May 202014

Original story by Ian Rutherfurd, University of Melbourne and Andrew Campbell, Charles Darwin University at The Conversation

Among the environmental fallout of the federal budget, Australia’s Landcare program has taken a hit, losing A$484 million. In return, the government’s environmental centrepiece, the Green Army, receives A$525 million.
Australia already has a world-leading system for managing the environment - why are we dumbing it down? Photo: Andrew Campbell

Australia already has a world-leading system for managing the environment – why are we dumbing it down? Photo: Andrew Campbell

But switching money from Landcare to the Green Army is trading down for a less effective conservation model. It also repeats a pattern of reduced funding and weakened delivery started under former Prime Minister John Howard, and confuses improved agricultural productivity with improved environmental management. Continue reading »

May 192014

Original story by Sharnie Kim, ABC News

A tourism industry group is mounting a legal challenge against the decision to allow the dumping of dredge spoil in the Barrier Reef marine park area off far north Qld.
 Coal export terminal at Abbot Point.

Coal export terminal at Abbot Point.

The Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators (AMPTO) is taking the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and the North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation (NQBPC) to the Federal Court next month.

It is challenging the decision to allow three million cubic metres of dredge spoil from the Abbot Point coal terminal expansion at Bowen to be dumped at sea.

AMPTO spokesman Col McKenzie alleges the marine park authority breached its own rules.

“Their own environmental scientists weren’t happy with granting the permit and on that basis alone the precautionary principle should’ve come into play,” he said.

He says the association is not against development but wants the dredge spoil dumped on land.

Mr McKenzie says the permit should never have been issued.

“The reality is there is simply just not enough science that would indicate the dumping of three million cubic metres of dredge spoil will not have a bad effect on the environment,” he said.

A number of green groups are running separate challenges.

The matter goes before the Federal Court in Cairns in June.

May 192014

Original story by Rachel Sullivan, ABC

While warming temperatures will produce more female than male sea turtle hatchings, sea turtle populations will not crash — at least for the next few decades, a new study suggests.
A few male loggerhead turtles will go a long way as temperatures warm. Although females will rule, males breed more often and can fertilise multiple clutches.

A few male loggerhead turtles will go a long way as temperatures warm. Although females will rule, males breed more often and can fertilise multiple clutches.

In fact, sea turtle populations will increase because males breed more frequently than females, report researchers today in Nature Climate Change.

Sex in many reptile species is determined by temperature during incubation. For sea turtles incubation temperatures below 29°C produce male hatchlings; above that temperature females are produced. Continue reading »

May 062014

Press release by Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft

Empty nets and few species – environmental hormones are believed responsible for the diminishing numbers of fish. How damaging are these substances really, though? Studies that depict a complete picture of the lives of fish provide clues.


Flow-through facility at Fraunhofer IME. All test aquaria can handle adult animals as well as those at the larval stage. Photo: © Fraunhofer IME

Flow-through facility at Fraunhofer IME. All test aquaria can handle adult animals as well as those at the larval stage. Photo: © Fraunhofer IME

You cannot see, smell, or taste them – and yet, environmental hormones are components of many materials and products. They can be found for example in colorants and dyes, pesticides, cosmetics, plastics, and in pharmaceuticals. Environmental hormones are molecules that behave like hormones, because they resemble them in their structure. It has been suspected that the substances getting into an organism via the air, the skin, through foodstuffs, and through medications influence the human reproductive system and cause a reduction in the quality of spermatozoa, with an associated drop in male fertility. The animal world is affected as well. In addition to other factors, environmental hormones are believed responsible for the reduction in fish populations.

Life cycle studies with freshwater fish

Experts and scientists have been in disagreement for over two decades about whether fish stocks and amphibian populations are actually threatened by any stress from hormonally active substances in bodies of water, because the effects of the environmental hormones actually remain insufficiently understood. Researchers of the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME in Schmallenberg, Germany, want to shed light on this question. To investigate the effects of hormonally active substances on fish, the scientists have established and continually refined a model using life cycle studies of the zebrafish (Danio rerio), a freshwater fish. “Using the life cycle test, we can record all of the relevant aspects in the life of fish within a reasonable period of time,” says Matthias Teigeler, an engineer in the Ecotoxicology Department at IME. “These include the growth, the embryonic and especially the sexual development, as well as the animals’ ability to reproduce. Those are factors that react sensitively to hormonally active substances.”

Groups of like-sized fish are exposed to potentially active hormonal substances at differing concentrations while in a flow-through facility. A control group of fish kept in water with no hormone load serves as a comparison with which the possible effects on the subject animals can be discerned. “A life cycle test begins by employing fertilized eggs obtained from unstressed P generation (parental) animals. The fish embryos hatch three days later. We determine the number of surviving animals and record their lengths in the computer. After about three months, the animals are mature enough to be able to reproduce. Their ability to reproduce can be accurately determined from the number of eggs they lay. During the spawning phase, we remove eggs from the experimental aquaria each day and count them. Since they are transparent, you can examine whether they were fertilized or not,” explains Teigeler.

The researchers were actually able to determine that zebrafish were no longer able to reproduce – mating and deposition of eggs did not occur – under administration of very low concentrations of ethinyl estradiol, a synthetic estrogen and component of contraceptive pills. They observed negative effects with other substances under test as well. Tests with the synthetic sexual hormone trenbolone led to a masculinization of the animals, for example. The gender ratio shifted considerably. 100% of the fish developed as males following administration of the test substance. This could also be observed for aromatase inhibitors employed as a fungicide for plant protection. As a comparison, researchers would expect a gender ratio of 50 percent male to 50 percent female in the unstressed control group. “Several well-known substances negatively influence the hormone system. However, other factors besides hormonally active substances are under discussion as being responsible for the reduction in fish species, such as poorer constitution of waters and climate change,” says Teigeler.

Stricter approval requirements for manufacturers of plant protection products

Manufacturers of chemicals for protecting plants meanwhile anticipate being confronted with a prohibition if it turns out that an active ingredient causes a lasting disruption to the hormone system of humans and animals. Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry must likewise present data on the effects of hormone-like substances in bodies of water if they want to bring a new product out on the market in Europe. The testing system of Fraunhofer IME enjoys a high level of acceptance in industry as well as among regulatory authorities. Moreover, IME researchers offer support through their expertise with life cycle experiments, studies, and conclusions to committees of the OECD, the EU and their Member States having to develop guidelines for fish testing and to evaluate of test results. They help find answers to questions dealing with problems of hormonally active substances in the environment.

May 022014

Wildlife Preservation Society of QueenslandOriginal story by Peter Ogilvie, Wildlife Queensland

The assault on nature conservation in Queensland

Why has the Newman Government chosen to comprehensively neutralise nature conservation and its associated legislation in Queensland, particularly in relation to national parks?

There doesn’t appear to be any political imperative, as is the case in NSW where a party with the balance of power in the Upper House is demanding hunting access to national parks. The Liberal National Party (LNP) government in Queensland has had complete and unassailable control of the uni-cameral parliament since it reduced the Labor opposition to seven members following the March 2012 election. Neither can it be explained purely as a matter of ideology. Coalition governments in Queensland and elsewhere in Australia have been responsible for some significant advances in nature conservation. After all, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) was enacted by a Coalition government in Canberra, as was the latest strongly protective zoning plan for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. There has been the suggestion that the government is undoing what was created by former Goss, Beattie and Bligh Labor governments. However, several matters that have been neutralised are actually products of earlier Coalition governments. Which leaves one other possible explanation, perverse though it may be, that they are doing it simply because they can.

Kondalilla falls, Sunshine Coast, Queensland. Photo: Damien Dempsey/Wikimedia Commons

Kondalilla falls, Sunshine Coast, Queensland. Photo: Damien Dempsey/Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, what they have done needs to be clearly documented so this government can be held to account, perhaps sadly not in its lifetime, but by future generations that will want to know where the blame lies.

The Banishment of National Parks

Continue reading »

May 022014

Original story at

QUEENSLAND’S government is confident the dumping of dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park won’t lead to the reef being listed as a World Heritage site in danger.
UNESCO says the federal government needs to reconsider approving dredging in the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: AAP

UNESCO says the federal government needs to reconsider approving dredging in the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: AAP

UNESCO says it regrets the federal government’s decision to allow dumping three million tonnes of spoil in the park as part of the expansion of Abbot Point coal port near Bowen.

The UN body regrets that the government approved the dumping without properly assessing alternatives.

This was one of a number of points sent in a draft report on Wednesday to the World Heritage Committee which is assessing whether to list the reef on its “in danger” list.

The body requested the federal government provide a new report detailing how dumping is the least damaging option that won’t affect the reef’s value.

State Environment Minister Andrew Powell says all alternatives were considered and it’s just a matter of passing this information onto UNESCO.

“A lot of work was done which showed it would be inappropriate to put the spoil on land due to acidification,” he told AAP on Thursday.

“We will certainly be making information available to UNESCO on that project and any other project.”

UNESCO has requested the federal government’s report by February 1 next year.

WWF-Australia reef campaigner Richard Leck says other options, such as extending terminals into deeper waters so ships can access them, should be considered.

“We’re not anti-development, what we want to see is development done smarter,” he told AAP.

Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt welcomed UNESCO’s draft recommendations, saying they show progress was being made in protecting the reef.

He said this included developing a long-term plan to protect the ecosystem and improving water quality.

Mr Hunt said the Abbot Point dredging project complies with Australia’s obligations under the World Heritage Convention and approval had been subject to rigorous environmental assessment.

Greens Senator Larissa Waters disputed his claims, saying the state and federal governments had failed to implement a long-term plan to protect the reef.

UNESCO also raised concerns that a long-term plan to protect the reef hasn’t been completed despite recent approvals of coastal developments.

Apr 292014

News release from the University of Guelph

A surprising recent rise in atmospheric methane likely stems from wetland emissions, suggesting that much more of the potent greenhouse gas will be pumped into the atmosphere as northern wetlands continue to thaw and tropical ones to warm, according to a new international study led by a University of Guelph researcher.

The study supports calls for improved monitoring of wetlands and human changes to those ecosystems – a timely topic as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prepares to examine land use impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, says Prof. Merritt Turetsky, Department of Integrative Biology.

Turetsky is the lead author of a paper published today in Global Change Biology based on one of the largest-ever analyses of global methane emissions. The team looked at almost 20,000 field data measurements collected from 70 sites across arctic, temperate and tropical regions.

Agnieszka Kotowska, a former master’s student, and David Olefeldt, a post-doc at Guelph, also were among 19 study co-authors from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Finland, Germany and Sweden.

One of the strongest greenhouse gases, methane comes from agriculture and fossil fuel use, as well as natural sources such as microbes in saturated wetland soils.

The amount of atmospheric methane has remained relatively stable for about a decade, but concentrations began to rise again in 2007. Scientists believe this increase stems partly from more methane being released from thawing northern wetlands.

Scientists have assumed that wetland methane release is largest in the tropics, said Turetsky.

“But our analyses show that northern fens, such as those created when permafrost thaws, can have emissions comparable to warm sites in the tropics, despite their cold temperatures. That’s very important when it comes to scaling methane release at a global scale.”

The study calls for better methods of detecting different types of wetlands and methane release rates between flooded and drained areas.

Fens are the most common type of wetland in Canada, but we lack basic scientific approaches for mapping fens using remote sensing products, she said.

“Not only are fens one of the strongest sources of wetland greenhouse gases, but we also know that Canadian forests and tundra underlain by permafrost are thawing and creating these kinds of high methane-producing ecosystems.”

Most methane studies focus on measurements at a single site, said co-author Narasinha Shurpali, University of Eastern Finland. “Our synthesis of data from a large number of observation points across the globe is unique and serves an important need.”

The team showed that small temperature changes can release much more methane from wetland soils to the atmosphere. But whether climate change will ramp up methane emissions will depend on soil moisture, said Turetsky.

Under warmer and wetter conditions, much more of the gas will be emitted. If wetland soils dry out from evaporation or human drainage, emissions will fall – but not without other problems.

In earlier studies, Turetsky found drying peatlands can spark more wildfires.

Another study co-author, Kim Wickland, United States Geological Survey, said, “This study provides important data for better accounting of how methane emissions change after wetland drainage and flooding.”

Methane emissions vary between natural and disturbed or managed wetlands, says Wickland, who has helped the IPCC improve methods for calculating greenhouse gas emissions from managed wetlands.

Turetsky holds a Canada Research Chair in Integrative Ecology. She and her students examine how ecosystems regulate climate in field sites in Canada and Alaska.

Apr 232014

Original story by Paul Willis at ABC Science

We could take steps to at least minimise the impact of climate change and population growth, but willful blindness to the current situation creates a poor vision for the future, argues Paul Willis.
Climate change is already effecting our ability to feed ourselves, but, if world population continues to rise we're going to need more food from less land. Photo: no_limit_pictures/iStockphoto

Climate change is already effecting our ability to feed ourselves, but, if world population continues to rise we’re going to need more food from less land. Photo: no_limit_pictures/iStockphoto

Most futurists seem to be bedazzled by the possibilities of the gadgets and widgets of tomorrow. But I seriously wonder if there will be a future where the tech-heads can indulge their future fantasies.

A few recent articles and reports seriously question how much longer our culture and civilisation can continue. We’re looking down the barrel of environmental devastation on a scale that could shunt us into a very different world of conflict and survival. We may even be looking at our own imminent extinction. And we’re doing bugger all about it.

Recently Canberra-based science writer Julian Cribb wrote a lengthy piece in the Canberra Times where he asks “are we facing our own extinction?” This is the subject of a book he will be publishing later this year, but this summary still covers a broad canvass in search of an answer.

His central thesis is that climate change could well do the trick but that there are huge mitigating factors in human behaviour and our response to impending peril.

Climate change has already caused at least one extinction event — the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, PETM for short, when the Earth’s temperature increased by at least five degrees, and possibly as much as nine or 10 degrees. That was 50 million years ago.

I’d also offer the Permian Extinction some 250 million years ago which snuffed out 96 per cent of all marine species and 70 per cent of terrestrial vertebrate species. In both the PETM and Permian Extinction the culprit appears to be the greenhouse gas methane which was either released from gas hydrates or clathrates or, in the case of the Permian Extinction, a bloom of methanogenic bacteria, Methanosarcina, spurred on by volcanic activity.

According to Cribb, if all the methane currently stored as clathrates were to be released, global temperatures would increase by 16 degrees making most of the planet uninhabitable for humans. There would be some areas in the far north of Siberia and North America as well as parts of Antarctica that would remain within a temperature range that would allow humans to live, but those areas would have to not only house all humanity, it would also have to produce all the food needed to feed them. That’s not extinction, but a dramatic collapse in human populations. Under this scenario humanity would probably crash to a few million people at most.

This is an extreme scenario requiring all the gas hydrates to give up their methane but it could theoretically trigger such a dramatic change within a century. And, not that I’m trying to alarm you, but the accelerated release of methane from the Siberian tundra and in the Arctic seas has been observed to be well underway. These releases occur as plumes a few tens of metres in diameter but recently plumes have been seen that are 1000 metres across. And there are thousands of them.

The predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) do not usually include triggering the methane bomb. Instead they look at the release of CO2 and other climate changing factors. The conclusions of these more gentle changes to the climate are still sobering. Even if we were to stop releasing CO2 today, a temperature change of two degrees by mid century is already locked in. Our reactions to the effects of that more modest change could spell the difference between our extinction or survival. And the effects are already being felt.

Climate change is here

The most recent report of the IPCC chronicles the effects that climate change is already having on our planet.

An article from provides a good summation of the eight ways climate change hurts humans. Threats include increases in extreme heat waves, floods, droughts and wildfires as well as a decline in crop productions leading to food shortages. On top of that there are the spread of infectious diseases, mental illnesses as well as violence and conflicts. And remember, these are not predictions for what will happen in the future, they are effects that have already been measured.

So, for example, about 500 people died because of heat in Australian cities in 2011 (and that number is projected to 2,000 deaths per year by the middle of this century) while 112 million people worldwide were affected by floods in 2011, including 3140 people who were killed.

It’s well known that some governments and institutions dismiss or completely ignore the IPCC and any of its reports, but that’s not the view of the World Bank. The bank’s president, Jim Yong Kim, is worried that climate change is affecting worldwide access to food and water. He’s concerned that there will be battles over food and water around the world within the next decade and all because of climate change. Further, he’s also concerned that not enough research is being conducted into renewable energy and other solutions to climate change.

These concerns are shared by US Centre for Strategic and International Studies in their report The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change. In their assessment a rise of 2.6 degree in global temperatures will result in nations being overwhelmed by the scale of change.

Nations will be under great stress due to a dramatic rise in migration including displaced coastal communities as well as changes in agriculture and water availability. These stresses could lead to armed conflict between nations over dwindling resources and that includes the possibility of nuclear conflicts.

We are on track for an increase of more than two degrees around the middle of the century. The report goes on to consider a world with a five-degree increase and concludes the consequences are “inconceivable”. At the current rate of change, we should be there by 2100.

Add population growth

So let’s now join climate change’s apocalyptic twin: population.

The problems of feeding the world in the future are outlined in a piece by Professor William Laurance, from James Cook University.

Unless something unforeseen happens, the world population will be around 11 billion people at the end of the century and current projections suggest that the global demand for food will double by 2050. To meet that demand using existing agricultural practices will require around one billion hectares of new farming land. That’s an area a little bit bigger than Canada. But remember that climate change and other factors will result in a decrease in the extent of arable land available for agriculture. That’s a bleak combination.

There is another scenario on offer but it has its own set of complications. The preferred future proffered by organisations such as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is to inject technology into the equation and ‘turbocharge farming’. This ought to be particularly effective in developing countries where crop yields on small holdings are low. Inject fertilisers, irrigation, and modern methods and equipment and we could double or even possibly triple crop yields and meet 2050’s projected food demands.

So where’s the catch to this get out of jail free card? It’s the energy required to roll out intensive farming around the world (as well as the aforementioned decline in arable land due to climate change). The link between energy and intensive farming practices accounts for the bulk of fluctuations in the cost of food. Fuel prices are most likely to go up in the future and food prices will follow. And most of the fuel used in agriculture is oil that we ought to stop using because of its contribution to climate change. We could switch to biofuels, but that then feeds back into the problem of using precious arable land to produce the fuel at the expense of producing food crops.

What’s the plan?

So let’s bring this all together. Climate change is locked in and already effecting our ability to feed ourselves. But, if world population continues to rise (and there’s no way that it won’t) we’re going to need more food from less land. I can’t see how these realities can play out in any other way than a calamity. It may not end in the extinction of our species (which is a distinct possibility if nuclear war were to break out over access to dwindling resources), but it certainly can’t end happily.

And my main concern at the moment is that no world leaders are looking at this oncoming train-wreck and planning to do something about it. There are steps we could take to at least minimise the size of the coming calamity, such as rolling out zero carbon economies and investing in agricultural research that could feed more with less. But the most common response is no response at all. Willful blindness to our current situation creates a poor vision for the future.

As Julian Cribb puts it “…humanity isn’t sleep-walking to disaster so much as racing headlong to embrace it. Do the rest of us have the foresight, and the guts, to stop them?

Our ultimate survival will be predicated entirely on our behaviour — not only on how well we adapt to unavoidable change, but also how quickly we apply the brakes.”



Apr 212014

Original story by Warren Barnsley, Sydney Morning Herald

Budding young filmmakers are being encouraged to shoot video evidence of marine debris affecting the Great Barrier Reef in a bid to raise awareness of the issue.

Great Barrier Reef

The Gladstone Local Marine Advisory Committee is calling on eight to 18-year old documentary producers to put together short films highlighting the problem of marine debris.

“We want young people to use their creativity to tell a compelling story about marine debris in a video no longer than two minutes,” said Gladstone LMAC Chair Blue Thomson.

“It can be an interview, documentary-style, a music video, a fictional story or animated. It’s entirely up to the creator,” he said.

Researchers say it’s a major issue for the world heritage-listed ecosystem, not only because of the negative impacts to the reef’s aesthetic qualities and hazard to ocean users.

LMAC member and Central Queensland University Research Fellow Dr Scott Wilson claims plastics are a top five pollutant causing harm to the marine environment and animals.

“In a recent study, 22 per cent of shearwater chicks were found to have plastics in their stomachs.

“Plastic bags, bottles, ropes and nets trap, choke, starve and drown many marine animals and seabirds around the world every year.”

The issue could be better dealt with if people were more responsible with their litter, including plastics, rubbers, metal, wood and glass, said Dr Wilson.

Participants will go in the running to win an iPad or GoPro Hero 3, with entries closing on May 30.

Winners will be announced on June 16.

Apr 212014

Original story by  Alexandra Kirk, ABC News

The National Water Commission could be axed as part of the Federal Government’s savings drive.

Reflections in the Murray, the commission which audits the Murray-Darling Basin Plan looks likely to be cut in next month's budget. Photo: James Hancock/ABC News

Reflections in the Murray, the commission which audits the Murray-Darling Basin Plan looks likely to be cut in next month’s budget. Photo: James Hancock/ABC News

The decade-old commission, an independent statutory authority which advises the Commonwealth on water policy, is “in the mix” for cuts and the ABC’s AM program understands it is likely to be wound up.

Scrapping the commission would save the Government about $30 million over four years.

Staff at the commission – which also monitors and audits programs like the Murray-Darling Basin Plan – have been told their future is under review.

Parliamentary secretary to the environment minister, Simon Birmingham, who has responsibility for water policy, has refused to confirm the commission’s fate but says it is under review.

“As everyone appreciates the Government has a huge budget challenge to bring the budget back into a sustainable shape and we’ve made it very clear that all areas of government are under review for efficiency opportunities and of course, across the water portfolio we’re looking at that,” he said.

National Water Commission

  • The commission is a statutory authority which provides advice to the Council of Australian Governments and the Federal Government on national water issues.
  • Established in 2004, the commission monitors and audits programs like the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
  • The body promotes the objectives and outcomes of Australia’s water reform blueprint, the National Water Initiative.

Source: National Water Commission

“But that doesn’t in any way undermine our commitment to deliver on key policy promises. Especially promises like delivering on the Murray-Darling Basin plan in full and on time.”

Senator Birmingham said the Government was keen to find the most cost-efficient way of receiving advice on water policy.

“The National Water Commission does some very valuable work, what’s important for us is to look at what that work is, how it can best be done and best be undertaken in the context of our policy promises as well as of course, ensuring that we have good environment and water policy advice,” he said.

“Of course, any use of consultants needs to be done as carefully as possible and be as limited as possible to ensure that we’re not wasting taxpayer dollars and that’s what I would expect any and every agency to do now and well into the future.

“Everything is being considered and looked at carefully to ensure that we give taxpayers best value for their money.”