By Leon Braun
“’Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse …”
CSIRO scientists are keeping their eyes peeled for more than just Santa Claus this Christmas. With unusually high numbers of mouse sightings in Victoria this spring, CSIRO ecologist Peter Brown and colleagues at various Australian and New Zealand research agencies are monitoring mouse populations to see whether 2015 will bring a sigh of relief or send people scurrying for cover under a deluge of tiny, furry bodies.
While taken individually, mice can be rather cute (think Mickey, Mighty and Danger), en masse they can be absolutely devastating. In 1993, Australia’s worst ever mouse plague caused an estimated $96 million worth of damage, destroyed thousands of hectares of crops, blighted piggeries and ravaged poultry farms. The whiskered marauders chewed their way through rubber and electrical insulation, damaged farm vehicles, ruined cars and buildings. Another plague in 2010/11 was almost as bad, affecting 3 million ha of crops in NSW’s central west and the Riverina, as well as parts of Victoria and South Australia.
Along with economic hardship and disease, plagues bring severe psychological distress for people living through them.
“The sheer stress of dealing with mice in your kitchen every night takes its toll,” Peter says. “They’re everywhere: chewing, defecating, breeding.”
The good news is that with sufficient warning it is possible to prepare for mouse plagues, and to minimise the damage they cause, through early baiting and removing food supplies and cover. Over the years, our scientists have become increasingly accurate at predicting mouse plagues (they got it right in 1994 and 2001-2003) and have developed an ever more sophisticated range of tools to assist them. The latest weapon in their arsenal is “MouseAlert“, a citizen science website where keen-eyed rodent reporters can notify CSIRO about mouse sightings. The website is optimised for mobile phones, and Peter and his team hope to have an app out soon.
“Numbers are everything when you’re trying to predict a plague,” Peter says. “Traditionally we’ve used traps and chew cards [thin pieces of cardboard soaked in vegetable oil], but they have disadvantages, not least the fact that we’re not physically able to put them everywhere. MouseAlert allows us to capture data over a much wider area and potentially spot a plague well before it becomes a problem.”
Equally important as sightings, Peter says, are reports of where mice haven’t been.
“The jump from zero sightings to one or two can be an important indicator that mouse numbers are increasing,” he says. “By participating in citizen science, the public can help us identify these trigger points.”
So how are things looking this year? A little ominous, actually. Unusually high numbers of mice were seen in western Victoria in September. Depending on how much rain we get, they could build up to plague proportions by March or April next year. That’s why Peter wants mouse watchers to keep their eyes peeled:
“If it looks like there’s going to be a plague, we want to be able to give farmers plenty of time before sowing to prepare – or else put their minds at ease if it looks like there isn’t.”
So if you do see a mouse this Christmas Eve – stirring or not – get over to MouseAlert and report it. The pantry you’re saving could be your own!
This is our first of three Christmas-themed posts – enjoy!
The holiday period can seem like a month-long headache for us humans. As a species we go into overdrive: preparing our offices for hibernation while we hurriedly fossick for gifts and forage for Christmas feasts. Many of us also dedicate time gathering our familial herds – for better or for worse – while a lucky few are even able to migrate north (or south or east or west) for the summer.
But we’re not the only ones that get busy at this time of year. There are countless thousands more animals and plants that are saddled with similar chores to us (albeit without the seafood dishes and Christmas crackers). They too must weather the blistering heats, and keep themselves and their relatives cool, fed, and hydrated.
Here’s a brief low-down on what the holiday season means for Australia’s non-human residents.
Running a kingdom is tough work: workers and soldiers must be kept inline, and young, vulnerable individuals must be cared for and nourished. And when the population grows into the thousands or millions, the exposed Australian landscape is no place for such an empire.
Termites build their colonies in locations where they can moderate the temperature and humidity with organic air-conditioning. All-year round, colonies are maintained at a consistently high temperature and humidity, sometimes as high as 36oC. Since these conditions are critical to survival, termites scarcely expose themselves.
As our year closes to an end, the summer sun heats up our country, releasing water into the air, thus bringing our above-ground climate to the temperature and humidity loved by termites. The termites use this climatic window as an opportunity to expand their empires.
Starting in November when the conditions are just right, sexually active termites grow ephemeral wings and leave the nest. The air becomes filled with pioneering couples, searching for the ideal log or mound to start the next generation. 95% of couples will not survive their first week, likely ending up in ponds, pockets, and ear canals.
For the few lucky couples that make it, they will begin their new colony and reign for up to 45 years together, as king and queen, producing offspring to take flight each Christmas.
The journey of the “Christmas beetles, the quintessential insect of the summer festive season…” is also one of patience and timing, with the insects spending their lives underground as grubs before metamorphosing as those brilliant, clumsy creatures we know and love. Their full story has already been covered by us, here.
You’ve probably heard enough from these birds to last you a lifetime, but, after reading their plights, their cacophonous calls might seem slightly more bearable. If you are on the eastern or northern coast, the two birds you’re likely to hear this time of year are both cuckoos: the Pacific koel and the channel-billed cuckoo.
The channel-billed cuckoo is an enormous bird with a very distinct and coarse ‘hoink’. The channel-bill can often be heard hoinking as it flies gracefully overhead.
For both of these species, ’tis the season to be breeding. In spring and summer the birds fly to northern and eastern Australia all the way from Indonesia and New Guinea. And over the holiday period they meet up on our shores and seek out a nest. Since they are cuckoos, they make their living off the backs of others. They don’t make their own nests but take advantage of the onerous nest making of other species.
An ‘eggnant’ cuckoo will seek out the nest of a host bird species, such as a wattle bird for the koel and a currawong for the channel-bill. To salt the wound, some cuckoos will destroy any already-present host eggs.
Upon hatching, the cuckoo chick squawks incessantly to the host mother for food. And since the mother and child are different species, a parasitic cuckoo chick can be many times larger than the host, forcing the host mother’s beak to the grindstone to gather enough food for her gargantuan faux-spring:
The offspring is raised until its large enough to make the flight back up north to Indonesia early the next year.
These birds can survive in urban environments, so if you keep out a sharp ear and eye, you may be able to spot one.
These cuckoos, the koel and the channel-bill, are obligate parasites – meaning they cannot complete their lifecycle on their own and without the manipulation of their host. So don’t be angry at those slacker cuckoos, they’re simply doing what has worked for them for myriad generations, what is best for their kids.
If, every summer, your oxygen supply were to disappear for a few months, how would you cope? Not well, we imagine. For aquatic animals who live in temporary billabongs in Australia, this is exactly what happens each holiday season or dry spell. Under such extreme pressures, natural selection has generated wonders, wonders like our salamanderfish:
Salamanderfish are difficult to find – especially over Christmas. They are just 7 cm long and only exist in the southern-most, western-most corner of our country in freshwater pools only present for part of the year.
When there is water for the salamander fish, it is highly acidic and tannin-rich. Tannins are the chemicals that leach from leaves, giving tea its characteristic colour and flavour. And speaking of tea, salamanderfish live in water that is so acidic, its pH is somewhere between that of a cup of tea and lemon juice.
Over summer they have an interesting…what’s the opposite of a ‘sea change’? For salamanderfish, the holiday season is an upheaval of their fishy lifestyles. When their ponds dry up, they bury half a metre underground, create a membranous cocoon, and chillax under the sand for months at a time, waiting out rains and summer’s end.
Taking a quick summer tour around the rest of the country, on the Western Australian, Northern Territory and Queensland coast, green, flatback, and loggerhead sea turtles are coming ashore to lay their eggs, and some earlier laid hatchlings are digging free and making the treacherous trip back to the ocean.
All around the country male frogs such as the corroboree and motorbike frogs are preparing their nests and vocal chords to catch the attention of female suitors to produce offspring in the new year.
On the south eastern tip of Australia, male brown fur seals are competing fiercely for territory. Female fur seals are arriving to pick suitors with territory close to the water’s edge. Many fur seals are breeding, and many are giving birth, since their gestation period is around a year.
On the Great Barrier Reef, corals of all shapes and sizes are releasing clouds of eggs and sperm into the waters, a gambit that relies on the currents for fertilisation.
The wet season on Christmas Island means a lot for one species of crab. Since crabs use their gills to breathe, the humid summer air allows the Christmas Island red crabs to make their annual migration from the forest to the coastline to meet and breed.
And along the eastern coast, the blue blubber jellyfish (Catostylus mosaicus) or ‘jelly blubber’ populations are blooming with the increase in temperatures and prey: fish larvae, plankton, and crustacean larvae.
So over the next few weeks when you are stressing out at the bustling shopping centre, or fussing over a stove with four occupied hot plates, remember those starry-eyed termite couples with a miniscule chance of survival, the cuckoos using their wrists to fly here from Indonesia, and the salamanderfish lying underneath kilos of mud awaiting the next storm cell.
By Leon Braun
It’s downtrodden, underfoot and often under appreciated, yet so crucial to our existence that one of our scientists describes it as “the complex natural medium that supports all life on Earth”. It holds our crops, stores and purifies our water, and provides habitat for amazing creatures like the giant Gippsland earthworm, which can reach up to 3 m in length. But most of us only think about it when we’re trying to get it out of footy socks on laundry day.
It’s soil – and today (and all next year) it gets a bit of long-overdue recognition. December 5 is World Soil Day, and the United Nations has declared 2015 to be International Year of Soils. That’s a good thing, because globally, soils are under threat: from erosion, poor land management and urbanisation. At the same time, we need soils more than ever to produce the food we need for a growing population, to help manage climate change and to ensure ecosystem health.
Luckily for Australia’s soils, they have CSIRO looking out for them. We started researching soils in 1929, published the first soil map of Australia in 1944, and have been working hard ever since to improve our understanding and management of soils. We’re looking at ways to make agricultural soils more productive and to ensure they’re used sustainably, so future generations can continue to reap their bounty. And we’re working internationally too, so it’s not just Australia that benefits.
Our latest achievement (with allies from around the country) is the Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia, a digital map of Australia’s soils with two billion ‘pixels’ of about 90 by 90 metres, down to a depth of two metres below the surface. It contains information such as water holding capacity, nutrients and clay, and has applications for everyone from farmers deciding where to plant their crops to conservationists looking for habitats for endangered native species. You can read more about it here.
We’re also home to the Australian National Soil Archive, which has just gotten a new home in Canberra. The archive contains about 70,000 samples from almost 10,000 sites across Australia, the oldest dating back to 1924. Each sample represents a time capsule of the Australian landscape at the time it was collected, so we can measure things like caesium dispersal from the British nuclear tests at Maralinga and the impact of phosphate-based fertilisers on agricultural land. The archive is a vital national asset for soil researchers and industry, and has even been used by the Australian Federal Police to examine the potential of new forensic methods. Finally, data from the archive powers our first official app, SoilMapp, which puts information about Australian soils at your fingertips. This is incredibly useful, whether you’re growing canola on a farm in Western Australia or planning a major roads project in Victoria.
So as you go through your day today, eat your lunch, wipe your shoes, just remember: it takes 2000 years to form 10 centimetres of fertile soil suitable for growing our food, but just moments for that soil to blow away or get covered in a layer of asphalt. Something to think about next time you sit down to a meal – or do your laundry.
By Dr Helen Cleugh, Science Director, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship
The World Meteorological Organization reports that 2014 is on track to be possibly the world’s hottest year on record. Meanwhile, there’s been a lot of public commentary lately about the so-called “hiatus” in global surface temperature over the past 18 years, recent sea-level rise, and what it all means.
So what do CSIRO’s research and observations tell us?
They show that average surface air temperatures have continued to rise during the past two decades, but not as fast as in preceding decades. In other words, while the rate of temperature increase is lower, the temperatures themselves are not lower.
It is also important to note that when climate scientists use the term “global-mean surface temperature” they refer to near-surface air temperatures. Surface air temperature is an incomplete measure of warming of the planet; oceans store huge amounts of heat, with about 93 per cent of the extra heat stored by the Earth over the past 50 years being found in the oceans.
The ocean today is warmer, and sea levels higher, than at any time since the instrumental record began. As the oceans warm, they expand and sea levels rise. Using a combination of coastal tide-gauge and satellite-altimeter data, CSIRO and others have shown that, globally, sea level has been rising since the late 1800s. Global-averaged sea level rose at an average rate of about 1.6 mm per year over the 20th Century, but this rate has accelerated to about 3 mm per year as measured by satellite altimetry and tide gauges since 1993. So the rate of sea-level rise has not slowed; it has increased.
Our measurements across the land, atmosphere and oceans show that warming has continued unabated throughout the past 18 years.
Last year was Australia’s warmest year on record, followed by 2005 and 2009. For global land and ocean temperatures, 2013 tied with 2003 as the fourth warmest year globally; and 13 of the 14 warmest years ever measured occurred in the 21st Century. As reported by the World Meteorological Organization, this year is shaping up to be the world’s warmest year – the year to the end of October is the planet’s warmest on record.
It is not unusual to see changes in the rate of surface warming. Over the past 120 years, there have been decades where global-mean air temperature has warmed more rapidly, and decades where relative cooling has occurred.
Increases in greenhouse gases provide a warming effect but, due to natural variability, climate trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates, and do not reflect long-term climate trends.
The rate of warming in any shorter period fluctuates because of factors such as short-term natural variability, ocean absorption of heat from the atmosphere, volcanic eruptions, changes in the 11-year solar cycle, and so on. This does not change any conclusion about the long-term trend of warming due to human activities, which have increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
CSIRO research has shown that there is less than 1 chance in 100,000 that global mean air temperature over the past 60 years would have been as high without human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. That is, the probability of global temperature increases being due to human activity exceeds 99 per cent.
The world is not cooling.
*Note (1) net increase in glacier volumes have regional variation (almost all glaciers worldwide losing mass but some gaining) but overall net loss; and (2) net decrease in global sea-ice extent has regional variation (over the period 1979–2012 it is very likely that the annual mean Arctic sea-ice extent decreased 3.5 to 4.1% per decade, and it is very likely that the annual mean Antarctic sea ice extent increased by 1.2 to 1.8% per decade) but overall net loss. Source: CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology.
This article was originally published in The Canberra Times.
By Alex Wonhas, Executive Director, Energy and Resources
As climate negotiators meet at the United Nations’ Lima summit, which comes hot on the heels of the landmark US-China climate deal, there is a renewed focus on how the world can move to a lower-emissions future.
As a global energy superpower, Australia can and should play a significant role in ensuring that its exports contribute as few greenhouse emissions as possible. Exporting ideas, technologies and solutions can play an important part in achieving this outcome.
One of Australia’s great strengths is its vast natural resources. Australia is a global top-three energy exporter; by 2018, it is expected to be the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), the world’s second-largest exporter of coal, and world’s third-largest exporter of uranium.
All of these exports drive economic growth and a higher living standard, not only in Australia but also in our customer countries. According to mainstream forecasts, this growth is set to continue.
Given the impact of our exports on global emissions, there is debate over whether Australia’s responsibility ends at the harbour gate or extends well beyond.
There are widely diverging responses to this question, ranging from proactive support of exports in the name of economic growth, to calls for an end to fossil fuel exports. Whatever your own position, there is one thing that everyone should be able to agree on: the need to accelerate the development and global deployment of cost-competitive, lower-emission energy technologies.
Developing cost-competitive clean energy technologies is no pipe dream. Australia can be proud of its impressive track record in this field. Take, for instance, solar photovoltaic technologies that have been developed at the University of New South Wales and successfully commercialised in China – an Australian invention now underpinning a significant share of the rapidly growing global solar industry.
Australian ingenuity is a great strength of our nation. Yet when it comes to innovations in the energy sector, we can be bolder. We should stop thinking of ourselves as only a minor contributor to a global effort. We should instead play a role that is commensurate with our status as one of the world’s leading exporters of energy.
A prosperous and sustainable future
Based on our own work at CSIRO, I can see no shortage of potential new ideas that could deliver a prosperous and sustainable energy future. Let me give you three examples.
The high levels of air pollution in China, combined with a rising demand for carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery, present a significant opportunity to work with China to develop the next generation of cheaper carbon-capture technologies. Australia has been collaborating with China in this area since 2008, working on the establishment of China’s first post-combustion carbon-capture pilot project. In 2012, Australia helped to launch a second pilot plant that is currently operating in Jilin province, with the capacity to capture 600 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.
India is not just focused on buying Australia’s coal – it is also interested in Australian technologies such as “SolarGas”, which uses hi-tech “mirrors” to turn solar heat, water and natural gas into a high-value feedstock for the chemical industry. After the successful trial of a 250 kilowatt system in Australia, CSIRO is now discussing plans to build a pilot-scale SolarGas plant in India, where there is a large chemical industry and plenty of sunshine.
Finally, a technology called DICE — which stands for Direct Injection Carbon Engine — has the potential to significantly reduce emissions from coal-fired power stations. DICE is a high-efficiency diesel engine powered by a coal slurry – a mixture of finely ground coal with water. It has the potential to cut carbon emissions by 20-35% from black coal and by 35-50% from brown coal, compared with technologies currently used in Australia.
Much greater emissions reductions are possible if biomass is used as a feedstock instead of coal. DICE should also be able to respond quickly to fluctuating power demand, making it well suited to supporting the integration of renewable generators into our electricity grids.
Following successful tests in Australia over the past few years, CSIRO has now partnered with the global diesel engine manufacturer MAN Diesel & Turbo to develop the technology on a commercial scale. The next step will be a commercial-scale demonstration in Japan, supported by Australian coal industry. If everything goes to plan, the technology could be commercially available by the end end of this decade.
These are just three examples of many. Each technology faces its own unique technical and commercial challenges. Not everything will work, but neither will all of these attempts fail. By focusing on a mix of different technologies and approaches, I have no doubt that we will see several new technologies emerge that will help us not only to meet the growing energy needs of humankind, but also mitigate its negative environmental impacts.
New cost-competitive, low-emission technologies will be vital if Australia wants to continue to export fossil fuels. It is therefore in our interest to continue to collaborate with the world so that we can responsibly use these resources.
Frankly, our responsibility does not stop at the harbour gate.
Summer starts today – and it’s predicted to be a hot, dry one. Unfortunately, we all know what that means – fires.
Forget fighting fire with fire – although that’s a major part of what the fire services do to control the spread of fires. We’re fighting fire with knowledge.
Not all fires are the same. It depends on many factors – the type of fuel, the moisture in the fuel, the wind speed and direction, to name by no means all. One large fire can also be an amalgam of many small fires, all with their own characteristics, components and behaviour.
This is extremely hard – bordering on impossible – to study in the field. But it’s something we need to know about to be able to predict how fires will spread. It’s knowledge that could save lives.
Getting that knowledge has been fraught with difficulty. For obvious reasons, we could only do live test burns in low fire danger weather conditions. We couldn’t get up close to observe, and we could never be sure our monitoring equipment would be in exactly the right place. Nor could we ever repeat an experiment under exactly the same conditions.
So we built the Pyrotron. It’s a 25 metre wind tunnel, mostly made from aluminium. Its floors are heat-resistant ceramic tiles (with heat sensors embedded), and it has a glass observation wall. A fan pumps 22,000 litres of air a second down the tunnel, replicating the winds that blow through forests.
This allows us to simulate fires with precise knowledge of the conditions – something we could never do in the past – and repeat the experiment as needed.
What we’re looking at is the physics and chemistry that makes up the way a flame spreads across different kinds of fuel under different conditions. This involves turbulence – a chaotic process that isn’t well understood. After a certain point, the flames themselves create turbulence. Understanding how this feeds into the fire is a key to understanding fire behaviour. Using the Pyrotron, we can start to come to grips with it.
It’s the only structure of its kind in the world, and it’s attracted attention from outside Australia. We thought you might like to see this BBC story about it. Not only is it an excellent explanation of how the Pyrotron works, but (let’s be honest) how many Australians can resist telling the world how tough we are for living here?
New technology to tackle biosecurity challenges down the track is one of the five megatrends identified in today’s CSIRO report Australia’s Biosecurity Future: preparing for future biological challenges.
As manpower in the agriculture and biosecurity sectors declines, we must look to technological innovation to protect crops. Monitoring and surveillance, genetics, communication and data analysis have been identified in today’s report as future work priorities, along with developing smaller, smarter, user-friendly devices.
But this is easier said than done. There are a number of potential barriers that need to be addressed to make sure that appropriate technologies are used to maximum effect. It might sound obvious, but making sure farmers can – and want to – use new technology is a crucial step.
With an ageing population and fewer young people entering agriculture, we are seeing the loss of the wealth of knowledge and experience held by long-time farmers.
Many farmers have a deep understanding of the day-to-day activities that can protect properties and reduce the spread of pests and diseases across the country, and this on-farm biosecurity knowledge may be lost.
We are also seeing a decline in specialists in areas crucial to biosecurity management such as taxonomy, plant pathology and entomology. This is prevalent throughout the biosecurity landscape, reducing our overall pest and disease response capability.
With fewer people training in taxonomy, we’ve estimated that 50% of Australia’s diagnostics capability will be lost by 2028.
Without adequate surveillance in place, pests can cripple emerging industries. In recent seasons, we have seen two new diseases devastate local farmers in the Northern Territory:
- the recent invasion of banana freckle, which authorities are working to eradicate
- the cucumber green mottle mosaic virus (CGMMV) infected melon crops near Katherine this year. Lack of CGMMV knowledge meant a delay identifying the disease and starting treatment.
Surveillance is critical to the delivery of effective biosecurity, both for early detection of a disease and for effective response. Yet delivery of effective surveillance faces a growing challenge which becomes greater in the more remote parts of Australia.
Constraints on surveillance include declining investment among jurisdictions, declining expertise or limited availability of personnel, expense and occupational health and safety requirements.
In response to these challenges there is a strong drive to draw on technological innovation to deliver biosecurity previously provided by people.
Research is already underway with new applications of technology for surveillance and detection, sensitive diagnostics, as well as preventative pre-border technologies.
Access to low-cost sensors and development of automated systems are opening up opportunities for rapid identification and response to pests and diseases. Sensors smaller than a pea can, for example, help monitor the health of oysters in real time.
Pestpoint, a mobile device application being developed by staff of the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre (PBCRC) provides access to an online community of people working in the agricultural sector who need to identify plant pests in order to make decisions about how to manage those pests.
By using genetic techniques, scientists with the PBCRC are developing rapid tests using molecular sequences for identifying pests and diseases. The next phase is to transfer these tools to biosecurity practitioners, including diagnosticians and port inspectors.
Sounds great … but there are barriers
The adoption of a new technology hinges on how easily it can be incorporated into the existing biosecurity system, which means that the technology needs to be integrated into a human system:
- the connection to institutional arrangements governing biosecurity regulation, response and compliance
- the social acceptability of deploying smart technologies and information systems.
The Queensland Biosecurity Strategy: 2009–14 highlighted that biosecurity risks are inherently social, and that a better understanding of human behaviours, values and attitudes has the ability to improve engagement.
Similarly, the 2007 New Zealand Biosecurity Science Strategy indicated that the application of social research could increase biosecurity compliance and reporting, and support post-border invasion response programs.
Farmers and indigenous communities in remote and regional Australia are currently working together on a project to understand how each group decides to manage plant pests and diseases, and to increase their capacity to engage in biosecurity surveillance activities.
In the face of declining resources and investment, science and technology offer opportunities to create greater efficiencies in biosecurity while at the same time driving competitive advantage in primary industries.
Paul De Barro receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Cotton Research and Development Corporation.
Grant Smith is a co-PI on the PBCRC bacterial diagnostics project described in this article. He is a member of various organisations including Australasian Plant Pathology Society (APPS), the Royal Society of New Zealand (MRSNZ) and the Project Management Institute (PMI).