The oceans are full of our plastic – here’s what we can do about it

Marine debris on a beach

Parts of Australia’s coastline are littered with plastic rubbish, which finds its way into the oceans.

By Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO and Chris Wilcox, CSIRO

By 2050, 95% of seabirds will have plastic in their gut. That is just one finding from our national marine debris research project, the largest sample of marine debris data ever collected anywhere in the world.

The statistic is just one prediction of what’s in store if we don’t come to grips with the growing problem of rubbish at sea.

The issue of marine debris was recently brought to the world’s attention by the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, which was reportedly hampered by objects that look similar to aircraft remains.

When you consider that six million tonnes of fishing gear is lost in the oceans each year, yet derelict fishing gear doesn’t even crack the top ten most common items found during coastal clean-ups, you begin to grasp the scale of the problem.

Plastic not so fantastic

The Australian government has a “threat abatement plan” which aims to save marine animals from being harmed by rubbish. We set out to inform this plan by developing a better understanding of where exactly this rubbish comes from and how exactly it harms wildlife.

We surveyed the entire Australian coast at 100 km intervals, with help from school groups and citizen scientists. We found that our shorelines are littered with debris. About three-quarters of it is plastic and, although there are some large items, 95% of the items are just a few centimetres across, or smaller.

In Australian waters, you can expect to find anything from a few thousand to more than 40,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre.

Map showing debris concentration is centred around cities

Marine debris is concentrated around towns and cities.

Our rubbish can travel huge distances, leaving behind a trail of destruction. We found that almost half (43%) of seabirds have plastic in their gut, with young birds being particularly susceptible. If the increasing trend of plastic production increases and no effort is made to curb the amount that finds its way into the oceans, then by 2050 nearly every seabird (95%) will have ingested some plastic.

Globally, about one-third of marine turtles are estimated to have ingested debris, and this figure has steadily increased since plastic production began in the 1950s.

Many turtles are killed and maimed by abandoned fishing nets each year, along with other species including whales, dolphins, dugongs, fish, crabs and crocodiles. In the past few years, we estimate that between 5,000 and 15,000 turtles have been ensnared by these “ghost nets” in the Gulf of Carpentaria alone.

Turtle caught in net

The aim is not to let it come to this.

Reining in our rubbish

Ocean trash is so dispersed that it is not practical to collect it at sea. It might sound obvious, but the most effective way to reduce the harmful effects of sea debris is to prevent it from getting there in the first place. Our research shows that the vast majority of this rubbish comes from the land, with large concentrations near our cities, rather than from litter dropped at sea.

Tackling the problem will mean getting people to change their ways. Here are three ways we can do it: education, rewards, and punishment.


As part of this project we engaged directly with nearly 6,000 students, teachers and members of the public, as well as reaching more than two million Australians and a wide international audience, all with the aim of changing attitudes towards ocean health.

We also focused on building foundations for the next generation of marine researchers through a mentoring program in which eight international and four Australian students participated intensively in the project.

Additionally we developed an online national marine debris database which allows members of the public to contribute data about litter they find at their local beach. We also engaged with existing initiatives such as Clean Up Australia, Tangaroa Blue, the Surfrider Foundation and other groups that are cleaning up Australia’s beaches.

Together, all of these organisations and citizen scientists contribute to the improved understanding of the types, amounts and sources of debris we find on Australia’s coastline.

Meanwhile, we have tackled the specific issue of derelict fishing gear in the Gulf of Carpentaria- most of which comes from overseas sources- by identifying a “pinch point” in the gulf near the port of Weipa where ghost nets can be collected relatively easily and cheaply, before they reach high-density turtle areas.

Denise Hardesty inspects debris

Researcher Denise Hardesty inspects debris on North Stradbroke Island.

The carrot…

Economists often emphasise the important role of incentives in modifying behaviour. South Australia’s container deposit legislation has helped to reduce the number of plastic drinks containers entering the environment by a factor of three, suggesting that incentive schemes can positively impact on levels of waste.

…and the stick

Regulation can be effective, but it needs to be targeted to have the best chance of success.

Using our coastal survey data and interviews with more than 40 coastal councils around Australia, we found evidence for two main drivers behind marine debris: general public behaviour, and illegal dumping of refuse.

Similarly, we found that local council outreach, which presumably affects user behaviour, and anti-dumping campaigns were both effective in reducing the debris found in coastal areas.

Making a difference

Littering isn’t the only cause of the problem. Even toothpaste and personal care products can have plastic microbeads in them which end up in the marine environment and are mistakenly eaten by a range of species. Awareness is a major issue here, but there are guides being developed to help consumers make informed choices about the products they use.

Working together, scientists, industry partners, coastal managers and citizen scientists can make significant strides to reduce sea debris impacts in coastal areas and in the marine environment.

Ultimately, however, the throwaway culture ingrained in our society needs to change if we are to tip the scales back in favour of the wildlife in our oceans.

The Conversation

Britta Denise Hardesty’s research was co-funded by Shell Australia’s National Social Investment Program and CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship. TeachWild is an innovative national partnership between CSIRO, Earthwatch and Founding Partner Shell Australia to gather the data needed to bridge the information gap and tackle the global issue of marine debris.

Chris Wilcox’s research was co-funded by Shell Australia’s National Social Investment Program and CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship. TeachWild is an innovative national partnership between CSIRO, Earthwatch and Founding Partner Shell Australia to gather the data needed to bridge the information gap and tackle the global issue of marine debris.

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

Less is more with the Water Use Efficiency Initiative

Wheat harvest in SA

A fine wheat crop. Image by John Coppi

Australia is not what you’d call over-burdened with water, and yet we grow vast amounts of wheat and other grains. To continue to do so, we need to use the water we have as efficiently as possible. To do more with less.

Together with the Grains Research and Development Corporation, we started a multi-pronged project to increase the water use efficiency of grain production in Australia. And it worked so well that two of our scientists, James Hunt and John Kirkegaard, have just shared a Eureka Prize for it.

Their research has shown that it’s possible to increase the long term average winter crop yield, without increasing input costs. This would lift the average Australian wheat yield by around 25 per cent across all regions. They have also shown an increase in the long term average yields of winter grain crops, including barley and canola.

To make sure they covered all types of climate and soil conditions, they worked with 16 regional grower groups and research institutions across Australia, from the WA Sandplain to Tasmania.

They studied the many factors that influence water use efficiency and looked into the kinds of management practices that lead to more efficient use of water.

Instead of looking at a single crop or a single paddock, the research focussed on the capacity of the whole farm, and then assessed the farm’s potential for production and profitability, as well as the risks that might be associated with a change in the water use regime.

Some of the results returned big numbers. Improved summer fallow management, including weed management and stubble retention can lead to a 60 per cent increase in grain yield. The use of a legume crop after two consecutive grain crops can lead to increases in a range between 16 and 83 per cent.

The results also revealed that matching nitrogen supply to the soil type produce yield increases of up to 91 per cent.

In a world that needs to be fed, these are important findings. If we can do more to work to our conditions, it’s an all-round win.

So big congratulations to James and John, for making less more.

A sea full of mysteries to be solved

Australia’s Biodiversity series – Part 9: Seas and coasts

Life originated in the oceans 3–5 billion years ago and even today 20 of the 33 animal phyla (the highest groupings within the animal kingdom) remain confined to the sea. That means that most life under the sea is like nothing we find on land.

An elephant seal with an electronic tag on its head

Sea creatures can also help us explore the oceans. Sea mammals can take sensors to parts of the ocean we’d never be able to go ourselves, like under Antarctic sea ice. Image: Chris Oosthuizen

Worldwide there are big gaps in our understanding of the oceans and the life within them. Our exploration of Australia’s marine biodiversity has been limited mostly to the margins of the continent, on the continental shelf and the upper continental slope. Even near the continent, some 50–70% of the species we’ve found in recent surveys have never before been seen by scientists.

New technology and equipment, like autonomous robotic vehicles and electronic tagging, as well as our brand new marine research vessel, RV Investigator, is allowing us to explore in ways we’ve never explored before and so we can begin to address those knowledge gaps.

In the ninth video of our Australia’s Biodiversity series, Dr Alan Butler and Dr Nic Bax talk about the unique habitats of the sea, the challenges it poses to exploration, and new tools and technologies helping us discover and manage the biodiversity it holds:

To find out more about discovering biodiversity in the ocean, you might like to read the corresponding chapter of CSIRO’s Biodiversity Book.

Last week’s video looked at the relationship between our cities and biodiversity. You can review it and the other videos in the series on our YouTube channel.

I like big ships and I cannot lie

And boy, does this baby have back.

Australia’s new $120m marine research vessel, Investigator, is a thing of beauty. We’ve been watching Investigator get built step-by-step over in Singapore and have shared with you some of the key moments of its birth.

Investigator is now only hours away from arriving at its home port of Hobart. We’re hoping to welcome the big ship at 10am Tuesday morning with a flotilla.

You can follow all the action on Twitter using #RVInvestigator from around 8am tomorrow.

And for your dinner table conversation tonight, here are some sweet facts about the big ship:

  1. This will be Australia’s biggest ever marine research vessel.
  2. It has ten internal storeys.
  3. It has three diesel-electric engines, capable of generating enough electricity to power a small suburb.
  4. It can collect weather data 20km into the atmosphere and within a 150km radius from the ship.
  5. It can map the sea floor to any depth. Only 12 per cent of Australia’s ocean terrain has been mapped.
  6. It will take 50 days to fit the ship with super techy equipment once it arrives.
  7. There’s a gym onboard.

Sunset from the deck of the Investigator

Does it get any better than this? Sunset on the deck of Investigator.

So why is any of this important? Australia’s oceans are estimated to contribute $42 billion annually to our economy, increasing to over $100 billion in ten years. And yet there’s so little we actually know about them – we know more about the moon than we do our own deepest oceans.

What may we learn from Investigator? We’ve never been able to collect fish and biological samples in our deep oceans before. So we’re likely to discover new species. We’ve never been able to map the ocean floor to any depth before, so now we can describe the ocean floor in Australian waters, which means we could find new resources. And the weather radar on the top of the ship, it will allow us to collect data at sea, for the first time.

This ship is the bee’s knees of marine research… and it will put Australia at the forefront of ocean research globally.

Oh, and before you ask about MH370…

We certainly have the necessary sophisticated sonar technologies to undertake the search, but let’s look at the size of the job at hand.

Let’s assume that we don’t need to refuel the ship or change the crew onboard and we can operate continuously. We would need to tow a piece of equipment called a side-scan sonar, which has a beam width of 500 metres at a speed of 2 knots, and the latest size of the search area was 60,000 square kilometres.

This means it would take Investigator 3.8 years to map the search area. That’s working 24hrs a day, 365 days a year.

LEGO model of ship

Win yourself a LEGO model of the ship by getting creative with your selfie.

Send us your best snap of Investigator as it comes into Hobart harbour for a chance to win a LEGO model of the ship AND a tour of Investigator for you and three friends later this year. Use #RVInvestigator when posting your image to Twitter or Facebook, or email it directly to us at by 5pm Tuesday 9 September. Winners will be announced Wednesday at midday. Creative selfies with Investigator are highly encouraged.

Follow the action on Twitter with #RVInvestigator.

Media enquiries:  Sarah Schofield on +61 3 6232 5197, +61 417 028 016 or


Managing water across borders

Koshi River in Nepal

Koshi River in Nepal. Image by Amy North

As World Water Week draws to a close, we want to tell you about a water management project we’re involved with in the developing world.

The Koshi River basin covers some of the poorest parts of China, India and Nepal. The river stretches more than 700km, from China in the north, down through Nepal and across the Himalayas, and finally feeds into the Ganges River. Millions of people live in the region – many of them in flood-prone areas – and rely on the river and the fertile floodplain for their livelihoods.

We’re helping to manage the river better and improve the circumstances of the people living there.

The area is subject to floods, droughts landslides and flows of debris. Erosion also leads to heavy sedimentation, and rivers have been known to change their course.

NASA image showing course change

This NASA satellite image shows a change of the Koshi River’s course.

The effects of climate change aren’t helping, either. Glaciers in the upper reaches of the Basin are melting, bringing water and sediments down to the plains. The people of the Koshi River Basin are in an increasingly vulnerable situation. The impacts of climate change are disturbing water supply and agricultural production. Adding more pressure, the demand for energy and food production is rising.

Raising the stakes even higher, the Koshi Basin also has areas of significant biodiversity, including a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

With funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – Australian Aid, we’re working with partners including the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, the International Water Management Institute and eWater  to develop an integrated modelling framework for the entire basin. We’re helping to develop water balance models that capture the relationship between climate (both rainfall and temperature) and stream-flow (and flood risk) in the Koshi River Basin.

We’re also working on characterising the seasonality and variability of stream flow, and, if possible, the expected trends in stream-flow. We’ll also develop techniques for understanding the likelihood of particular stream-flow estimates.

We aim to use the research and knowledge gained from these projects to allow a regionally coordinated approach to developing and managing the Koshi Basin’s water resources. The people of the area, and the environment, should both benefit.

99.999% certainty humans are driving global warming: new study

Gambling for high stakes

Would you take a gamble with these odds? Image by Kraevski Vitaly Shutterstock

By Philip Kokic, CSIRO; Mark Howden, CSIRO, and Steven Crimp, CSIRO

There is less than 1 chance in 100,000 that global average temperature over the past 60 years would have been as high without human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, our new research shows.

Published in the journal Climate Risk Management today, our research is the first to quantify the probability of historical changes in global temperatures and examines the links to greenhouse gas emissions using rigorous statistical techniques.

Our new CSIRO work provides an objective assessment linking global temperature increases to human activity, which points to a close to certain probability exceeding 99.999%.

Our work extends existing approaches undertaken internationally to detect climate change and attribute it to human or natural causes. The 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report provided an expert consensus that:

It is extremely likely [defined as 95-100% certainty] that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic [human-caused] increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together.

Decades of extraordinary temperatures

July 2014 was the 353rd consecutive month in which global land and ocean average surface temperature exceeded the 20th-century monthly average. The last time the global average surface temperature fell below that 20th-century monthly average was in February 1985, as reported by the US-based National Climate Data Center.

This means that anyone born after February 1985 has not lived a single month where the global temperature was below the long-term average for that month.

We developed a statistical model that related global temperature to various well-known drivers of temperature variation, including El Niño, solar radiation, volcanic aerosols and greenhouse gas concentrations. We tested it to make sure it worked on the historical record and then re-ran it with and without the human influence of greenhouse gas emissions.

Our analysis showed that the probability of getting the same run of warmer-than-average months without the human influence was less than 1 chance in 100,000.

We do not use physical models of Earth’s climate, but observational data and rigorous statistical analysis, which has the advantage that it provides independent validation of the results.

Detecting and measuring human influence

Our research team also explored the chance of relatively short periods of declining global temperature. We found that rather than being an indicator that global warming is not occurring, the observed number of cooling periods in the past 60 years strongly reinforces the case for human influence.

We identified periods of declining temperature by using a moving 10-year window (1950 to 1959, 1951 to 1960, 1952 to 1961, etc.) through the entire 60-year record. We identified 11 such short time periods where global temperatures declined.

Our analysis showed that in the absence of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, there would have been more than twice as many periods of short-term cooling than are found in the observed data.

There was less than 1 chance in 100,000 of observing 11 or fewer such events without the effects of human greenhouse gas emissions.

Good risk management is all about identifying the most likely causes of a problem, and then acting to reduce those risks. Some of the projected impacts of climate change can be avoided, reduced or delayed by effective reduction in global net greenhouse gas emissions and by effective adaptation to the changing climate.

Ignoring the problem is no longer an option. If we are thinking about action to respond to climate change or doing nothing, with a probability exceeding 99.999% that the warming we are seeing is human-induced, we certainly shouldn’t be taking the chance of doing nothing.

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.

Five facts you didn’t know about hydraulic fracturing (fraccing)

If you type the word ‘fraccing’ into Google you will immediately see how complex a topic it is.

The process of hydraulic fracturing involves pumping fluid underground at high pressure to fracture rock and release trapped gas.

We thought we’d shed some light on the technique with five top facts and a new video which explains what coal seam gas is, how it is extracted and what some of the challenges are.

Top 5 facts about hydraulic fracturing:

Hydraulic fracturing infographic

Five facts about hydraulic fracturing

  1. Hydraulic fracturing typically takes place a few hundred metres below ground for coal seam gas and up to 4000 metres for shale gas
  2. The technique has been around since the 1940s
  3. In Australia it is used in 100% of shale gas developments and 20-40% of coal seam gas wells
  4. Typically 5 to 30 megalitres of water is used when fraccing a shale gaswell (US figures), and 0.5 to 3 megalitresfor coal seam gas wells
  5. The fluid used in fraccing is approximately 99% water & sand, and 1% chemical additives.

To get a better understanding of coal seam gas and hydraulic fracturing visit our website


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