsewhere.
This is similar to what happens for seabirds in WA. During an El Niño event with a weakened Leeuwin Current, the distribution of prey changes around seabird’s breeding colonies resulting in a lower abundance of important prey species, such as salmon.
In southwestern Australia, the amount of rainfall is strongly connected to sea surface temperature. When the water temperature in the Indian Ocean decreases, the region receives higher rainfall during winter.
High levels of rainfall contribute to terrestrial runoff and alters freshwater inputs into rivers and estuaries. The changes in salinity influences the distribution and abundance of dolphin prey.
This is particularly the case for the river, estuary, inlet and bay around Bunbury. Rapid changes in salinity during the onset of El Niño may have affected the abundance and distribution of fish species.
Of these strandings, in southwest Australia, there was a peak in June that coincided with the onset of the 2009 El Niño.
Specifically, in the Swan River, Perth, there were several dolphin deaths, with some resident dolphins that developed fatal skin lesions that were enhanced by the low-salinity waters.
What does all this mean?
Our study is the first to describe the effects of climate variability on a coastal, resident dolphin population.
We suggest that the decline in dolphin abundance during the El Niño event was temporary. The dolphins may have moved out of the study area due to changes in prey availability and/or potentially unfavourable water quality conditions in certain areas (such as the river and estuary).
Long-term, time-series datasets are required to detect these biological responses to anomalous climate conditions. But few long-term datasets with data collected year-round for cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are available because of logistical difficulties and financial costs.
Continued long-term monitoring of dolphin populations is important as climate models provide evidence for the doubling in frequency of extreme El Niño events (from one event every 20 years to one event every ten years) due to global warming.
With a projected global increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (such as floods, cyclones), coastal dolphins may not only have to contend with increasing coastal human-related activities (vessel disturbance, entanglement in fishing gear, and coastal development), but also have to adapt to large-scale climatic changes.