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Climate change

Today Al Gore reminded me that when someone tells you something, do something

Ten years ago I saw the Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth. Driving home from the cinema that night, I passed a car with its headlights off – and flashed my headlights at them using the local language for ‘you’ve forgotten to turn on your lights’. What happened next is a metaphor for climate change denialism.

The driver didn’t turn on their headlights, didn’t pull over to investigate what may have been be wrong, nor thanked me for alerting them to their oversight. They honked their horn at me. And kept on driving in the dark.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I’m provided with information about something that should inspire action, I’m grateful and try to immediately act on the new knowledge I have been given.

I don’t have anything against people driving at night with their headlights off: it’s an easy – albeit dangerous – mistake to make. But if they ignore a warning and keep driving, I’m inclined to judge them more harshly.

Listening to Al Gore speak today to the Ecocity conference in Melbourne, I was reminded of my experience a decade ago – and how that driver’s action was a lot like the denial of climate change.

I’ve been surrounded for years by scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding how the climate is changing due to human activities. With most people I meet, once I provide information on how the planet is changing, they understand and may even act to change their behaviour to do something about the problem.

But every now and then, I speak to someone who doesn’t ‘believe’ the facts. Despite being furnished with information, they don’t believe it, and keep living the way they always have. They may even get angry. Just like the driver who honked their horn at me when I warned them about their headlights being off.

Today I was in the audience at the Ecocity 2017 conference as Al Gore asked, ‘must we change, can we change, and will we change?’ He started with what is now well-known information about the changing planet: we are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than at any time in the last 66 million years; that 16 of the world’s 17 hottest years have occurred since 2001. Indeed, he said we know global warming is happening because the hottest year on record now always seems to be the year we’re currently in.

Then things went very dark very quickly. Mr Gore explained that heatwaves in Australia are now five times more likely than in the past, and he showed videos from around the world of people, vehicles and aeroplanes stuck in melting tar as temperatures soared above 50 degrees Celsius. The audience was shocked by videos of disasters, near misses and dramatic rescues that brought to life the rise in extreme events due to human activities.

But hang on, he said, the hope is coming. We generate 16 times more wind energy than was expected a decade ago; 75 times more solar energy. In 2016, the UK generated more electricity from wind than from coal. Solar energy plus batteries will change the world, according to Mr Gore.

Unlike a decade ago, Al Gore is not just promoting the problem. He’s promoting the solution; he is promoting hope. He called for us to join those who use their voices, votes and choices to do something about climate change – in short, not to continue to drive around in the dark.

Climate change and health: the future isn’t what it used to be

Climate change could have far‐reaching consequences for human health across the 21st century. But there is at least some good news on how health systems are adapting.

‘It doesn’t take an extreme weather event to have an extreme health impact,’ said Professor Kristie Ebi, from the University of Washington, speaking at the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic conference in Canberra in February 2017.

People have a narrow capacity to adapt to high temperatures, so increasing ambient temperatures and heatwaves will increase vulnerability to heat-stress. Another consequence of climate change includes more pollen, which could exacerbate asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Changes in water availability and agricultural productivity could increase undernutrition, particularly in parts of Asia and Africa. ‘The biggest health consequence of climate change will likely be undernutrition,’ she said.

Kris noted good news when it comes to adaptation to increasing health risks from climate change. ‘Health services are starting to use weather and other environmental data for forecast systems,’ she said. ‘For example, early warning systems of dengue outbreaks can help prevent transmission.’

You can read more about this work at https://connect.coastadapt.com.au/discussion/460/climate-change-and-health-the-future-isnt-what-it-used-to-be.

Scientell worked with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) on their online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can read more feature articles about climate adaptation at https://connect.coastadapt.com.au/.

Everyone has a good story

I had the privilege of interviewing half a dozen of Australia’s newest ecologists this week, after more than $1 million in funds for students were announced by the Ecological Society of Australia.

In speaking with just six of the 100 students who will share the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment, I realised that every one of them had a fascinating story to tell about their research. I wish I had the time to write 100 stories.

For example, Mr Tom Botterill-James, from the University of Tasmania, is investigating how female promiscuity influences conflict in families of lizards, to solve a mystery of evolution – that is, why animals cooperate when cheating helps the fittest survive.

‘A key question in evolutionary biology is that if the strongest survive through the selection of the fittest genes, why do animals cooperate?’ Tom told me. He said helping family members, who share genes with relatives, helps the survival of their genetic material. ‘I hope to use these unique family-living lizards to boil down the basis of the evolution of family life, and find the initial triggers for the evolution of family living.’


A family of White’s skink lizards (photo by Geoff While)

More on this and other projects is available at https://www.ecolsoc.org.au/public-policy-media/media-releases.

In another project, Mr Matheus Mello-Athayde, from the University of Queensland, is investigating whether a resilient coral found at the Great Barrier Reef can give hope for marine ecosystems under future global warming and acidification.

‘We’re all concerned about the devastating effects that climate change is having on reefs,’ he said. ‘I’m looking at a common coral that is resilient and trying to work out what it is that helps it do better than other species in the same areas, in the hope that this insight will help us protect reefs in the future.’

Ms Victoria Austin, from the Western Sydney University, is investigating why female lyrebirds mimic other species, and why some are better at it than others. She said the Holsworth grant will allow her to purchase equipment – including taxidermic models of predators such as goshawks, goannas and foxes – to investigate the function of female lyrebirds’ mimicry.

Victoria’s results may challenge how we think about the evolution of song and other vocalisations in birds. ‘It has long been held that song in songbirds is a result of females selecting the best males. But as females don’t need to attract males, the evolutionary pathway for females appears to be different to that of males. If we can use this species as a model to see how vocal mimicry evolved, it will have implications for our understanding of other species around the world.’


A female lyrebird (photo by Justin Welbergen)

Ms Dana Cusano, from the University of Queensland, is studying what motivates whales to make social sounds, and whether it matters if the noise from increased shipping means they can’t hear each other.

‘We have no idea what whales are saying,’ said Dana. ‘I’m looking at motivational information to figure it out. If we can work out how whales use sounds, and how important their calls are, we’ll have a better idea about how shipping will affect them.’


Photo: Blue Planet Marine and CEAL

That’s just a taste of the amazing research that’s underway in the field of ecology, and enhanced thanks to the funding announced this week.

The Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment has supported more than 850 students since it was established by renowned ecologist, wildlife biologist and philanthropist Dr Bill Holsworth and his wife Carol in 1989. It is managed through a partnership with the Ecological Society of Australia.

The media release announcing the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment winners is at https://www.ecolsoc.org.au/dolphins-devils-corals-cane-toads-million-dollar-endowment-funds-australia%E2%80%99s-newest-ecologists.


Photo: Blue Planet Marine and CEAL

2017 AMOS conference: What to expect

This article first appeared in The Bulletin of the Australian Meteorological & Oceanographic Society, vol 3, 2016.

 

Canberra’s average February maximum temperature is 28 °C. So that sounds just about the perfect time to visit the nation’s capital to converse on climate, opine on oceanography and wonder about the weather.

Each year, the AMOS conference seems to get bigger. The number of abstracts submitted indicates that we can expect to be rubbing shoulders with around 500 colleagues at the 2017 event.

The conference will be at the Australia National University’s Manning Clark Centre, a from 7 to 10 February 2017.

The Monday before the conference, 6 February, will feature workshops on topics as varied as communication, software, and climate projections data, so consider spending a week in the ACT.

The list of high-profile international speakers is headed by David Grimes, World Meteorological Organization President and Canadian Meteorological Service Director. Also present will be Laura Furgione, NOAA Weather Services Deputy Assistant Administrator and US National Weather Service Deputy Director.

Here are just some of the fascinating topics that leap out from the list of accepted abstracts:

  • The impact of the Great Barrier Reef on local climate
  • Improved monitoring and prediction of fire weather
  • Increased population exposure to climate change-driven precipitation extremes
  • Record temperatures set in Australia in recent years to become the norm by 2030
  • Future snowfall probabilities for Alpine Australia
  • Indigenous seasons of north-east Arnhem Land
  • Heatwave forecasts
  • One thousand years of past hydrologic variability
  • Hail and lightning climatology
  • Impacts of 1.5 degree warming on the occurrence of extreme El Nino events
  • Urban heat mitigation strategies to cool Melbourne
  • Marine heatwaves and their drivers
  • The strongest, longest and largest marine extreme events

We know from experience just how much work is involved in organising a large conference, and we can tell you that our Executive Officer, Jeanette Dargaville is doing a superb job of managing tis complex event.

Working closely with Jeanette is the Local Organising Committee of Clem Davis, Mary Voice and Bob Cechet.

Special thanks to conference sponsors: Bureau of Meteorology and ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, Vaisala, NIWA, NCI and CSIRO. The Meteorological Society of New Zealand is an event partner, and the ANZ Climate Forum, American Meteorological Society and Scientell are conference supporters.

 

 

Urgent action requires weighing up risks

Adaptation activities need to be informed by the best available science, but sometimes urgent action requires weighing up risks. A lack of information is no excuse for delaying action in an emergency.

This was the case at Port Fairy, 280 km west of Melbourne on the south coast of Victoria. The beach is often flooded, and erosion puts around 200 beach-front homes at risk of being undermined. Additionally, sea-level rise and erosion have exposed rusty metal, glass and asbestos from two decommissioned landfills.

port-fairy-large

‘The most obvious climate change issue is sea-level rise,’ says Robert Gibson, the Manager of Environment and Regulatory Services at Moyne Shire Council. ‘We’re already looking at properties being inundated and roads blocked off during storm surges, with sizeable rocks being thrown up that require a front-end loader to remove. Sometimes you need to bring a lilo to the beach rather than a towel!’

He says they are fortunate to have the local community conducting monitoring and sharing information, and Council has undertaken remedial action. ‘We’ve done studies on engineering solutions to the loss of beach sand, engineering assessments of the current sea wall, and designs for its upgrading, and started implementing some of these solutions,’ he says.

Robert says research has been fundamental to the decisions being made. ‘Without knowing the limitations of the current sea wall, it would be hard to justify the funding to upgrade it. With scientific information, we know we are doing what’s required for the long-term protection of the houses and assets on the dunes.’

Conversely, he says action to address the exposed tip site has not been as thoroughly researched. ‘It was at crisis point; rubbish was emerging from the dunes, so taking action was necessary with minimal research behind it. We trialled a 125-metre wave energy dissipation structure to mitigate erosion. Within weeks of construction, the structure was tested by a storm. After the storm you could clearly see the structure was the difference between minimal rubbish falling out of the tip, and having a catastrophe.’

Robert says they took a chance, as doing nothing due to insufficient information is not an excuse. ‘You need to weigh up the risk and rewards, and get the job done.’

You can find out more at https://connect.coastadapt.com.au/discussion/297/getting-the-job-done-at-port-fairy

Scientell is working with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) on their online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can sign up and join the discussion at https://connect.coastadapt.com.au/.

Book review: ‘Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them’

Surviving the 21st Century Australia has no better science writer than Julian Cribb. He is knowledgeable, extraordinarily well informed and superbly adept at presenting accurate, fascinating information in a way that just begs to be read.

His latest book is Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them. The fact that we have survived for 16 years of the century shouldn’t lull us into thinking that the remaining 84 years will be straightforward. I write this review on the day WWF report that ‘worldwide populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have plunged by almost 60 per cent since 1970 as human activities overwhelm the environment’.

Each chapter in Surviving the 21st Century considers a great challenge, including mass extinction, resource depletion, weapons of mass destruction, climate change, universal toxicity, food crises, population and urban expansion, pandemic disease, dangerous new technologies, and self-delusion.

It’s easy to describe problems, more difficult to proffer solutions. Cribb does this at each chapter’s conclusion in a section called ‘What we must do’.

Surviving the 21st Century does something that few other publications do: it comprehensively addresses all the main threats to us and to our planet. The holistic approach offers more hope than efforts to tackle problems individually, which can sometimes make matters worse.

Cribb knows intuitively how to convey information vividly and accurately. Writing about frogs, he states, ‘Two in every five of their known species face extinction’. That expression grabs you more than the ’40 per cent’ that most scientists would write.

Years ago, US journalists coined the term ‘Hey Martha’ for stories and news items so amazing that when you hear them, you just have to shout across the room, Hey Martha, listen to this!’. Surviving the 21st Century is full of such examples. They grab your attention and make you think, which is the whole point. Hopefully, sufficient numbers of people thinking will lead to action.

Here’s a ‘Hey Martha’ from the book: What consumes 10 kg of topsoil, 800 litres of fresh water, 1.3 litres of diesel, a third of a gram of pesticide and causes 3.5 kg of carbon dioxide to enter the air? Answer: the last meal you ate. Now multiply that by all the meals you’ve consumed and all the people on Earth. No wonder we have a problem. As Cribb puts it, ‘the human jawbone is among the most destructive of implements on the planet’.

Here’s another sobering anecdote for Martha: ‘Tonight around two hundred thousand more people will sit down to dinner than dined last night.’

You’ll be hard pressed to find a page without a fascinating factoid. Cribb certainly does his research, and knows how to craft that research into unforgettable messages.

What’s his recipe for curbing the impact on planet Earth of our insatiable hunger? Sustainable urban food production using recycled water and organic waste; teaching the next generation to value and respect food; apply a food levy to pay farmers and indigenous peoples to restore and maintain the environment; introduce a ‘Year of Food’, teaching respect, awareness and appreciation of food, in every junior school on the planet. There are many more suggestions on the menu. Each is thought provoking and a number are completely original. It doesn’t matter if you disagree with some of the ideas or think that they may be unfeasible, Cribb has set out a range of options well worth considering. Doing nothing is not one of them.

If you’d like to pursue any of the idea and possible solutions, Surviving the 21st Century includes a detailed list of references.

The ‘sapiens’ in homo sapiens means ‘wise’ in Latin. We can demonstrate wisdom by getting hold of a copy of Surviving the 21st Century and applying some of the recommendations to our own lives. We can recommend the book to others. We can alert our leaders to the book and its contents. We owe this to ourselves and to our planet.

 

 

Movin’ on up to cooler climes

Climate change impacts on the natural world are accelerating rapidly.

‘Many plants and animals are proving to be highly sensitive to the changes in climate we have experienced over the last few decades’ says Professor Lesley Hughes from Macquarie University.

Lesley says there are now hundreds, if not thousands of examples of shifts in distributions of plants and animals as they respond to the changing climate. ‘We are also seeing insects emerging earlier, many animals mating earlier, plants flowering earlier, and migrating birds arriving in Australia sooner and leaving later,’ says Lesley. ‘In some cases, the responses of individual species are having significant flow on impacts to ecological communities.’

For example, the long-spined sea urchin (Centrostephanus rodgersii) has expanded its range from coastal NSW to Tasmania, where it has established extremely successfully. As the urchin eats kelp, this shift has had huge impacts on kelp beds, affecting the habitat of many other species, including commercial lobster populations.

Such movements are consistent with responses to the changing climate. You can find out more at https://connect.coastadapt.com.au/discussion/159/movin-on-up-or-heading-south-to-cooler-climes

butterfly
Many Australian species are heading to cooler regions, such as butterflies which have shifted their range 200 kilometres south.

Scientell is working with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) on their online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can sign up at https://connect.coastadapt.com.au.

Climate of change

Ice and heat are enemies. As the world warms, the ice on the land melts. Most glaciers are in retreat, with their water gushing into the sea. This makes the sea level rise. Add the expansion of the oceans, which get bigger as their water warms, and we have a significant threat to coastal regions.

More than 150 million people live less than one metre above high tide level, and billions of dollars of homes, businesses and roads are located on the coast. In Australia, about six million people live within two kilometres of the beach. So what can we do when our cities and towns start to slowly slip under water?

Coping with climate change

Florida architect, Jacque Fresco, specialises in designing cities of the future. He has a vision of floating cities made up of interlocking, cog-shaped buildings.

A company called Freedom Ship floated the idea of an ocean platform more than a kilometre long that would slowly circle the world and could house 60 000 people. The barge would have high-rise apartment buildings, an onboard hospital, schools and a huge shopping mall. But the estimated $11 billion cost may sink this idea before it starts.

What about the millions of people on land who rely on glaciers for their water supply? Farmers in the northern Indian town of Skara grow crops such as barley. The farmers rely on meltwater from the Himalayan glaciers to water their crops. Because the Tibetan Plateau is warming quickly, the glaciers are disappearing, resulting in water shortages in India.

Years ago, an Indian engineer named Chewang Norphel noticed that slow-moving water freezes more readily than swift streams. He used his observation to make artificial glaciers, working with a team to set up canals and divert water from local rivers during winter. The canals slow the water and allow it to freeze. In spring, after seeds have been sown, the artificial glaciers melt and water the fields.

For more on this and 41 other inventions of the future, check out our book, Imagining the Future: Invisibility, Immortality and 40 Other Incredible Ideas, by Simon Torok and Paul Holper (CSIRO Publishing), http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/7344.htm

Help! Lending a hand to vulnerable species

Global hotspots, such as the waters southeast of Australia, have warmed dramatically and dozens of marine animals have moved south. Many others need our help.

Dr Alistair Hobday, from CSIRO, says these sea temperature changes are clear – not only in the physical records, but also in the biology. ‘As the oceans have warmed, nutrient levels have changed, which is influencing productivity southeast of Australia,’ he says. ‘More than 100 species of fish and two dozen invertebrate species have moved south.’

With temperature rises having a dramatic impact, Alistair is investigating adaptation options for ecosystems as a whole, as well as individual species. In partnership with the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, Alistair has investigated adaptation options for the shy albatross, a protected species that is in decline.

You can find out more at https://connect.coastadapt.com.au/discussion/72/help-lending-a-hand-to-vulnerable-species#Item_1

Scientell is working with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) on their online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can sign up at https://connect.coastadapt.com.au/.

Ouch! Feeling the record heat

Last summer, temperatures around the world showed an unusual upward spike. Globally, February was more than a degree warmer than usual, breaking the record set in 2015 that had itself broken the record set in February 2014. A stable climate means that you’d expect that every record hot temperature will be matched by a cold record. But that’s not what we are seeing. Sydney had a record run of high temperatures above 26°C this summer – 36 days in a row, which smashed the previous record of 19 days set in 2014. Over the past decade, for every new cold record there’s been an amazing 12 new hot records. And it appears to be our fault.

How are you preparing for heatwaves? Join the discussion at https://connect.coastadapt.com.au/discussion/40/ouch-feeling-the-record-heat

Scientell is working with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can sign up at https://connect.coastadapt.com.au/.

Torok ACT fires