Tag Archives: Great Barrier Reef

microplastics

Seafood Industry Australia responds to microplastics in Great Barrier Reef fish

The paper, “Classification of marine microdebris: A review and case study on fish from the Great Barrier Reef, Australia” was published in Scientific Reports by researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

The paper reveals the diverse and prevalent nature of ingested debris in coral trout from the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) World Heritage Area. Marine debris, including small amounts of microplastics, was found in 95% of the fish collected. CEO of Seafood Industry Australia (SIA), Jane Lovell, responded by saying that “this research is a cause for concern, but ultimately more research needs to be done.”

In the paper, the marine debris ingested by 20 coral trout were examined using methods such as Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectroscopy. The debris was classified into three categories: synthetic, semi-synthetic and naturally-derived.

Synthetics include all microplastics, such as nylon, polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyester and polyurethane. Semi-synthetic materials are manufactured synthetically from one or more substances of natural origin (e.g. rayon derived from cellulose) or a composite of both naturally-derived and synthetic materials. Naturally-derived materials include natural fibres derived from plants or animals.

Marine debris was found in 19 of the 20 trout analysed, with a total of 172 individual items collected from the fish. Of these items, 52% were classified as semi-synthetic, 42% as naturally-derived, and 6% as synthetic. These results correlate well with other literature on ingested microdebris in fish. Studies revealed a prevalence of semi-synthetic and naturally-derived fibres, which are often incorrectly reported as microplastics.

The authors point out that in GBR offshore waters, both land-based sources as well as oceanic and shipping sources have been suggested as potential sources for the marine plastic pollution.

The source of textile fibres detected in juvenile coral trout, however, is currently unclear and could be from domestic, land-based and shipping-based sewage discharges. Alternatively, international, unknown sources that deliver fibres to the GBR area through oceanic or atmospheric transport could be the cause.

Ms Lovell says the report “needs to be seen as a call to the community to be really conscious of the amount of plastics they are consuming, how they are consuming it and most importantly how they are disposing of it.”

“People need to take responsibility for their own consumption of plastics and take the steps to make changes, irrespective of plastic-bans and legislative enforcements. Just like the broader community, Australia’s professional fishers care about the health of Australia’s oceans and environment, and we encourage others to do the same.”

The authors note that effects of the ingestion of marine debris on wild fish populations are currently unknown and require further investigation. “We’d like to see more research done looking at what the long-term effect, if any, of ingesting plastics is on spawning and fish mortality,” says Ms Lovell.

The debris was found in the gut of the fish, which is removed prior to human consumption.

– Larissa Fedunik

 

coral bleaching sun shield trial

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 

top stories

Top stories of the year

Featured image above: AI progress makes history – #2 of the top stories in STEM from 2016.

1. New way to cut up DNA

On October 28, a team of Chinese scientists made history when they injected the first adult human with cells genetically modified via CRISPR, a low-cost DNA editing mechanism.

Part of a clinical trial to treat lung cancer, this application of CRISPR is expected to be the first of many in the global fight against poor health and disease. 

2. AI reads scientific papers, distils findings, plays Go

Artificially intelligent systems soared to new heights in 2016, taking it to number 2 on our list of top stories. A company called Iris created a new AI system able to read scientific papers, understand their core concepts and find other papers offering relevant information.

In the gaming arena, Google’s DeepMind AlphaGo program became the first AI system to beat world champion, Lee Se-dol, at the boardgame Go. Invented in China, Go is thought to be at least 2,500 years old. It offers so many potential moves that until this year, human intuition was able to prevail over the computing power of technology in calculating winning strategies. 

3. Scientists find the missing link in evolution

For a long time, the mechanism by which organisms evolved from single cells to multicellular entities remained a mystery. This year, researches pinpointed a molecule called GK-PID, which underwent a critical mutation some 800 million years ago.

With this single mutation, GK-PID gained the ability to string chromosomes together in a way that allowed cells to divide without becoming cancerous – a fundamental enabler for the evolution of all modern life. GK-PID remains vital to successful tissue growth in animals today. 

4. Data can be stored for 13.8 billion years

All technology is subject to degradation from environmental influences, including heat. This means that until recently, humans have been without any form of truly long-term data storage.  

Scientists from the University of Southampton made the top stories of 2016 when they developed a disc that can theoretically survive for longer than the universe has been in existence. Made of nano-structured glass, with the capacity to hold 360TB of data, and stable up to 1,000°C, the disc could survive for over 13.8 billion years. 

5. Mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef

The most severe bleaching ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef occurred this year. Heavy loss of coral occurred across a 700km stretch of the northern reef, which had previously been the most pristine area of the 2300km world heritage site.

North of Port Douglas, an average of 67% of shallow-water corals became bleached in 2016. Scientists blame sea temperature rise, which was sharpest in the early months of the year, and which resulted in a devastating loss of algae that corals rely on for food. 

6. Climate protocol ratified – but Stephen hawking warns it may be too late

On the 4 November 2016, the Paris Agreement became effective. An international initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and control climate change, the Paris Agreement required ratification by at least 55 countries representing 55% of global emissions in order to become operational.

So far 117 countries have joined the cause, with Australia among them. But some of the world’s greatest minds, including Stephen Hawking, believe time is running out if the human race is to preserve its planet. 

7. Young people kick some serious science goals

A group of high schoolers from Sydney Grammar succeeded in recreating a vital drug used to treat deadly parasites, for a fraction of the market price.

The drug, known as Daraprim, has been available for 63 years and is used in the treatment of malaria and HIV. There was public outcry in September when Turing Pharmaceuticals raised the price of the drug from US$13.50 to US$750. 

In collaboration with the University of Sydney and the Open Source Malaria Consortium, a year 11 class at Sydney Grammar created the drug at a cost of only $2 per dose, and made their work freely available online.

8. Gravitational waves detected

Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity was confirmed in February, when scientists observed gravitational waves making ripples in space and time. 

Gravitational waves are thought to occur when two black holes merge into a single, much larger, black hole. They carry important information about their origins, and about gravity, that helps physicists better understand the universe. 

The gravitational waves were observed by twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory detectors in Louisiana and Washington. Australian scientists helped to build some of the instruments used in their detection.

9. Moving away from chemotherapy

Researchers at the University College London made a leap forward in cancer treatment when they found a way to identify cancer markers present across all cells that have grown and mutated from a primary tumour. They also succeeded in identifying immune cells able to recognise these markers and destroy the cancerous cells. 

This breakthrough opens the door not only for better immuno-oncology treatments to replace the toxic drugs involved in chemotherapy, but also for the development of personalised treatments that are more effective for each individual.

10. New prime number discovered

The seventh largest prime number ever found was discovered in November. Over 9.3 million digits long, the number 10223*231172165+1 was identified by researchers who borrowed the computer power of thousands of collaborators around the world to search through possibilities, via a platform called PrimeGrid. 

This discovery also takes mathematicians one step closer to solving the Sierpinski problem, which asks for the smallest, positive, odd number ‘k’ in the formula k x 2n + 1, where all components of the formula are non-prime numbers. After the discovery of the newest prime number, only five possibilities for the Sierpinski number remain.

– Heather Catchpole & Elise Roberts

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Have a story we missed? Contact us to let us know your picks of the top stories in STEM in 2016.

citizen science

Citizen data monitors coral bleaching

Featured image above: a volunteer monitors coral bleaching using Coralwatch’s citizen science survey. Credit: Coralwatch

Who did the research?

CoralWatch, based at the University of Queensland and funded by multiple external organisations.

What is the citizen science project about?

CoralWatch is a citizen data (‘citizen science’) initiative to monitor coral health worldwide. It is the first attempt at providing useful data on coral reef health at large scale with non-invasive tools. Scientists, school groups, dive centres and tourists can measure coral bleaching using the  Coral Health Chart – a simple plastic square – and add their data to the CoralWatch database.

Coral bleaching occurs when increased water temperatures causes coral to expel their symbiotic algae that help absorb nutrients and provide corals vibrant  colour. Rising sea temperatures due to climate change have caused unprecedented levels of coral bleaching.

 

What is the real-life data impact of the research or project?

Since CoralWatch started in 2002, over 146,000 corals from 1,228 reefs have been surveyed across 70 countries. This data is freely available online for use in scientific analysis and for educational purposes such as school projects.

Several studies have used the CoralWatch data to track the status of coral reefs around the world. The project has also been instrumental in raising public concern on the severity of the ecosystem crisis many reefs are undergoing, such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Find out more – watch the CoralWatch video

 

Click here to visit the Coralwatch website.

Share your own story of data impact

Send ANDS your stories using the form on the main #dataimpact page, or help promote these stories on social media using the hashtag #dataimpact.

This article on citizen science was first published by the Australian National Data Service on 21 October 2016. Read the original article here.

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Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef cleanup

In 2015, the Australian and Queensland governments agreed on targets to greatly reduce the sediment and nutrient pollutants flowing onto the Great Barrier Reef.

What we do on land has a real impact out on the reef: sediments can smother the corals, while high nutrient levels help to trigger more regular and larger outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish. This damage leaves the Great Barrier Reef even more vulnerable to climate change, storms, cyclones and other impacts.

Dealing with water quality alone isn’t enough to protect the reef, as many others have pointed out before. But it is an essential ingredient in making it more resilient.

The water quality targets call for sediment runoff to be reduced by up to 50% below 2009 levels by 2025, and for nitrogen levels to be cut by up to 80% over the same period. But so far, detailed information about the costs of achieving these targets has not been available.

Both the Australian and Queensland governments have committed more funding to improve water quality on the reef. In addition, the Queensland government established the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce, a panel of 21 experts from science, industry, conservation and government, led by Queensland Chief Scientist Geoff Garrett and funded by Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection.

New work commissioned by the taskforce now gives us an idea of the likely cost of meeting those reef water quality targets.

This groundbreaking study, which drew on the expertise of water quality researchers, economists and “paddock to reef” modellers, has found that investing A$8.2 billion would get us to those targets by the 2025 deadline, albeit with a little more to be done in the Wet Tropics.

That A$8.2 billion cost is half the size of the estimates of between A$16 billion and A$17 billion discussed in a draft-for-comment report produced in May 2016, which were reported by the ABC and other media.

Those draft figures did not take into account the reductions in pollution already achieved between 2009 and 2013. They also included full steps of measures that then exceeded the targets. A full review process identified these, and now this modelling gives a more accurate estimate of what it would cost to deliver the targets using the knowledge and technology available today.

A future for farming

Importantly, the research confirms that a well-managed agricultural sector can continue to coexist with a healthy reef through improvements to land management practices.

Even more heartening is the report’s finding that we can get halfway to the nitrogen and sediment targets by spending around A$600 million in the most cost-effective areas. This is very important because prioritising these areas enables significant improvement while allowing time to focus on finding solutions that will more cost-effectively close the remaining gap.

Among those priority solutions are improving land and farm management practices, such as adopting best management practices among cane growers to reduce fertiliser loss, and in grazing to reduce soil loss.

While these actions have been the focus of many water quality programs to date, much more can be done. For example, we can have a significant impact on pollutants in the Great Barrier Reef water catchments by achieving much higher levels of adoption and larger improvements to practices such as maintaining grass cover in grazing areas and reducing and better targeting fertiliser use in cane and other cropping settings. These activities will be a focus of the two major integrated projects that will result from the taskforce’s recommendations.

A new agenda

The new study, produced by environmental consultancy Alluvium and a range of other researchers (and for which I was one of the external peer reviewers), is significant because nothing on this scale involving the Great Barrier Reef and policy costings has been done before.

Guidelines already released by the taskforce tell us a lot about what we need to do to protect the reef. Each of its ten recommendations now has formal government agreement and implementation has begun.

Alluvium’s consultants and other experts who contributed to the study – including researchers from CQ University and James Cook University – were asked to investigate how much could be achieved, and at what price, by action in the following seven areas:

  1. Land management practice change for cane and grazing
  2. Improved irrigation practices
  3. Gully remediation
  4. Streambank repair
  5. Wetland construction
  6. Changes to land use
  7. Urban stormwater management

Those seven areas for potential action were chosen on the basis of modelling data and expert opinion as the most feasible to achieve the level of change required to achieve the targets. By modelling the cost of delivering these areas and the change to nutrient and sediments entering the reef, the consultants were able to identify which activities were cheapest through to the most expensive across five catchment areas (Wet Tropics, Burdekin, Mackay-Whitsunday, Fitzroy and Burnett Mary).

Alluvium’s study confirmed the water science taskforce’s recommendation that investing in some catchments and activities along the Great Barrier Reef is likely to prove more valuable than in others, in both an environmental and economic sense.

Some actions have much lower costs and are more certain; these should be implemented first. Other actions are much more expensive. Of the total A$8.2 billion cost of meeting the targets, two-thirds (A$5.59 billion) could be spent on addressing gully remediation in just one water catchment (the Fitzroy region). Projects with such high costs are impractical and highly unlikely to be implemented at the scale required.

The Alluvium study suggests we would be wise not to invest too heavily in some costly repair measures such as wetland construction for nutrient removal just yet – at least until we have exhausted all of the cheaper options, tried to find other cost-effective ways of reaching the targets, and encouraged innovative landholders and other entrepreneurs to try their hand at finding ways to reduce costs.

The value of a healthier Great Barrier Reef

The A$8.2 billion funding requirement between now and 2025 is large, but let’s look at it in context. It’s still significantly less than the A$13 billion that the Australian government is investing in the Murray-Darling Basin.

It would also be an important investment in protecting the more than A$5 billion a year that the reef generates for the Australian economy and for Queensland communities.

The immediate focus should be on better allocating available funds and looking for more effective solutions to meet the targets to protect the reef. More work is still needed to ensure we do so.

If we start by targeting the most cost-effective A$1 billion-worth of measures, that should get us more than halfway towards achieving the 2025 targets. The challenge now is to develop new ideas and solutions to deliver those expensive last steps in improving water quality. The Alluvium report provides a valuable tool long-term to ensure the most cost-effective interventions are chosen to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

– John Rolfe

This article was first published by The Conversation on 12 April 2016. Read the original article here

Ocean acidity devastates corals

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

Great Barrier Reef protects

The Great Barrier Reef protects against tsunamis

Featured image above shows landslide and tsunami simulations at 0m, -50m and -70m sea-level scenarios and landslide distribution and geomorphology. Credits: Webster et al, University of Sydney.

What has developed into the Great Barrier Reef was not always a barrier reef – it was once a fringing reef and did not offer the same protective quality. This is because the coast at this time was much closer to the source of the tsunamis, says lead author of the paper, Associate Professor Jody Webster, from the Geocoastal Research Group at the University of Sydney.

The research shows a shallow underwater landslide occurred 20,000–14,000 years ago, which caused a tsunami 2–3 metres high. The tsunami could have impacted Aborigines living at the time along estuaries and on islands off the paleo-coastline, which has since receded under the rising sea levels that followed the last ice age.

Animation of ancient tsunami:

A submarine landslide 70m below sea-level causes a tsunami, which travels along the paleo-coastline. Credit: Dr Jon Hill, University of York.

The 7km-wide landslide occurred off the edge of the continental shelf causing the tsunami on the paleo-coastline lying between Airlie Beach and Townsville.

Details of the discovery of the submarine landslide and tsunami were published this week in Marine Geology. The international team of researchers used sophisticated computer simulations to recreate what the tsunami would have looked like.

Webster says similar landslides under the sea could occur without our knowledge.

“There is a relatively low chance that a similar submarine landslide with the potential to cause a tsunami of up to three metres or more would happen today,” Webster says.

“However, if one did occur, our findings suggest that the Great Barrier Reef is doing us a great service because of its ability to absorb some of that potential wave energy.”

Just how much energy would be absorbed and what the extent of damage could be done by rising sea levels and tsunamis or king tides is the subject of future research.

In reaching their findings, Dr Jon Hill from the University of York created visual simulations of the tsunami impact at today’s sea level, as well as at a depth of -70m, where the paleo-coastline was before it receded to its current position and was replaced at the shelf edge by the formation of the Great Barrier Reef.

The research team has named the submarine landslide the Viper Slide because of its location adjacent to Viper Reef.

“The discovery of the Viper Slide is the first solid evidence that submarine landslides existed on the Great Barrier Reef,” says Dr Robin Beaman from James Cook University – a member of the expedition that mapped the slide.

The early edition of the paper, ‘Submarine landslides on the Great Barrier Reef shelf edge and upper slope: a mechanism for generating tsunamis on the north-east Australian coast?’, was published by the international journal Marine Geology.

This article was first shared by The University of Sydney on 25 November 2015.