Tag Archives: climate change

Science communication in the “alternative facts” era

Panel members (left-right): Ketan Joshi,  Heather Catchpole, Lucinda Beaman and Amy Coopes,

From climate change to vaccination and alternative medicine, researchers face problems when they seek to turn evidence into actions through science communication. On the 1st June, 2017, Macquarie University held a public workshop called “Science, Misinformation, and Alternative Facts”.

The interdisciplinary workshop brought together a diverse group of panelists to discuss science and media in our “post-truth” era. Panelists included Ketan Joshi, a communications consultant specialising in clean energy technologies; Heather Catchpole, founder of STEM content producer Refraction Media; Lucinda Beaman, editor of FactCheck at the Conversation and Amy Coopes, journalist turned medical student and cancer researcher.

The panelists discussed the challenges of science communication and potential strategies for closing the gap between evidence and public opinion.

They described how the emergence of anxiety-inducing terms such as “post-truth” and “fake news” have influenced how the general public perceive scientific information, as well as the increasingly curated nature of news by social media. Further challenges discussed included the use of facts out of context and the increasingly politicised nature of science, particularly in climate change and health.

One of the most important takeaways was the emphasis on building relationships between scientists, academics and journalists in order to make the best decisions on how to assess and report scientific information. The panel members also recommended that teachers focus on helping students understand the scientific process so that the next generation is equipped with critical thinking skills.

The recording of the workshop by Jon Brock is now available via the link here. The workshop was coordinated by the Macquarie Research Enrichment Program and co-sponsored by the Faculty of Human Sciences, the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders.

Read more about the workshop at Inspiring Australia.

Coral bleaching prevented through reef sun shield

A ‘sun shield’ made from an ultra-thin surface film is showing promise as a potential weapon in the fight to protect the Great Barrier Reef from the impacts of coral bleaching.

Great Barrier Reef Foundation Managing Director Anna Marsden said the results from a small-scale research trial led by the scientist who also developed Australia’s polymer bank notes were very encouraging.

The project was supported by The Tiffany & Co. Foundation, made possible through a grant to the University of Melbourne USA Foundation.

“We’ve partnered with scientists from the University of Melbourne and the Australian Institute of Marine Science to develop sun protection for the Reef,” Ms Marsden said.

“The ‘sun shield’ is 50,000 times thinner than a human hair and completely biodegradable, containing the same ingredient corals use to make their hard skeletons – calcium carbonate. It’s designed to sit on the surface of the water above the corals, rather than directly on the corals, to provide an effective barrier against the sun.

“While it’s still early days, and the trials have been on a small scale, the testing shows the film reduced light by up to 30%.

“Scientists tested the effectiveness of the one molecule thick film on seven different coral species in simulated coral bleaching event conditions at the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s National Sea Simulator (SeaSim).

“The surface film provided protection and reduced the level of bleaching in most species.”

With the surface film containing the same ingredient that corals use to make their skeletons, the research also showed the film had no harmful effects on the corals during the trials.

“This is a great example of developing and testing out-of-the-box solutions that harness expertise from different areas. In this case, we had chemical engineers and experts in polymer science working with marine ecologists and coral experts to bring this innovation to life,” Ms Marsden said.

“The project set out to explore new ways to help reduce the impact of coral bleaching affecting the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs globally and it created an opportunity to test the idea that by reducing the amount of sunlight from reaching the corals in the first place, we can prevent them from becoming stressed which leads to bleaching.

“It’s important to note that this is not intended to be a solution that can be applied over the whole 348,000 square kilometres of Great Barrier Reef – that would never be practical. But it could be deployed on a smaller, local level to protect high value or high-risk areas of reef.

“The concept needs more work and testing before it gets to that stage, but it’s an exciting development at a time when we need to explore all possible options to ensure we have a Great Barrier Reef for future generations.”

The research team comprised of Professors Greg Qiao and David Solomon and Dr Joel Scofield from the University of Melbourne, Dr Emma Prime (formerly University of Melbourne, now Deakin University), and Dr Andrew Negri and Florita Flores from the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Professor Solomon (AC) was the winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science in 2011 for his exceptional contributions to polymer science.

First published by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation 

Research uncovers innovative solutions for cooling western Sydney

Sydney Water and the University of NSW have collaborated on a ground breaking study, Cooling Western Sydney, to create innovative solutions to help turn down the heat in western Sydney.

“There were a number of compelling statistics which led us to this research”, said Dr Michael Storey, Research Direction and Value Manager at Sydney Water.

“Temperatures are 6-10°C higher in western Sydney during the summer period than they are in the east and there can be up to three times as many deaths in western Sydney during heat waves than there are in eastern Sydney. Energy consumption for cooling Western Sydney is up to 100% higher than in the eastern zones of the city. Peak Electricity Demand increases by almost 100% when temperature increases from 20°C to 40°C.”

Dr Storey added that effective cooling of western Sydney by implementing the solutions outlined in the Cooling Western Sydney research could result in:

  • Reduced peak ambient temperatures by 2.5°C
  • An estimated energy saving of 1726 gigawatt hours (GWh) per year = 1.726 Billion kilowatt hours. The average Australian house uses 6,570 kilowatt hours (KWh) per year. This saving is the equivalent used to power around 262,000 homes for a year.
  • A 9% drop in peak electricity demand, which equates to almost one million tons of avoided CO2 emissions, enough to create the equivalent of removing over 200,000 average sized cars from the roads each year and significant savings on power bills.
  • A reduction in the heat related mortality rate by up to 90% in western Sydney

The study investigated the role of water and related infrastructure, greening as well as building materials on cooling western Sydney.

It has challenged conventional thinking around mitigating urban heat, including the way we look at the built environment, energy demand, public health and ‘greening’ cities.

“We must take a multi-faceted approach that includes hard surfaces such as roofs and pavements”, said UNSW Professor Mat Santamouris.

“The solution is not just about planting trees, which seems to be the commonly held view.

“Trees create a cooling effect through a process called evapotranspiration, where water stored in the tree evaporates through the leaves during hot temperatures. However, when trees are subjected to extreme heat stress, they go into survival mode to conserve water to keep themselves cool.

“This means that we can’t rely solely on urban green spaces as a means of cooling the city in extreme temperatures.

“While greenery does have a cooling effect, the study shows the most effective urban heat mitigation technologies use a combination of water based technologies including fountains in conjunction with cool material technologies such as cool roofs and pavements. Integrating these new and advanced technologies into urban design can greatly reduce the impact of urban heat and assist in cooling Western Sydney.

“These solutions are the best way to enhance the liveability of western Sydney and will deliver greater economic, social and environmental benefits”, said Professor Santamouris.

Dr Storey added, “this is a whole-of-Sydney issue.  Cooling western Sydney means cooling eastern Sydney.  We must think locally but act globally.

“There are large geographical and meteorological forces at play in western Sydney.  On one side we have the large western deserts and desert winds, and on the other the Pacific Ocean and eastern ocean breezes.  Trapped in the middle and bordered by the Blue Mountains is western Sydney, which can be subjected to extreme temperatures in summer time because the area receives little respite from ocean breezes and southerly winds.

“As Sydney is set to experience more prolonged summer heatwaves in future due to a changing climate, it will be critical for temperature peaks to be reduced to improve the thermal comfort for people living in western Sydney.

“The careful selection of water-based technologies and building materials can achieve a decrease of up to 4.5º C, which will take the ‘tops’ off the peak temperatures in extreme heatwave conditions in Sydney’s west”, said Dr Storey.

  • First published by Sydney Water 

Image: Sydney Water

Read more: Future tech for a stable climate

Future tech for a stable climate

Humans have emitted 1,540 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide gas since the industrial revolution. Credit: REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Getting climate change under control is a formidable, multifaceted challenge. Analysis by my colleagues and me suggests that staying within safe warming levels now requires removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The technology to do this is in its infancy and will take years, even decades, to develop, but our analysis suggests that this must be a priority. If pushed, operational large-scale systems should be available by 2050.

We created a simple climate model and looked at the implications of different levels of carbon in the ocean and the atmosphere. This lets us make projections about greenhouse warming, and see what we need to do to limit global warming to within 1.5℃ of pre-industrial temperatures – one of the ambitions of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

To put the problem in perspective, here are some of the key numbers.

Humans have emitted 1,540 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide gas since the industrial revolution. To put it another way, that’s equivalent to burning enough coal to form a square tower 22 metres wide that reaches from Earth to the Moon.

Half of these emissions have remained in the atmosphere, causing a rise of CO₂ levels that is at least 10 times faster than any known natural increase during Earth’s long history. Most of the other half has dissolved into the ocean, causing acidification with its own detrimental impacts.

Although nature does remove CO₂, for example through growth and burial of plants and algae, we emit it at least 100 times faster than it’s eliminated. We can’t rely on natural mechanisms to handle this problem: people will need to help as well.

What’s the goal?

The Paris climate agreement aims to limit global warming to well below 2℃, and ideally no higher than 1.5℃. (Others say that 1℃ is what we should be really aiming for, although the world is already reaching and breaching this milestone.)

In our research, we considered 1℃ a better safe warming limit because any more would take us into the territory of the Eemian period, 125,000 years ago. For natural reasons, during this era the Earth warmed by a little more than 1℃. Looking back, we can see the catastrophic consequences of global temperatures staying this high over an extended period.

Sea levels during the Eemian period were up to 10 metres higher than present levels. Today, the zone within 10m of sea level is home to 10% of the world’s population, and even a 2m sea-level rise today would displace almost 200 million people.

Clearly, pushing towards an Eemian-like climate is not safe. In fact, with 2016 having been 1.2℃ warmer than the pre-industrial average, and extra warming locked in thanks to heat storage in the oceans, we may already have crossed the 1℃ average threshold. To keep warming below the 1.5℃ goal of the Paris agreement, it’s vital that we remove CO₂ from the atmosphere as well as limiting the amount we put in.

So how much CO₂ do we need to remove to prevent global disaster?

Credit: International energy agency

Are you a pessimist or an optimist?

Currently, humanity’s net emissions amount to roughly 37 gigatonnes of CO₂ per year, which represents 10 gigatonnes of carbon burned (a gigatonne is a billion tonnes). We need to reduce this drastically. But even with strong emissions reductions, enough carbon will remain in the atmosphere to cause unsafe warming.

Using these facts, we identified two rough scenarios for the future.

The first scenario is pessimistic. It has CO₂ emissions remaining stable after 2020. To keep warming within safe limits, we then need to remove almost 700 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere and ocean, which freely exchange CO₂. To start, reforestation and improved land use can lock up to 100 gigatonnes away into trees and soils. This leaves a further 600 gigatonnes to be extracted via technological means by 2100.

Technological extraction currently costs at least US$150 per tonne. At this price, over the rest of the century, the cost would add up to US$90 trillion. This is similar in scale to current global military spending, which – if it holds steady at around US$1.6 trillion a year – will add up to roughly US$132 trillion over the same period.

The second scenario is optimistic. It assumes that we reduce emissions by 6% each year starting in 2020. We then still need to remove about 150 gigatonnes of carbon.

As before, reforestation and improved land use can account for 100 gigatonnes, leaving 50 gigatonnes to be technologically extracted by 2100. The cost for that would be US$7.5 trillion by 2100 – only 6% of the global military spend.

Of course, these numbers are a rough guide. But they do illustrate the crossroads at which we find ourselves.

The job to be done

Right now is the time to choose: without action, we’ll be locked into the pessimistic scenario within a decade. Nothing can justify burdening future generations with this enormous cost.

For success in either scenario, we need to do more than develop new technology. We also need new international legal, policy, and ethical frameworks to deal with its widespread use, including the inevitable environmental impacts.

Releasing large amounts of iron or mineral dust into the oceans could remove CO₂ by changing environmental chemistry and ecology. But doing so requires revision of international legal structures that currently forbid such activities.

Similarly, certain minerals can help remove CO₂ by increasing the weathering of rocks and enriching soils. But large-scale mining for such minerals will impact on landscapes and communities, which also requires legal and regulatory revisions.

And finally, direct CO₂ capture from the air relies on industrial-scale installations, with their own environmental and social repercussions.

Without new legal, policy, and ethical frameworks, no significant advances will be possible, no matter how great the technological developments. Progressive nations may forge ahead toward delivering the combined package.

The costs of this are high. But countries that take the lead stand to gain technology, jobs, energy independence, better health, and international gravitas.

– Eelco Rohling, professor of ocean and climate change at the Australian National University (ANU)

This article was first published by the World Economic Forum and The Conversation. Read the original article here.

Speak up for STEM and give facts a chance

As science and technology researchers, practitioners and enthusiasts, we feel very strongly that our community should think analytically and use scientific information to inform their decisions, as individuals and as a nation.

We hope our leaders in politics, business and in the media incorporate the lessons and findings of science and technology into their decision-making about health, energy, transport, land and marine use – and recognise the benefits of investing in great scientific breakthroughs and technological inventions.

But how do we ensure critical thinking is applied in decision-making? How do we incorporate and apply scientific findings and analysis in the formulation of policy, and encourage strong, strategic investment in research?

The only way is to become vocal and proactive advocates for STEM.

Scientists and technologists must see ourselves as not only experts in our field, but also as educators and ambassadors for our sector. Scientists are explicitly taught that our profession is based on logic; that it’s our job to present evidence and leave somebody else to apply it.

For people who’ve made a career of objectivity, stepping out of that mindset and into the murky world of politics and policy can be a challenge, but it’s a necessary one.

The planet is heading towards crises that can be solved by science – food and water security, climate change, health challenges, extreme weather events. It’s arguably never been more important for scientists and technologists to step outside our comfort zone and build relationships with the media, investors, and political leaders. We need to tell the stories of science and technology to solve the species-shaking challenges of our time.

A plethora of opportunities exist for STEM researchers and practitioners to improve and use their skills in communication, influence, marketing, business, and advocacy. As the peak body representing scientists and technologists, Science & Technology Australia hosts a variety of events to equip STEM professionals with the skills they need, while connecting them with the movers and shakers in those worlds.

Science meets Parliament is one of these valuable opportunities, and has been bringing people of STEM together with federal parliamentarians for 18 years. Others include Science meets Business and Science meets Policymakers.

We can provide the forum, but it’s up to STEM professionals to seize the opportunity by forging relationships with our nation’s leaders in politics, business and the media. We must ensure the voice of science is heard and heeded – not just on the day of an event, but every day.

Currently STEM enjoys rare bilateral political support; a National Innovation and Science Agenda; and a new Industry, Innovation and Science Minister, Senator Arthur Sinodinos, who has indicated his intention to continue to roll it out.

As we encounter our fourth science minister in three years, however, we cannot rest on our laurels and allow science and technology to slide down the list of priorities. Bigger challenges are also mounting, with the profession of science correspondent virtually dead in Australia and the international political culture favouring opinion and rhetoric over established fact and credibility.

Scientists and technologists must resist their natural tendency to humility, and proactively sort the nuggets of truth from the pan of silty half-truth. We must actively work to influence public debate by pushing evidence-based arguments into the media, and into the political discourse.

When our society starts assuming that we should make substantial and long-term investment in research; when the methods and findings of science and technology are routinely incorporated into shaping policy and making important decisions for the nation – we’ll consider our job to be well done.

Kylie Walker

CEO, Science & Technology Australia

Read next: Dr Maggie Evans-Galea, Executive Director of ATSE’s Industry Mentoring Network in STEM, paints a picture of Australia’s science and innovation future – one that requires a major cultural shift.

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L’Oréal Women in Science 2016

Featured image above: L’Oréal Women in Science fellow Dr Camilla Whittington. Credit: University of Sydney

Four researchers from the University of Sydney, the University of Wollongong and the University of Auckland were announced as the 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowships at a ceremony held in Melbourne on Tuesday.

Early-career veterinary scientists Dr Camilla Whittington and Dr Angela Crean joined chemists Dr Jenny Fisher and Dr Erin Leitao to receive $25,000 each towards a one-year project.

According to L’Oréal, the Women in Science fellowships were established to “support and recognise accomplished women researchers, encourage more young women to enter the profession and to assist them as they progress their careers”. The fellowships began in 1998, and have recognised over 2,000 women around the world since then.

From the University of Sydney:

“Both Dr Whittington and Dr Crean are early career researchers in the Faculty of Veterinary Science, working in the area of reproduction; both are in research positions funded through the Mabs Melville bequest in excess of $7.2m – one of the biggest gifts ever received by Veterinary Science.

Dr Crean’s work with sea squirts and fly sperm

Dr Angela Crean. Credit: L’Oréal

Dr Crean’s initial research, using the sea squirt as a model organism, showed males can adjust their sperm quality and quantity in response to a perceived risk that their sperm will have to compete against another male’s sperm to fertilise an egg. The sperm quality also had adaptive consequences for both fertilisation and offspring survival.

Similar work using the neriid fly showed sperm quality could be adjusted by the father’s diet and social environment.

The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship will allow Crean to conduct a proof-of-concept study supporting her transition from pure evolutionary research to practical applications in human reproductive health and medicine.

Dr Whittington’s research into pregnant lizards, fish and mammals

Dr Camilla Whittington. Credit: L’Oréal

Dr Whittington, who last year was one of five University of Sydney researchers who won a 2015 NSW Young Tall Poppy Science Award, is using cutting‐edge techniques to identify pregnancy genes – the instructions in an animal’s DNA causing them to have a live baby rather than laying an egg.

‘Pregnant lizards, fish and mammals face complex challenges, like having to provide nutrients to their embryos and protect them from disease,’ Whittington says.

‘My research suggests that these distantly related animals can use similar genetic instructions to manage pregnancy and produce healthy babies.’

Whittington’s fellowship will allow her to investigate how the complex placenta has evolved independently in mammals, lizards, and sharks to transport large quantities of nutrients to the fetus.”

This information on the L’Oréal women in science was first shared by the University of Sydney on 25 October 2016. Read the original article here.

From the University of Wollongong:

Dr Fisher’s research into compounds that contribute to climate change and air pollution

Dr Jenny Fisher. Credit: University of Wollongong

“Dr Jenny Fisher from UOW’s Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry studies how different emissions interact with one another.

‘When I was little, I was intrigued by outer space and I knew I wanted to work for NASA. As my career progressed I felt that understanding my own planet was more important to me, so I made the change to researching the chemistry of our atmosphere,’ Fisher says.

Through the financial support provided by the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship, Dr Fisher plans to develop an Australian atmospheric chemistry model, similar to those already successfully used in North America and Europe. Australia provides a unique globally-relevant lens for examining these processes due to the nation’s much lower presence of nitrogen oxides, pollutants that mainly come from human activities like driving cars and burning coal in power plants.

As stricter emission controls are enforced globally, the level of nitrogen oxides elsewhere in the world are predicted to decrease and Australia serves as a window to the expected future pollution outcomes.

The information provided from the model Dr Fisher works on will assist in predicting pollution amounts and their responses to future change. Australia’s much lower nitrogen oxide levels means this atmospheric model will also provide a novel insight into the pre-industrial atmosphere.

Currently, Dr Fisher can only investigate the Australian atmosphere by looking at large areas (~5 million hectares); however with the funding she will work on a more accurate ‘nested’ model, which can show what is occurring within an area more than 60 times smaller. This will enable her to increase the complexity of her atmospheric chemistry research and findings.

‘Winning the fellowship means I will finally be able to apply tools I have used in other global environments to problems that are specific to Australia. This work will help advance scientific understanding of the atmosphere on a global scale — while also providing new insight into what affects our local air quality,’ she says.

Dr Fisher’s work highlights her passion for communities to understand the impact we have on the environment. Her work in unlocking information about the chemistry of our atmosphere will improve our ability to make informed decisions in order to live in a sustainable way.”

This information on the L’Oréal women in science was first shared by the University of Wollongong on 25 October 2016. Read the original article here.
If you enjoyed the L’Oréal women in science, you might also enjoy: Prime Ministers Prizes for Science

Engineering solutions

From a purely engineering perspective, all real world problems are solvable. Nobody would choose to be a design engineer unless they deeply believed in their own ability to solve problems through creativity and a deliberate methodology – identify the problem, analyse it, build a prototype, test it, iterate, deliver the solution.

In the real world, of course, the challenges are much more difficult. Social, political and economic considerations prevail, often ruling out the elegant solutions that an engineering approach would suggest.

Let me give you an example: climate change. The problem is clear: global temperatures are rising, ice sheets are melting and oceans are acidifying. The analysis is clear: human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels for energy, are leading to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and are driving the problem. The imperative is clear: cut emissions – and do it quickly.

The pure engineering solution would involve massive installations of solar and wind, backed up by natural gas turbines, hydrogen storage, pumped hydro storage and battery storage to handle the intermittency, and investment in new hydroelectric and nuclear electricity generation.

“The challenge for engineers when it comes to these large-scale, socially complex issues is to work closely with colleagues across the humanities and social sciences to build solutions that communities can and will take forward.”

Once the existing electricity supply is decarbonised, the amount of low emissions electricity generated would be doubled or tripled so that liquid fossil fuels for transport and natural gas for heating could be rapidly replaced by low emissions electricity.

If only human affairs were so straightforward!

The challenge for engineers when it comes to these large-scale, socially complex issues is to work closely with colleagues across the humanities and social sciences to build solutions that communities can and will take forward.

But not all challenges are as wicked as climate change. The engineering method delivers handsomely in the corporate world, most often in collaboration with marketing, psychology and customer support systems. Smartphones, automobiles, improved building technologies and advanced materials are just some of the myriad examples.

The engineering method is also very applicable to organisational management. The evidence based, non-ideological problem solving approach of engineering can serve leaders from the shop floor to the corporate board.

When it comes to politics, in some countries (such as Germany) engineers are highly valued. But in Australia, they’re far less visible. I don’t know why that is so, but perhaps we need to be teaching charisma as a graduate attribute in Australian engineering faculties.

At the very least, we should be making crystal clear to our engineering students their opportunity to contribute to society outside of their profession.

Dr Alan Finkel AO

Australia’s Chief Scientist

Read next: Dr Anna Lavelle, CEO and Executive Director of AusBiotech on Innovation in Australian life sciences.

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The new carbon industry

The Paris 2015 agreement presented cities with a global challenge. “Buildings and cities contribute upwards of 40% of global carbon emissions,” says Professor Deo Prasad, CEO of the Low Carbon Living CRC (CRCLCL).

Leveraging the knowledge of researchers from the CSIRO and five of Australia’s top universities, as well as experts in the field, the CRCLCL is heading up efforts to deliver a low carbon built environment in Australia. Its ambitious aim is to cut residential and commercial carbon emissions by 10 megatonnes by 2020.

“The CRCLCL is at the forefront of driving technological and social innovation in the built environment to reduce carbon emissions,” says Prasad.

Recognised as a world-leading research organisation by the United Nations Environment Programme, the CRCLCL collaborates with industry partners like AECOM and BlueScope, and universities and governments.

“We’re looking to bring emissions down, and in the process we want to ensure global competitiveness for Australian industry by helping to develop the next generation of products, technologies, advanced manufacturing and consulting services,” says Prasad.

CRCLCL activities range from urban sustainable design and solar energy to software and community engagement.

“By working effectively with government, researchers and industry, we employ an ‘end-user’ driven approach to research that maximises uptake and utilisation,” says Prasad.

– Carl Williams


CO₂ cuts nutrition

Climate change is affecting the Earth, through more frequent and intense weather events, such as heatwaves and rising sea levels, and is predicted to do so for generations to come. Changes brought on by anthropogenic climate change, from activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, are impacting natural ecosystems on land and at sea, and across all human settlements.

Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) levels – which have jumped by a third since the Industrial Revolution – will also have an effect on agriculture and the staple plant foods we consume and export, such as wheat.

Stressors on agribusiness, such as prolonged droughts and the spread of new pests and diseases, are exacerbated by climate change and need to be managed to ensure the long-term sustainability of Australia’s food production.

Researchers at the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre (PICCC), a collaboration between the University of Melbourne and the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources in Victoria, are investigating the effects of increased concentrations of CO₂ on grain yield and quality to reveal how a more carbon-enriched atmosphere will affect Australia’s future food security.

CO₂ cuts nutrition
An aerial view of the Australian Grains Free Air CO₂ Enrichment (AGFACE) project, where researchers are investigating the effects of increased concentrations of carbon dioxide on grain yield and quality.

Increasing concentrations of CO₂ in the atmosphere significantly increase water efficiency in plants and stimulate plant growth, a process known as the “fertilisation effect”. This leads to more biomass and a higher crop yield; however, elevated carbon dioxide (eCO₂) could decrease the nutritional content of food.

“Understanding the mechanisms and responses of crops to eCO₂ allows us to focus crop breeding research on the best traits to take advantage of the eCO₂ effect,” says Dr Glenn Fitzgerald, a senior research scientist at the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources.

According to Fitzgerald, the research being carried out by PICCC, referred to as Australian Grains Free Air CO₂ Enrichment (AGFACE), is also being done in a drier environment than anywhere previously studied.

“The experiments are what we refer to as ‘fully replicated’ – repeated four times and statistically verified for accuracy and precision,” says Fitzgerald. “This allows us to compare our current growing conditions of 400 parts per million (ppm) CO₂ with eCO₂ conditions of 550 ppm – the atmospheric CO₂ concentration level anticipated for 2050.”

The experiments involve injecting CO₂ into the atmosphere around plants via a series of horizontal rings that are raised as the crops grow, and the process is computer-controlled to maintain a CO₂ concentration level of 550 ppm.

CO₂ cuts nutrition
Horizontal rings injecting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as part of the AGFACE project. Credit: AGFACE

“We’re observing around a 25–30% increase in yields under eCO₂ conditions for wheat, field peas, canola and lentils in Australia,” says Fitzgerald.

Pests and disease

While higher CO₂ levels boost crop yields, there is also a link between eCO₂ and an increase in viruses that affect crop growth.

Scientists at the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources have been researching the impact of elevated CO₂ levels on plant vector-borne diseases, and they have observed an increase of 30% in the severity of the Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BYDV).

CO₂ cuts nutrition
Higher CO₂ levels are linked with an increase in the severity of Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus.

Spread by aphids, BYDV is a common plant virus that affects wheat, barley and oats, and causes yield losses of up to 50%.

“It’s a really underexplored area,” says Dr Jo Luck, director of research, education and training at the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre. “We know quite a lot about the effects of drought and increasing temperatures on crops, but we don’t know much about how the increase in temperature and eCO₂ will affect pests and diseases.

“There is a tension between higher yields from eCO₂ and the impacts on growth from pests and diseases. It’s important we consider this in research when we’re looking at food security.”

This increased yield is due to more efficient photosynthesis and because eCO₂ improves the plant’s water-use efficiency.

With atmospheric CO₂ levels rising, less water will be required to produce the same amount of grain. Fitzgerald estimates about a 30% increase in water efficiency for crops grown under eCO₂ conditions.

But nutritional content suffers. “In terms of grain quality, we see a decrease in protein concentration in cereal grains,” says Fitzgerald. The reduction is due to a decrease in the level of nitrogen (N2) in the grain, which occurs because the plant is less efficient at drawing N2 from the soil.

The same reduction in protein concentration is not observed in legumes, however, because of the action of rhizobia – soil bacteria in the roots of legumes that fix N2 and provide an alternative mechanism for making N2 available.

“We are seeing a 1–14% decrease in grain-protein concentration [for eCO₂ levels] and a decrease in bread quality,” says Fitzgerald.

“This is due to the reduction in protein and because changes in the protein composition affect qualities such as elasticity and loaf volume. There is also a decrease of 5–10% in micronutrients such as iron and zinc.”

This micronutrient deficiency, referred to as “hidden hunger”, is a major health concern, particularly in developing countries, according to the International Food Research Policy Institute’s 2014 Global Hunger Index: The challenge of hidden hunger.

There could also be health implications for Australians. As the protein content of grains diminishes, carbohydrate levels increase, leading to food with higher caloric content and less nutritional value, potentially exacerbating the current obesity epidemic.

The corollary from the work being undertaken by Fitzgerald is that in a future CO₂-enriched world, there will be more food but it will be less nutritious. “We see an increase in crop growth on one hand, but a reduction in crop quality on the other,” says Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald says more research into nitrogen-uptake mechanisms in plants is required in order to develop crops that, when grown in eCO₂ environments, can capitalise on increased plant growth while maintaining N2, and protein, levels.

For now, though, while an eCO₂ atmosphere may be good for plants, it might not be so good for us.

– Carl Williams



Ocean acidity devastates corals

Featured image above by Kennedy Wolfe

Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere from activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation are changing the chemistry in the ocean. When carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is absorbed by seawater, it forms carbonic acid. The increased acidity, in turn, depletes carbonate ions – essential building blocks for coral exoskeletons.

There has been a drastic loss of live coral coverage globally over the past few decades. Many factors – such as changing ocean temperatures, pollution, ocean acidification and over-fishing – impede coral development. Until now, researchers have not been able to isolate the effects of individual stressors in natural ecosystems.

In an article published in Nature on 24 February 2016, researchers working at the University of Sydney’s One Tree Island Research Station at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) found that they could improve coral development by reversing the acidity of the reef waters.

“Our oceans contribute around $45 billion each year to the economy”

The international team – led by Dr Rebecca Albright from Stanford University in the USA – brought the acidity of the reef water back to what it was like in pre-industrial times by upping the alkalinity. They found that coral development was 7% faster in the less acidic waters.

“If we don’t take action on this issue very rapidly, coral reefs – and everything that depends on them, including wildlife and local communities – will not survive into the next century,” says team member Professor Ken Caldeira.

Destruction of the GBR would not only be a devastating loss because it’s considered one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, but would be a great economic blow for Australia.

Our oceans contribute around $45 billion each year to the economy through industries such as tourism, fisheries, shipping, marine-derived pharmaceuticals, and offshore oil and gas reserves. Marine tourism alone generates $11.6 million a year in Australia.

Impact of acidification on calcification

Corals absorb carbonate minerals from the water to build and repair their stoney skeletons, a process called calcification. Despite the slow growth of corals, calcification is a rapid process, enabling corals to repair damage caused by rough seas, weather and other animals. The process of calcification is so rapid it can be measured within one hour.

Manipulating the acidity of the ocean is not feasible. But on One Tree Island, the walls of the lagoons flanking the reef area isolate them from the surrounding ocean water at low tide – allowing researchers to investigate the effect of water acidity on coral calcification.

“We were able to look at the effect of ocean acidification in a natural setting for the first time,” says One Tree Reef researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, Kennedy Wolfe.

ocean acidity
The University of Sydney’s Kennedy Wolfe collecting water samples on One Tree Reef. Photo credit: Ken Caldeira

In the same week, an independent research team from CSIRO published results of mapping ocean acidification in the GBR. They found a great deal of variability between the 3851 reefs in the GBR, and identified the ones closest to the shore were the most vulnerable. These reefs were more acidic and their corals had the lowest calcification rates – results that supported the findings from One Tree Reef.

Marine biologists have predicted that corals will switch to a net dissolution state within this century, but the team from CSIRO found this was already the case in some of the reefs in the GBR.

“People keep thinking about [what will happen in] the future, but our research shows that ocean acidification is already having a massive impact on coral calcification” says Wolfe.

– Sue Min Liu

How Google taught an AI to play Go

Researchers at Google DeepMind have developed an artificial intelligence program  — AlphaGo — that can outgun a professional player at the ancient Chinese game of strategy, Go.

While it may not sound world changing, artificial intelligence (AI) developers use games to develop and test their algorithms, with the ultimate goal to apply these techniques to important real-world problems such as climate modelling to complex disease analyses, says CEO of DeepMind, Demis Hassabis,

The team published the algorithms used by AlphaGo in the journal Nature on January 27.

Nature Senior Editor, Dr Tanguy Chouard says that this achievement “will surely be seen as a historical milestone in artificial intelligence.”

DeepMind is a London-based artificial intelligence (AI) company co-founded by Hassabis, Shane Legg and Mustafa Suleyman in 2010, and acquired by Google in 2014.

“Go is probably the most complex game devised by man,” says Hassabis, with each move having 10 times more possible outcomes than in chess.

This complexity has proven to be a big obstacle for programmers of AI. Creating a program that can defeat a human expert player has long been considered the Holy Grail of AI developers.

Deep learning

Until AlphaGo beat a three-time reigning European Go champion, Go-playing programs have only been able to attain amateur status.

The DeepMind team previously used deep learning— a form of machine learning where programs model how humans learn— to train a computer to play video games by trial and error without providing any prior instructions; the computer performing better with each successive game to eventually surpass human players.

They published the research in Nature in February 2015.

To create AlphaGo, the research team integrated more than one deep learning technique. Silver says that the key was to reduce the search possibilities to something more manageable by limiting the search to moves most likely to win — teaching the program to think intuitively, more like a human player.

They “taught” the computer thousands of moves used by human Go players and allowed the machine to learn from trial and error by itself. Essentially, they succeeded where others had failed by adding human intelligence to their algorithms.

One of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, Marvin Minsky, passed away only days before the announcement of the success by AlphaGo. Minsky — who helped lay the foundations for artificial intelligence research — also believed that the solutions to the world’s most challenging problems could one day be solved by intelligent machines.
Sue Min Liu

Marine ecosystem impacts

Oceans cover about 71% of the Earth’s surface and contain more than 97% of the planet’s water. An estimated 80% of the world’s population lives within 100 km of the coast, and fish provide the bulk of the protein consumed by humans. But the marine ecosystem impacts of global warming on the biodiversity of ocean waters are difficult to determine.

Increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide – the result of activities such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation – are acidifying and warming the world’s oceans.

One of the most widely documented effects of warming, according to Dr Adriana Vergés, senior lecturer in marine biology at the University of New South Wales, is the widening distribution of tropical fish as they move away from equatorial waters towards the poles, resulting in increasing numbers of tropical species appearing in temperate waters.

Oceans of wealth
Dr Adriana Vergés, Marine Ecologist, UNSW, at Gordon’s Bay during Operation Crayweed. Photo by James Sherwood, Bluebottle Films.

The marine ecosystem impacts from this warming has profound implications for the underwater environment and marine life.

“Species have three options in response to changing conditions – they die, adapt or move,” explains Vergés. “We are seeing a lot of movement. And because the rate of change is so fast, the question is: will species be able to keep up?”

The intrusion of tropical fish to temperate waters, referred to as tropicalisation, could have far-reaching repercussions for the health of these waters, their biodiversity and the industries that rely on them.

“When the tropical fish arrive, they overgraze on the seaweed and the whole system begins to shift,” says Vergés. “And we’re starting to see this in oceanic waters around northern NSW, where algal forests are disappearing.”

“In Australia, the two largest fisheries are abalone and rock lobster, whose preferred habitats are algal forests and seagrass meadows. If you lose algal forests, the abalone industry will collapse, with significant consequences for the fishing industry and the economy.”

The Abalone Council Australia Ltd estimates about 4500 tonnes of wild abalone were harvested in Australian waters last year, worth around $180 million. And according to Southern Rock Lobster Ltd, in 2011–12 rock lobster fishing produced around 3000 tonnes, worth nearly $175 million.

Vergés, however, is working to reverse some of the damage to the algal forests that threaten this industry.

Together with a number of volunteers, she is involved in Operation Crayweed, a project that aims to re-introduce crayweed – a vital habitat for lobsters, abalone and crayfish – to the waters around Sydney.

“The project is looking to bring crayweed back to the whole of Sydney. We’ve re-planted crayweed, and it has started to come back – we’re now on to our third generation. It’s a really good news environmental story, and we hope the fisheries will benefit too,” she says.

As well as helping to save the fisheries industry and reduce the marine ecosystem impacts in temperate waters around Sydney, Vergés is also involved in the Scientists in Schools national program, where she sparks enthusiasm for the wonders of the underwater world in seven and eight-year-olds.

“It’s so rewarding – children are natural scientists and they ask all the right questions. Speaking to a group of them is the closest I’ve felt to being a rock star. And they love absolutely anything to do with the sea. They are the best audience without a doubt,” says Vergés.

– Carl Williams

Extreme researcher

“Curious, stubborn, argumentative – at times,” is how climate change researcher Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, research fellow at UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC), describes herself. Qualities which, combined with her passion for science, have seen her awarded an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA).

Extreme researcher

The award recognises the importance of her work on the influence of anthropogenic climate change on extreme weather events, and is supporting her research into a particular event that receives less attention than storms, floods or droughts, but potentially has more impact on human health and the environment.

“My research explores how heatwaves have changed, why they change, and how they will change in the future,” explains Perkins-Kirkpatrick, “as well as looking at how we measure them, and how to detect the human contribution from climate change that is affecting them.”

Heatwaves are prolonged periods of unusually hot weather and, according to the website Scorcher (developed by Perkins-Kirkpatrick), they kill more people annually than any other natural disaster. They can also damage infrastructure such as power supplies, which can become overloaded during peak air-conditioner use, and rail networks, where prolonged periods of intense heat can buckle train lines.

“Heatwaves are highly regional and very complex events, and are driven by changes in background temperatures due to climate change, but also things like weather systems, soil moisture, and long-term variability like the El Nino/Southern Oscillation,” explains Perkins-Kirkpatrick.

“Measuring them is not an easy task, as good quality daily temperature data are needed. Fortunately, there are good datasets available in Australia so we have a good picture of how they are changing here. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many parts of the world, such as South America, Africa and India.”

The subject matter sounds exciting but, according to Perkins-Kirkpatrick, she spends much of her time in front of a computer screen number-crunching.

“On a day-to-day basis, I’m processing big data from observations collected from all over Australia as well as those that are done globally. We’re not meteorologists, so we don’t go out and release weather balloons. For people like me, it’s very much about processing data,” says Perkins-Kirkpatrick.

The ability to analyse, interpret and discern trends in large datasets suggests Perkins-Kirkpatrick’s maths abilities are well honed. She admits, however, that a bad decision in high school has meant playing catch-up on her maths.

“Something that I didn’t do was keep up with my maths. I was pretty good at it in school, but I just never understood why I was learning differential equations, integrals … I just didn’t see the point. Lo and behold, I hit my career now, and I’m, ‘OK, whoops’,” she says.

Perkins-Kirkpatrick partly blames her older sister for this, who advised her not to take higher maths at school: “You’ll never need it,” her sister told her. So Perkins-Kirkpatrick’s advice to her younger self would be: “Don’t listen to your older sister, she doesn’t always know best.”

Although heatwaves are synonymous with summer, they can also develop in winter. They may not pack the punch of the sweltering temperatures experienced during summer, but they can have a disastrous effect on crops such as fruit trees, by interfering with their reproductive systems and inhibiting growth.

So how has climate change influenced heatwaves in the recent past, and what does the future hold?

“We can say with a high degree of certainty that heatwaves have increased since at least the 1950s,”explains Perkins-Kirkpatrick, “and that’s the case for pretty much everywhere on the globe where we’ve got good enough measurements.”

“Canberra over the last 50 years, for example, has seen a doubling in the number of heatwave days. Melbourne hasn’t seen much of a change in the number of heatwaves, but they have become hotter over the last 60 years. And Sydney has seen the heatwave season starting up to two or three weeks earlier.”

And the future looks anything but encouraging. According to Perkins-Kirkpatrick, the frequency, intensity and magnitude of heatwaves are all increasing, with frequency increasing fastest; and what is particularly concerning, these trends are also accelerating, meaning the rate of change is increasing too.

As with other areas of climate change research, Perkins-Kirkpatrick is attempting to make predictions; so it’s hardly surprising her favourite film reflects this.

Back to the Future is pretty much my favourite movie trilogy of all time,” she says, recalling her childhood. “I recently gave a talk on how, in climate change, we look into the future, and managed to slip in a reference to Back to the Future.”

– Carl Williams

Which businesses are at COP21 and why?

The 21st meeting of the Conference of the Parties (or COP21) is underway, with the goal of hammering out a deal to reduce global carbon emissions top of the agenda.

As well as leaders from 147 countries, there are a number of CEOs and senior managers of the world’s biggest corporations, industry associations and trade policymakers also present among the 50,000 attendees.

Business has a significant stake in the talks. Company representatives will play a key role in shaping the agenda and there are more than 180 business events planned in Paris.

The UN climate chief Christiana Figueres has called for “business involvement at the highest levels” at COP21, while UK prime minister, David Cameron, called for a stronger role for business in his address.

Climate change is “too large for governments alone to deal with” and businesses need “long-term certainty for investment,” he said.

So which are the businesses that participate in COP meetings? Will COP21 result in meaningful action by business or will it be another massive greenwashing exercise under the benevolent gaze of the United Nations?

Renewables and tech

While a wide range of industry sectors participate at COP meetings the usual suspects are not hard to identify.

First, there are the “good guys” – companies in the renewable energy business and technology companies offering products and services for environmental protection, energy efficiency, water and soil conservation, and “clean agriculture”.

Then, there are the “bad guys” – oil and gas companies, mining corporations, electricity generators and other fossil fuel-based industries, eagerly promoting their green credentials.

One of the good guys? Bill Gates promoting innovation at COP21. EPA/Ian Langsdon/Pool

But perhaps the most influential groups are the various industry and trade associations that directly and indirectly lobby policy makers.

Industry associations such as the Confederation of European Paper Industries, European Steel Association, European Association of Metals and the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers regularly lobby EU climate policy makers, advocating business friendly policies.

They also provide technical advice on their preferred climate policies, mobilise support from other industry associations and organise meetings and dinners between CEOs and policy makers.

A recent report by the Policy Studies Institute found that 77% of the Fortune 500 corporations lobbied climate policy makers through their trade associations.

Global carbon price

Every corporation, industry association, and myriad “responsible business” coalitions appear to agree that what business needs to agree on above all else is a global carbon price.

The economic logic is that a carbon price can incentivise low carbon innovation and provide a stable policy framework for business.

The problem of course is that a price on carbon and emissions trading, while being cost effective and efficient for business, will have little if any effect on absolute greenhouse emissions.

This is because it will take a relatively high carbon price (to the order of US$30–US$40 per ton according to experts) to shift investments to cleaner energy sources.

With the current price of carbon under the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme languishing at around US$6 a ton though, there is little incentive for companies to make these investments.

Plus, a price on carbon simply serves to raise the cost of fossil fuel energy and does nothing to lower the costs of alternative energy sources. All the major oil companies have internal carbon prices in place, yet they continue to invest in fossil fuels.

The likely result

COP21 will likely see businesses set aspirational goals committing to move to 100% renewable energy sources, they will make numerous climate pledges, and they will mobilise support for carbon pricing and emissions trading.

But there will be no concrete commitments or deadlines.

Business can already boast its support for COP21. A consortium of companies has given £25 million to the conference – for which it has taken flak from green groups.

Sponsors include some of the largest carbon emitters in the world: EDF Energy, Engie (which accounts for nearly half of France’s annual carbon output), Air France (which has opposed emissions reductions in the aviation sector), and BNP Paribas (one of the top ten global coal lending banks during 2005–2013). BMW, Coca-Cola and BT are also sponsors of the event.

Ultimately business involvement at COP21 will ensure there is no “distortion of competitiveness in the global market” as the International Chamber of Commerce Climate Working Group puts it.

And as long as business-friendly proposals continue to define climate policy, as they have in the past, there can never be any meaningful climate action.

Business as usual will continue, despite all the pledges and climate summits. Climate policy, friendly or otherwise, needs to drive business if new business models are to emerge – not the other way round.

Otherwise, as environmentalist Bill McKibben warns us “even before we run out of oil, we will be running out of planet”.

This article was first shared by The Conversation on 2 December 2015. Read the original article here.

Oceans of wealth

As the driest inhabited continent, and the country with the sixth largest coastline, Australia is poorly endowed with freshwater but fringed by huge expanses of ocean.

We often take it for granted but access to clean drinking water is a critical issue in a growing number of regions around the world. In Perth, drinking water has traditionally been sourced from surface water dams and groundwater reserves. But these supplies have significantly diminished since the 1980s through the combined impacts of rapid urban growth and protracted drought conditions. And with the southwest of Australia expected to suffer more severely than other parts of the continent from the impact of climate change, the situation is only expected to worsen.

The Water Corporation of Western Australia has been intensively exploring diversified options for boosting Perth’s drinking water, focusing on climate-independent sources. The most innovative option has been to use advanced treated wastewater to replenish groundwater resources impacted by the drying climate.

To help with their investigations, they turned to Curtin experts, including water chemist Dr Cynthia Joll. As Deputy Director of the Curtin Water Quality Research Centre (CWQRC), Joll is part of a team that researched the performance of the wastewater treatment procedures to make the process both safe and viable. Joll explains there are a large number of potential micropollutants that might need to be removed from a city’s wastewater before it can be safely recycled as drinking water. These include residual pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics, hormones and pain relief medications found in urine.

“The Centre developed the vast majority of the analytical methods for detecting these chemicals in treated wastewaters and then looked to see whether they were in secondary and tertiary – or advanced – treated wastewater,” says Joll.

The research ensured the WA Department of Health approved a pilot water recycling plant. The plant produced advanced treated wastewater of drinking quality, which was pumped into the groundwater aquifer. As a result, they completed a successful groundwater replenishment trial by the end of 2012, which was dubbed a “highly viable” option for securing WA’s drinking water supplies in the drying climate.

In late 2013, the WA government announced that groundwater replenishment was to go ahead as a major new climate-independent water source for Perth. It’s predicted that, by 2060, as much as 20% of Perth’s drinking water is likely to be supplied using this approach. The advanced treated wastewater will be used to replenish groundwater supplies that won’t be drawn for drinking purposes for decades. By the time it is added to Perth’s water supply and subjected to the drinking water treatment process, it will have been naturally filtered by passing through groundwater aquifers, Joll explains.

The CWQRC is also involved in a wide range of fundamental and applied research into other water quality issues. For Joll, who’s been fascinated by water quality chemistry for many years, it’s been particularly thrilling as a scientist to be involved in work of such high public significance. “To help bring it to full scale has been fabulous,” she says, adding that the success of the research means the work of the CWQRC is creating interest in other regions around the world that are already, or are anticipating, experiencing drinking water limitations.

Water resources
Ocean colour image from the MERIS instrument, European Space Agency (ESA).

Engineers at Curtin are also working on a water supply issue. As drinking water is pumped into cities, or wastewater is pumped out, small bubbles can form as the result of a drop in pressure from falling supplies in reservoirs or fluctuations in wastewater usage. These bubbles can damage the pumps that control supply.

Dr Kristoffer McKee, a lead researcher in Curtin’s rotating machine health monitoring project, and colleagues are analysing the vibrations made by the bubbles as they form. When the bubbles enter a pump, the pump applies pressure to the liquid, causing the bubbles to pop (implode) which releases energy. At its peak, millions of bubbles pop within milliseconds of each other.

“This popping eats away at the metal on the ‘impeller’ blades in the pump,” says McKee. As a result, this phenomenon decreases the pump’s ability to apply pressure and push the liquid in the desired direction. “It sounds like you’re pumping gravel.”

The process makes holes in the impeller blades, causing the pumps to seize up. But by the time technicians can detect the telltale sounds, the damage has already begun, says McKee. “It can cost many thousands of dollars to take a pump offline and change an impeller.” He says their approach has been to try to detect the start of the process, called cavitation, before damage becomes significant.

Building on the results of work by a University of Western Australia colleague, and in collaboration with Queensland University of Technology researchers, the Curtin University engineers placed accelerometers (sensors which measure acceleration associated with vibrations) on pumps in Queensland towns. They found they could use the data to map cavitation in 3D to show how a pump changes as cavitation occurs, says McKee.

“Once you see cavitation starting, you can stop your pump and make sure the pressure is correct,” he adds. It’s early days yet and the work needs more field testing, but the research could cut industry costs significantly.

“By 2060, as much as 20% of Perth’s drinking water is likely to be supplied by groundwater replenishment.”

Water resources
Ocean colour image from the MODIS instrument, NASA.

The push to apply research outcomes is strong across Curtin, including in the field of marine and freshwater research. Much of this work is carried out at the university under the auspices of the Australian Sustainable Development Institute, which brings Curtin researchers together on research proposals that relate to sustainable development.

“It’s all about tackling the key issues facing society,” explains the Institute’s Executive Director, Mike Burbridge. “We know that there’s increasing pressure on water and water resources. The cross-disciplinary approach is hugely important at Curtin, but especially in the sustainability space. Major innovations have come about by taking ideas from one area and applying them in another.”

An interdisciplinary approach to solving oceanographic problems has become a hallmark of Curtin’s Centre for Marine Science and Technology (CMST), which fosters research connections across the university’s Departments of Imaging and Applied Physics, Applied Geology, and Environment and Agriculture, as well as with external organisations such as the Western Australian Energy Research Alliance, the Integrated Marine Observing System and the Australian Maritime College.

“It sets us apart from other marine science groups around Australia. We seem to have carved quite a niche for doing that within the Southern Hemisphere and beyond,” says Dr Christine Erbe, Director of the CMST. Erbe is working with a multidisciplinary team at the CMST within Curtin’s physics department in the area of bioacoustics to monitor and analyse the sounds made by marine animals and people at the beach (see News, p6).

Water resources
Perth drinking water will be replenished with reclaimed and treated wastewater.

In one project, researchers are looking at how to detect sharks in the water using off-the-shelf sonar systems – the type used by private and commercial fishermen that work by emitting acoustic signals reflected off objects in the water. “Many of us have engineering and physics backgrounds and apply that to biology,” says Erbe.

Professor David Antoine, head of Curtin’s Remote Sensing and Satellite Research Group, applies his expertise in the opposite direction, combining his background as a biologist with the use of highly sophisticated physics techniques to interpret changes in ocean colour.

Ocean colour activity is affected by the amount and type of particulate matter present – from phytoplankton to sediment. This matter affects how light penetrates into, and is scattered by, water. It can be expressed in physical terms such as the absorption (how much light is taken in by the water itself, as well as the particles or dissolved substances it contains) and reflectance (how much light is being scattered back compared to how much enters at the surface).

“If you have strong absorption, the water will look darker and you will have less light coming out of the water,” explains Antoine. Less absorption results in more scattering of light and different ocean hues. Understanding the changing spectral signatures that result from this play of light enables scientists to quantify, for example, amounts of phytoplankton – the tiny plants that float in ocean surface waters and drive marine food chains.

“Like terrestrial plant life, phytoplankton contains many pigments, particularly chlorophyll,” says Antoine. “And chlorophyll absorbs preferentially in the blue range on the visible light spectrum.”

As phytoplankton concentration increases in an area of ocean, the spectral signature of the water shifts from deep to light blue, then to green or brown, indicating a very large concentration of phytoplankton and highly productive waters. This can be measured in surface waters using an instrument called a radiometer – deployable from a ship, for example, or across huge areas via satellites.

While referred to as ‘satellite imagery’, it involves more than looking at nice pictures, Antoine says. His team is doing a rigorous quantitative analysis of the measured signal on each pixel of the image to look at geophysical properties and determine attributes such as phytoplankton concentration. “That can mean millions of individual observations on just one image, and billions of them when many years of observations are collected over the entire planet.”

This kind of understanding can be applied, for example, in the local and global management of fish stocks, which rely on patterns of phytoplankton production. And because phytoplankton carry out photosynthesis – absorbing CO2 and releasing oxygen – understanding where, when and how much of this resource there is can provide vast amounts of information about the global carbon cycle. This, in turn, has major implications for managing climate change.

The potential significance of phytoplankton in this area is enormous, says Antoine, explaining that huge numbers of tiny plants floating across the world’s oceans act as a major sink for atmospheric carbon, sequestering around 50 gigatonnes of carbon per year. This is as much carbon fixation as is carried out by terrestrial plants, and the plankton uses about 500 times less biomass because it is more efficient at photosynthesis. A significant part of the CO2 released in the atmosphere by human activity is absorbed by this process and eventually sinks to the deep ocean and is buried in the ocean floor.

There’s perhaps no better indicator of how all of Earth’s habitats – marine, freshwater and terrestrial – are all intimately linked.

Karen McGhee

Data dungeons and dragons

Unearthed from the dungeon-like depths of a government building in Hobart, photographic data from aerial surveys is helping to protect the underwater forest home of Tasmania’s dragons. This dragons’ tale is a data reuse success story set against the threat of a warming world.

Giant kelp (Mycocystis pyrifera) grows in magnificent undersea forests, where it thrives in nutrient-rich, cool waters. Kelp forests can be 30 m high and reach the sea surface to sunbake as a floating canopy 40 m across, clearly visible from the air. Giant kelp is the foundation species for its ecological community, providing habitat to weedy sea dragons, big-bellied seahorses, abalone, sponges, corals and myriad other marine species.

These richly biodiverse habitats were thought to be in decline off Tasmania’s east coast but actual data was lacking. Professor Craig Johnson and Dr Piers Dunstan, researchers from the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), found the raw data they needed in archives of aerial survey photos going back to the 1940s. It was then that state governments began using ex-WW2 aircraft and photographic reconnaissance equipment to map coastlines, mostly for planning.

Fellow IMAS researcher Dr Neville Barrett used the same imagery in the late 1990s to undertake the first seabed habitat mapping of Tasmanian waters for marine protected area planning. “It’s classic data reuse. Those aerial surveys were done to map Tasmanian land-based features but we found we could also use the survey photos to study marine habitat,” Barrett said. “Craig and Piers dug up all the aerial photos of the east coast they could find and estimated the percentage of kelp cover in every bay, year by year. They identified a 90% decline in kelp cover between 1945 and 2000.”

Warmer oceans

Why the decline? Climate change is thought to be the main culprit. Oceanographic shifts first seen off Tasmania’s east coast in the 1970s coincided with IMAS’ observations of reduced kelp forests. During the period studied, noticeable strengthening of the East Australian Current created warmer ocean temperatures and reduced nutrient load, conditions which are unfavourable to kelp growth.

Kelp forests are among the most dynamic and productive ecosystems on Earth, yet are unknown to many Australians. Most people could name iconic terrestrial forests like the Daintree in Queensland but would struggle to name a comparable marine equivalent. In 2012, thanks to the work of the IMAS researchers and others, the giant kelp marine forests of southeast Australia became the first marine ecological community to be protected with an endangered listing under Australia’s national environmental laws.

New types of data, including image data from robotic submersibles (autonomous underwater vehicles or AUVs) and satellite data from advanced sensors, are aiding in conserving and managing marine environments. For example, a recent University of Tasmania project measured kelp beds from hyperspectral satellite data exploiting the species’ unique spectral signature.

Studies on restoring kelp communities are underway and, in a twist to the dragons’ tale, the original archive of irreplaceable aerial photos that helped protect their home has now been digitised. The data is now reusable by researchers anywhere.

“Wonderful outcomes like this become more and more possible every year as ANDS and other organisations enable access to more data and share it more readily,” said Barrett.

But, in the end, if we’re to preserve these iconic forests, we need to tackle the root cause, which is the changing ocean conditions. How the forests will ultimately fare in this warming world is a tale whose next chapter is yet to be written.

Story provided by Refraction Media

Originally published in Share, the newsletter magazine of the Australian National Data Service (ANDS).

More information means better predictions

In the era of ‘big data’, researchers are reaping the rewards and making better predictions from working with increasingly vast amounts of information about our planet. And datasets don’t get much larger than those used for modelling climatic events and simulating the impacts of global warming on the Earth’s surface.

The primary tools for modelling the climate are Atmosphere–Ocean General Circulation Models (AOGCMs). To improve the credibility of AOGCMs, the World Climate Research Programme established the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP). This facilitates comparison of different models to identify common deficiencies and stimulate investigation into their possible causes.

Better predictions: CMIP5

CMIP5 is the fifth phase of CMIP and a multi-model framework of unprecedented scale. It incorporates many more simulations than earlier versions, including those based on historical concentrations, experiments for investigating climate sensitivity, and four emission scenarios reflecting differing potential pathways to 2100.

Use of datasets produced by CMIP5 is widespread: several thousand researchers access the CMIP5 datasets via the Earth System Grid website, and 28 modelling groups worldwide work on models that input to CMIP5 activity. Over 1000 peer-reviewed papers using the datasets have been published in a range of respected climate journals, for example: Journal of Climate (184 papers), Geophysical Research Letters (129 papers), and Climate Dynamics (122 papers).

“Being the latest generation, the CMIP5 models are the most valuable resource we have in the field.”

In Australia, researchers at The Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, a partnership between the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO, have employed output from CMIP5 models to further our understanding of the current climate in the Pacific region and make better predictions about future climate.

The research, undertaken as part of the Pacific-Australia Climate Change Science Adaptation Planning (PACCSAP) program, provides insights into the current and future impacts of climate change on the Pacific and the implications for communities in the region.

The work further reinforces the strong credentials of climate research in Australia, which also boasts centres such as the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales (see Share issue 21).

One of the research streams of PACCSAP has projected the impact of extreme weather events, such as tropical cyclones, onto the region’s future climate. The output from CMIP5 models was key to simulating the conditions for the genesis and behaviour of tropical cyclones.

“Being the latest generation, the CMIP5 models are the most valuable resource we have in the field,” says Dr Sally Lavender, Research Scientist at CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere division. “The real advantage with CMIP5 is there are more models than the previous generation with a broader set of experiments, and all the models are much better in terms of sophistication. They also tend to be higher resolution and more have sub-daily time fields which, for modelling tropical cyclones, is very important.”

Dr Lavender is currently working to extend previous research using CMIP5 models to observe why and where cyclones form, and what determines their tracks. “We’re analysing the CMIP5 models to see how well they represent those processes in the real world to produce a selection of models that are good at representing tropical cyclones over the Australian region. We can then use these models to generate more informed projections of tropical cyclones under future climate scenarios.”

Research to date shows there is likely to be a reduction in the overall frequency of tropical cyclones in the Australian region; however, the proportion of high intensity cyclones is likely to increase. That needs to be taken into account in future building standards and disaster readiness planning.

Story provided by Refraction Media.

Originally published in Share, the newsletter magazine of the Australian National Data Service (ANDS).

Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science

Australian scientists and science educators have been honoured at the annual Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science. The awards, introduced in 2000, are considered Australia’s most prestigious and highly regarded awards, and are given in recognition of excellence in scientific research, innovation and science teaching.

The awards acknowledge and pay tribute to the significant contributions that Australian scientists make to the economic and social betterment in Australia and around the world, as well as inspiring students to take an interest in science.

Previous winners include Professor Ryan Lister (Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year in 2014) for his work on gene regulation in agriculture and in the treatment of disease and mental health, and Debra Smith (Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools in 2010) for her outstanding contribution in redefining how science is taught in Queensland and across the rest of Australia.

This year’s winners were announced by the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra yesterday, which was also attended by the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb.

The 2015 recipients are:

This year’s winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science is Professor Graham Farquhar, Distinguished Professor of the Australian National University’s (ANU) Research School of Biology , a Chief Investigator of the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis, and leader of the Science and Industry Endowment Fund project on Forests for the Future: making the most of a high [CO2] world.

Professor Farquhar’s models of plant biophysics has led to a greater understanding of cells, whole plants and forests, as well as the creation of new water-efficient wheat varieties. His work has transformed our understanding of the world’s most important biological reaction: photosynthesis.

Farquhar’s most recent research on climate change is seeking to determine which trees will grow faster in a carbon dioxide enriched atmosphere. “Carbon dioxide has a huge effect on plants. My current research involves trying to understand why some species and genotypes respond more to CO2 than others,” he says. And he and colleagues have uncovered a conundrum: global evaporation rates and wind speeds over the land are slowing, which is contrary to the predictions of most climate models. “Wind speed over the land has gone down 15% in the last 30 years, a finding that wasn’t predicted by general circulation models we use to form the basis of what climate should be like in the future,” he says. This startling discovery means that climate change may bring about a wetter world.

“Our world in the future will be effectively wetter, and some ecosystems will respond to this more than others.”

Professor Farquhar will also receive $250,000 in prize money. Looking forward he is committed to important projects, such as one with the ARC looking at the complex responses of plant hydraulics under very hot conditions.

“It’s important to understand if higher temperatures will negatively affect the plants in our natural and managed ecosystems, and if higher temperatures are damaging, we need to understand the nature of the damage and how we can minimise it.”

You can find out more about the 2015 winners including profiles, photos and videos here.

– Carl Williams

Fuelling the future

The complex engineering that drives renewable energy innovation, global satellite navigation, and the emerging science of industrial ecology is among Curtin University’s acknowledged strengths. Advanced engineering is crucial to meeting the challenges of climate change and sustainability. Curtin is addressing these issues in several key research centres.

Bioenergy, fuel cells and large energy storage systems are a focus for the university’s Fuels and Energy Technology Institute (FETI), launched in February 2012. The institute brings together a network of more than 50 researchers across Australia, China, Japan, Korea, Denmark and the USA, and has an array of advanced engineering facilities and analytic instruments. It also hosts the Australia-China Joint Research Centre for Energy, established in 2013 to address energy security and emissions reduction targets for both countries. 

Curtin’s Sustainable Engineering Group (SEG) has been a global pioneer in industrial ecology, an emerging science which tracks the flow of resources and energy in industrial areas, measures their impact on the environment and works out ways to create a “circular economy” to reduce carbon emissions and toxic waste.

And in renewable energy research, Curtin is developing new materials for high temperature fuel cell membranes, and is working with an award-winning bioenergy technology that will use agricultural crop waste to produce biofuels and generate electricity.

Solar’s big shot

Curtin’s hydrogen storage scientists are involved in one of the world’s biggest research programs to drive down the cost of solar power and make it competitive with other forms of electricity generation such as coal and gas. They are contributing to the United States SunShot Initiative – a US$2 billion R&D effort jointly funded by the US Department of Energy and private industry partners to fast track technologies that will cut the cost of solar power, including manufacturing for solar infrastructure and components.

SunShot was launched in 2011 as a key component of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to double the amount of renewable energy available through the grid and reduce the cost of large-scale solar electricity by 75%.

Professor Craig Buckley, Dean of Research and Professor of Physics at Curtin’s Faculty of Science and Engineering, is the lead investigator on an Australian Research Council Linkage Project on energy storage for Concentrating Solar Power (CSP), and a chief investigator with the SunShot CSP program. His team at Curtin’s Hydrogen Storage Research Group is using metal hydrides to develop a low cost hydrogen storage technology for CSP thermal energy plants such as solar power towers.

CSP systems store energy in a material called molten salts – a mixture of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate, which are common ingredients in plant fertilisers. These salts are heated to 565°C, pumped into an insulated storage tank and used to produce steam to power a turbine to generate electricity. But it’s an expensive process. The 195 m tall Crescent Dunes solar power tower in Nevada – one of the world’s largest and most advanced solar thermal plants – uses 32,000 tonnes of molten salt to extend operating hours by storing thermal energy for 10 hours after sunset.

Metal hydrides – compounds formed by bonding hydrogen with a material such as calcium, magnesium or sodium – could replace molten salts and greatly reduce the costs of building and operating solar thermal power plants. Certain hydrides operate at higher temperatures and require smaller storage tanks than molten salts. They can also be reused for up to 25 years.

At the Nevada plant, molten salt storage costs an estimated $150 million, – around 10–15% of operation costs, says Buckley. “With metal hydrides replacing molten salts, we think we can reduce that to around $50–$60 million, resulting in significantly lower operation costs for solar thermal plants,” he says. “We already have a patent on one process, so we’re in the final stages of testing the properties of the process for future scale-up. We are confident that metal hydrides will replace molten salts as the next generation thermal storage system for CSP.”

From biomass to fuel

John Curtin Distinguished Professor Chun-Zhu Li is lead researcher on a FETI project that was awarded a grant of $5.2 million by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency in 2015 to build a pilot plant to test and commercialise a new biofuel technology. The plant will produce energy from agricultural waste such as wheat straw and mallee eucalypts from wheatbelt farm forestry plantations in Western Australia.

“These bioenergy technologies will have great social, economic and environmental benefits,” says Li. “It will contribute to the electricity supply mix and also realise the commercial value of mallee plantations for wheatbelt farmers. It will make those plantations an economically viable way of combating the huge environmental problem of dryland salinity in WA.”

Li estimates that WA’s farms produce several million tonnes of wheat straw per year, which is discarded as agricultural waste. Biomass gasification is a thermochemical process converting biomass feedstock into synthesis gas (syngas) to generate electricity using gas engines or other devices.

One of the innovations of the biomass gasification technology developed at FETI is the destruction of tar by char or char-supported catalysts produced from the biomass itself. Other biomass gasification systems need water-scrubbing to remove tar, which also generates a liquid waste stream requiring expensive treatment, but the technology developed by Li’s team removes the tar without the generation of any wastes requiring disposal. This reduces construction and operation costs and makes it an ideal system for small-scale power generation plants in rural and remote areas.

Li’s team is also developing a novel technology to convert the same type of biomass into liquid fuels and biochar. The combined benefits of these bioenergy/biofuel technologies could double the current economic GDP of WA’s agricultural regions, Li adds. future scale-up. We are confident that metal hydrides will replace molten salts as the next generation thermal storage system for CSP.”

Keeping renewables on grid

Professor Syed Islam is a John Curtin Distinguished Professor with Curtin’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computing. It’s the highest honour awarded by the university to its academic staff and recognises outstanding contributions to research and the wider community. Islam has published widely on grid integration of renewable energy sources and grid connection challenges. In 2011, he was awarded the John Madsen Medal by Engineers Australia for his research to improve the prospect of wind energy generation developing grid code enabled power conditioning techniques.

Islam explains that all power generators connected to an electricity network must comply with strict grid codes for the network to operate safely and efficiently. “The Australian Grid Code specifically states that wind turbines must be capable of uninterrupted operation, and if electrical faults are not immediately overridden, the turbines will be disconnected from the grid,” he says.

“Wind energy is a very cost effective renewable technology. But disturbances and interruptions to power generation mean that often wind farms fall below grid code requirements, even when the best wind energy conversion technology is being used.”

Islam has led research to develop a system that allows a faster response by wind farm voltage control technologies to electrical faults and voltage surges. It has helped wind turbine manufacturers meet grid regulations, and will also help Australia meet its target to source 20% of electricity from renewable energy by 2020.

Islam says micro-grid technology will also provide next-generation manufacturing opportunities for businesses in Australia. “There will be new jobs in battery technology, in building and operating micro-grids and in engineering generally,” he says.

“By replacing the need for platinum catalysts, we can make fuel cells much cheaper and more efficient, and reduce dependence on environmentally damaging fossil fuels.”

Cutting fuel cell costs

Professor San Ping Jiang from FETI and his co-researcher Professor Roland De Marco at University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland recently received an Australian Research Council grant of $375,000 to develop a new proton exchange membrane that can operate in high-temperature fuel cells. It’s a materials engineering breakthrough that will cut the production costs of fuel cells, and allow more sustainable and less polluting fuels such as ethanol to be used in fuel cells.

Jiang, who is based at Curtin’s School of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, has developed a silica membrane that can potentially operate at temperatures of up to 500°C. Fuel cells directly convert chemical energy of fuels suchas hydrogen, methanol and ethanol into electricity and provide a lightweight alternative to batteries, but they are currently limited in their application because conventional polymer-based proton exchange membranes perform most efficiently at temperatures below 80°C. Jiang has developed a membrane that can operate at 500°C using heteropoly acid functionalised mesoporous silica – a composite that combines high proton conductivity and high structural stability to conduct protons in fuel cells. His innovation also minimises the use of precious metal catalysts such as platinum in fuel cells, reducing the cost.

“The cost of platinum is a major barrier to the wider application of fuel cell technologies,” Jiang says. “We think we can reduce the cost significantly, possibly by up to 90%, by replacing the need for platinum catalysts. It will make fuel cells much cheaper and more efficient, and reduce dependence on environmentally damaging fossil fuels.”

He says the high temperature proton exchange membrane fuel cells can be used in devices such as smartphones and computers, and in cars, mining equipment and communications in remote areas.

Doing more with less

The SEG at Curtin University has been involved in energy efficiency and industrial analysis for just over 15 years. It’s been a global leader in an emerging area of sustainability assessment known as industrial ecology, which looks at industrial areas as ‘ecosystems’ that can develop productive exchanges of resources.

Associate Professor Michele Rosano is SEG’s Director and a resource economist who has written extensively on sustainability metrics, charting the life cycles of industrial components, carbon emission reduction and industrial waste management. They’re part of a process known as industrial symbiosis – the development of a system for neighbouring industries to share resources, energies and by-products. “It’s all about designing better industrial systems, and doing more with less,” Rosano says.

Curtin and SEG have been involved in research supported by the Australian’s Government’s Cooperative Research Centres Program to develop sustainable technologies and systems for the mineral processing industry at the Kwinana Industrial Area, an 8 km coastal industrial strip about 40 km south of Perth. The biggest concentration of heavy industries in Western Australia, Kwinana includes oil, alumina and nickel refineries, cement manufacturing, chemical and fertiliser plants, water treatment utilities and a power station that uses coal, oil and natural gas.

Rosano says two decades of research undertaken by Curtin at Kwinana is now recognised as one of the world’s largest and most successful industrial ecology projects. It has created 49 industrial symbiosis projects, ranging from shared use of energy and water to recovery and reuse of previously discarded by-products.

“These are huge and complex projects which have produced substantial environmental and economic benefits,” she says. “Kwinana is now seen as a global benchmark for the way in which industries can work together to reduce their footprint.”

An example of industrial synergies is waste hydrochloric acid from minerals processing being reprocessed by a neighbouring chemical plant for reuse in rutile quartz processing. The industrial ecology researchers looked at ways to reuse a stockpile of more than 1.3 million tonnes of gypsum, which is a waste product from the manufacture of phosphate fertiliser and livestock feeds. The gypsum waste is used by Alcoa’s alumina refinery at Kwinana to improve soil stability and plant growth in its residue areas.

The BP oil refinery at Kwinana also provides hydrogen to fuel Perth’s hydrogen fuel-cell buses. The hydrogen is produced by BP as a by-product from its oil refinery and is piped to an industrial gas facility that separates, cleans and pressurises it. The hydrogen is then trucked to the bus depot’s refuelling station in Perth.

Rosano says 21st century industries “are serious about sustainability” because of looming future shortages of many raw materials, and also because research has demonstrated there are social, economic and environmental benefits to reducing greenhouse emissions.

“There is a critical need for industrial ecology, and that’s why we choose to focus on it,” she says. “It’s critical research that will be needed to save and protect many areas of the global economy in future decades.”

in text

Planning for the future

Research by Professor Peter Teunissen and Dr Dennis Odijk at Curtin’s Department of Spatial Sciences was the first study in Australia to integrate next generation satellite navigation systems with the commonly used and well-established Global Positioning System (GPS) launched by the United States in the 1990s.

Odijk says a number of new systems are being developed in China, Russia, Europe, Japan, and India, and it’s essential they can interact successfully. These new Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) will improve the accuracy and availability of location data, which will in turn improve land surveying for locating mining operations and renewable energy plants.

“The new systems have an extended operational range, higher power and better modulation. They are more robust and better able to deal with challenging situations like providing real-time data to respond to bushfires and other emergencies,” says Odijk.

“When these GNSS systems begin operating over the next couple of years, they will use a more diverse system of satellites than the traditional GPS system. The challenge will be to ensure all these systems can link together.”

Integrating these systems will increase the availability of data, “particularly when the signals from one system might be blocked in places like open-pit mines or urban canyons – narrow city streets with high buildings on both sides.”

Teunissen and Odijk’s research on integrating the GNSS involves dealing with the complex challenges of comparing estimated positions from various satellites, as well as inter-system biases, and developing algorithms. The project is funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information, and includes China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, which is now operating across the Asia-Pacific region.

Rosslyn Beeby

Forest decline is slowing

Forests worldwide are declining but the rate of decline is slowing due to improved forest management, according to the most comprehensive long-term forest survey ever completed.

The review of 25 years of forest management in 234 countries was conducted by Dr Sean Sloan and Dr Jeff Sayer of James Cook University, in conjunction with dozens of international researchers and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

The study found that the global deforestation rate since 2010 – 3.3 million hectares per year – is less than half that during the 1990s (7.2 million hectares per year).

This global slowdown is due to better management of tropical forests. Since 2010 the tropics lost 5.5 million hectares of forest per year, compared to 9.5 million hectares per year during the 1990s.

Sub-tropical, temperate, and boreal climatic regions had relatively stable forest areas.

Logging operation in Sumatra.
Logging operation in Sumatra.

Satellite data showed tropical forests degraded (damaged but not cleared) since 2000 are six times as extensive as all tropical deforestation since 1990, far more than in other climatic regions.

“While some of this tropical degradation reflects the temporary impacts of logging, the real fear is that much is the leading edge of gradual forest conversion,” Sloan says.

High rates of tropical deforestation and degradation mean that tropical forests were a net emitter of carbon to the atmosphere, unlike forests of other climatic regions.

“But tropical forests are emitting only slightly more carbon than they are absorbing from the atmosphere due to regrowth, so with slightly better management they could become a net carbon sink and contribute to fighting climate change,” Sloan says.

Despite growing demand for forest products, rates of plantation afforestation have fallen since the 2000s and are less than required to stop natural forest exploitation. Demand for industrial wood and wood fuel increased 35% in the tropics since 1990.

“The planting of forests for harvest is not increasing as rapidly as demand, so natural forests have to take the burden,” Sloan says.

Northern, richer countries had steady or increasing forest areas since 1990. Their forests are increasingly characterised by plantations meant for harvest.

While natural forests expanded in some high-income countries, collectively they declined by 13.5 million hectares since 1990, compared to a gain of 40 million hectares for planted forests.

Sloan says that investment in forest management in poorer tropical countries where management and deforestation were worst may herald significant environmental gains.

“But attention must extend beyond the forest sector to agricultural and economic growth, which is rapid in many low-income and tropical countries and which effect forests greatly,” Sayer says.

Background to Study

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) released the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015 (FRA 2015) on September 7 2015. The FAO began publishing FRA reports in 1948 to assess the global state of forest resources, given concerns over shortages of forest products. The FAO has published FRA reports at regular intervals since on the basis of individual reports from countries, numbering 234 for the FRA 2015. FRA reports now survey a wide array of forest ecological functions, designations, and conditions in addition to forest areas for each country.

For the first time, the FRA 2015 report was realised by dozens of international experts who undertook independent analyses of FRA data, resulting in 13 scholarly articles published in a special issue of the journal Forest Ecology and Management (2015 volume 352).

The data and trends highlighted in these articles are a significant advance for the global scientific and conservation communities. This article constitutes one of 13 published in Forest Ecology and Management and integrates their major findings.

This article was first published by James Cook University on 8 September 2015. Read the original article here.

Building power by concentrating light

South Australian company HeliostatSA has partnered with Indian company Global Wind Power Limited to develop a portfolio of projects in India and Australia over the next four years. It will begin with an initial 150 megawatts in Concentrated Solar Powered (CSP) electricity in Rajashtan, Indian using a solar array.

The projects are valued at $2.5 billion and will further cement HeliostatSA as a leader in the global renewable energy sector.

Heliostat CEO Jason May says India had made a commitment to reaching an investment target of USD $100 billion of renewable energy by 2019 and has already secured $20 billion.

“India is looking for credible, renewable energy partners for utility scale projects,’’ says May.

“We bring everything to the table that they require such as size, project development experience, capital funding, field design capability, the latest technology, precision manufacturing and expertise.’’

Each solar array is made of thousands of heliostats, which are mirrors that track and reflect the suns thermal energy on to a central receiver. The energy is then converted into electricity. Each HeliostatSA mirror is 3.21 x 2.22 metres with optical efficiency believed to be the most accurate in the world. This reduces the number of mirrors required, reducing the overall cost of CSP while still delivering the same 24-hour electricity outputs.

The heliostats and their high tech components are fabricated using laser mapping and steel cutting technology.

The mirrors are slightly parabolic and components need to be cut and measured to exact requirements to achieve the strict operational performance.

“There is strong global interest in CSP with thermal storage for 24-hour power. At the moment large-scale batteries which also store electricity are very expensive. Constant advances in CSP storage technology over the next 10 years will only add to the competitive advantage,’’ says May.

– John Merriman

This article was first published by The Lead South Australia on 25 August 2015. Read the original article here.

Big data to solve global issues

Curtin University’s spatial sciences teams are using big data, advanced processing power and community engagement to solve social and environmental problems.

Advanced facilities and expertise at Perth’s Pawsey Supercomputing Centre support the Square Kilometre Array – a multi-array telescope due to launch in 2024 – and undertake high-end science using big data.

Individual computers at the $80 million facility have processing power in excess of a petaflop (one quadrillion floating point operations per second) – that’s 100,000 times the flops handled by your average Mac or PC.

Curtin University is a key participant in iVEC, which runs the Pawsey Centre, and a partner in the CRC for Spatial Information. As such, it is at the forefront of research efforts to use big data to solve global issues.

For instance, says the head of Curtin’s Department of Spatial Sciences Professor Bert Veenendaal, the university’s researchers are using Pawsey supercomputers to manage, compile and integrate growing volumes of data on water resources, land use, climate change and infrastructure.

“There is a rich repository of information and knowledge among the vast amounts of data captured by satellites, ground and mobile sensors, as well as the everyday usage information related to people carrying mobile devices,” he says.

“Increasing amounts of data are under-utilised because of a lack of knowhow and resources to integrate and extract useful knowledge,” he explains.

“Big data infrastructures coupled with increasing research in modelling and knowledge extraction will achieve this.”

Curtin’s projects include mapping sea-level rise and subsidence along the Western Australian coastline near Perth, generating high-resolution maps of the Earth’s gravity field and modelling climate over regional areas, such as Bhutan in South-East Asia, across multiple time scales.

Some research projects have the potential to expand and make use of big data in the future, particularly in the area of community development.

In one such project, the team worked with members of a rural community in the Kalahari Desert, Botswana, to collect information and map data using geographic information science. 

This helped the local community to determine the extent of vegetation cover in their local area, water access points for animals and how far the animals travelled from the water points to food sources.

Using this data, one local woman was able to create a goat breeding business plan to develop a herd of stronger animals. 

According to Veenendaal, there is potential for big data to be used for many regional and national issues. 

“Projects like this have the potential to provide data acquisition, analysis and knowledge that will inform intelligent decision-making about land use and community development on local, regional and national scales,” he says.

While procuring more funding for the Botswana project, Curtin’s researchers are planning future big data projects, such as applying global climate change models to regional areas across multiple time scales, and bringing together signals from multiple global navigation satellite systems, such as the USA’s GPS, China’s BeiDou and the EU’s Galileo. – Laura Boness




High-altitude climate change to kill cloud forest plants

Australian scientists have discovered many tropical, mountaintop plants won’t survive global warming, even under the best-case climate scenario.

James Cook University and Australian Tropical Herbarium researchers say their climate change modelling of mountaintop plants in the tropics has produced an “alarming” finding. 

They found many of the species they studied will likely not be able to survive in their current locations past 2080 as their high-altitude climate changes. 

The Wet Tropics World Heritage Area in Queensland, Australia is predicted to almost completely lose its ability to host the endemic plants that grow 1000 metres or more above sea level.

Lead researcher, Dr Craig Costion says the findings have important implications for some rare and ancient species. “They already live on mountain tops, they have no other place to go,” he says.

The scientists looked at 19 plant species in the tropics found at least 1000 metres above sea level. They modelled three climate change scenarios in the region, ranging from conservative to extreme.

They found that by 2040 the climate niche the species grow in would decline anywhere between a minimum of 17% and a maximum of 100%.

By 2080, even using conservative assumptions, nearly half of the plants would not have what the scientists believe is a survivable climate.

The data show that between 2040 and 2060, 8–12 species will be at risk of extinction.

Predictions indicate that by 2080 no suitable habitat will exist within the region for 84% of the species studied under any emissions scenario.

Costion says there were some caveats on the findings.

“Our study indicates that the current climate on Queensland’s mountaintops will virtually disappear. What we don’t know is if these plants can adapt.”

The researchers looked only at endemic trees and shrubs found solely above 1000 metres and for which there were the best records. They didn’t consider reasons for their presence on mountaintops apart from climate suitability. But Costion says he was confident the scientists were not being alarmist.

“The 19 species represent most of the plants that are restricted to that habitat. It’s highly likely they are found only there because of the climate. There are plenty of other similar soil and substrate environments at lower elevations where they could grow but the climate is unsuitable,” he says.

Costion says plans are underway to confirm and expand on the findings.

Co-author Professor Darren Crayn says the findings show well managed conservation reserves may be safe from many threats, but not from climate change, with the Wet Tropics World Heritage area seriously exposed.

“The tropics contain most of the world’s biodiversity, and tropical mountains are particularly rich in unique and rare species. Managing for global threats such as climate change requires much better information – a redoubling of research efforts on these poorly understood landscapes would pay great dividends,” he says.

He says without a suitable environment, the survival of the threatened species may depend on them being grown in botanical gardens under controlled conditions.

This article was first published by James Cook University on 3 August 2015. Read more JCU news, here.

No silver bullets

NOT ENOUGH, AND TOO much: that’s the core problem we face globally when it comes to energy and climate change. Demand for energy is booming: it’s forecast to rise 56% by 2040 from 2010 levels. More than 85% of this increase will come from countries outside the club of rich nations, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Energy prices are rising, and there’s a race on to drill oil and gas fields, dig coal mines and build power plants. It’ll get even more frenzied beyond 2040 as India, Brazil and China ride the wealth curve higher.
But today, too much energy – 87% – comes from fossil fuels, energy sources that exacerbate climate change. Despite notable efforts to reduce emissions, fossil fuels will remain the dominant energy source: by 2040 renewables – like hydro, wind, solar and biomass – are forecast to contribute 15% to our coming needs, just four points up from 2010.
What to do? Ignoring the human contribution to climate change is one way to react, but reality has a habit of catching up with you: if 97% of peer-reviewed science says industrial activity is the cause, and that economically catastrophic changes will result, it’s a brave soul who bets otherwise. As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently quipped, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”.
The problem with greenhouse gases is that they stay in the atmosphere for decades, even centuries, with new tonnage piling up on previous years’. And with demand booming, global policymakers are worried enough to consider the seemingly unthinkable: a shift away from fossil fuels entirely.
“To combat climate change, reducing emissions will simply not be enough – we need to eliminate them altogether,” said Ángel Gurría, secretary-general of the OECD, when handing down a new report in October 2013. “We need to achieve zero emissions from fossil fuel sources by the second half of the century.”
That’s a hell of a challenge.
In innovation terms, there are two ways forward: to boost efficiency and extract more energy from fossil fuels, thereby getting more bang per tonne of greenhouse gas emitted; or to commercialise zero-emission technologies.
It’s the latter where innovation is stuck in the narrow band of wind and solar, and advocates of these technologies do everyone a disservice by pretending they can meet all demand. In energy, there are no silver bullets.
In Canada recently, a brave band of scientists, engineers and policy specialists tackled this head-on. Could the world really move away from fossil fuels this century; would such a shift be possible, much less achievable? The answer entails planning technology pathways over a 60-year time-scale, and developing promising technologies.
“We hoped we would emerge with pragmatic next steps for a global energy transition,” says Jatin Nathwani, an engineering professor and energy specialist at Canada’s University of Waterloo, one of the scientific advisors.
The resulting report, Equinox Blueprint: Energy 2030, does just that.

It proposes five technological pathways: develop large-scale electricity storage for wind and solar plants, removing the problem of intermittent supply; explore enhanced geothermal deep drilling by creating 10 commercial-scale, 50 megawatt demonstration projects worldwide, run as public-private partnerships, which freely share knowledge (reducing the technical and financial risks for commercial players); accelerate and deploy organic photovoltaic technologies for the 1.5 billion people who live in off-grid communities; and pursue sustained research of advanced nuclear reactor designs – such as the Integral Fast Reactor – which offer inherent safety and allow most high-level radioactive waste to be ‘burned’ as energy is generated.

And finally, ‘smart urbanisation’: roll out 2000 new and existing ICT technologies – plus the larger-scale use of smart grids and superconductors for transmission and distribution in dense urban settings – to make cities more efficient and reduce emissions.
Where would the money come from? One source is suggested by the same OECD report: abandon the tax breaks OECD countries give to oil and gas producers, which are worth between US$55 billion and US$90 billion a year.

WilsondaSilvaWilson da Silva is the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of COSMOS science magazine, and he chaired the Equinox Summit: Energy 2030 meeting in Canada.