Go with the grain: technology to help farmers protect crops


Tractors may have revolutionised farming but to protect biosecurity, farmers could do with some extra help. Ben McLeod/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Tractors may have revolutionised farming but to protect biosecurity, farmers could do with some extra help. Ben McLeod/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

By Paul De Barro, CSIRO and Grant Smith, Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre

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.

Declining workforce

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.

Farming a wide brown land means there’s a lot of ground to cover … and monitoring devices can make a farmer’s job much easier. Ed Dunens/Flickr, CC BY

Farming a wide brown land means there’s a lot of ground to cover … and monitoring devices can make a farmer’s job much easier.
Ed Dunens/Flickr, CC BY


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:

  1. the recent invasion of banana freckle, which authorities are working to eradicate
  2. 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.
Banana freckle. Scot Nelson/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Banana freckle.
Scot Nelson/Flickr, CC BY-SA


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.

Technology innovation

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.

sr320/Flickr, CC BY-SA 

sr320/Flickr, CC BY-SA


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:

  1. the connection to institutional arrangements governing biosecurity regulation, response and compliance
  2. 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.

The Conversation

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).

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

Getting down and dirty with digital maps


By Mikayla Keen and Claire Harris

Have you ever stopped to think about what’s under your feet, under our roads and under the wheat crops that produced the flour in your bread?

Soil features in every continent on the globe; it’s one of the fundamental building blocks of life. It’s pretty important stuff but we don’t often think about it.

But now, we’ve led a team of world experts digging deep, uncovering the secrets of soil and they’ve created the most comprehensive nation-wide digital map of Australia’s soils and landscapes. We worked with TERN (the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network), the University of Sydney and a number of state and federal government agencies.

And now, we present to you the Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia.

Using 3-dimensional spatial modelling, and combining rich historical data with new digital information gathered through technology like satellites and sensors in the laboratory, Australia’s best soil and landscape scientists have created new information and a very powerful tool.

The Grid itself is a marvel, representing the whole country as approximately 2 billion data pixels. That means each pixel is the snapshot of an area roughly the size of a football field (90 x 90 metres).  Every one of them contains information about the properties of the soil like pH, organic carbon and water capacity, down to a depth of 2 metres, and estimates of uncertainty (we couldn’t go out and sample the entire continent!). The Grid also contains details about the landscape, such as solar radiation and slope.

Red clay country in 3D

Red clay country in 3D

Not excited about the wonders of dirt? Then what about the science? The Grid uses exciting new infrared spectral methods to derive soil information rapidly and cheaply. It uses advanced spatial modelling that combines earth observation and satellite data to characterise and map the soil across the country.  And the technology? The Grid uses powerful computing clusters for computation for the modelling and to produce the maps. It uses smart computing to access the databases from state and territory departments, the University of Sydney and Geoscience Australia. During early user testing one person said, ‘Wow! I can get data in six minutes now instead of six months’. Before the Grid came along he would have had to gather the information from each of the different data systems. It wasn’t quite going door to door, but you get the picture.

Still not excited? How about some nifty data visualisation? The data can be viewed in a few different ways, for example, downloading it into Google Earth.

The Darling Downs as seen in the Grid

The Darling Downs as seen in the Grid

The best thing of all is that it’s freely available to everybody online.

For those keen beans like farmers, land managers, urban and regional planners and environmental scientists, who want to dig into the data, the files can be accessed through the Grid website in sections or the complete set is available through CSIRO’s Data Access Portal.

The data in the Grid can be sucked into a wide range of other databases and computer modelling programs and is useful to loads of different research projects. It is also part of Australia’s contribution to the GlobalSoilMap project.

For those who don’t want to get bogged down in the detail, check out our animation, which takes you on the journey of the Grid.

It’s been big collaborative effort with a large team  bringing together the best minds for the job. The Grid is ready and waiting for new data, some of which will no doubt come from technology that hasn’t even been invented yet (kangaroos with laser scanners on their heads anyone? Or is that TOO weird?)

For now, though, why not marvel at the beauty of the soil and landscape through the digital eyes of the Grid.

The thorny issue threatening the coral reefs of Pilbara

By Eamonn Bermingham 

The Great Barrier Reef is a global icon and something of a heavyweight in the natural world. If it was a movie it would be a Spielberg-directed Hollywood blockbuster starring Hugh Jackman and Angelina Jolie. Its cousin, Ningaloo Reef, off Australia’s western coast, is something of a poor relation in a branding sense, but still holds a relative degree of fame. It would be more your ‘straight-to-video’ sort of flick.

Take a trip further up the WA coast to the Pilbara region and you’ll encounter a series of islands and coral reefs – all 1,100 of them – that don’t have the branding power of the big-boy reefs. They don’t have a collective name, and probably won’t ever have a movie made about them. However, what they lack in Hollywood notoriety, they make up for in breathtaking beauty.

A school of Fusilier (Caesio cunning) fish swimming off Barrow Island in the Pilbara

A school of Fusilier (Caesio cunning) fish swimming off Barrow Island in the Pilbara.

To find out more about this area, we’ve been working with marine biologists from The University of Western Australia to conduct a health-check of the World Heritage-listed site, as part of the Pilbara Marine Conservation Partnership (PCMP).

Unfortunately, on a recent trip to the region our research team found an outbreak of the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish (COTS)- one of the biggest threats to the future of coral reef. The spiky sea stars voraciously feed on the reef, causing a reduction in coral cover that forms the very building blocks of life in the ecosystem.

The outbreak comes at a particularly bad time for the Pilbara as it is already on the ropes following a series of severe bleaching events that have reduced the amount of live coral to an average of just over five per cent.

Reefs could probably cope with one of these things at a time, but when two such impacts occur, the combination of stressors can lead to long term declines in coral cover and coral reef health.

A COTS pictured at Black Rock Reef (Montebello Island)

A COTS pictured at Black Rock Reef, Montebello Island.

How bad is it?

Technically, the term ‘outbreak’ is used to describe densities of greater than ten animals per hectare. Our team observed densities of up to 220 per hectare around Barrow Island and the Montebello Islands. To give it some context, peak figures of up to 1000 per hectare have been recorded on the Great Barrier Reef. Although numbers at the Pilbara are much lower, they are easily high enough to consume coral faster than it can grow.

COTS are also prolific breeders with females producing up to 100 million eggs, so the problem could worsen quite easily. Here’s some video we captured on our recent trip:

What’s the cause and how can we fix it?

COTS and corals have co-evolved over millions of years and although outbreaks of COTS are nothing new, the frequency and intensity in many parts of the world are greater than they were in the past. Increased nutrients can promote outbreaks and there is also data to suggest that removing predators through overfishing can exacerbate the problem. An overall increase in water temperature can also play a role.

Identifying the extent of the problem is, as always, the first step. Fixing it is an altogether trickier business.

Manual removal and, in particular, poisoning have been successful at sites including sections of the Great Barrier Reef, while studies have also shown that outbreaks are less frequent in green zones protected from fishing.  Natural predators such as the triton gastropod and the puffer fish could also, in theory, reduce COTs numbers, however it’s not the most practical short-term solution.

Further research through projects like the PMCP can improve our understanding of outbreaks and the effectiveness of different management strategies.

The starfish outbreaks and current status of reefs in Pilbara will be one of the topics under discussion when the PMCP hosts around 90 people from government and industry at a symposium in Perth this week to showcase what’s happening with the project.

Find out more about the partnership here.

Media inquiries: Eamonn.Bermingham<at>csiro.au;  +61 8 6436 8627

Australian farmers face increasing risk of new diseases: report

Honeybees pollinate a third of Australia’s food crops. Losing them due varroa might would cost the economy billions of dollars. David McClenaghan, Author provided

Honeybees pollinate a third of Australia’s food crops. Losing them due varroa might would cost the economy billions of dollars. David McClenaghan, Author provided

By Gary Fitt, CSIRO

A nationwide outbreak of foot and mouth disease; an invasion of a devastating wheat disease; our honeybees completely wiped out. These are just three possible disastrous scenarios facing Australia; they’re considered in the Australia’s Biosecurity Future report published today by CSIRO and its partners.

Intensifying and expanding agriculture, biodiversity loss, and more people and goods moving around the world are the “megatrends” driving what we have called “megashocks” — new outbreaks of diseases and pests.

These three events alone could not only cost Australia’s economy billions of dollars, but would also devastate our agricultural industries and environment and severely alter our way of life.

How well prepared is Australia, and how would our biosecurity system cope with such a situation?

Cucumber Mottle Mosaic Virus, currently affecting cucumbers in the NT. USDA Forest Service/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Cucumber Mottle Mosaic Virus, currently affecting cucumbers in the NT.
USDA Forest Service/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

For example, governments and farmers near Katherine in the Northern Territory are mounting an emergency response to deal with an outbreak of a new disease — Cucumber Green Mottle Mosaic Virus — and while this virus is not likely to create headlines, it is devastating crops, severely affecting the NT farming community financially and threatening industries elsewhere in Australia.

An ever-hungrier world

As part of the drive to help feed the world, Australia will have to increase agricultural production — both through intensification and expansion. Both of these processes could expose new biosecurity challenges.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has forecast that food production will need to increase by 60% (compared to 2005/2007 levels) to meet demand in 2050.

This 2050 scenario could see the value of Australian food exports increasing by 140% compared to 2007 levels.

However, Australia’s agriculture sector is already constrained by limited soil and water resources and future intensification will bring its own challenges through herbicide resistance and more intensive animal production systems. These factors could all increase the impacts of a biosecurity incident, and reduce the industry’s ability to sustainably meet demand.

In 1973 Australia’s wheat production industry was devastated by an outbreak of wheat stem rust, causing an estimated A$200-300 million in damages. While wheat stem rust has been under control since that time, there are new threats on the horizon.

Currently sweeping the world is the even more virulent Ug99, and without stepping up our biosecurity, it is likely to reach Australia. Luckily in this case we have time to prepare by developing varieties resistant to Ug99, but we may not always have such forewarning.

A researcher investigates the wheat rust Ug99 in Kenya. International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

A researcher investigates the wheat rust Ug99 in Kenya.
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA


Expanding into new areas

Intensifying food production alone may not be sufficient to meet global demand. We may also have to expand into new or previously marginal areas. This could expose agriculture to new biosecurity threats, some that we may not fully understand, through new pathways or new hosts for pests and diseases.

For example, there is considerable government and industry interest in increased agricultural development in Northern Australia. Various reports, including the recent Green Paper on Developing Northern Australia suggest that northern agricultural production could increase substantially through targeted use of soil and water resources.

But this could expose Australia to new biosecurity threats. There are already a number of established pests and diseases in NT. And, importantly, these small areas of northern irrigated agriculture could act as a target for exotic pests and as a bridge for exotic pests to enter, establish and spread southwards.

This could have more severe consequences for established agricultural systems in southern Australia. In 1998 sugarcane smut appeared in the Ord, Western Australia. It then spread to Queensland in 2006, ultimately costing a 10-30% reduction in gross margins thanks to loss of yield, and the cost of planting resistant sugarcane varieties.

So biosecurity needs to be explicitly considered in any plan to expand agriculture in northern Australia – we need to anticipate future threats and mitigate them where possible.

Diversity dilemma

Invasive species are one of the most significant known threats to biodiversity and ecosystem services around the world. In Australia invasive vertebrates such as rabbits, feral cats, pigs and camels impose severe impacts on Australian habitats and wildlife.

But biodiversity is also important in underpinning the ecosystem services for agriculture and the economy. Healthy soil function, pollination, and natural pest control are all driven by biodiversity within agricultural landscapes. Over the past century, crops have lost 75% of their genetic diversity, making them potentially more susceptible to new pathogens or pests.

A varroa mite on the head of a bee nymph. Gilles San Martin/Flickr, CC BY-SA

A varroa mite on the head of a bee nymph.
Gilles San Martin/Flickr, CC BY-SA

We rely on some species for the services they provide, such as the European honeybees which pollinate our largely non-indigenous crops. Australia is fortunate to be the only continent not yet affected by the devastating bee pest, varroa mite. There is very real potential for it to arrive and spread in Australia.

Elsewhere in the world, varroa mite is driving a complex of factors leading to a global decline of honeybees, and native pollinators are also threatened through pesticide use and habitat loss.

Losing these pollination services, would severely impact the 30% of food crops which are dependent on honeybees, particularly many fruits and vegetables. The impact on our economy would be in the order of A$4-6 billion each year.

On the move

The increased movement of people, goods and vessels around the globe increases the chance of biosecurity threats hitting our shores. That’s why our biosecurity border protection is so important.

Inadvertent spread of exotic organisms in shipping containers such as European house borer in Western Australia, on contaminated equipment or carried by people such as the introduction of fire ants, as well as the spectra of deliberate introductions which haven’t yet happened in Australia show the scale and breadth of the issues we have to deal with.

An outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Australia livestock could cost tens of millions of dollars. Marc Dalmulder/Flickr, CC BY

An outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Australia livestock could cost tens of millions of dollars.
Marc Dalmulder/Flickr, CC BY


An outbreak of an exotic pest or disease, such as foot and mouth disease (FMD) in Australia, which affects cloven hoofed animals such as cattle, pigs and sheep, could close down export markets overnight or make other countries more competitive.

An FMD outbreak in Australia could lead to industry-wide revenue losses for livestock producers of around A$6 billion for a small outbreak and A$50 billion for a large multi-state outbreak over a 10-year period. Additional costs related to disease control, such as labour, decontamination, slaughter, disposal and facilities, would be expected to range from A$60 million to A$373 million.

Pre-empting the threat

As an island nation, Australia has been able to maintain an enviable biosecurity status, keeping out many of the world’s worst pests and diseases. This means we have market access for a vast array of export produce, a status which will be increasingly valuable in a growing and highly competitive global market for food.

To ensure we maintain this status, the management of Australia’s biosecurity will require a step change towards smarter and more efficient strategies that are ideally ahead of the pace of change around the world. Smarter technologies, strengthened integration across governments and industry and great commitment will be needed. If we do this, we are surely better able to protect our farmers, communities and environment from the impacts of exotic pests and diseases.

Clearly, we can’t afford to become complacent with our nation’s biosecurity measures. As is true of any threat, it is much better to pre-empt and avoid than have to deal with the costly consequences.

The Conversation

The CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship receives funding from government and industry R&D bodies and works in collaboration with many research and industry partners..

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

Things warm up as the East Australian Current heads south

Warmer waters heading south – here’s sunrise off Manly in New South Wales. Flickr/Jeff Turner, CC BY

Warmer waters heading south – here’s sunrise off Manly in New South Wales. Flickr/Jeff Turner, CC BY

By Jaci Brown, CSIRO

Occasional erratic bursts southward of the East Australian Current (EAC) are thought to have moderated the weather of south-east Australia this autumn and winter and they continue to introduce tropical and sub-tropical marine species to Tasmanian waters.

Ocean monitoring by Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System is providing scientists with significant new insights into the changing structure of the EAC. Over the past 50 years sporadic warm bursts have become more common as the EAC moves further south. With global warming, the warm burst we’ve seen this year may also become the norm.

Had our little friend Nemo the clownfish been riding the EAC this year he might have found himself holidaying in Tasmania rather than admiring the Sydney Opera House. He wouldn’t have been on the trip alone, though. Sea nettles (Chrysaora) have headed from their usual home in Sydney to be found for the first time ever in Tasmania and the Gippsland Lakes.

Sea nettle

Chrysaora woodbridge, or sea nettle, was found in surprising numbers in Tasmania this year. Lisa-ann Gershwin, Author provided

Waters in the EAC travel southward along the east coast of Australia, with most of it splitting from the coast near Sydney and heading for New Zealand. A small part of the current, known as the EAC Extension, works its way southward past Victoria and Tasmania.

A typical signature in this region are the large eddies, around 200 kilometres across and hundreds of metres deep. Some of the warm water is trapped here along with marine life.

The EAC starts at the Great Barrier Reef and travels south to Sydney before turning eastward to New Zealand. Some of the water can still push southward via a series of strong eddies. Eric Oliver

The EAC starts at the Great Barrier Reef and travels south to Sydney before turning eastward to New Zealand. Some of the water can still push southward via a series of strong eddies.
Eric Oliver


This year a larger proportion of the EAC was sent southward instead of breaking away to the east. Winter ocean temperatures off Bass Strait were around 19C, an increase of 4C. This impacted local fishing, beach conditions and the weather.

In the video (above) the animation on the left shows the actual sea surface temperature and speed of the ocean currents. The animation on the right shows the difference in the temperature from average conditions.

Through autumn and winter, you can see two interesting changes occur. A strong warm current heads down the coast from Sydney to the coast of Victoria. At the same time, warm water peels off from the EAC and swirls around in large eddies as it meanders toward Tasmania.

An unusual catch down south

One advantage of warm eddies is the refuge they provide for tuna. They congregate in the centre of the eddy where the waters are warm and dine at the nutrient-rich edges.

Local fishers in north-east Tasmania report a remarkable year that allowed them to fish longer than usual, providing game fishers with more opportunities to catch tuna.

Last summer’s (2013-2014) warmth provided an abundance of skipjack and striped marlin, while winter brought a run of bluefin tuna.

Redmap is a website where locals can report sightings of marine species that are unusual for a given area.

Last summer a manta ray, a tropical cartilaginous fish (in a group including rays and skates), was sighted off the north-eastern coast of Tasmania. Previously the southern-most sighting of a manta ray was just south of Sydney.

Manta birostris spotted off north-east Tasmania on Australia Day 2014. Redmap/Leo Miller

Manta birostris spotted off north-east Tasmania on Australia Day 2014.
Redmap/Leo Miller


Its not just new species visiting Tassie either. Local jellyfish such as the Lion’s Mane (cyanea) – more commonly known as “snotty” – are usually quite elusive, but turned up in unprecedented numbers last summer in Tasmania.

But there’s a catch

This movement south of the EAC may have an impact on other systems, including our health. We rely on fish such as those from the Tasman Sea as a source of omega-3 fatty acids for our brain health. But the concentration of omega-3 fatty acids in the fish is likely to decrease with global warming.

The original source of fatty acids come from algal species. As our waters warm, we will see more of the algae from the tropics take up residence in the south-east.

But the algae from the tropics are much smaller, which means more steps in the food chain from the algae to the fish we eat. The more steps in the food chain, the more the omega-3 fatty acids in the fish are replaced by fatty acids that are less favourable to brain health.

The warmer coastal waters also contributed to the balmy autumn and winter in south-eastern Australia this year. Afternoon sea breezes cool coastal temperatures by drawing cool oceanic air onto the coast.

Sydney’s heat wave in May this year had 19 consecutive days of 22C or more – this is partly due to the sea breezes failing to bring in the usual cooling air.

What’s causing the EAC to move south?

Over the past 50 years the EAC Extension has stretched about 350km further south. This extension doesn’t happen smoothly but in erratic bursts.

The southward extent of the EAC is controlled by the collective behaviour of the winds between Australia and South America. Over that same 50-year period these winds changed their pattern due to a strengthening of a climate system known as the Southern Annular Mode.

The changes to this mode have been attributed to a combination of ozone depletion and increasing atmospheric CO2.

One of the most robust and consistent responses of the climate system to increasing CO2 is a further strengthening of the Southern Annular Mode.

So the result will likely be a further enhancement of the EAC extension southward and even warmer waters in the Tasman Sea.

The Conversation

Jaci Brown does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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

Ozone hole closing for the year, but full recovery is decades away

These clouds – formed high in the Antarctic atmosphere during spring – provide a place where ozone-destroying chemicals can form. Image: sandwich/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

These clouds – formed high in the Antarctic atmosphere during spring – provide a place where ozone-destroying chemicals can form. Image: sandwich/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

By Paul Krummel, CSIRO and Paul Fraser, CSIRO

Imagine an environmental crisis caused by a colourless, odourless gas, in minute concentrations, building up in the atmosphere. There is no expert consensus, but in the face of considerable uncertainty and strong resistance to the science, global regulation of these emissions succeeds.

Subsequently, the science is established and the damage, though already apparent, begins to be mitigated.

Trends in the size of the ozone hole (top), amount of ozone (middle) and ozone deficit (bottom) show the ozone hole may be recovering. The green lines show the amount of chlorine in the stratosphere relative to the other measurements.

No, this is not fantasy. It’s history. We’re talking about the ozone hole.

In two or three weeks the Antarctic’s seasonal ozone hole will close for the year. The ozone hole has formed every spring since the 1970s. This year’s is among the smaller ones over the past 20 years — since ozone-depleting substances began declining.

The United Nations Environment Program and World Meteorological Organisation’s Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2014 states that global total column ozone has shown a small increase in recent years.

However, it may take another few years before we can definitively say the Antarctic ozone hole has recovered, and several decades until full recovery to pre-1980 conditions.

Radical discovery

Atmospheric ozone isn’t a single layer at a certain altitude above the Earth’s surface; it’s dispersed — there is even a significant amount of ozone at the Earth’s surface.

Even the stratospheric ozone known as “the ozone layer” is not a single layer of pure ozone, but a region where ozone is more abundant than it is at other altitudes. Satellite sensors and other ozone-measuring devices monitor the total ozone concentration for an entire column of the atmosphere, and whether there is more or less than normal.

Throughout the 1970s, scientists began to observe two separate but related phenomena: the total amount of ozone in the stratosphere — the region 10 to 50 kilometres above the earth’s surface — was declining steadily at about 4% every ten years. And in spring there was a much larger decrease in stratospheric ozone over the polar regions.

By the mid-1980s, they reached the conclusion that the cause was a chemical reaction between ozone and halogen (chlorine and bromine). This halogen came from man-made substances: chlorine/bromine-containing refrigerants, solvents, propellants and foam-blowing agents (chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, halons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons or HCFCs).

When exposed to UV light and in the presence of polar stratospheric clouds, these molecules break down, releasing radical chemicals that destroy ozone atoms at an alarming rate.

CFCs, one of the most prominent culprits, were first synthesised in the 1890s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that they began to be widely used as refrigerants.

The most unfortunate scientist

Thomas Midgely, the chemical engineer who improved their synthesis and demonstrated their potential uses, was probably the most unfortunate scientist ever to rise to an influential position.

In 1921, he discovered that adding tetra-ethyl lead to fuel improved the efficiency of internal combustion engines. Unfortunately, this discovery was commercialised. Lead persists in the atmosphere today. It also accumulates in animals, sometimes to toxic levels, particularly those at the top of food chains.

Subsequently, Midgely set himself to solving the problem of the refrigerants in use in the earlier part of the 20th century. These were uniformly dangerous — either flammable, explosive or toxic. CFCs weren’t and were soon widely adopted, not only as refrigerants but also later as propellants and blowing agents.

The best thing about CFCs – their low reactivity – is also the worst. Because they’re so unreactive, they’re very long-lived (often in excess of 100 years). This gives them time to get into the stratosphere. One of the components of CFCs is chlorine. Very little chlorine exists naturally in the stratosphere, but CFCs are a very effective way of introducing significant amounts of chlorine into the ozone layer.

Midgely’s efforts to do good had dire unintended consequences: he’s been described as having had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.

Recognising the threat

By the late 1960s, scientists had detected growth in the level of CFCs in the atmosphere. By 1974 researchers published the first paper predicting that the increase in CFCs would cause significant ozone loss.

The ozone hole hypothesis was strongly disputed by some industry representatives.

Nonetheless, the reality of a possible depleted ozone layer and the threat to human health it implied so alarmed the international community that by 1985 the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer was agreed on, even before the significant ozone depletion was detected. The convention came into force in 1988 and was ratified over subsequent decades by 197 nations, making it one of the most successful treaties of all time.

The following year (1989), the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (which falls under the Vienna Convention) also came into force. This treaty was designed to enact the spirit of the Vienna Convention – i.e. to protect the ozone layer – and achieved it by phasing out the production and consumption of numerous substances that are responsible for ozone depletion.

Long time to recovery

Repairing the ozone hole is a long-term process. CSIRO has been monitoring the hole over Antarctica since the late 1970s. The ozone hole first appeared in spring over Antarctica and subsequently over the Arctic, as the ozone-destroying chemical processes require very cold conditions and the onset of sunlight (following the polar winter).

In Antarctica, the hole lasts for two to three months before breaking up and mixing with ozone–richer air from mid-latitudes. It’s not constant in size — except in the sense that it’s consistently very large — although it waxes and wanes. The record so far is 29.5 million square kilometres, set in 2006.

For comparison, the land mass of Australia (including Tasmania) is 7.7 million square kilometres.

Although some reports claim that the ozone layer over Antarctica is recovering, it’s too early to make a definitive call. Measurements at surface monitoring stations show that the amount of ozone-destroying chemicals at the surface has been dropping since about 1994-1995. The amount is now about 10-15% down on that peak.

The stratosphere lags behind the surface, and the effects of this will take some time to play out. However, satellite measurements show that the decline in ozone amount in the stratosphere has stopped, and perhaps begun recovery.

The size and depth of the ozone hole each year shows quite large variability due to different meteorological conditions, in particular stratospheric temperatures.

How the 2014 hole measures up

Overall, out of the 35 years of satellite data analysed, the 2014 ozone hole is one of the smaller ones since the late 1980s. It ranks as the 18th largest in daily area; 16th largest for daily ozone deficit; and 21st lowest for minimum ozone.

The 2014 ozone hole appeared in the first week of August and grew rapidly in size from mid-August through to the second week of September, reaching 23.5 million square kilometres on September 15.

The 2014 hole is among the smaller since the mid-1990s.

The 2014 hole is among the smaller since the mid-1990s.

During the third and fourth weeks of September the ozone hole area decreased to 17.5 million square kilometres. Then, in a final flurry, the daily ozone hole area grew sharply again during the last days of September to peak at 23.9 million square kilometres on October 1.

This is the peak daily ozone hole area for 2014, larger than in 2010, 2012 and 2013, about the same as 2009, and smaller than in 2011.

The ozone hole is now in the recovery phase, and had shrunk to about 9 million square kilometres by November 14. It is expected to recover this year in two to three weeks.

You can find the full details on the 2014 ozone hole here.

The Conversation

Paul Krummel receives funding from MIT, NASA, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Department of the Environment, & Refrigerant Reclaim Australia.

Paul Fraser receives funding from receives funding from MIT, NASA, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Department of the Environment, & Refrigerant Reclaim Australia.

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

Along the Murray-Darling in a ‘bot

Launch of the Museum Robot, Landmarks Gallery, ActonIt’s a big place, the Murray-Darling Basin. Over a million km2 – about one-seventh of the whole of Australia. There’s a lot to know about it, and we’re helping students find out more for themselves, using a novel CSIRO innovation.

The National Museum of Australia and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority have teamed up to let students learn about this vast area, taking students on an interactive, customised tour of the Museum’s Murray-Darling Basin exhibits. But the really cool part? The students never have to leave their classrooms.

Using our Telepresence robot technology, museum staff are able to broadcast real-time images, video and audio back to students in their classrooms. Students can learn about how the Basin’s water movement and volume has varied over the past 300 000 years, and the importance of water quality and its role in determining where human settlements develop and whether they survive and prosper.

This is a new departure for the robots. In the past, they’ve mainly been used to give a taste of the museum to people in remote areas who can’t easily travel there. Now they’re letting students get an understanding of the broader Murray-Darling picture.

It works this way. The museum robot (accompanied by education staff) takes the remote visitors on a virtual tour of the museum.

The robot has a high speed broadband connection, so remote visitors can interact with a human educator in the museum. The human educator leads the robot, while the remote visitors use a panoramic camera to look around and explore.  Launch of the Museum Robot, Landmarks Gallery, Acton

In an ultimate case of ‘look but don’t touch’ students can see and interact with information about each of the objects on display.

The best thing is that it’s a conversation, not a monologue with pictures. The museum educator can engage and challenge the students by posing multiple-choice questions, polling and viewing the student’s responses in real-time.

We’re doing a lot of work on digital immersive learning. Apart from the Telepresence robots, we’re working with science education experts to develop learning environments that mirror real-life places. These 3D models of real places will be created using our award winning laser mapping technology Zebedee and panoramic video to create the immersive environment. We’ve already taken students through Jenolan Caves from the safety of their own classrooms.

Almost makes you wish you were back at school again …


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