Tag Archives: CSIRO

No sign of alien life ‘so far’ on the mystery visitor from space, but we’re still looking

The Conversation

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An artist’s impression of `Oumuamua, assuming it’s a rock. ESO/M. Kornmesser, CC BY

Ray Norris, Western Sydney University

The mystery object discovered earlier this year travelling through our Solar system is showing no signs of any alien life, despite plenty of efforts to look and listen for a signal.

Perhaps it’s ironic that the object should arrive in a year when we celebrated the 100th anniversary (on December 16) of the birth of science fiction author Arthur C Clarke.

One of his most popular novels, the award-winning Rendezvous with Rama, describes the high-speed entry of a cylindrical object into the Solar system. It’s initially thought to be an asteroid but a subsequent exploration reveals it to be an alien spaceship.


Read more: A fleeting visit: an asteroid from another planetary system just shot past Earth


Exploring ‘Oumuamua

Astronomers named our Solar system visitor ‘Oumuamua, which is Hawaiian for “scout” or “messenger” as it was first detected by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope.

Tiny and very faint, this fast moving object (centre) was captured by astronomers as it passed through our Solar system. Queen’s University Belfast

From our distant exploration of ‘Oumuamua we know it’s a red-brown, cigar-shaped object, about 400 metres long, and is moving so fast that it must have started its journey in some distant stellar system.

But we still have no idea what it is.

We know it’s not a comet, because it has no halo, and we know it’s not a normal asteroid, because we’ve never seen one that is so elongated – about ten times longer than it is wide. And its speed (about 100,000km per hour) rules out an origin within the Solar system or the Oort cloud, where comets come from.

Aliens from another world?

As scientists, we have to keep an open mind. For example, could it be an alien spacecraft? This might seem the stuff of comic-book fiction. Yet we know there are other Earth-like planets out there, and some may host other civilisations. We must at least consider the possibility that it is an artificial object from one of these civilisations.

That would also be consistent with the cigar shape. We know that the best shape for a large interstellar spacecraft is not like the fictional Starship Enterprise of Star Trek fame, but more likely is elongated to minimise the damage from collisions with interstellar dust.

The USS Enterprise is a great shape for a Christmas tree decoration, not so great shape for a real spacecraft. Flickr/JD Hancock, CC BY

The only problem with this idea is that this object is not gliding smoothly through our Solar system, but is tumbling head over heels, about once every eight hours. So if it is an alien spacecraft, it’s in trouble.

How can we tell what it is? The best way would be to get a good photo of it, but it is so far away that even the Hubble Space Telescope just sees a speck of reddish-brown light. And it is moving too fast to mount a space mission to get closer. Already it is starting to head out of the Solar system.

Listening in for signals

If it is an alien spacecraft, perhaps we might detect some radio signals from it. And if it’s in trouble, we might expect to hear a distress signal. Over the past few weeks, radio telescopes around the world have been straining to catch some whiff of radio emission.

The telescopes are well equipped for this job, as they are already engaged in the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The first serious SETI search was made in 1960 by the radio astronomer Frank Drake, and SETI has continued on the world’s largest telescopes ever since.

The search continues methodically outwards from the Sun, with no detection so far, and yet SETI enthusiasts remain optimistic, pointing out that we have only searched a tiny fraction of the stars in our galaxy.

The first search for signals from ‘Oumuamua was by the SETI Institute, using the Allen Telescope Array. They hoped they might detect some evidence of an artificial transmission – perhaps a series of pulses, or a narrow-bandwidth signal. But nothing was found.

A much larger search was made by the Breakthrough Foundation, which uses the Australian radio telescope (“The Dish”) operated by CSIRO at Parkes, New South Wales, and the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia, in the United States.

The passage of ‘Oumuamua through our Solar system.

Because ‘Oumuamua is in the Northern sky, Green Bank can see it more easily than Parkes. Green Bank is still searching for signals from ‘Oumuamua, but “so far” has drawn a blank.

All attempts so far to detect a signal have been unsuccessful. The observations are so sensitive that even a mobile phone on board ‘Oumuamua would have been easily detected.

But so far, nothing. As ‘Oumuamua heads back out into interstellar space, the attempts will wind down and the telescopes will return to their normal duties.

So what is ‘Oumuamua?

One thing we know is that ‘Oumuamua isn’t just a rock. It is the first interstellar object we’ve ever found in the Solar system, and its elongated shape means it is totally unlike a normal asteroid.

So it probably isn’t part of the natural process of planetary formation. The most likely explanation is that it is a giant shard of rock of unknown origin – perhaps debris from an interplanetary collision.


Read more: What is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence actually looking for?


But we cannot discount the possibility that it really is a spacecraft – perhaps one that got into trouble a long time ago and its corpse continues to tumble for eternity through the vastness of interstellar space.

Searches for signals from it will continue until it leaves us for ever, and perhaps something may still turn up. But the chances are that it will forever be a mystery.

What has changed is that we now know that such interstellar interlopers exist. One estimate is that there could be 10,000 such objects passing through the Solar system at any time.

The ConversationIf this is correct, then the hunt is on for more interstellar objects, and it won’t be long before we find another. Then we will see a new field of study open up as astronomers seek to understand their properties and origin. Will we find debris from planetary collisions? Or will we eventually find space junk from other civilisations and begin our own Rendezvous with Rama?

Ray Norris, Professor, School of Computing, Engineering, & Maths, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Fifty years ago Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars and changed our view of the universe

The Conversation

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CSIRO Parkes radio telescope has discovered around half of all known pulsars. Wayne England, Author provided

George Hobbs, CSIRO; Dick Manchester, CSIRO, and Simon Johnston, CSIRO

A pulsar is a small, spinning star – a giant ball of neutrons, left behind after a normal star has died in a fiery explosion.

With a diameter of only 30 km, the star spins up to hundreds of times a second, while sending out a beam of radio waves (and sometimes other radiation, such as X-rays). When the beam is pointed in our direction and into our telescopes, we see a pulse.

2017 marks 50 years since pulsars were discovered. In that time, we have found more than 2,600 pulsars (mostly in the Milky Way), and used them to hunt for low-frequency gravitational waves, to determine the structure of our galaxy and to test the general theory of relativity.


Read more: At last, we’ve found gravitational waves from a collapsing pair of neutron stars


What is a pulsar?

The discovery

In mid-1967, when thousands of people were enjoying the summer of love, a young PhD student at the University of Cambridge in the UK was helping to build a telescope.

It was a poles-and-wires affair – what astronomers call a “dipole array”. It covered a bit less than two hectares, the area of 57 tennis courts.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the first pulsar.
CC BY-SA

By July it was built. The student, Jocelyn Bell (now Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell), became responsible for running it and analysing the data it churned out. The data came in the form of pen-on-paper chart records, more than 30 metres of them each day. Bell analysed them by eye.

What she found – a little bit of “scruff” on the chart records – has gone down in history.

Like most discoveries, it took place over time. But there was a turning point. On November 28, 1967, Bell and her supervisor, Antony Hewish, were able to capture a “fast recording” – that is, a detailed one – of one of the strange signals.

In this she could see for the first time that the “scruff” was actually a train of pulses spaced by one-and-a-third seconds. Bell and Hewish had discovered pulsars.

But this wasn’t immediately obvious to them. Following Bell’s observation they worked for two months to eliminate mundane explanations for the signals.

Bell also found another three sources of pulses, which helped to scotch some rather more exotic explanations, such as the idea that the signals came from “little green men” in extraterrestrial civilisations. The discovery paper appeared in Nature on February 24, 1968.

Later, Bell missed out when Hewish and his colleague Sir Martin Ryle were awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics.

A pulsar on ‘the pineapple’

CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope in Australia made its first observation of a pulsar in 1968, later made famous by appearing (along with the Parkes telescope) on the first Australian $50 note.

Australia’s first $50 note featured the Parkes telescope and a pulsar. Author provided

Fifty years later, Parkes has found more than half of the known pulsars. The University of Sydney’s Molonglo Telescope also played a central role, and they both remain active in finding and timing pulsars today.

Internationally, one of the most exciting new instruments on the scene is China’s Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST. FAST has recently found several new pulsars, confirmed by the Parkes telescope and a team of CSIRO astronomers working with their Chinese colleagues.

Why look for pulsars?

We want to understand what pulsars are, how they work, and how they fit into the general population of stars. The extreme cases of pulsars – those that are super fast, super slow, or extremely massive – help to limit the possible models for how pulsars work, telling us more about the structure of matter at ultra-high densities. To find these extreme cases, we need to find lots of pulsars.

Pulsars often orbit companion stars in binary systems, and the nature of these companions helps us understand the formation history of the pulsars themselves. We’ve made good progress with the “what” and “how” of pulsars but there are still unanswered questions.

As well as understanding pulsars themselves, we also use them as a clock. For example, pulsar timing is being pursued as a way to detect the background rumble of low-frequency gravitational waves throughout the universe.

Pulsars have also been used to measure the structure of our Galaxy, by looking at the way their signals are altered as they travel through denser regions of material in space.

Pulsars are also one of the finest tools we have for testing Einstein’s theory of general relativity.


Read more: Explainer: Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity


This theory has survived 100 years of the most sophisticated tests astronomers have been able throw at it. But it doesn’t play nicely with our other most successful theory of how the universe works, quantum mechanics, so it must have a tiny flaw somewhere. Pulsars help us to try and understand this problem.

What keeps pulsar astronomers up at night (literally!) is the hope of finding a pulsar in orbit around a black hole. This is the most extreme system we can imagine for testing general relativity.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell describes how she discovered pulsars.

Finally, pulsars have some more down-to-earth applications. We’re using them as a teaching tool in our PULSE@Parkes program, in which students control the Parkes telescope over the Internet and use it to observe pulsars. This program has reached over 1,700 students, in Australia, Japan, China, The Netherlands, United Kingdom and South Africa.

Pulsars also offer promise as a navigation system for guiding craft travelling through deep space. In 2016 China launched a satellite, XPNAV-1, carrying a navigation system that uses periodic X-ray signals from certain pulsars.

The ConversationPulsars have changed our our understanding of the universe, and their true importance is still unfolding.

George Hobbs, Team leader for the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array project, CSIRO; Dick Manchester, CSIRO Fellow, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, CSIRO, and Simon Johnston, Senior research scientist, CSIRO

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One Nation, Climate Denial and those Jewish Bankers

The Conversation

Clive Hamilton, Charles Sturt University

Malcolm Roberts, the Queensland One Nation candidate who seems set to be elected to the Senate, sees the world through the eyes of the archetypal conspiracist. Dark forces move with malign intent behind world events.

Climate science is a conspiracy cooked up by a secretive alliance of leading scientists and scientific bodies, including the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology that function as the Australian arms of a wider global plot centred on the UN and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Roberts has a background in the mining industry and serves as the project manager of the Galileo Movement, the central denialist organisation in Australia. Its patron is broadcaster Alan Jones, and its panel of advisers is stacked with all of the usual suspects – Gina Reinhart favourite Ian Plimer, blogger Jo Nova, monarchist David Flint and even Lord Monckton. It claims the Sydney PR company Jackson Wells as its media adviser. Jackson Wells lists “reputation management” among its core services.

In a rambling “personal declaration of interests” Roberts discloses that his daughter’s horse Clancy eats only renewable foods and that his working methods “are based on understanding the Laws of Nature … and understanding the Human Condition.”

His work shows all the signs of what psychologists call conspiracist ideation, defined by Stephan Lewandowsky et al. as “the attempt to explain a significant political or social event as a secret plot by powerful individuals or organizations. The presumed conspirators are typically perceived as virtually omnipotent …”

Elders of Zion

Roberts is interesting because he bells the cat of climate denial. As Patrick Stokes has pointed out, he believes that behind the scientific conspiracy is a secret ring of international banking families. Speaking on behalf of the Galileo Movement, in 2012 Roberts told the Sydney Morning Herald that climate change science had been captured by “some of the major banking families in the world” who form a “tight-knit cabal”.

If that sounds like the toxic far-right claim about the global ambition of Jewish bankers then it is. Roberts seems to share the worldview of those who see the world’s political leaders as, in the words of one group, the puppets of “the Money Master — the Jew — sick, neurotic, carnal, haters of Christ”.

In a bizarre 135-page document titled “Why? Motives Driving Climate Fraud”, Roberts argues that international bankers are secretly pursuing their agenda of global control through environmentalism. He singles out the Rothschilds (of course), Goldman Sachs, the Rockefellers and the Warburg family.

Roberts’ embrace of the Jewish banker conspiracy has proven too much for fellow climate science denier Andrew Bolt, who in 2012 asked Roberts to name the banking families in question. Bolt did not publish Roberts’ response but did publish his reply:

“Two of the three most prominent and current banking families you’ve mentioned are Jewish, and the third is sometimes falsely assumed to be. Yes, this smacks too much of the Jewish world conspiracy theorising I’ve always loathed.”

Bolt asked that his name be removed as an adviser to the Galileo Movement.

I almost prefaced the last sentence with the words “to his credit”, but why should we congratulate a man for choosing to reject one mad conspiracy theory when he has devoted years of his life fostering another?

While Andrew Bolt may “despise” Jewish world conspiracy theories, there is nothing inconsistent in Roberts’ position if you are prone to conspiracist ideation.

If you believe climate science is a giant conspiracy drawing together the world’s leading climate scientists, along with the IPCC, various scientific academies, environmental organisations and governments around the world – as Andrew Bolt does, along with championing the weirdest of the New World Order conspiracy theorists, Christopher Monckton – it is natural then to ask who or what lies behind and organises this conspiracy to deceive and what their ultimate objective might be?

Settling on Jewish bankers, known to be bent on world domination, makes sense.

Hanson world in Canberra

The global plot promoted by Malcolm Roberts is not some kind of outlier in Hanson world. As Robert Manne pointed out in 1998, Hanson’s statement of her worldview, set out in her tome The Truth, spells out with breath-taking candour every crazed far-right belief in the “New World Order”. It makes Roberts’ more recent statements appear positively restrained.

So the fringe has found its way to the centre, and with powerful support. Among many like-minded others, Maurice Newman, once a senior business adviser to Tony Abbott, is given free rein to espouse his froth-at-the-mouth conspiracy theories on the pages of The Australian, which more and more resembles that other Murdoch outlet for paranoia, Fox News.

And there can be no doubt that Roberts’ views will be welcomed by a significant minority of Coalition parliamentarians who support Hanson’s call for an inquiry into the “corrupt” Bureau of Meteorology and for the teaching of climate denial in schools.

And we laugh at Donald Trump.

The ConversationClive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE), Charles Sturt University

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Tasmanian devils reared in captivity show they can thrive in the wild

The Conversation

Tracey Rogers, UNSW Australia

One of the concerns of any conservation breeding program is how well a species raised in captivity will survive when released into the wild.

Evolutionary changes that are beneficial for an individual while in captivity may reduce its fitness when translocated to the wild.

For some species, like many fish, rapid evolutionary changes can occur within the first generation in captivity. And carnivores raised in captivity have a low chance of surviving the first year following their release.

A review of 45 carnivore translocations, which included 17 different species, including the European lynx, European otter and the swift fox, found that if the animals had been raised in captivity they had on average a 30% chance of survival after release.

Save the devil program

All this was a concern then for efforts to help save the Tasmanian devil.

The devil plays an important functional role within the Tasmanian ecosystem and is the last of the large marsupial carnivores.

But the Tasmanian devil is listed as endangered and their population has declined by 80% over the past ten years. This is due largely to the infectious fatal cancer, the devil facial tumour disease (DFTD).

As part of a conservation effort, a disease-free devil population has been established in captivity.

But given the low rate of survival of released captive-raised carnivores in other conservation programs it was important to identify whether their release could play a viable role in the conservation of the Tasmanian devil.

Captive breeding programs are extremely expensive and resource allocation was very tight. So more than 35 institutions helped to set up the captive devil insurance population.

Different types of enclosure setting were used, some intensive zoo style while others had larger pens to allow for a more free range style. The different enclosure types offered different opportunities for the devils to retain their natural behaviours.

We tested the effect of the various captive-rearing methods on the survival and body mass of captive raised Tasmanian devils that were released on Maria Island, off Tasmania’s east coast.

Our study, published this month in CSIRO Wildlife Research, showed that Tasmanian devils raised in captivity before being translocated into the wild had a high survival success (96%). Most of the devils are still alive two years after their release.

The devils gained weight, are hunting and breeding. This is irrespective of the type of captive-rearing method as both zoo style and free range reared animals are thriving.

Release of the devils. Wildlife Management Branch, Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment

Natural born killers

One cause of translocation failure in other programs has been that the released animals starve. The captive-raised animals had not learnt foraging and hunting skills. Some carnivorous mammals can lose this natural foraging behaviour in captivity.

But the captive-raised Tasmanian devils adjusted to the wild better than other carnivorous species. This was not only because they were released in the relative safety of an island, but it suggests that the devils’ foraging behaviour does not need to be learnt.

Devils have bone crushing jaws. Wildlife Management Branch, Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment.

Devils have a massive head with bone crushing jaws, large tough molars and strong shoulders and neck. They have a very broad approach to what they will eat.

Their diet includes all major critters such as mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. Devils have been seen catching gum moths out of the air, slurping tadpoles out of ponds and digging yabbies out of their burrows.

They also live from the intertidal zone to the sub alpine zone. They climb trees like a possum and are good swimmers.

There was less carrion available on Maria Island than on the mainland. Also the captive-raised devils would not have learnt hunting skills while in captivity so we presumed that they would not eat large prey.

Captive devils feeding upon a carcass.

Initially, after the first release, the devils fed on brushtail possums. But relatively soon after we found the devils started to feed on large prey, such as the common wombat and eastern grey kangaroo. These species are much larger than you would predict for a mammal of the devils’ size to prey on.

What’s planned for the devils?

So what does the success of this wild release say for the future conservation of the Tasmanian devil?

The devil facial tumour disease has been detected across the majority of the devil’s range. The wild devil population has been decimated as the disease moved across Tasmania.

It is time to boost the genetic diversity of the wild population. We need to provide the potential for immunity to develop in the species. That’s why it is exciting to have found that the captive-raised devils adjusted so well in the wild.

The next step will be to supplement the wild Tasmanian mainland population by releasing further captive-raised devils, along with those born wild on Maria Island.

But the devils released on the Tasmanian mainland will face other dangers. Alongside the disease they will have to contend with dogs, rodent poison and car collisions.

Clearly there’s some work still to be done, but the Maria Island and captive devils will continue to be an important part of the fight against the deadly facial tumour.

The ConversationTracey Rogers, Associate Professor Evolution & Ecology, UNSW Australia

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Don’t go in the water: a world of pain awaits in Australia’s deep blue seas

The Conversation

Lisa-ann Gershwin, CSIRO

Australia’s reputation for deadly creatures of all kinds is known the world over. Tourists worry about it, and comedians have a field day with it. Here’s what Bill Bryson says in his book In a Sunburned Country:

[Australia] has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures – the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick and stonefish – are the most lethal of their type in the world.

Bryson certainly has a way with words. But, to be honest, he forgot a few things.

The long list

Australia has at least nine species of Irukandjis, a group of jellyfish so nasty that their drop-for-drop toxicity leaves the box jellyfish in the dust.

Impressive, considering the box jelly has long been considered the world’s most venomous animal. A massive sting from a box jelly kills in as little as two minutes; for other victims, it’s generally painful with some scarring, but that’s about it.

Irukandji, in contrast, with just an imperceptible brush of venom leaves almost no mark. But after about a half hour you develop Irukandji syndrome, a debilitating mix of nausea, vomiting, severe pain, difficulty breathing, drenching sweating and sense of impending doom. You get so sick that your biggest worry is that you’re not going to die!

And that’s just the beginning: up to a third of victims require life support and a quarter have ongoing complications, including permanent heart damage or neurological damage.

Bryson also forgot the blue bottles that sting some 25,000 to 45,000 people each year in Australia, at least one species of which causes Irukandji syndrome.

And he forgot the bullrout, which is kind of a brackish-water version of the stonefish – caution, they hang out at boat ramps and these suckers hurt.

 

And stingrays, which combine stabbing and venom into the one injury. And the cone snail, which looks mild-mannered, but can imperil your life with one stab of its lightning-fast barb.

Then there are sea urchins and stinging hydroids and venomous sponges, which will put you in a world of hurt. But nobody ever thinks to include them.

And the sea snakes: if you get one in your fishing net, or your dive equipment, or your hair, remember the old adage “don’t grab a snake by its tail”. Well, I’m not sure if that’s an adage or not, but it should be. In fact, “don’t grab a snake” would be better.

Bryson also forgot the world’s only venomous mammal, the platypus: males have a venomous spur on the back legs, and they seriously hurt. And my new favourite, the arrow worm. Yes, the arrow worm.

Granted, there aren’t any reported deaths from arrow worms, but they deserve respect. They look like a beansprout with fish fins, with a fish tail at one end and rows of big scary spines at the other, which they use to grasp their food. And they “bite” with tetrodotoxin – the same venom that makes fugu (the pufferfish delicacy) and blue ring octopus so lethal.

And swans. Bryson forgot swans. At least three people have reportedly been killed by swans. I’m just sayin’. (Good news: these are not the native Australian black swans).

But why?

Okay, venomous beansprouts, swans and fear of not dying aside, what is it with Australia’s dangerous creatures? The typical explanation for powerful venoms is subduing dinner or dealing quickly with danger, especially for delicate creatures or those that aren’t able to track prey for long distances.

But certainly the box jellyfish’s venom is overkill, while the Irukandji takes too long. What’s more, fish don’t appear to get Irukandji syndrome … although I’ve never been sure how to tell if a fish is sweating.

Similarly, the dinner-or-danger hypothesis doesn’t seem to hold true for stabbing fish wounds, such as those delivered by stonefish, bullrouts and stingrays. Certainly, the stabbing must be far more effective than all but the most instant venom effects.

 

But one must keep in mind that these creatures evolved their toxins long before Homo sapiens fossicked the tide pools or snorkelled the reefs. So although their venoms can harm us, this may just be coincidental.

A question that often arises is what effect climate change will have on these creatures or their venoms. Well, the answer is we really don’t know yet.

With regard to species, there will be winners and losers. Many of the venomous sea creatures are tropical, and many tropical species are expanding southward. To what extent this may put the more populated southerly areas at higher risk is still unclear.

One group, however, seems particularly poised to benefit: the jellyfishes. As warmer water stimulates their metabolism, they grow faster, eat more, breed more and live longer. Irukandjis and box jellyfish become more toxic as they mature, so getting there faster and staying there longer could have undesirable outcomes for sea users.

How, then, can we possibly navigate these dangers when curious sea snakes want to swim with us, duckbilled platypus, stones and beansprouts must be viewed with suspicion, blue is sounding like the new warning colour, invisible jellyfish will lay us flat, and even the swans, a symbol of romance, are scary?

Four tips for keeping safe

Rule 1: First and foremost, try to make it a rule never to touch an animal that isn’t a personal friend. This will prevent the vast majority of bite and sting injuries, and not just from sea creatures.

Rule 2: Do the stingray shuffle when moving in sandy water: drag your feet in such a way that you’re continuously kicking sand in front to where you’re about to step. This will scare most creatures away so that you don’t step on them.

Rule 3: Wear protective clothing (a full-body lycra suit, for instance) when swimming in areas where box jellyfish or Irukandjis may appear. If stung by box jellyfish or Irukandjis or unknown jellyfish in the tropics, douse with vinegar to neutralise undischarged stinging cells.

Rule 4: Don’t try to make friends with swans.

Finally, read the Australian Resuscitation Council website for the latest on prevention and first aid for bites and stings.

This article is part of our series Deadly Australia. Stay tuned for more pieces on the topic in the coming days.

The ConversationLisa-ann Gershwin, Research scientist, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission0. Read the original article.

 

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For this generation, and the next, it’s time to bring back the carbon tax

The Conversation

By Max Corden, University of Melbourne

Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey will release the Intergenerational Report on Thursday, and has invited Australians to join in a conversation about the economy and the challenges facing the budget.

I’d like to argue the case for bringing back the carbon tax.

Tony Abbott, when leader of the Opposition, promised to repeal the carbon tax brought in by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. And he has fulfilled his promise.

Now circumstances have changed: the budget deficit and public debt have turned out to be important problems in the eyes of the government because of the somewhat unexpected decline in export prices. So Abbott, or his successor as prime minister, would be justified in re-imposing this tax.

The revenue from a carbon tax could make a significant contribution to dealing with the deficit problem. Of course, it would not be enough, and, as is well known, other measures or reforms to generate revenue for the government are available and certainly needed.

The carbon tax as a burden

Prime Minister Abbott certainly convinced his fellow Australians that this “great big new tax” would be a burden. But all taxes impose burdens or costs somewhere, whether on companies or individuals. One might reflect that, in current budgetary circumstances a “big new tax,” and perhaps more than one, is just what doctor Hockey ordered.

The carbon tax was paid by numerous businesses, but this did not mean they carried the final “burden”. Mostly they would have passed it on to their customers, both households and businesses. Essentially it might be regarded as a fossil energy tax.

When the tax was repealed Abbott argued households would benefit on average by A$550 a year, with gas prices to fall by 7% and electricity prices by 9%. His much-repeated and persuasive message was that the carbon tax raised the cost of living and this was “toxic” and “has been hurting ordinary people”. He also argued a tax that raised energy prices would have led to job losses.

All this seemed very persuasive. The persuasion was reinforced by the fact that earlier – essentially from 2007 to 2010 – electricity prices had risen sharply for other reasons, essentially to pay for the high costs of excessive investment in networks (poles and wires). In many minds those price rises were mixed up with the expected effect of the carbon tax.

Where did the revenue go?

But Abbott never refers to the government revenue that was raised because of the carbon tax. Did the tax not have any beneficial effects for households or businesses to compensate for the directly adverse effects of the higher prices of energy? Where did this revenue go?

In fact, some of it was used to compensate firms that competed in international markets, while a substantial part compensated low income households through reductions in their income tax. The latter was an important element of the Gillard program. What was taken out of the income stream by the carbon tax at one point was put back by the compensation at another point. If there were job losses at one end, there would be job gains at the other. Furthermore, reducing income tax, at least in the low income ranges, would increase the incentives to seek work, a highly desirable economic effect.

Possibly some of the revenue led to greater government spending which benefited households. By ignoring all these offsetting revenue effects Abbott was able to conclude that the carbon tax had a severely adverse effect on incomes and employment. Did he really believe this?

At this point one might ask: what was the point of the whole exercise when funds were taken out of the economy at one end and put back at the other. The answer seems obvious. The carbon tax would produce market inducements that reduced harmful emissions of greenhouse gases. Of course, if one does not believe that climate change is a problem, or that Australia could make any difference, the whole business seems pointless. And if one assumes that nothing happens to the revenue, the tax would seem not just pointless but harmful.

Use the revenue to reduce the deficit?

In the event of the carbon tax being reinstated, the whole of the gross revenue might be used to reduce the budget deficit. It would not finance increased government spending. How much money would be available? According to official estimates, in the first two years of operation the carbon tax raised A$15.4 billion in gross revenue.

If the carbon tax revenue actually reduces the budget deficit without compensating tax or spending changes elsewhere, the benefit would then be in the future (when debt is lower than otherwise), while the return of the “big new tax” would indeed impose a present cost. Hockey would then get his deeply desired budget improvement but this would still be at odds with Abbott’s desire to avoid new taxes.

The economic impact of climate change

Australia has a group of “realists” who do not deny climate change, but argue Australia generates such a small proportion of the world’s harmful carbon emissions that we cannot make any difference anyway. So, why bother with a carbon tax?

We can make a difference, and, above all, it is in our interest that we do. We may not be able to directly affect world climate alone, but it certainly will affect us, so we must try and influence collective global action.

First there is the direct effect of climate change on Australia, and especially its coastline, as set out by the CSIRO. Likely effects include reduced rainfall in southern Australia, more extreme fire weather, adverse effects on the Great Barrier Reef, on coastal populations, and so on. Particularly important for Australia are increasing heatwaves. Heatwaves have killed more Australians than all other natural hazards combined.

Second, the rise of the sea level in association with severe weather events is likely to have a serious impact on Australia’s neighbouring islands and island countries, including Indonesia, with many of its population of 250 million people highly vulnerable.

For selfish reasons we need to use our maximum diplomatic influence to encourage other countries to take the necessary measures to drastically moderate or avoid climate change. And we can only do this if we set an example ourselves. A restoration of the carbon tax would be the first step.

Of course, eventually this might evolve into an Emissions Trading Scheme. In both cases carbon emissions will be discouraged and the government will receive revenue.


Editor’s note: Max will be answering questions between 10 and 11am on Thursday March 5. You can ask your questions about the article in the comments below.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Eight million tonnes of plastic are going into the ocean each year

The Conversation

By Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO and Chris Wilcox, CSIRO

You might have heard the oceans are full of plastic, but how full exactly? Around 8 million metric tonnes go into the oceans each year, according to the first rigorous global estimate published in Science today.

That’s equivalent to 16 shopping bags full of plastic for every metre of coastline (excluding Antarctica). By 2025 we will be putting enough plastic in the ocean (on our most conservative estimates) to cover 5% of the earth’s entire surface in cling film each year.

Around a third of this likely comes from China, and 10% from Indonesia. In fact all but one of the top 20 worst offenders are developing nations, largely due to fast-growing economies but poor waste management systems.

However, people in the United States – coming in at number 20 and producing less than 1% of global waste – produce more than 2.5 kg of plastic waste each day, more than twice the amount of people in China.

While the news for us, our marine wildlife, seabirds, and fisheries is not good, the research paves the way to improve global waste management and reduce plastic in the waste stream.

Source: Lindsay Robinson/University of Georgia

Follow the plastic

An international team of experts analysed 192 countries bordering the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the Mediterranean and Black Seas. By examining the amount of waste produced per person per year in each country, the percentage of that waste that’s plastic, and the percentage of that plastic waste that is mismanaged, the team worked out the likely worst offenders for marine plastic waste.

In 2010, 270 million tonnes of plastic was produced around the world. This translated to 275 million tonnes of plastic waste; 99.5 million tonnes of which was produced by the two billion people living within 50 km of a coastline. Because some durable items such as refrigerators produced in the past are also thrown away, we can find more waste than plastic produced at times.

Of that, somewhere between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes found its way into the ocean. Given how light plastic is, this translates to an unimaginably large volume of debris.

While plastic can make its way into oceans from land-locked countries via rivers, these were excluded in the study, meaning the results are likely a conservative estimate.

With our planet still 85 years away from “peak waste” — and with plastic production skyrocketing around the world — the amount of plastic waste getting into the oceans is likely to increase by an order of magnitude within the next decade.

Our recent survey of the Australian coastline found three-quarters of coastal rubbish is plastic, averaging more than 6 pieces per meter of coastline. Offshore, we found densities from a few thousand pieces of plastic to more than 40,000 pieces per square kilometre in the waters around the continent.

Where is the plastic going?

While we now have a rough figure for the amount of plastic rubbish in the world’s oceans, we still know very little about where it all ends up (it isn’t all in the infamous “Pacific Garbage Patch”).

Between 6,350 and 245,000 metric tons of plastic waste is estimated to float on the ocean’s surface, which raises the all-important question: where does the rest of it end up?

Some, like the plastic microbeads found in many personal care products, ends up in the oceans and sediments where they can be ingested by bottom-dwelling creatures and filter-feeders.

It’s unclear where the rest of the material is. It might be deposited on coastal margins, or maybe it breaks down into fragments so small we can’t detect it, or maybe it is in the guts of marine wildlife.

Plastic recovered from a dead shearwater – a glowstick, industrial plastic pellets, and bits of balloon. Source: CSIRO, Author provided

Wherever it ends up, plastic has enormous potential for destruction. Ghost nets and fishing debris snag and drown turtles, seals, and other marine wildlife. In some cases, these interactions have big impacts.

For instance, we estimate that around 10,000 turtles have been trapped by derelict nets in Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria region alone.

More than 690 marine species are known to interact with marine litter. Turtles mistake floating plastic for jellyfish, and globally around one-third of all turtles are estimated to have eaten plastic in some form. Likewise seabirds eat everything from plastic toys, nurdles and balloon shreds to foam, fishing floats and glow sticks.

While plastic is prized for its durability and inertness, it also acts as a chemical magnet for environmental pollutants such as metals, fertilisers, and persistent organic pollutants. These are adsorbed onto the plastic. When an animal eats the plastic “meal”, these chemicals make their way into their tissues and — in the case of commercial fish species — can make it onto our dinner plates.

Plastic waste is the scourge of our oceans; killing our wildlife, polluting our beaches, and threatening our food security. But there are solutions – some of which are simple, and some a bit more challenging.

Solutions

If the top five plastic-polluting countries – China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka – managed to achieve a 50% improvement in their waste management — for example by investing in waste management infrastructure, the total global amount of mismanaged waste would be reduced by around a quarter.

Higher-income countries have equal responsibility to reduce the amount of waste produced per person through measures such as plastic recycling and reuse, and by shifting some of the responsibility for plastic waste back onto the producers.

The simplest and most effective solution might be to make the plastic worth money. Deposits on beverage containers for instance, have proven effective at reducing waste lost into the environment – because the containers, plastic and otherwise, are worth money people don’t throw them away, or if they do others pick them up.

Extending this idea to a deposit on all plastics at the beginning of their lifecycle, as raw materials, would incentivize collection by formal waste managers where infrastructure is available, but also by consumers and entrepreneurs seeking income where it is not.

Before the plastic revolution, much of our waste was collected and burned. But the ubiquity, volume, and permanence of plastic waste demands better solutions.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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The rabbits of Christmas past: a present that backfired for Australia

The Conversation

By Andrew Bengsen, University of New England

On Christmas Day 1859, the Victoria Acclimatisation Society released 24 rabbits for hunting, to help settlers feel more at home.

Given the millions of dollars in damage to agricultural productivity that ensued, as well as the impacts on biodiversity as the rabbits bred and spread to cover 70% of the continent, this could be seen as Australia’s worst Christmas present.

Now, given our current climate change commitments, controlling rabbits could be “Santa’s little helper” in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2007, Australia committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to at least 5% below 2000 levels, by the year 2020. This commitment remains central to our climate change policy, and we should expect greater emissions reduction targets in future if we comply with the international target of limiting global warming to plus 2 deg C.

Storing carbon in the land

There’s been plenty of talk of planting more trees. But case studies and evaluations of government programs such as Bushcare show that this is an expensive way to re-vegetate.

Instead, many people now recognise there are better ways to manage carbon across large areas. Livestock grazing and fire (such as “savanna burning”) are often cited as important factors to manage and enhance carbon storage in plants and soils across vast areas.

Some significant gains might also be achieved by reducing the damage caused by some of our most serious pest animals.

Eating us out of house, home and carbon

Rabbits are well known for their ability to strip grasslands bare and destroy the seedlings of woody shrubs and trees. Even in low numbers, rabbits can completely prevent some important woody species from regenerating.

Mulga woodlands, for example, cover vast tracts of inland Australia, and mulga trees are likely to be a very important carbon store in these areas. However, rabbit numbers as low as one animal per hectare can effectively stop the replacement of old trees by destroying seedlings.

Distribution of rabbits (orange, left) and mulga woodlands (green, right) across Australia. Rabbit data from West 2008.

Recently, Tarnya Cox and I reviewed the potential benefits of controlling rabbits and other invasive herbivores for reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. We unearthed a multitude of similar stories about the extensive damage that rabbits can cause to vegetation and ecosystem function, and how that may affect the ability of these systems to capture and store carbon.

Importantly, much of the damage that rabbits cause to the environment can be reversed.

In many areas, Mulga and other species flourished for the first time in 100 years after rabbit numbers were reduced by up to 95% in the 1990s by rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (previously known as calicivirus).

Many other studies have also found sudden increases in plant growth after rabbit populations were reduced by disease or intensive conventional control.

A rabbit opportunity

Dying mulga tree and narrow-leaved fuchsia bush in a rangeland area degraded by rabbits and goats. Robert Henzell

The regeneration of Mulga and other woody species over broad areas can make significant contributions to our emissions reduction targets. Mulga and other arid zone acacias are long-lived, grow slowly, and have very dense wood. This means that mature trees can store large amounts of carbon for their size, and keep much of it locked up long after the death of the plant.

Regenerating Mulga woodlands in western Queensland and New South Wales are estimated to capture over half a tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent, per hectare per year, in woody biomass alone. This equates to about four air passengers travelling from Sydney to Brisbane per hectare of mulga woodlands.

Rabbits inhabit most of the 143 million hectares of Australia’s Mulga woodlands. If their populations can be controlled, then there is considerable potential for natural carbon sequestration to help us meet our greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Other invasive herbivores – such as camels and goats – can also reduce vegetation cover and plant carbon storage. However, we already have a solid understanding of the rabbit’s impact on the environment, and they are very widespread which means that their eradication could have large positive impacts.

How to control rabbits

Conventional rabbit control operations – such as warren destruction and poison baiting – can be more cost-effective at regenerating native vegetation, than planting more trees. This would be useful for the large areas of road-side reserves and stock routes which need revegetation. They rival the size of the National Park estate in terms of total area across south-eastern Australia.

These areas would be suitable for conventional rabbit control. Even a small increase in tree density due to rabbit control would help us achieve our greenhouse gas reduction targets. Rabbit control is often required to allow tree plantings to establish and flourish.

A rabbit feeds on a planted tree surrounded by a tree guard, despite an apparent abundance of green vegetation outside the tree guard. Mark Hillier, Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, Author provided

Of course, there are many challenges in reducing the damage caused by rabbits, and improve our chances of achieving our greenhouse gas reduction targets. Most importantly, we need accurate estimates of the effect of rabbit control on natural carbon sequestration. We also need a means of monitoring actual carbon sequestration amounts, that complies with the stringent carbon accounting rules of the Kyoto Protocol.

Another major challenge is the declining effectiveness of rabbit hemorrhagic disease. Fortunately, a major cooperative research program is already underway to counter the virus’ diminishing effect, though biological control alone cannot be expected to completely mitigate rabbit impacts.

As we hark back to that fateful Christmas Day in 1859, a future of climate uncertainty, agricultural hardship and the loss of our unique biodiversity, we must be prepared to act on these challenges.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged with permission). Read the original article.

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