Global carbon report: emissions will hit new heights in 2014

By Pep Canadell, CSIRO and Michael Raupach, Australian National University

As heads of state gather in New York for tomorrow’s United Nations climate summit, a new report on the state of the world’s carbon budget tells them that greenhouse emissions hit a new record last year, and are still growing.

The Global Carbon Project has released its annual report card on the global and national trends in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

It shows that global emissions from burning fossil fuels and cement production reached a new record of 36 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2013, and are predicted to grow by a further 2.5% in 2014, bringing the total CO2 emissions from all sources to more than 40 billion tonnes. This is about 65% more fossil-fuel emission than in 1990, when international negotiations to reduce emissions to address climate change began.

Meanwhile, deforestation now accounts for just 8% of total emissions, a fraction that has been declining for several decades.

Global emissions chart

Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel and cement production.
Source: CDIAC, Friedlingstein et al. 2014, Global Carbon Project 2014

The growth of global emissions since 2009 has been slower than in the prior period of 2000-08. However, projections based on forecast growth in global gross domestic product (GDP) and continuance of improving trends in carbon intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) suggest a continuation of rapid emissions growth over the coming five years.

Global emissions continue to track the most carbon-intensive range among more than a thousand scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). If continued, this situation would lead to global average temperatures between 3.2C and 5.4C above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

Graph of possible IPCC scenarios

Global carbon dioxide emissions from human activity, compared to four different possible futures as depicted in IPCC scenarios.
Fuss et al. 2014

There have been other striking changes in emissions profiles since climate negotiations began. In 1990, about two-thirds of CO2 emissions came from developed countries including the United States, Japan, Russia and the European Union (EU) nations. Today, only one-third of world emissions are from these countries; the rest come from the emerging economies and less-developed countries that account for 80% of the global population, suggesting a large potential further emissions growth.

Continuation of current trends over the next five years alone will lead to a new world order on greenhouse gas emissions, with China emitting as much as the United States, Europe and India together.

Country emission profiles

There are several ways to explore countries’ respective contributions to climate change. These include current emissions, per capita emissions, and cumulative emissions since the industrial revolution.

Cumulative emissions

Carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels and cement production for five regions. Cumulative emissions, production emissions (emissions generated in the region where goods and services are produced), consumption emissions (emissions generated in the region where goods and services are consumed), population, and GDP. 2012 is the most recent year for which all data are available.
CDIAC, Global Carbon Project 2014

The largest emitters in 2013 were China, the United States, the 28 EU countries (considered as a single bloc), and India. Together, they account for 58% of global emissions and 80% of the emissions growth in 2013 (with the majority the growth coming from China, whereas the EU cut its emissions overall).

Here’s how the major emitters fared in 2013.

China

Emissions grew at 4.2%, the lowest level since the 2008 global financial crisis, because of weaker economic growth and improvements in the carbon intensity of the economy. Per capita emissions in China (7.2 tonnes of CO2 per person) overtook those in Europe (6.8 tonnes per person).

A large part of China’s high per capita emissions is due to industries that provide services and products to the developed world, not for China’s domestic use. China’s cumulative emissions are still only 11% of the total since pre-industrial times.

United States

Emissions increased by 2.9% because of a rebound in coal consumption, reversing a declining trend in emissions since 2008. Emissions are projected to remain steady until 2019 in the absence of more stringent climate policies, with improvements in the energy and carbon intensity of the economy being offset by growth in GDP and population. The United States remains the biggest contributor of cumulative emissions with 26% of the total.

European Union

Emissions fell by 1.8% on the back of a weak economy, although reductions in some countries were offset by a return to coal led by Poland, Germany and Finland. However, the long-term decrease in EU emissions does not factor in the emissions linked to imported goods and services. When accounting for these “consumption” emissions, EU emissions have merely stabilised, rather than decreased.

India

Emissions grew by 5.1%, driven by robust economic growth and an increase in the carbon intensity of the economy. Per capita emissions were still well below the global average, at 1.9 tonnes of CO2 per person, although India’s total emissions are projected to overtake those in the EU by 2019 (albeit for a population nearly three times as large). Cumulative emissions account for only 3% of the total.

Australia

Emissions from fossil fuels declined in 2013, largely driven by a 5% decline of emissions in the electricity sector over the previous year (as shown by the Australian National Greenhouse Gas Accounts). Fossil fuel emissions per person remain high at 14.6 tonnes of CO2.

National fossil fuel emissions

National carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.
Source: CDIAC, Friedlingstein et al. 2014, Le Quere et al. 2014

Per capita emissions fossil fuels

Per capita carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels for the top emitting nations.
Source: CDIAC, Global Carbon Project 2014

Is it too late to tame the climate?

Our estimates (see here and here) show that, at current emissions levels, average global warming will hit 2C in about 30 years.

Despite this apparently imminent event, economic models can still come up with scenarios in which global warming is kept within 2C by 2100, while both population and per capita wealth continue to grow. Are these models playing tricks on us?

Most models invoke two things that will be crucial to stabilising the climate at safer levels. The first is immediate global action to develop carbon markets, with prices rapidly growing to over US$100 per tonne of CO2.

The second is the deployment of “negative emissions” technologies during the second half of this century, which will be needed to mop up the overshoot of emissions between now and mid-century. This will involve removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in safe places such as saline aquifers.

These technologies are largely unavailable at present. The most likely candidate is the production of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, a combination of existing technologies with high costs and with environmental and socio-economic implications that are untested at the required scales.

There are no easy pathways to climate stabilization, and certainly no magic bullets. It is still open to us to choose whether we halt our CO2 emissions completely this century – as required for a safe, stable climate – or try instead to adapt to significantly greater impacts of climate change.

What we have no choice about is the fact that the longer emissions continue to grow at rates of 2% per year or more, the harder it will be to tame our climate.

The Conversation

Pep Canadell received support from the Australian Climate Change Science Program.

Michael Raupach has previously received funding from the Australian Climate Change Science Program, but does not do so now.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Celebrating our heroes of science

The IgNobel Stinker

The Stinker. Official mascot of the IgNobel Prizes

The winners of the 2014 IgNobel prizes have just been announced, and there’s an Australian among them. Peter K. Jonason from the University of Western Sydney shared the IgNobel for Psychology with Amy Jones and Minna Lyons, for providing evidence that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative, and more psychopathic than people who habitually arise early in the morning.

We are filled with admiration.

CSIRO wasn’t among the winners this year, but we’re going to take the opportunity to boast about our earlier winners.

In 2011, David Rentz (formerly of CSIRO) and Darryl Gwynne shared the IgNobel Prize for biology, for their groundbreaking discovery that a certain kind of Australian beetle attempts to mate with stubby bottles. Specifically, that male Buprestid beetles (jewel beetles or metallic wood-boring beetles) had a particular attraction to brown stubbies – none of this fancy craft beer in clear glass for them. In true scientific spirit, having noticed this occurring, they took steps to confirm the mating hypothesis. They ruled out the beetles being attracted by beer residue – the stubby bottles were completely dry. Nor were the beetles interested in a discarded wine bottle nearby – suggesting the colour of the bottle was the source of the attraction.

They then placed several more stubby bottles within range of the male beetles, and found that these too were extremely appealing to the beetles. So appealing, in fact, that they didn’t give up of their own accord, but had to be physically dislodged from making their amorous advances.

This, of course, provides a valuable lesson about the unintended consequences of littering. Throwing away a stubby can cause grave disappointment for beetles.

But these are not our only IgNobelists.

In 2006, Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes took out the IgNobel in mathematics for working out the solution to a problem that has confounded photographers for many years: how many photos do you need to take to be sure no-one is blinking.

They managed to reduce it to a (fairly) simple rule of thumb. For groups of less than 20 people, take the number of people in the group and divide that number by three. If you take that number of photos you can be virtually certain one of them will be blink-free. If the light is bad, divide the number of people in the group by two, because there’s a greater chance people will be blinking whilst the shutter is open.

This doesn’t work as well when the groups get larger: the number of photos grows so large that the group is likely to lose patience. But as they point out, the more people in a photo, the less it matters if one of them is blinking. And you’ll be pleased to know this was all experimentally tested in the canteen at lunchtime.

So congratulations to this year’s winners, commiserations to the losers, and onwards and upwards for the spirit of inquiry that drives improbable research.

Next year, next year …


Queensland survey reveals lukewarm view of coal seam gas

By Andrea Walton, CSIRO; Rod McCrea, CSIRO, and Rosemary Leonard, CSIRO

Coal seam gas plant in Chinchilla Qld.

Residents in Queensland’s Western Downs region have mixed feelings towards coal seam gas (CSG) development taking place in their midst, according to our CSIRO survey.

More than two-thirds of locals described themselves as “tolerating” or “accepting” CSG, while only 22% had openly positive attitudes. However, just 9% of survey respondents rejected the industry outright.

Around half of the surveyed residents felt that their community was struggling to adapt to changes. Residents were also less optimistic about the future, with many predicting a decline in community wellbeing over the coming years.

Attitudes to coal seam gas

We conducted a representative survey of 400 people living in and around the towns of Chinchilla, Dalby, Miles and Tara, all of which are experiencing varying stages of CSG development. We asked people about their attitudes to CSG, as well as their opinions on the wellbeing and resilience of their communities in the face of both opportunities and challenges associated with rapid CSG development.

Opportunities include increased employment and business, new services and new facilities, and a more vibrant community, whereas the challenges include water and land management, traffic conditions and safety, and affordable housing.

There were mixed feelings towards CSG development in the region, with almost 70% saying they either “tolerate” or “accept” it. A minority (22%) “approve” or “embrace” it, while a smaller minority (9%) of respondents “reject” it.

Although these results indicate that attitudes to CSG are not strongly polarised in these communities, it is clear that some community members are strongly opposed to it.

CSG attitudesQueensland

Attitudes towards coal seam gas in Western Downs communities
CSIRO

In response to questions around how residents felt their community was dealing with CSG development in their region, about 50% felt that their community was struggling to adapt to the changes – either “resisting”, “not coping”, or “only just coping” with CSG development.

Queensland perceptions of CSG

Perceptions of community responses to coal seam gas development in the area
CSIRO

Other results show that more positive attitudes to CSG are associated with community perceptions of being resilient, the environment being managed well for the future, good employment and business opportunities, and resource companies, government, and business working effectively with residents to deal with changes.

Differences across the region

Residents in Chinchilla see their community as adapting to changes more effectively than people in the other areas we surveyed. This reflects a perception that Chinchilla has better employment and business opportunities than places like Dalby and Tara, where respondents were more likely to find these opportunities unsatisfactory.

People who lived out of town reported lower levels of social interaction, services and facilities, employment and business opportunities, and overall community wellbeing than town residents. Although this may reflect general differences between rural and town life, those living out of town also had less favourable attitudes toward CSG (see the second chart above) and lower expectations of future community wellbeing .

Nevertheless, the overall average of community wellbeing across our whole survey was rated at 3.8 out of 5, which is robust and higher than many other Queensland regions when compared to similar items surveyed in a previous study.

Improving the situation

Our survey offers a snapshot of how people in Queensland’s Western Downs are feeling about the changes happening to their communities, and could form a basis for future strategies to support them.

The results suggest that investments made in wellbeing and resilience could lead to a more optimistic outlook for the future. In particular, three key areas that cause community dissatisfaction are road infrastructure, community participation in decision-making, and long-term environmental management.

However, we also found that while improving these things would benefit communities, these are not the most important factors for overall wellbeing. The things rated as most important are: services and facilities, community spirit and cohesion, a socially interactive community, personal safety, and environmental quality.

More optimistic outlooks for community wellbeing are associated with community resilience; especially good working relationships between groups, planning and leadership, supporting volunteers, and having access to information. Targeted investments are important but need to be combined with good collaboration between state and local governments, CSG companies, and local communities to enhance future community wellbeing.

Given that Queensland is more advanced than any other state in terms of CSG production, our study might also offer lessons for other regions of Australia that are facing the issue of CSG development, either now or in the future.

The Conversation

Andrea Walton is affiliated with CSIRO. She receives funding from GISERA. The Community Functioning and Wellbeing Project was funded by the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA). GISERA is a collaborative vehicle established to undertake publicly-reported independent research addressing the socio-economic and environmental impacts of Australia’s natural gas industries. The governance structure for GISERA is designed to provide for and protect research independence and transparency of funded research.

Rod McCrea receives funding from the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA). GISERA is a collaborative vehicle established to undertake publicly-reported independent research addressing the socio-economic and environmental impacts of Australia’s natural gas industries. The governance structure for GISERA is designed to provide for and protect research independence and transparency of funded research.

Rosemary Leonard receives funding from GISERA.The Community Functioning and Wellbeing Project was funded by the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA). GISERA is a collaborative vehicle established to undertake publicly-reported independent research addressing the socio-economic and environmental impacts of Australia’s natural gas industries. The governance structure for GISERA is designed to provide for and protect research independence and transparency of funded research. See http://www.gisera.org.au for more information about GISERA’s governance structure, funded projects, and research findings. She is a member of The Greens political party in Western Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Water: we need it to live, and so does our wildlife

Australia’s Biodiversity series – Part 10: Inland waters

Even though it is one of the world’s most arid continents, Australia’s inland waters support a rich diversity of life.

Rivers, streams, wetlands, floodplains, lakes, underground aquifers—we’ve got them all and they all support native species.

A large brown and yellow frog

The New Holland water-holding frog. 94% of our frog species are found only in certain ecosystems – the highest rate of endemism among Australia’s vertebrate species. Image: Danial Stratford.

Biodiversity is enhanced by the wide variation in rainfall across the continent and the change in climate from the tropical north to the temperate southern regions. Life in Australia’s inland water ecosystems has had to adapt to the ‘boom and bust’ that comes from periods of both extreme dry and extreme wet.

Human development has had a dramatic impact on these ecosystems, particularly in the Murray Darling Basin and other areas in the southeast, as we use water for our cities and towns and for irrigated agriculture. These water uses are obviously of great benefit to the Australian population but the use of the water and the infrastructure associated with it can disrupt the natural flows of water and nutrients through inland water ecosystems, which native plants and animals depend on.

In the tenth video of our Australia’s Biodiversity series, Dr Carmel Pollino talks about Australia’s unique inland water ecosystems and how water can best be managed for the benefit of biodiversity and our communities:

To find out more about the biodiversity in our inland water ecosystems, you might like to read the corresponding chapter of CSIRO’s Biodiversity Book.

Last week’s video looked at the new ways science is attempting to understand the unknown biodiversity in our oceans. You can review it and the other videos in the series on our YouTube channel.


What’s in your porcini packet? You may find a new species … or three

By Nai Tran-Dinh, CSIRO and David Midgley, CSIRO

Mycologists – scientists who study fungi – estimate there are up to five million species of fungi on Earth. Of these, only about 2%, or 100,000 species, have been formally described. So where are the other 98% of fungi hiding?

At least three, it seems, were hiding in a supermarket packet of dried porcini mushrooms from China. Mycologists Bryn Dentinger and Laura Suz from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, UK, used DNA sequencing to identify three new species in a packet of dried porcini mushrooms purchased from a supermarket, and report their findings in the journal PeerJ today.

The internal transcribed spacer (ITS) is a DNA region commonly used to identify fungi. (In fact, it’s been called the “universal DNA barcode marker for fungi”.) In their PeerJ paper, Dentinger and Suz compared previously published ITS sequences for porcini and discovered significant differences in three of their packet of dried mushrooms, enough to mark them as new species.

Their work also highlighted the use of modern DNA sequencing technologies for identifying species in food, and for monitoring foods for quality and adherence to international regulations, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Fungi really are fascinating

Like an apple, a mushroom is the fruit of the fungus. It’s not the apple tree.

Porcini

Typical porcini (Boletus edulis var. clavipes) in its natural habitat. This is not one of the newly discovered species (which are only known from the dried remains in the packet).
Bryn Dentinger

Most of the fungus grows below the ground, in a vast network of root-like tubes called hyphae. How vast, you might ask? Well, in a case known as the “humongous fungus”, a single clone (individual) of the honey mushroom (Armillaria ostoyae) has been shown to cover more than 900 hectares in Malheur National Forest in Oregon, USA. Estimates place the age of this gigantic fungal network at more than 2,000 years.

In Australia, some of our fungi are a little more modest in size, though perhaps bigger than you might guess. Nicole Sawyer and John Cairney at the University of Western Sydney have estimated the size of individuals of the Australian Elegant Blue Webcap (Cortinarius rotundisporus) at more than 30m in diameter – about the size of tennis court.

Despite the impressive size of some species, new species of fungi don’t get the same recognition as a new species of mammal, bird or reptile. But discoveries of novel species are the new norm in modern mycology – a change being driven by advances in our ability to sequence DNA.

It’s very important to better understand fungi, as they underpin the terrestrial biology of Earth. They associate with the vast majority of plants in a symbiosis called mycorrhiza.

Living both within plant roots, and out in the soil, they gather nutrients for the plant, and protect it against diseases and water stress, enhancing plant growth in exchange for sugars the plant produces via photosynthesis.

Without their fungal assistants, plants as we know them would not exist. Other fungi are vital decomposers and return nutrients stored in organic matter to the soil. While the most fungi are beneficial, some fungi are devastating plant pathogens, while a small number of fungi can cause disease in humans such as ringworm, trichosporonosis or aspergillosis.

Close human relationships

Humans have also recruited an array of fungi to their cause. Products produced by fungi are used in medicine – many antibiotics come from fungi – and the production of a range of food products including soy sauce, blue cheese, bread, beer and wine.

New porcini dried

Some of the new porcini species reported in PeerJ today.
Bryn Dentinger

Numerous new fungi related to Malassezia (a yeast that causes dandruff in humans) have been found in marine subsurface sediments in the South China Sea by Chinese researchers from Zhongshan (Sun Yatsen) University, while scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the US found the same Malassezia-like species from the Peru Trench in the Pacific Ocean.

The work in the Peru Trench used environmental RNA sequencing to guarantee that sequences observed were from environmental samples, and not contaminants from human skin.

Recent advances in modern DNA sequencing technology routinely yield millions of DNA fragments (reads) that can be quickly and accurately identified using classification tools. One such tool is the recently released Warcup ITS fungal identification set developed by CSIRO scientists in collaboration with the Ribosomal Database Project (RDP) and partners from the Western Illinois University and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US.

The Warcup ITS dataset allows identification, to species level, of thousands of ITS sequences within minutes.

The use of modern DNA technologies and classification tools may allow development of bioactive compounds for medicine, enhanced agricultural productivity, environmental damage repair, industrial applications such as biofuels and enzymes, along with food identification and potentially new food sources … sometimes in places you’d least expect.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Genetic evolution: how the Ebola virus changes and adapts

As viruses replicate, their genome changes. Image: EPA/Ahmed Jallanzo

As viruses replicate, their genome changes. Image: EPA/Ahmed Jallanzo

By Glenn Marsh, CSIRO

The current outbreak of Ebola virus in West Africa is unprecedented in size, with nearly 4,800 confirmed or probable cases and more than 2,400 deaths. People have been infected in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal.

The World Health Organization declared this outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” in August and estimates it will claim a staggering 20,000 lives within the next six months.

A second completely independent and significantly smaller Ebola virus outbreak has been detected in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Like all viruses, the Ebola virus has evolved since the outbreak began. So, how does this occur and how does it impact our attempts to contain the disease?

Tracking Ebola

Ebolavirus and the closely related Marburgvirus genera belong to the Filoviridae family. Both of these genera contain viruses that may cause fatal haemorrhagic fevers.

The Ebola virus genus is made up of five virus species: Zaire ebolavirus (responsible for both of the current outbreaks), Sudan ebolavirus, Reston ebolavirus, Bundibugyo ebolavirus and Taï Forest ebolavirus.

In order to better understand the origin and transmission of the current outbreak in West Africa, researchers from the Broad Institute and Harvard University, in collaboration with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health, sequenced 99 virus genomes from 78 patients.

The study, reported in Science, shows the outbreak resulted from a single introduction of virus into the human population and then ongoing human-to-human transmission. The scientists reported more than 300 unique changes within the virus causing the current West African outbreak, which differentiates this outbreak strain from previous strains.

The current Ebola outbreak has infected nearly 5,000 people. Image: EPA/Ahmed Jallanzo

Within the 99 genomes sequenced from this outbreak, researchers have recorded approximately 50 other changes to the virus as it spreads from person to person. Future work will investigate whether these differences are contributing to the severity of the current outbreak.

These 99 genome sequences have been promptly released to publicly available sequence databases such as Genbank, allowing scientists globally to investigate changes in these viruses. This is critical in assessing whether the current molecular diagnostic tests can detect these strains and whether experimental therapies can effectively treat the circulating strains.

How does Ebola evolve?

This is the first Ebola virus outbreak where scientists have sequenced viruses from a significant number of patients. Despite this, the Broad Institute/Harvard University study findings are not unexpected.

The Ebola virus genome is made up of RNA and the virus polymerase protein that does not have an error-correction mechanism. This is where it gets a little complicated, but bear with me.

As the virus replicates, it is expected that the virus genome will change. This natural change of virus genomes over time is why influenza virus vaccines must be updated annually and why HIV mutates to become resistant to antiretroviral drugs.

Changes are also expected when a virus crosses from one species to another. In the case of Ebola virus, bats are considered to be the natural host, referred to as the “reservoir host”. The virus in bats will have evolved over time to be an optimal sequence for bats.

Knowing how the Ebola virus adapts will help health officials contain future outbreaks. Image: EPA/Ahmed Jallanzo

Crossing over into another species, in this case people, puts pressure on the virus to evolve. This evolution can lead to “errors” or changes within the virus which may make the new host sicker.

Ebola viruses are known to rapidly evolve in new hosts, as we’ve seen in the adaptation of lab-based Ebola viruses to guinea pigs and mice. This adaptation occurred by passing a low-pathogenic virus from one animal to the next until the Ebola virus was able to induce a fatal disease. Only a small number of changes were required in both cases for this to occur.

While this kind of viral mutation is well known with other viruses, such as influenza virus, we are only truly appreciating the extent of it with the Ebola viruses.

What do the genetic changes mean?

The Broad Institute/Harvard University study reported that the number of changes in genome sequences from this current outbreak was two-fold higher than in previous outbreaks.

This could be due to the increased number of sequences obtained over a period of several months, and the fact that the virus has undergone many person-to-person passes in this time.

However, it will be important to determine if virus samples from early and late in the outbreak have differing ability to cause disease or transmit. The genetic changes may, for example, influence the level of infectious virus in bodily fluids, which would make the virus easier to spread.

Analysing this data will help us understand why this outbreak has spread so rapidly with devastating consequences and, importantly, how we can better contain and manage future outbreaks.

Glenn Marsh receives funding from Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Historic collections could be lost to ‘digital dinosaurs’

An image of Australian shearers taken on glass plate negative is now preserved in a digital collection. Powerhouse Museum Collection/Flickr

An image of Australian shearers taken on glass plate negative is now preserved in a digital collection. Powerhouse Museum Collection/Flickr

By Michael Brünig, CSIRO

Australian’s museums, galleries and other cultural institutions must adopt more of a digital strategy with their collections if they are to remain relevant with audiences.

Only about a quarter of the collections held by the sector have been digitised so far and a study out today says more needs to be done to protect and preserve the material, and make it available to people online.

Challenges and Opportunities for Australia’s Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums is a joint study by CSIRO and the Smart Services CRC.

It notes that Australia’s galleries, libraries, archives and museums (the GLAM sector) represent our accumulated achievements and experiences, inspire creativity and provide a place for us to connect with our heritage.

They are also crucial to our economy with the GLAM sector estimated to have a revenue of about A$2.5 billion each year. That’s not only a lot of paintings and artifacts, but a lot of jobs as well.

But despite its size and scope, we found that digital innovation in the sector has been inconsistent and isolated. If these cultural institutions don’t increase their use of digital technologies and services, they risk losing their relevance.

So what changes do they need to make in order to thrive in the digital economy?

Opening doors and minds

With Australia’s rapid uptake of online and mobile platforms, people are now choosing to access and share information in very different ways.

It’s safe to say that the only constant in this space is change. Research suggests that expectations for more personalised, better and faster services and more well-designed experiences will continue to increase.

Virtual tours are now possible at the National Museum of Australia.

Virtual tours are now possible at the National Museum of Australia.

This is why our cultural institutions need to review the kind of visitor experience they are providing. We found only a few organisations had made fundamental changes to their operations that would allow them to place digital services at their core, rather than as an add-on activity.

This is in contrast to the dramatic changes we’ve seen when it comes to adopting digital technologies in our daily lives.

In order to be successful, digital experiences need to be an integrated and cohesive part of an institution’s offering.

Take what is happening at the National Museum of Australia. It’s now possible to take a tour of the museum via a telepresence-enabled robot.

This means school students – particularly those in rural and regional Australia – can explore exhibits virtually, without even leaving the classroom. Interestingly, we hear that this actually increases their desire to visit the museum in person.

Digital-savvy innovations such as this need to be at the fore of our institutions’ thinking if they want to engage with the community and break down barriers to participation.

Engaging with the public

To be successful in this new era, institutions need to meet people on their own (digital) terms. We can no longer expect visitors to queue at the turnstiles waiting for opening time. Organisations need to bring experiences to the user so that they can access them wherever and however they prefer.

Some of Australia’s cultural institutions are starting to get this.

Another image available freely online as part of the Powerhouse Museum Collection. Powerhouse Museum/Flickr

Another image available freely online as part of the Powerhouse Museum Collection. Powerhouse Museum/Flickr

The NSW State Library has appointed a Wikipedian-In-Residence to contribute expertise and train the public in publishing information online.

The National Library of Australia has attracted a large online user base with its online Trove service attracting almost 70,000 unique users each day.

The Powerhouse Museum has made parts of their photographic collections available on Flickr via Creative Commons licensing. This has caused a surge in the level of use and allowed the public to contribute information, adding value to the collection.

While these examples provide a lot of hope for the sector, the unfortunate reality is that they are few and far between. Most of Australia’s cultural institutions have not kept pace with this change and are missing the opportunity to better connect and actually increase their revenue.

Digitise this!

Australia’s eight national, state and territory art organisations hold archives that, if laid out flat end-to-end, would span 629km. This is on top of a staggering 100,000 million artworks, books and audio-visual items in Australia.

But only a quarter of these items are digitised, with some of Australia’s collections still being managed through “old school” mechanisms such as log books and card indices.

Imagine if there was a fire at one of our great institutions? We would risk losing cultural and heritage material of significance. Parts of our history could be completely lost. Even without such a devastating event, if we don’t make our collections more accessible, in a sense they’ll be lost to many of us anyway.

As a country, not only do we need to get moving when it comes to digitising our collections, we also need to explore new and innovative ways to do this. Traditionally, digitisation has meant scanning flat documents, photographing objects or creating electronic versions of catalogue data.

But what if we could do so much more? Researchers are now focused on the next challenge: digitising objects and spaces in three dimensions.

Researchers from the University of Wollongong with support from the Smart Services CRC are focusing on capturing 3D models and the textures of surfaces using low-cost equipment such as a Kinect camera from an Xbox.

3D map of The Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne

3D map of The Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne

At CSIRO, we’ve even used our own handheld scanner Zebedee to map culturally and environmentally significant sites suchb as the Jenolan Caves, Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance and even a semi-submerged wreckage of the HMQS Gayundah.

We’re also creating high-quality 2D and 3D image libraries based on the National Biological Collections, letting us document biodiversity in the digital era.

Embracing the digital economy

While our study reveals that Australia’s cultural institutions are certainly at risk of becoming “digital dinosaurs”, it also demonstrated how those organisations that are embracing digital are reaping the benefits.

It provides recommendations for the GLAM industry in order for it to maximise its digital potential, including:

  • shifting to open access models and greater collaboration with the public
  • exploring new approaches to copyright management that stimulate creativity and support creators
  • building on aggregation initiatives such as the Atlas of Living Australia
  • standardising preservation of “born digital” material to avoid losing access to digital heritage
  • exploiting the potential of Australia’s Academic and Research Network (AARNet) and the National Broadband Network (NBN) for collection and collaboration.

By adopting these recommendations and building on some innovative examples in the sector, Australia’s GLAM industry will be well placed to embrace digital, rather than be engulfed by it.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article 


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