Getting science from CSIRO isn’t just about start-ups

A crop of BarleyMax™ in the field

BarleyMax™ crop in the field Credit: Carl Davies

By Jan Bingley, general manager of business development and commercial

I learned a long time ago that “commercialisation” is a greatly misunderstood activity. Most often, it is interpreted narrowly as the process of developing IP, protecting it in the form of patents and licensing them for royalties or equity in start-ups.

It’s not surprising that commercialisation is seen this way. Many universities and publicly funded research agencies continue to measure performance by counting the number of royalty-bearing licences, number of start-ups formed and the revenue received each year from these transactions. Indeed we do it here in Australia via the National Survey of Research Commercialisation published by the federal government. The largest association for university commercialisation – the Association of University Technology Managers – measures this annually via its large commercialisation survey covering hundreds of North American Universities.

However, the comparison between CSIRO’s annual revenue and the revenue received from commercialisation transactions published at the link above, is based on misunderstandings and is misleading. About 34 per cent of CSIRO’s annual revenue, just over $400 million, is provided by our industry partners and other clients to fund specific collaborative R&D projects. The balance is provided by the federal government. CSIRO has hundreds of collaborations every year with industry – both big and small – and every one of them is all about commercialisation. Alongside our industry partners, we identify the problems that need solving, work together to solve them, and the resulting IP – in the form of know-how as well as protectable IP – rests with the industry partner. Those partners may go on to develop it further, often involving many more years and millions of dollars to reap the commercial benefits.

CSIRO sometimes secures a future financial benefit as a reward for collaborating with an industry partner, but in revenue terms this will be tiny. However, in impact, having an industry partner go on to become bigger, better and stronger is what CSIRO strives to achieve. This is why we continue to enjoy considerable government funding. We are here to assist industry for the benefit of Australia and Australians. Industry in all its forms – not just start-ups.

It is rare that CSIRO develops IP in its own right: most of our IP has been developed in collaboration with our partners and is therefore encumbered through that collaborative activity. This means that CSIRO’s patent portfolio is not littered with “Rembrandts in the attic” that some think we must be hiding. Occasionally, we see an opportunity to generate impact through licensing to start-ups and we are immensely proud of the success of these start-ups and the impact they are generating for Australia .


There are numerous examples of start-ups that have benefited from licensing IP from CSIRO – BuildingIQ, Benitec, Radiata, Starpharma, Windlab, BarleyMax, Advantage Wheats, GeoSLAM, and many others. CSIRO can improve on its licensing regime to ensure we are as efficient as possible when transacting with start-ups. We are learning from this feedback and we’ve taken steps to address this, including coming up with standard licence terms. However, it is wrong to think CSIRO’s patent portfolio is the answer to generating more start-ups in Australia. Our patents are often very science-based, far away from productisation and require significant amounts of money and time before any prospect of commercial returns are possible. In short, our patents are rarely suited to a start-up model.

I’ve been approached over the years by many entrepreneurs looking for an opportunity to commercialise our IP – only very occasionally has this engagement resulted in spotting something in the portfolio suited to a start-up model. On average, we license our technology to two or three start-ups each year (a high rate in comparison to most publicly funded research agencies). CSIRO’s mission is to deliver innovative solutions for Australia’s industry, society and environment through great science – we’re about doing Science for Impact. Getting our science out of CSIRO and into the hands of businesses – big and small – that have the resources to go on and commercialise (use) the science for positive impact for their business and therefore generate positive outcomes for Australia and Australians.

We also partner extensively with established Australian SME’s so they can access CSIRO’s extensive know-how and intellectual horse-power to better their businesses – in some cases we even provide funds to those SMEs so they can access innovation to ultimately become bigger, more competitive companies. CSIRO’s SME Engagement Centre assists small to medium Australian enterprises by identifying and connecting companies to technical expertise and resources, defining technical issues, developing research projects for industry and providing guidance around access to funding for research.

If CSIRO receives small amounts of revenue in recognition of our involvement along the way, that’s great as we reinvest that into new science. But it is by no means a measure of the significant impact we seek to generate from taxpayer funds in research. The real impact of commercialisation is not the narrow discussion about royalty earnings, it’s about benefits to the economy and society. One of our best known inventions is our WLAN patent that has earned $425 million in licensing revenue, but in evaluating the success of this invention we also have to take into account the value created by the fact that our wireless technology enables over seven billion devices around the world.

Think about how much that CSIRO invention is the basis of today’s connectivity – how we each use it, every day. Now that’s impact.

This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review 22 July 2014

The challenge of sorting fact from fiction on coal seam gas

Fracking site wellhead

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

By Alex Wonhas, CSIRO

Can you match the following three statements with the answers just below?

  1. Coal seam gas is bad for the environment and we should all protest against its use.
  2. Genetically modified foods are a part of multinational plans to take over the world’s food supply.
  3. Wind farms are dangerous to human health and should be restricted.

a) Yes, everyone knows it is bad news.
b) Well, I used to think that, but now I wonder if I was being manipulated by interest groups playing upon my emotions.
c) I’m not really sure about that. I think there is more misinformation than information around.

I’m guessing if you passed these questions around at your family dinner table, you’d match different statements with different answers. This is largely because we tend to look for answers that suit our views – and often form our views based on what our “tribe” thinks.

But imagine a new technology came along – let’s call it Technology X – that could provide a source of energy for Australia, but which comes with social and environmental impacts. How would you form your opinion on it?

You might consider doing your own research, but be quickly overwhelmed by the amount of information for and against, and not know quite what to believe. At that point you might look for the opinion of somebody you trusted, or make a decision based on your intuition. In this article I encourage you to form your own opinion based on your own and independent assessment of the facts.

Our rational and emotional brains

Our intuition is a useful thing that has served us well for tens of thousands of years, keeping us from wandering out of our warm caves into the dark and dangers of the night – but it is something that has become less suited to the modern high-technology world.

We like to think we are rational beings. But when faced with uncertainty, we still have a tendency to make decisions based on emotions, before looking for information to support our decision; even sticking with that decision when data proves it is wrong.

What if we were able to put that aside and make decisions on contentious issues, such as coal seam gas, based on our own individual assessment of the data?

What is conventional versus non-conventional gas?. The Grattan Institute, Getting Gas Right, June 2013.

As with any issue, there are interest groups on all sides that would have you believe that they are the only people providing a true interpretation of the data.

Yet despite differences on interpretations, there are some common things we should be able to agree on about unconventional forms of gas, including coal seam gas and the process of hydraulic fracturing (often nicknamed fracking or fraccing). Some of these coal seam gas facts include that:

  • There are clear benefits and there are clear risks.
  • There are many overstated benefits and there are many over-stated risks.
  • There are impacts on the economy, environment and communities, and it is not really possible to talk about one without including the others.
  • Despite all the things we know, there are still some unknowns.

Putting bad science to the test

A healthy approach to any contentious issue is to treat all information as possibly coming from a self-interested point of view, until you can confirm it or not.

There are some great resources for testing the claims of dubious alternative medicines, such as Quack Watch and of the claims of major pharmaceutical companies such as Bad Science. But where do you go to test the claims being made about unconventional gas?

I’d start by saying look at the calibre of the data, rather than the source. What studies support the statements being made? Who conducted them? Where were they published? Has any independent source agreed with the claims, or disputed them? When figures are given, do they give all the information needed?

As well as giving this scrutiny to statements you’re a bit uncertain of, it’s also useful to apply it to those that appeal to you.

Deciding whether coal seam gas is good or bad is wholly dependent on the individual’s definition of the words “good” or “bad”.

It is in the interests of the industry to make you believe that coal seam gas is good for Australia, while the opposite is true for other groups. The role of scientists, and organisations such as the CSIRO, is to act as an honest broker and try to bring some clarity to the debate.

We know that coal seam gas can be used as a source of energy and that Australia has vast reserves. But we also know that its development can have environmental and socio-economic impacts on our rural communities.

CSIRO’s aim is to inform the community, government and industry about the risks and opportunities that stem from developing Australia’s unconventional gas resources.

It is a complex issue, and a divisive one. There are things we know and there are things we don’t.

So what would you like to know? Please leave your questions and comments below, and let’s start the discussion.

Alex Wonhas will be available between 3-4pm AEST today (Tuesday 22nd July) to answer your questions about coal seam gas, fracking, or other issues related to unconventional gas.

Alex Wonhas oversees a team that receives funding from the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA), which is a collaborative vehicle co-funded by CSIRO, Australia Pacific LNG Pty Ltd and QGC to undertake research that addresses the social and environmental impacts of Australia’s natural gas industry. The partners in GISERA have invested more than A$14 million over five years to research the environmental, social and economic impacts of the natural gas industry. GISERA projects are overseen by an independent and publicly transparent Research Advisory Committee and made publicly available after undergoing CSIRO’s peer-review process.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Tracing the Earth’s hottest volcanoes from core to ore

Volcano eruption

Nailing down the sites of ancient volcanic eruptions could help identify mineral deposits. Image: Flickr / Ásgeir Kröyer

By David R Mole

Volcanic eruptions are as old as the planet itself. They inspire awe, curiosity and fear and demonstrate the dynamic internal activity of the Earth. However, the impact of modern volcanoes pales in comparison to those that graced our planet millions (even billions) of years ago.

These include “supervolcanoes”, volcanic eruptions a thousand times more powerful than the 1980 eruption of Mt St Helens; and large igneous provinces (LIPs), which consist of rapid outpourings of more than one million cubic kilometres of basaltic lava, such as the Siberian Traps in Russia.

In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, my colleagues and I set out to find how the hottest and rarest type of volcanoes – the ancient komatiites – were formed.

Knowing how and why komatiites are concentrated in specific belts could help discover new ore deposits, potentially worth billions of dollars.

Komatiite lava flows date back around 1.8 to 3.4 billion years and formed when Earth’s mantle (the layer between the crust and the outer core) was much hotter.

Earth's layers. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Earth’s layers. Image: Wikimedia Commons

They erupted at temperatures exceeding 1,600C and produced hose-like fire fountains and lava flows that travelled at more than 40km/h as bluish-white, turbulent lava rivers.

These crystallised to form some of the world’s most spectacular igneous rocks – as well as a number of giant nickel deposits, found mainly in Western Australia and Canada.

A 3.4-billion-year-old komatiite flow from the Barberton greenstone belt in South Africa, where these ultra-high temperature lavas were first recognised. The A-zone (upper) is dominated by fine crystals of olivine called ‘spinifex texture’, while the B-zone (lower) consists of a solid matrix of olivine crystals, which mark the base of the komatiite lava river. Image: David Mole

A 3.4-billion-year-old komatiite flow from the Barberton greenstone belt in South Africa, where these ultra-high temperature lavas were first recognised. The A-zone (upper) is dominated by fine crystals of olivine called ‘spinifex texture’, while the B-zone (lower) consists of a solid matrix of olivine crystals, which mark the base of the komatiite lava river. Image: David Mole

Komatiites have been studied for more than 60 years and are fundamental in developing our knowledge of the thermal and chemical evolution of the planet, but until recently we didn’t understand why they formed where they did.

So how are komatiites formed?

Komatiites are found in ancient pieces of crust, or cratons, preserved from the Archean Eon (2.5 to 3.8 billion years ago). These cratons contain greenstone belts – preserved belts of volcanic and sedimentary material that often contain deposits of precious metals.

Monzogranite rocks

Granitic rocks, such as the 2.675-billion-year-old monzogranite shown here, are the dominant rock type that form the Archean continental crust in the Yilgarn Craton. Left: monzogranite hand specimen. Right: the same sample under the microscope. Image: David Mole

Many cratons exist worldwide. One of the largest is Western Australia’s Yilgarn Craton, which hosts most of the gold and nickel mined in Australia. This craton has only a few specific belts that contain major komatiite flows.

Previous research shows that komatiites were formed from mantle plumes – upwelling pipes of hot material that stretch from the outer core to the base of the crust.

Around 2.7 billion years ago in a huge global event referred to as a “mantle turnover”, multiple mantle plumes formed, and one hit the base of the early Australian continent – the Yilgarn Craton, forming some of the hottest lavas ever erupted on Earth.

When plumes first hit the base of the lithosphere – the 50-250km-thick rigid outer shell of the Earth – they spread out into discs of hot material more than 1,000km in diameter.

Today there is evidence of this in places such as the huge Deccan basalts that cover much of India.

Despite this spread, komatiite belts are sparse and only found in certain areas. One of our research goals was to find out why.

The mineralised base of a komatiite lava river

The mineralised base of a komatiite lava river, from Kambalda, Western Australia. A: the underlying basalt with evidence of melting by the overlying komatiite. B: the massive nickel sulphide ore that pools at the base of the komatiite lava river. C: the overlying komatiite lava flow. Image: David Mole

Mapping the early Australian continent

We used specific isotopes of the element hafnium to determine the age of the crust that formed the granites (the material which makes up the cratons) and if it had a mantle or a crustal source.

Mapping out the isotopic compositions of the granites revealed a jigsaw pattern in the crust, and regions where the granites formed by melting pre-existing, much older crustal rocks.

It also showed younger areas where the crust was newly created from sources in the deeper mantle.

By collecting samples of Archean granites from all over the Yilgarn Craton, we were able to map the changing shape of the Archean continent through time.

When we compared the nature and shape of the continent with the location of the major komatiite events, we found a remarkable correlation. The maps showed that the major komatiite belts and their ore deposits were located at the edge of the older continental regions.

Graphic showing earth crust

By imaging the older, thicker and younger, thinner areas of ancient lithosphere in the Yilgarn Craton, we were able to map the three-dimensional architecture of the craton and explain why komatiites are localised in specific belts. Plume melts are ‘channeled’ into the younger, thinner continental areas, resulting in a concentration of komatiites, and their associated ore deposits, in these areas. Image: David Mole

This is due to the shape at the base of the ancient Australian continent. As the plume rises, it impacts the older, thick lithosphere first.

As a result the plume cannot generate much magma so it flows upwards along the base of the lithosphere into the shallower, younger areas. Here huge volumes of magma are generated at the boundary between the old, thick and young, thin areas of the lithosphere, so komatiites and their nickel deposits are located at the margins of Earth’s early continents.

Some research questions remain. The origin of the continents imaged in our study and the tectonic system that formed them is still unknown.

What our work shows is that continent growth significantly affects the location, style and type of later volcanism, as well as the location of major ore deposit areas.

We hope that this work will help unravel the volcanic history of other ancient geological terranes, as well as aid in the search for mineral deposits in relatively unexplored cratons such as those in West Africa and central Asia.

This project was funded by Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Grants LP0776780 and LP100100647 with BHP Billiton Nickel West, Norilsk Nickel, St Barbara, and the Geological Survey of Western Australia (GSWA). The Lu-Hf analytical data were obtained using instrumentation funded by Department of Education Science and Training (DEST) Systemic Infrastructure grants, ARC Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF), National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS), industry partners, and Macquarie University. The U-Pb zircon geochronology was performed on the sensitive high resolution ion microprobes at the John de Laeter Centre of Mass Spectrometry (Curtin University).

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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The first images from ASKAP reveal slices through space

Three of the dishes used by the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder telescope.

Three of the dishes used by the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder telescope. Image: CSIRO / Terrace Photographers

By Lisa Harvey-Smith, CSIRO

The first images from Australia’s Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope have given scientists a sneak peek at the potential images to come from the much larger Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope currently being developed.

ASKAP comprises a cluster of 36 large radio dishes that work together with a powerful supercomputer to form (in effect) a single composite radio telescope 6km across.

What makes ASKAP truly special is the wide-angle “radio cameras”, known as phased array feeds, which can take up to 36 images of the sky simultaneously and stitch them together to generate a panoramic image.

Why panoramic vision?

Traditional radio telescope arrays such as the Australia Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri, NSW, are powerful probes of deep-space objects. But their limited field of view (approximately equivalent to the full moon) means that undertaking major research projects such as studying the structure of the Milky Way, or carrying out a census of millions of galaxies, is slow, painstaking work that can take many years to realise.

The special wide-angle radio receivers on ASKAP will increase the telescope’s field of vision 30 times, allowing astronomers to build up an encyclopedic knowledge of the sky.

This technological leap will enable us to study many astrophysical phenomena that are currently out of reach, including the evolution of galaxies and cosmic magnetism over billions of years.

For the past 12 months a team of CSIRO astronomers has been testing these novel radio cameras fitted on a test array of six antennas.

The first task for the team was to test the ability of the cameras to image wide fields-of-view and thus demonstrate ASKAP’s main competitive advantage. The results were impressive!

A wide-field image of the sky taken with the ASKAP test array.

A wide-field image of the sky taken with the ASKAP test array. Image: I. Heywood/ACES team, CSIRO

One of the first test images from the ASKAP test array is seen above. The hundreds of star-like points are actually galaxies, each containing billions of stars, seen in radio waves. Using CSIRO’s new radio cameras, nine overlapping images were taken simultaneously and stitched together.

The resulting image covers an area of sky more than five times greater than is normally visible with a radio telescope. The information contained in such images will help us to rapidly build up a picture of the evolution of galaxies over several billion years.

Where next for ASKAP to look

On the back of this success, the commissioning team turned the telescope to the Sculptor or “silver coin” galaxy to test its ability to study deep-space objects.

Sculptor is a spiral galaxy like our own Milky Way, but appears elongated as it is seen almost edge-on from earth.

The Sculptor galaxy seen rotating edge-on using the ASKAP test array.

The Sculptor galaxy seen rotating edge-on using the ASKAP test array. Image: P. Serra/ACES Team, CSIRO

This image (above) shows the radio waves emitted by hydrogen gas that is swirling in an almost circular motion around the galaxy as it rotates.

The red side of the galaxy is moving away from us and the blue side is moving towards us. The speed of rotation tells us the galaxy’s mass.

The team has also tested the ability of the telescope to “weigh” the gas in very distant galaxies. The image (below) shows a grouping of overlapping galaxies called a gravitational lens.

Gravitational lens image

A cluster of galaxies aligned to form a ‘gravitational lens’ was captured using ASKAP’s test array.

Seven billion years ago, radio waves from a distant galaxy were absorbed by a foreground galaxy in this group. That signal was processed by ASKAP to form the spectrum (top right in the above image).

Although not visually pretty, this type of observation has enormous scientific value, allowing astronomers to understand how quickly galaxies use up their star-forming fuel.

The latest demonstration with the ASKAP test array is a movie (below) of layers through a cloud of gas in our Milky Way.

This series of images – similar to an MRI scan imaging slices through the human body – demonstrates the ability of the telescope to measure the intricate motions of the spiral arms of the Milky Way and other galaxies.

Building to the bigger array

These images are just the beginning of a new era in radio astronomy, starting with SKA pathfinders like ASKAP and culminating in the construction of the SKA radio telescope.

Once built, the SKA will comprise a vast army of radio receivers distributed over tens to hundreds of kilometres in remote areas of Western Australia and South Africa.

Just like ASKAP combines signals from several dishes, the SKA will use a supercomputer to build up a composite image of the sky.

Each ensemble of antennas will work together to photograph distant astronomical objects that are so faint, that they can’t be seen at all with current technology.

The SKA will thereby open up vast tracts of unexplored space to scientific study, making it a game-changer in astrophysical and cosmological research.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Explainer: El Niño and La Niña

Australia’s weather is influenced by warm water movements in the Pacific. Image: Flickr / Shayan USA, CC BY

Australia’s weather is influenced by warm water movements in the Pacific. Image: Flickr / Shayan USA, CC BY

By Jaci Brown, CSIRO

We wait in anticipation of droughts and floods when El Niño and La Niña are forecast but what are these climatic events?

The simplest way to understand El Niño and La Niña is through the sloshing around of warm water in the ocean.

The top layer of the tropical Pacific Ocean (about the first 200 metres) is warm, with water temperatures between 20C and 30C. Underneath, the ocean is colder and far more static. Between these two water masses there is a sharp temperature change known as the thermocline.

Winds over the tropical Pacific, known as the trade winds, blow from east to west piling the warm top layer water against the east coast of Australia and Indonesia. Indeed, the sea level near Australia can be one metre higher than at South America.

Warm water and converging winds near Australia contribute to convection, and hence rainfall for eastern Australia.

Graphical description of La Niña

La Niña. Image: US National Weather Service

In a La Niña event, the trade winds strengthen bringing more warm water to Australia and increasing our rainfall totals.

Graphical depiction of El Niño

El Niño. Image: US National Weather Service

In an El Niño the trade winds weaken, so some of the warm water flows back toward the east towards the Americas. The relocating warm water takes some of the rainfall with it which is why on average Australia will have a dry year.

In the Americas El Niño means increased rainfall, but it reduces the abundance of marine life. Typically the water in the eastern Pacific is cool but high in nutrients that flow up from the deep ocean. The warm waters that return with El Niño smother this upwelling.

Have El Niño and La Niña always been around?

El Niño and La Niña are a natural climate cycle. Records of El Niño and La Niña go back millions of years with evidence found in ice cores, deep sea cores, coral and tree rings.

El Niño events were first recognised by Peruvian fisherman in the 19th century who noticed that warm water would sometimes arrive off the coast of South America around Christmas time.

Because of the timing they called this phenomenon El Niño, meaning “boy child”, after Jesus. La Niña, being the opposite, is the “girl child”.

Predicting El Niño and La Niña

Being able to predict an El Niño event is a multi-million, possibly billion dollar question.

A pasture in drought

The drought hit Wagga Wagga, NSW, in 2006. Image: Flickr / John Schilling, CC BY-NC-ND

Reliably predicting an impending drought would allow for primary industries to take drought protective action and Australia to prepare for increased risk of dry, hot conditions and associated bushfires.

Unfortunately each autumn we hit a “predictability barrier” which hinders our ability to predict if an El Niño might occur.

In autumn the Pacific Ocean can sit in a state ready for an El Niño to occur, but there is no guarantee it will kick it off that year, or even the next.

Nearly all El Niños are followed by a La Niña though, so we can have much more confidence in understanding the occurrence of these wet events.

A variety of events

Predictability would be even easier if all El Niños and La Niñas were the same, but of course they are not.

Not only are the events different in the way they manifest in the ocean, but they also differ in the way they affect rainfall over Australia – and it’s not straightforward.

The exceptionally strong El Niños of 1997 and 1982 have now been termed Super El Niños. In these events the trade winds weaken dramatically with the warm surface water heading right back over to South America.

Recently a new type of El Niño has been recognised and is becoming more frequent.

This new type of El Niño is often called an “El Niño Modoki” – Modoki being Japanese for “similar, but different”.

In these events the warm water that is usually piled up near Australia heads eastward but only makes it as far as the central Pacific. El Niño Modoki occurred in 2002, 2004 and 2009.

Weather maps

(a) Australian rainfall in 1998 La Niña (May 1998 to March 1999), (b) the 1997 Super El Niño (April 1997 to March 1998), © the 1982 Super El Niño (April 1982 to February 1983) and (d) the 2002 El Niño Modoki (March 2002 to January 2003). Image: (c) Bureau of Meteorology

Australian rainfall is affected by all its surrounding oceans. El Niño in the Pacific is only one factor.

As a general rule though, the average rainfall in eastern and southern Australia will be lower in an El Niño year and higher in a La Niña. The regions that will experience these changes and the strength are harder to pinpoint.

El Niño and climate change

It is not yet clear how climate change will affect El Niño and La Niña. The events may get stronger, they may get weaker or they may change their behaviour in different ways.

Some research is suggesting that Super El Niños might become more frequent with climate change, while others are hypothesising that the recent increase in El Niño Modoki is due to climate change effects already having an impact.

Because climate change in general may decrease rainfall over southern Australia and increase potential evaporation (due to higher temperatures) then it would be reasonable to expect that the drought induced by El Niño events will be exacerbated by climate change.

Given that we are locked into at least a few degrees of warming over the coming century, it’s hard not to fear more drought and bushfires for Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Drought in store as El Niño’s western cousin to grow stronger

Dried up lake

Drought conditions are set to become more frequent with the changing behaviour of the Indian Ocean. Image: Wikimedia / Peripitus

By Agus Santoso and Wenju Cai, CSIRO

Over the past few months, a lot of attention has been paid to the potentially strong El Niño event brewing in the Pacific Ocean. But there is also the potential for an emerging climate phenomenon in the Indian Ocean that could worsen the impacts of an El Niño, bringing drought to Australia and its neighbours.

The Indian Ocean Dipole is a phenomenon that has already been shown to have a significant impact on rainfall in countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

The main effects are drought in Australia, while east Africa suffers floods. And our new work published in the international journal Nature today shows that the frequency of these extreme events is set to increase as the world warms this century.

See-saw pattern

The Indian Ocean Dipole is a year-to-year see-saw pattern in surface temperature and rainfall across the tropical Indian Ocean. During a positive Indian Ocean Dipole phase, sea surface temperatures off Sumatra and Java in Indonesia are colder than normal. Meanwhile, off east Africa, surface waters are unusually warm.

Like an El Niño, a positive Indian Ocean Dipole brings heavy rainfall to eastern parts of Africa and drought to countries around the Indonesian Archipelago, including Australia. A negative Indian Ocean Dipole phase tends to do the opposite.

General view of the Gash River flooding in Kassala, Eastern Sudan

Double trouble

When a positive Indian Ocean Dipole is coupled with an El Niño event, rainfall declines are more widespread across Australia, and more intense, particularly in the southeast.

Currently, as we move into Australia’s winter, the outlook is for a neutral Indian Ocean Dipole in October. But some models are projecting the development of a positive Indian Ocean Dipole. This should not come as a surprise. Over the past 50 years, around 70% of positive Indian Ocean Dipole events coincided with an El Niño event.

Predicting an Indian Ocean Dipole event is more difficult than forecasting an El Niño. Like an El Niño, autumn conditions create a barrier that prevents forecasters from being able to predict accurately what state an Indian Ocean Dipole will be — positive, negative or neutral at its peak. This is because its development relies on easterly winds off Sumatra and Java which occur after autumn, and usually last until November.

So, unlike an El Niño, which peaks in summer, Indian Ocean Dipole events form in winter and then peak in spring. This creates a narrower predictability window that gives little warning to industries, such as farming, that depend on rain through spring.

What’s more, because of the strong monsoon seasonality, these events do not have a prominent warm water volume that an El Niño has as a precursor to the event, so there is no time to see the event unfolding. This is also partly because the Indian Ocean is smaller than the Pacific and is bounded by Asia to the north, which prevents a slow, large accumulation of heat like that seen in the Pacific.

In 2012, while conditions in the Pacific Ocean suggested an emerging El Niño, a positive Indian Ocean Dipole abruptly developed in July. The El Niño that year dissipated before it was expected to peak in summer 2013. The preceding two consecutive strong La Niñas helped to alleviate the Indian Ocean Dipole’s drying impact on Australia. But it could still have played a role in the January 2013 bushfires in southeastern Australia by drying out soils.

What the future holds

Just like an El Niño, Indian Ocean Dipole events can vary in size. Our work in Nature today shows that extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole events are characteristically distinct from moderate ones.

During an extreme event, the cold waters off Sumatra extend farther west along the equator as ocean currents and winds reverse their flow and head towards eastern Africa. This makes the western part of the Indian Ocean warm even more strongly than during moderate events.

Our research shows that global warming is likely to triple the number of these extreme events. This would increase the frequency of droughts over the southern parts of our continent. The research follows another recent study that showed extreme El Niño events were also likely to increase with global warming.

Even though the two climate phenomena are not directly connected, it makes sense that both would increase in frequency under global warming. This is because under a warmer climate, the Walker Circulation, which creates easterly winds in the tropical Pacific and westerly winds in the tropical Indian Ocean, is predicted to weaken.

This weakening will create a faster warming rate in the western Indian Ocean than in the east. As a result, westerly winds and ocean currents at the Equator weaken and so they can more easily reverse direction. This is exactly the environment needed in the Indian Ocean to create an extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole and in the Pacific Ocean to enable the development of extreme El Niño events.

Deadly floods and droughts

Extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole events are unusual and have only occurred three times in recent decades: in 1961, 1994 and 1997. Of these three, only the 1997 event coincided with a significant El Niño event. This El Niño turned out to be the strongest ever recorded in the 20th century.

Remarkably, Australia was spared the worst of this extreme combination, but other countries in our region and in Africa were not so lucky. There were devastating floods in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda that killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Indonesia suffered a serious drought that led to famine, riots and fires that caused smoke haze to spread across Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

It is not inconceivable that the drought may have been one of the factors behind the political instability that brought down the Suharto government in 1998.

What’s in store this year?

At the beginning of June this year, the conditions in the Pacific Ocean are still on track to cross the threshold for an El Niño. The characteristics of this developing event suggest we could be in for a significant El Niño this summer. With models starting to suggest a possible development of a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, could we be moving into a situation like the 1997 event? We hope not.

The picture will become clearer over the coming months, but it is vital that we prepare for this potential event. More importantly still, we need to get ready for these extreme events to become more common as global warming continues in the coming decades.

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

Dead battery? Charge it with your clothes

Phone in trouser pocket

If only your jeans could recharge your phone. Image: Flickr / Martin Abegglen

By Philippa Nicole Barr, University of Technology, Sydney and Glenn Platt, CSIRO

What if you could leave home, safe in the knowledge that your phone would not run out of battery before you return? The latest innovations in battery design could see dead batteries become a thing of the past — by producing and storing energy on ourselves.

Such new technologies could also help reduce Australia’s electronic waste. According to Step Initiative, in 2012 Australia generated around 25.23 kilos of electronic waste per person.

Here’s five of the latest most portable developments; from wearable, stretchable batteries to energy-harvesting textiles which may one day actually replace batteries by generating energy as they go.

People power

People are an an untapped source of energy that could go towards powering our devices.

To tap this energy source, researchers and innovators have had to develop materials that can are activated by environmental conditions — heat, chemicals, movement, and electricity.

Scientists at Berkeley Labs have developed textiles woven with piezoelectric wires. Piezoelectric power is generated when mechanical stress creates an electrical charge. This stress can arise through stretching or twisting the textile. A tiny stamp-sized generator in clothing relies on the piezoelectric property to produce electrical charge when pressed, and (for example) can be integrated into the soles of shoes to allow users to power mobile electronics as they walk.

Australia’s own CSIRO is also trialling smaller scale energy harvesting devices that could one day be accessible to everyday consumers. The Flexible Integrated Energy Device, allows electricity to be generated from an individual’s physical movements. Jogging or dancing, for example, could charge a mobile phone or iPod.

The CSIRO device is comprised of two components: a battery based on advanced, conductive fabric; and an energy harvesting system which responds to movement. As the wearer of the garment moves, the movement of their clothes can be captured and channelled into recharging the battery where it can be stored. The advanced fabric is woven from special conductive fibres made by coating conductive metal layers onto textiles, such as wool or cotton.

Outline of person wearing technology

How much tech could one person wear? Image: Flickr / Keoni Cabral

At the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology researchers have developed a wearable device that can convert heat into an electrical current to charge a battery. The device is made from glass fibres and is flexible, thin and lightweight as well as relatively efficient at generating power.

A similar project at the University of Southampton is finding ways to print conductive film onto fabric using rapid ink jet and screen printing processes. The film converts movement and heat made by our bodies into electricity which can be used to power personal devices.

You may have noticed a problem: batteries aren’t flexible. So scientists have had to come up with batteries that flex and move.

In the US, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois created a battery which can be stretched to three times its normal size to make them softer and more comfortable.

Powering innovation

These new batteries — new ways to power small, portable devices — have immediate applications in the military. They can help reduce the amount of batteries soldiers carry for computers, phones and other electronic devices. Indeed these military applications are a big driver for academic research into new solutions.

In a market which is coming to rely more and more heavily on electronic devices, there is a demand for more sustainable energy use and decreasing the amount of time spent plugging in and charging up.

At the moment though, these new technologies are too costly for everyday users. The next step in mainstreaming this technology will thus depend on finding ways to make wearable energy storage and harvesting more cost effective, straightforward and attractive products.

Researchers have a way to go before they find exactly the right material and product that can bend to and endure our everyday lives, wash it off, and look like something we would want to carry around, and it may be that commercial research partnerships facilitate this development. But given the number of groups, companies and individuals with an interest in solving the problem, it is probably only a matter of time.

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

CSIRO in Australia: looking to the future

As part of the planned restructure, some CSIRO staff are being relocated to the Black Mountain Laboratories in Canberra.

As part of the planned restructure, some CSIRO staff are being relocated to the Black Mountain Laboratories in Canberra.

By Megan Clark, Chief Executive

Taxi drivers often ask me what I do for a living, and when I say I work for CSIRO, they get animated and show they know and love us: “Yes, you did Wi-Fi and the plastic money.”

It’s only part of the story of the organisation that has been pushing the edge of what’s possible for more than 85 years.

We partner with more than 1,800 Australian and 440 overseas companies every year to help them find ways to create new products, save money and improve productivity. We’re Australia’s largest patent holder and can boast more than 728 inventions.

We have more than 5,000 talented and dedicated people working all around Australia and internationally. Collectively, our innovation and excellence places us in the top ten applied research agencies in the world. We’re the people behind Relenza flu medicine, Aerogard, BarleyMAX cereal, the Hendra vaccine and much more.

But we won’t remain Australia’s most trusted brand in science and technology if we stand still while the rest of the world continues to invest in R&D at a great pace. We’re on a future building path and people are interested in learning more about the strategy for our organisation and about the recent federal budget funding and what that means for CSIRO – so I’d like to share the facts.

As you may be aware, we’re introducing a new structure across CSIRO to help make it easier for people to do business with us and to make it easier for our staff to deliver science that makes a difference. From July 2014, CSIRO will have three lines of business:

  1. national facilities and collections
  2. impact science: including a new Flagship portfolio
  3. services: including education, publishing, infrastructure technologies, small and medium enterprise (SME) engagement and CSIRO Futures.

I announced details about these changes in early 2014 in response to feedback from our staff and from external stakeholders and industry. This will differentiate CSIRO as one of the most multidisciplinary applied research organisations in the world, and will boost our position as a provider of innovation services to industry, including Australian SMEs. The new organisational structure will be even more focused on the big challenges that face the nation.

BARLEYmax grain

Our BARLEYmax grain, a new type of barley with significant health benefits.

As part of the changes we’ve also reviewed our property footprint across the country, much of which is getting old and therefore expensive to run. In fact, we have more than 1,100 buildings around Australia. It’s a cost that, if left unmanaged, could result in funds being diverted away from science to pay for maintenance. That’s why we’re planning changes such as grouping staff together instead of having lots of buildings spread out in the same city.

Our priority is to consolidate capital city sites. This is already happening in Clayton in Victoria and in Black Mountain in Canberra. My focus is making sure we can direct as much money as possible into our science and that our scientists have the right facilities, connected with our collaborators as far as possible.

Since announcing the structural changes at CSIRO, we’ve also received details about our funding from the federal government as part of the 2014-2015 budget.

We will see a funding reduction of A$114.8m over the next four years. CSIRO’s federal funding is only part of our overall budget. Around 40% comes from our external co-investment and consulting revenue income. We are seeing pressures in that income especially in the manufacturing, resources and energy sectors.

We were pleased to see the investment in knowledge infrastructure for the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme (NCRIS) as well as the Australia-China Science and Research Fund, and for CSIRO A$65.7m to operate the new research vessel, RV Investigator, was most welcome.

We will await the progress of the new Medical Research Future Fund and the mechanisms for funding particularly in relation to CSIRO’s work in food and nutrition, e-health, biomedical manufacturing and vaccines and therapeutics for viruses coming from animals which are important areas for our Flagships and integrated health strategy.

During this time of change, we’re determined to deliver on our existing commitments to our industry partners and we’ll continue to deliver our ground-breaking science and partnerships that are critical for this nation. We are the leading commercialisation organisation in Australia with more than 150 spin-off companies, more than 280 active licences for our technologies and our researchers in business.

We will continue to work and collaborate in 80 countries and with more than 2,000 companies and we will use our strength and reputation to build our collaborations and take Australian companies into global supply chains.

CSIRO is Australia’s national science agency, and we’re here for the long haul.

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

Pilbara shows how to save the most species per dollar

The Pilbara: lots more than just mining. Image: Leanne Corker

The Pilbara: lots more than just mining. Image: Leanne Corker/supplied

By Josie Carwardine, Research Scientist; Andrew Reeson, Behavioural Economist; Belinda Walters, Research Support Officer; Iadine Chadès, Research Scientist; Sam Nichol, Postdoctoral Researcher; Tara Martin, Senior Research Scientist; Jennifer Firn, Senior Lecturer at Queensland University of Technology and Stephen van Leeuwen, Adjunct Associate Professor at University of Western Australia

Across northern Australia, small native mammals are disappearing at an alarming rate, and other animals and plants are also in decline. One major problem is finding the best way to use funds to manage threats to disappearing plants and animals. In the Pilbara region of Western Australia, 15% of the original mammal species have already disappeared, and more species stand to go if growing threats are left unchecked.

But our recent work in the Pilbara shows that this doesn’t have to be the case. All of the region’s most threatened species could be given a good chance of survival for less than A$5 million a year, largely through investing in management of key threats across the region, such as introduced species and changed fire regimes.

Our approach can be applied to other regions, plants and animals, and suggests that with good decision-making it will be possible to save species without breaking the bank.

Not just desert and mining

The Pilbara is roughly the size of Spain and generates 6% of Australia’s gross domestic product through mining. Since 2001, the region’s population has grown 70% to almost 50,000.

But the region is also a national hotspot for unique plants and animals. Iconic species of the region include the Pilbara olive python, the Millstream fan-palm, and the Pilbara leaf-nosed bat. The region is also a global hotspot for subterranean fauna, including stygofauna and troglofauna invertebrates which live in underground caves, vugs and aquifers.

Altogether, the Pilbara is home to at least 4,000 species of plants and animals – many of which, especially reptiles, plants and invertebrates, are found nowhere else on earth. As many as 160 species that occur in the Pilbara, including marine and migratory species, are listed on Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Greater bilby. Image: Kanyana Wildlife Rehab Centre/supplied

Greater bilby. Image: Kanyana Wildlife Rehab Centre/supplied

The regular discovery of new species in the Pilbara suggests that there is still a lot we don’t know about the region’s plants and animals. For example, 12 new Acacia species were described in 2008, two new gecko species discovered in 2012, and the number of species of stygofauna has increased from about 40 species known in 2002 to over 350 species in 2012, with experts estimating that this might only be half of the total number that are actually present.

Altogether, this unique suite of species is under threat, mostly due to changed fire regimes, invasion, predation and competition from pests and weeds, and infrastructure development and clearing associated with the mining and pastoral industries.

We worked with dozens of experts in ecology and management of the Pilbara to look at 53 of region’s most threatened species, which can be thought of as “conservation significant species”. The experts estimated that 13 (or 25%) of these species are likely to be functionally extinct in the Pilbara within 20 years without management intervention. This means they have less than a 50% chance of persisting there in the medium-to-long term.

The species most at risk include high-profile mammals such as the greater bilby and spectacled hare-wallaby, and plants found only in the Pilbara, such as the De Grey saltbush and Muccan fuchsia.

Spectacled hare wallaby. Image: Jiri Lochman/supplied

Spectacled hare wallaby. Image: Jiri Lochman/supplied

Saving species, at the least cost

There are lots of approaches to try and find out the “best” ways to conserve threatened species. For many species in the Pilbara and elsewhere, scientists and conservation managers do have a good idea about what is required to reduce major threats.

But one piece of the puzzle is often missing — cost. How do we know how much saving a species will cost, what are we likely to get for our money if we invest in a set of threat management strategies, and if we don’t have funds to invest in all of the strategies, which should we choose?

One way of getting the answers is through cost-effectiveness analysis, which simply involves comparing the benefit to cost ratio of alternative options, where the benefit is measured in something other than dollar terms.

Let’s take managing introduced herbivores as an example of a conservation strategy. We defined “benefit” as how much better the chances were of species surviving if introduced herbivores were removed, compared with if they were not. For example, the estimated chances of survival for the endangered Night parrot in the Pilbara went from 15% without threat management, up to 45% if feral ungulates were managed. To figure out the total benefit of managing feral ungulates, we add up all the individual species benefits.

We looked at 17 different conservation strategies, including managing fire, grazing and introduced predators. We also looked at the cost of each strategy and how likely it is that it would work. Ecological experts then estimated the improvements in species survival for each species by each strategy.

Northern quoll. Image: Henry Cook/supplied

Northern quoll. Image: Henry Cook/supplied

What we found

Using our cost-effectiveness analysis we drew several strong conclusions.

First, we found that managing feral ungulates such as pigs, donkeys, camels and unmanaged cattle was the most effective conservation strategy — it offered the greatest impact on species survival for each dollar spent. This was followed by creating predator-proof sanctuaries, and managing feral cats. Each of these top-ranking strategies costs under $1 million each year.

The total cost of implementing all 17 strategies for 20 years was A$348 million, or A$17.5 million each year. But assuming we wouldn’t have all this money, we found that we could give all of the “conservation-significant” species at least a 50% chance of survival by funding domestic herbivore management, fire management, and establishing predator-proof sanctuaries (including island translocations).

The total cost of doing this over the next 20 years would be A$95.2 million, or A$4.76 million each year. So that’s about two species likely to be saved for each million dollars spent, although some extra funds would be needed for things like information sharing and monitoring.

Pilbara olive python. Image: Michael Tutt/supplied

Pilbara olive python. Image: Michael Tutt/supplied

If we want to be more certain about saving species, we could provide most species with a 75% chance of survival for an extra $4 million annually – making that a total of $9 million each year. This means that it costs a bit extra to have a more certain outcome of saving species.

But benefits don’t stop just at saving species. The recommended management actions have other benefits because they involve broader improvements to the Pilbara’s natural systems and peoples livelihoods. These benefits include job creation; improved carbon sequestration, soil health, water quality, and drought tolerance; and improved resilience to changes in climate and other threatening processes.

Conservation alongside development

The expansion of cities, towns, and industries continues to encroach on native plants, animals and the ecosystems they live in. More than ever, the conservation of native plants and animals can only be achieved alongside development that is considered important for society.

Until now, there has been no region-wide assessment for helping decision-makers choose what to do to get the biggest bang for our conservation buck in the Pilbara – or anywhere else in Australia except the Kimberley.

Protecting threatened species requires rational approaches for deciding how to best spend the resources available for protecting threatened species. The next step is effective investment of resources to manage key threats, often while development continues.

While rapid development in regions like the Pilbara poses significant threats to native plants and animals, it also provides impetus and potentially the resources to deliver an enduring outcome for biodiversity and sustainable development.

This collaborative CSIRO-led project was supported by Atlas Iron (financial support) and the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife (in kind support). The authors acknowledge the 49 expert participants for their valuable input.

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

Record rains made Australia a giant green global carbon sink

The swollen Fitzroy River in Queensland, Australia, where heavy rains in early 2011 led to extraordinary regrowth with a global impact. Capt. W. M. & Tatters/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The swollen Fitzroy River in Queensland, Australia, where heavy rains in early 2011 led to extraordinary regrowth with a global impact. Image: Capt. W. M. & Tatters/Flickr, CC BY-NC

By Pep Canadell, Executive Director, Global Carbon Project

Record-breaking rains triggered so much new growth across Australia that the continent turned into a giant green carbon sink to rival tropical rainforests including the Amazon, our new research shows.

Published in the international journal Nature, our study found that vegetation worldwide soaked up 4.1 billion tons of carbon in 2011 – the equivalent of more than 40% of emissions from burning fossil fuels that year.

Unexpectedly, the largest carbon uptake occurred in the semi-arid landscapes of Australia, Southern Africa and South America.

The modelled net carbon uptake of the Australian landscape in December 2010 at the start of the big wet (top), compared with December 2009 (bottom).

The modelled net carbon uptake of the Australian landscape in December 2010 at the start of the big wet (top), compared with December 2009 (bottom).

It set a new record for a land-based carbon sink since high-resolution records began in 1958, in a remarkable example of ecosystems working to stabilise the Earth’s climate.

And that had a global impact. While atmospheric carbon dioxide still rose in 2011, it grew at a much lower rate – nearly 20% lower – than the average growth over the previous decade.

Almost 60% of the higher than normal carbon uptake that year, or 840 million tons, happened in Australia. That was due to a combination of factors, including geography and a run of very dry years, followed by record-breaking rains in 2010 and 2011.

Yet our research raises as many questions as it answers – in particular, about whether the Earth’s natural climate control mechanisms could prove even more volatile than previously thought.

The rain that made the world’s ocean fall

From October 2010 to March 2011, an extraordinary rainfall event occurred over most of Australia, which resulted in three-quarters of Queensland being declared a flood disaster zone – an area as big as France, Germany and Italy combined.

Averaged across Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology recorded rainfall of 703 millimetres for 2010 and 708 mm for 2011. That was well above the long-term average of 453 mm for the period of 1900 to 2009.

Excess rain reached most parts of the continent, in what proved to be the wettest two years combined since national climate records began in 1900.

The 2011 La Niña: So strong, the oceans fell. Boening et. al. (2012), CC BY

The 2011 La Niña: So strong, the oceans fell. Image: Boening et. al. (2012), CC BY

Queensland was the worst affected area, with 35 people killed in floods that broke more than 100 river height records, and damaged 30,000 homes and businesses in cities and towns including Brisbane, Ipswich and Toowoomba. (You can see ABC News images of Brisbane before and after the floods here.)

The big rainfall event was part of a global phenomenon called the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which reflects atmospheric pressure changes across the tropical Pacific Ocean, in its La Niña phase. It brought above-average rainfall not only to Australia but also to other parts of the world, particularly in southern Africa and northern South America.

The power of La Niña to evaporate water from the oceans was boosted by the ongoing high sea-surface temperatures that are part of a long-term trend of ocean warming. That trend has been shown to be associated with the release of greenhouse gases from the combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation.

This massive rain event was so significant that sensors on-board the twin satellites GRACE estimated a decrease in ocean water mass of 1.8 trillion tons. That remarkable finding was measured by changes in the Earth’s gravitational field, brought about by the transfer of water from the ocean to the atmosphere and land surface.

The drop in global sea level in 2011, which went against the trend of the previous 18 years. Boening et. al. (2012), CC BY

The drop in global sea level in 2011, which went against the trend of the previous 18 years. Image: Boening et. al. (2012), CC BY

This made the ocean’s sea level fall by 5 millimetres from the beginning of 2010 to mid-2011, going against the average sea-level rise of 3mm a year over the previous 18 years associated with global warming.

Australia played a major role in this sea-level fall, for several reasons. It was partly due to vast amounts of rain that fell over Australia. The continent’s hydrological characteristics also played a role, with large impediments for rainfall to flow quickly back to the ocean, such as the large continental interior basins.

And Australia was a country in need of a big drink. The parched continent was emerging from a multi-year drought, particularly in the south-east region, meaning the land acted as a huge sponge, soaking up the heavy rainfall.

Seeing the Earth change colour from above

As a result of the unusually heavy rains, the Earth’s vegetation “greened” in 2011 in ways not measured over the previous 30 years, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere dryland ecosystems.

This global greening was detected by satellites, which observed increases in canopy foliage extent and vegetation water content, which both imply vegetation growth.

Combined, these measurements indicated that the world’s annual production of new plant matter significantly increased in 2011 when compared to the previous decade.

Regions in the Southern Hemisphere including Australia, southern Africa, and temperate South America contributed 80% of the change, especially their savannas and other semi-arid areas.

New growth springing up around the Murray River, Hume Reservoir and Lake Tyrrell in south-eastern Australia, September 2010. NASA, CC BY-NC-ND

New growth springing up around the Murray River, Hume Reservoir and Lake Tyrrell in south-eastern Australia, September 2010. Image: NASA, CC BY-NC-ND

That winter, June to August 2011, Australia was the greenest that it has ever been seen in the satellite period (since 1982).

The same region in September 2006. This and the image above show how growing conditions compared to average mid-September conditions over 2000 to 2011. See more images here: NASA, CC BY-NC-ND

The same region in September 2006. This and the image above show how growing conditions compared to average mid-September conditions over 2000 to 2011. See more images here: Image: NASA, CC BY-NC-ND

Our new study in Nature also shows how fire emissions – normally a big factor in reducing Australia’s capacity to store carbon – were suppressed by about 30%, contributing even further to the continent’s greening.

In addition to the unprecedented vegetation greening of Australia during 2010 and 2011, we also observe a greening trend over the continent since 1980s, particularly during the months of the Australian autumn (March, April, and May).

That has happened for a number of reasons, including increased continental rainfall over the past few decades; plants growing in an atmosphere with increasing carbon dioxide using water more efficiently; and changes in land management such as fire suppression, expansion of invasive species, and changes in livestock grazing that have led to more woodland.

The upsides of going green

Despite recurrent drought conditions in some regions, there is a current greening trend over Australia.

Overall, satellites show Australian landscapes are greener now than they have been over the past 30 years.

A greener Australia has a number of environmental and other benefits, including better protection for soils, increased soil-water holding capacity and soil fertility, and more plant feed to sustain larger animal populations.

Green growth flourishing in central Australia, 2011. Eva van Gorsel, CC BY-NC-ND

Green growth flourishing in central Australia, 2011. Image: Eva van Gorsel, CC BY-NC-ND

However, more vegetation can lead to less water being available to replenish water tables and feed rivers, even though Australia loses more than 50% of all the rainfall to the atmosphere as soil evaporation, without contributing to vegetation growth.

This is in sharp contrast to temperate and tropical ecosystems, where a large part of the water is returned to the atmosphere via vegetation.

Fire, drought and rapid carbon release

However, we now need to consider whether this growing accumulation of carbon in semi-arid regions of the Southern Hemisphere could become a future climate liability through fire and drought.

Land and ocean carbon sinks absorb around half of the world’s emissions from burning fossil fuels each year, which helps to slow the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations from human activities.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report found that we are likely to see an increase in climate variability that includes drier, more fire-prone conditions across large parts of the Southern Hemisphere’s semi-arid regions, including Australia.

That’s a vital trend to consider, because it could lead to a more vulnerable global carbon reservoir.

While we might see more carbon stored in new vegetation growth and soil when extra water is available in semi-arid regions, as happened in 2010-2011, the risk is that more fires and droughts would end up rapidly releasing that carbon back to the atmosphere.

Looking ahead

It is likely that the large carbon uptake during 2011 was short-lived, as suggested by a rapid decline of the sink strength in 2012. Future research will be able to confirm if this was the case.

Arid and semi-arid regions currently occupy 40% of the world’s land area. More work is urgently needed to research the best ways to manage these areas, and whether we can increase their soil and vegetation carbon stores as part of our climate mitigation efforts.

While tropical forests like the Amazon remain vitally important as major carbon sinks, this new study and others indicate that semi-arid regions like Australia will also play a growing role in the Earth’s carbon cycle.

Increasingly, semi-arid regions are driving variability in how much carbon dioxide remains in the Earth’s atmosphere each year. And that has major implications for the long-term, including whether future climate change will slow down or accelerate further.

Pep Canadell receives funding from CSIRO and the Department of the Environment. This article is based on a new paper that he was a co-author of: Poulter, B, D Frank, P Ciais, R Myneni, N Andela, J Bi, G Broquet, JG Canadell, F Chevallier, YY Liu, SW Running, S Sitch and GR van der Werf. 2014. The contribution of semi-arid ecosystems to interannual global carbon cycle variability, Nature. Canadell’s contribution was supported by the Australian Climate Change Science Program.

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

A big tick for entomologists: new 3D colour scans of insects

Good news, entomologists! Tiny insects, such as this Australian weevil, can be scanned and viewed in full colour and 3D from anywhere in the world. Image: John Tann/Flickr, CC BY

Good news, entomologists! Tiny insects, such as this Australian weevil, can be scanned and viewed in full colour and 3D from anywhere in the world. Image: John Tann/Flickr, CC BY

By David Lovell, Leader, Transformational Biology Initiative; Beth Mantle, Collection Manager, Australian National Insect Collection; Chuong Nguyen, Postdoctoral Fellow, Computational Informatics; John La Salle, Director, Atlas of Living Australia, and Matt Adcock, Research Engineer

Observation is a cornerstone of science – we learn much about the universe and how it works just by looking at it. But observation can be a huge challenge. It’s easy to forget that human eyes allow us to see only the tiniest fraction of the universe in all its complexity: we can’t see things that are too big or too small, we can’t see inside most objects and we can’t observe events that happen too fast or too slow.

But in a paper published in PLOS ONE in April we demonstrated a new way for researchers to easily see the tiniest details on the tiniest insects in full colour, 3D and high-definition – even if those insects are on the other side of the world.

Even better, our technique doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. But first, we’ll explain why such imaging techniques are important.

Seeing nature in all its glory

Imaging the natural world has advanced in leaps and bounds. Scientists and engineers build telescopes and microscopes, use time-lapse to make even glacial progress apparent and cameras fast enough to watch light move.

They even build systems that let us look inside solid objects or, in the case of 3D capture, view them from all angles.

But still there are challenges.

While X-ray computer tomography (CT) can reveal the interior and exterior of even the tiniest objects, it is as black and white as a Box Brownie: any colours appearing in CT scans have to be added artificially using software such as Drishti.

And, while there are 3D capture systems that can acquire the surface colour and texture of an object, they struggle with small, detailed specimens – precisely the sort of objects preserved and curated at the Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC).

This led us to explore and develop what we believe is the world’s first system for capturing 3D models of tiny (3-30mm) specimens in natural colour.

What’s more, as we outline in our PLOS ONE paper, the system was designed with budget-conscious collections, museums and researchers in mind; our working prototype used less than A$10,000 worth of off-the-shelf hardware and software (labour not included).

With this rig, designed and implemented by CSIRO postdoctoral researcher Chuong Nguyen, we’ve been able to bring a range of insects into the digital domain in glorious (perhaps, unsettling) full colour.

Why scan bugs?

Let’s go back a step and ask: why bother collecting insects at all?

Despite what we like to think, the world would get along just fine without humans. But, as American biologist E O Wilson said:

if insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.

We study insects so we can better understand the critical roles they play on this planet; ANIC preserves and curates insects for study, giving us a physical record of Australian biodiversity through time.

But physical specimens, though indispensable, have their limitations. Fragile, delicate, prone to decay and damage (sometimes from other insects), they are a challenge to share among researchers, let alone the general public. Often minuscule, they usually need to be seen under magnification, making their size and structure challenging to measure.

This is why we scan bugs: by bringing insects into the digital domain as high-resolution, natural colour 3D models, specimens can be more readily shared, analysed, annotated and compared.

Our system does this in three steps:

  1. We mount the insect on a stage that can revolve and tilt
  2. Next we take pictures of it from 144 different points of view; for tiny specimens, we also take shots at 31 slightly different distances at each point of view to create a composite image in which everything is in focus
  3. Finally, we use a visual hull reconstruction algorithm to estimate a 3D model that fits with all the 2D pictures

This approach has given us excellent 3D models of several specimens, each model around 10 megabytes in size, enabling them to be viewed in a modern web browser with no additional software. Given that some of these models involved around 17 gigabytes of photos to begin with, this is a pretty compact representation.

As well as helping to unlock scientific and educational value from Australia‘s national collections, natural-colour 3D digitisation of insects has a potential role in protecting Australia‘s environment, its multi-billion dollar agricultural industries and the health of its population, all of which could be seriously damaged by invasive insects and the diseases they carry.

Not only could quarantine officers carry a 3D gallery of invasive insects with them on inspections to help identify pests, any suspect specimens could be scanned in 3D and sent quickly to an expert entomologist for examination.

And while we wait for 3D printing to catch up to the colours, textures and detail we can now capture, there’s always titanium:

Bugs become unsquashable when printed in titanium.

Bugs become unsquashable when printed in titanium.

High resolution image libraries will enable novel solutions to quickly extract, analyse and share rich information to support biodiversity discovery, species identification, quarantine control, and unlocking the value of our biological collections.

Combining image analysis tools with big data analytics will allow this to happen at unprecedented speed. Good news for museums and researchers the world over.

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

Explainer: Varroa mite, the tiny killer threatening Australia’s bees

A busy bee, giving free horticultural help by collecting pollen. But a tiny mite has devastated bee populations around the world – and it’s now on Australia’s doorstep.

A busy bee, giving free horticultural help by collecting pollen. But a tiny mite has devastated bee populations around the world – and it’s now on Australia’s doorstep.

By Saul Cunningham, Researcher and Paul De Barro, Senior Principal Research Scientist, Ecosystem Sciences

A tiny mite has been killing honey bees all around the world, and will inevitably reach Australian shores. So what is this destructive mite, and what we can do to protect Australian honey bees?

The Varroa mite, also known as Varroa destructor, is only the size of a pin head but it is the most serious threat to the viability of the Australian honey bee industry.

The mite is parasitic and feeds on the blood of adult and larval honey bees. It also transmits viral and other pathogens, which kill entire bee colonies. Varroa mite is part of the syndrome leading to honey bee declines in many places around the world.

The global invasion heading our way

Varroa mite has been highly invasive. It originated in north Asia in the 1950s and spread to Europe in the 1970s. It then spread to the USA, southeast Asia, South America and Africa. In 2000 it turned up in New Zealand.

Varroa kills honey bees that are managed by beekeepers as well as honey bees living in the wild (known as “feral” bees). Beekeepers need to use chemicals to protect their bees, which increases their costs and yet offers only a partial solution.

Honey bees living in the wild are even more vulnerable, and widespread declines occur. Within four years of the invasion of New Zealand’s North Island, feral bee populations plummeted to about 10% of what they had been.

Australia is one of the last remaining regions in the world still free of Varroa. But it is closer to coming here than ever, having now spread to our neighbours in New Zealand and Indonesia.

Just to complicate matters further, a new Varroa mite has emerged in Papua New Guinea, where a near relative of Varroa destructor has made a similar behavioural jump from the Asian Honey Bee, and now also attacks the European Honey Bee.

Why bees are so crucial to farming

Varroa mite threatens one of our key crop pollinators, just as we have begun to realise that improved pollination is part of the secret to raising agricultural productivity.

Australian agriculture is vulnerable to honey bee declines because a number of our most significant horticultural crops rely on honey bee pollination, and many growers have been accustomed to a high level of free service from feral honey bees.

When free pollination from feral bees declines, horticultural industries will look to managed bees to fill the gap. Unfortunately, beekeepers and their managed bees will be dealing with the same crisis.

Nowhere is this shown better than in the USA, where the mite entered in 1987. After its arrival, the feral honey bee population crashed, managed hives were reduced by about 30% and many beekeepers left the industry.

The decline in managed hives, along with increasing demand from crop growers, has seen a four-fold increase in the cost of hives. Each year, there has been a growing gap between demand for hives and the capacity to supply them.

Better border protection and beyond

Here in Australia, that gap between the supply and demand – the number of bees that beekeepers could supply and how many bees are needed – is where we are most vulnerable.

Our heavy reliance on feral honey bees means there has been a relatively low demand for managed hives. As a consequence, our managed pollination industry is only in the early stages of development.

Given that beekeepers in the USA and NZ have failed to keep pace with demand for crop pollination, Australia may experience an even greater shock to our horticultural industries in future.

The threat of Varroa mite incursion into Australia is real. Any European honey bee swarm arriving on a vessel at an Australian port could be carrying Varroa.

The arrival of Asian honey bees by ship at Australian ports, as occurred at Cairns in North Queensland, provides another pathway for the mite’s incursion.

And it should be noted that the mite managed to slip through New Zealand’s quarantine defences, which are similar to Australia.

In 2007, bio-economic modelling by CSIRO examined the risk to Australian plant industries. It was estimated that the economic risk from Varroa incursion was great enough to justify spending between A$21 million and A$50 million annually over the next thirty years to delay incursion.

Reducing the risk of incursion is sensible, but there must also be a strategy to combat the pest in the likely event that it eventually establishes. This conclusion was reported in the 2008 House of Representatives “More than Honey” inquiry.

A Varroa mite on a bee pupae.

A Varroa mite on a bee pupae.

Finding local solutions to help the world

Threats to the European honey bee should remind us that reliance on a single species for crop pollination is a risky strategy. There are thousands of other insect species that contribute to crop pollination, and there are strategies available to better support them, and keep them in our production landscapes.

Nevertheless, we still need managed pollinators that can be supplied on demand to supplement wild pollinators. And the European honey bee will continue to be the most important managed pollinator.

Australia is uniquely placed to contribute to the global effort to deal with Varroa mite impacts on honey bees. As long as we keep Varroa out, we can provide the “Varroa free” comparison needed to understand management options for honey bee health.

Further, because the Varroa mite-honey bee relationship evolved in our region (Asia), we are well placed to contribute to the genetic and evolutionary studies that will underpin options for Varroa control.

The Varroa mite has caused problems worldwide, and there is worldwide interest in finding solutions. We need to mobilise the Australian scientists to collaborate globally, in the interests of healthy bees and productive crops.


This article is based on the CSIRO submission to a Senate inquiry into the Future of the beekeeping and pollination service industries in Australia. The Senate committee is holding a public hearing in Brisbane on May 20), and is due to complete its report by June 19.

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

Male-only gene trick could leave invasive fish species floundering

Carp have spread throughout Australia’s waterways - but CSIRO is hoping to bring a new genetic weapon to bear on them. Image: Kletr/

Carp have spread throughout Australia’s waterways – but CSIRO is hoping to bring a new genetic weapon to bear on them. Image: Kletr/

By Ron Thresher, Principal Investigator, Marine and Atmospheric Research

A genetic modification that creates male-only populations could give us a new weapon against invasive fish such as carp that plague our waterways.

“Daughterless technology”, which works by removing females so a population can no longer breed, has previously been used to tackle mosquitoes. But new CSIRO research shows that it also works on fish.

The technology is safe and could be used to greatest effect with other forms of pest control. It might also be used to control other vertebrate pests such as cane toads.

“Rabbits of the river”

Invasive European carp have been fouling our waterways and harming our native fish populations since they were first introduced to Australia in 1859 for aquaculture purposes. They became a major pest after the accidental release of a German strain, called Boolarra after the site at which it was being farmed, in the 1960s. They spread rapidly across Australia and quickly reached huge numbers, much like rabbits and cane toads before them.

Carp are now the most abundant large freshwater fish in some parts of Australia, including most of the Murray-Darling Basin. It is no wonder they are often referred to as Australia’s “river rabbits”.

So far, carp control has mainly involved commercial fishing or poisoning. While these options may reduce carp numbers, and poisoning may occasionally eradicate them from isolated areas, other options are being explored for more widespread control.

One notable success was at Lake Crescent in Tasmania, where carp were eradicated using a combination of control methods, including barrier mesh and traps to reduce breeding and capture the fish, and pesticides to kill unhatched embryos. The project also used high-tech tactics, such as “Judas carp” implanted with radio transmitters to locate clusters of fish, and a pheromone “lure” odour to attract and capture mature adults.

The daughterless technology being developed by CSIRO could be a useful weapon to add to this arsenal.

A combination of control methods could be used to tackle carp Benjamin F. Image: Haith/

A combination of control methods could be used to tackle carp. Benjamin F. Image: Haith/

Testing on zebrafish

To find out if daughterless technology works on vertebrates, we tested it on zebrafish. We chose them because they are small, have a short generation time, and are closely related to several invasive carp species.

Daughterless technology involves modifying the genes of male fish. The modification is specific to a particular fish species, and there is an extremely low chance of it spreading to other species.

When the genetic change is inherited by female fish it reduces either their fertility or survival. The result is that females become more and more rare in the population, eventually driving the pest species to extinction.

In our trial, we managed to create a 100% male zebrafish population. Without any females, the group is doomed to die out.

Eradicating carp

The technology is now being tested on carp, at specialist facilities at Auburn University in Alabama. Getting results will take longer than it did for zebrafish, as carp take more time to reach sexual maturity and the technology needs to be tested through several generations.

However, the preliminary results are promising – in fact it looks like it works even better in carp than in zebrafish.

This type of genetic modification has several advantages. The modified genes are spread through the population by the males, which are not themselves affected, and only through natural breeding events. As carp do not breed with any native Australian species, the risk of the technology affecting anything other than the targeted pest is extremely low.

Once our research is complete, our results will be evaluated by government regulatory bodies including the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. We will also continue to consult widely with conservation groups, recreational fishers and resource managers, as we have done throughout our research.

Combining pest control

Daughterless technology alone can eradicate pests. But it is much more effective when combined with other control strategies, such as the use of pesticides, disruption of spawning activities, fishing, or the use of biological control (biocontrol) agents such as viruses.

In developing future plans for carp control, we could also learn from past successful biocontrol programs for other vertebrates such as rabbits, which were brought under control with the aid of the mixomatosis virus.

CSIRO and the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre are now investigating the Koi herpes virus (KHV), which could be a useful species-specific agent to target carp, and a valuable tool to use alongside the genetic technology.

KHV has affected carp populations in the United States, Israel, Europe and China. Having not yet presented in Australia, KHV may prove to be hugely effective if managed and implemented correctly.

Researchers at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory are now testing KHV to ensure it will be safe and effective, before its possible release.

Rivers free from carp?

Can we look forward to a future where our rivers are free from carp, and many of our native fish are potentially returned from the brink of extinction?

That depends on research, careful and controlled field trials, consultation with the Australian public, and scrutiny by government bodies, particularly the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator.

Nonetheless, this research is an exciting step towards gaining the upper hand over carp and other pests.

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


CSIRO would like to acknowledge the funding agencies that have supported this research, including: Murray Darling Basin Authority, Lower Murray Catchment Management Authority, Auburn University, and the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre.

In the long run: keeping track of athletes with wearable tech


Reigning premiers Hawthorn was the first AFL club to trial the WASP tracking technology – so how does it work? Image: AAP/David Crosling

By Iain Collings, Deputy Chief, Computational Informatics

With the AFL season in full swing many of us are glued to our screens marvelling at the speed and tactics of the athletes.

Midfielders, such as ex-Cat-now-Sun Gary Ablett Jnr, can run between 12 and 20km in a match, ranging from slow jogs to high-intensity bursts of sprinting.

Even forwards – such as Hawk-turned-Swan Lance “Buddy” Franklin – average around 13km per game.

But today’s coaches aren’t satisfied with analysing highlights footage post-match to get these stats – they want to know how fast a player runs, track exactly where they run, and collect data on the movements of all players individually and as a group in real time.

To help gather and collate this information, the CSIRO has developed an exceptionally accurate wireless position location system that works anywhere that current global positioning system (GPS) satellites can’t reach – handy when foul weather means the roof of Etihad Stadium is shut!

Athlete monitoring and stats

Essendon captain Jobe Watson modelling the Catapult tracking device.

Essendon captain Jobe Watson modelling the Catapult tracking device.

Sports fans among us have seen the proliferation of wearable GPS devices in professional sports such as AFL and the rugby codes, where tracking devices are worn between the shoulder blades of the athletes.

And it is not limited to the professionals, as any Lycra-clad weekend cyclist with a GPS-enabled smartphone will tell you.

By tracking athletes and measuring heart rates it is possible to monitor fatigue, track player movements in relation to each other, plan team strategies and improve training.

The next revolution is to make it all possible indoors and under stadium roofs, and with the new CSIRO indoor tracking system the future is already upon us.

With the addition of the CSIRO wireless ad-hoc system for positioning (WASP) technology, these parameters can all be measured under the roof of the Docklands stadium, in ice hockey rinks, netball centres and indoor velodromes. The device, called ClearSky, is produced by Victorian company Catapult Sports which supplies GPS devices to the international elite sports market, including the US National Football League (NFL) and European football leagues.

Already AFL teams have been trialling the system in pre-season and in their training programs.

(The technology is not limited to sports, of course. In the mining space CSIRO has licensed the technology to a South Australian based company, Minetec. Its customers include open cut and underground mines and assists with improved operations production and safety.)

How does the WASP work?

The WASP indoor technology works much like a GPS system, but instead of using satellites in space, the WASP system uses fixed reference nodes that need to be located either within the building or just outside.

Nodes – which act as satellites – triangulate an athlete’s position to accuracy of 20cm. Image: Catapult

Nodes – which act as satellites – triangulate an athlete’s position to accuracy of 20cm. Image: Catapult

In football stadiums, the wall at the front of the upper levels of seating is the ideal location. The mobile devices measure the time it takes signals to travel from each of the fixed nodes, and triangulate to work out their position.

The technical challenge when doing this indoors is that the signals bounce off walls, resulting in multiple signal paths which must be taken into account (called multipath interference). This does not happen in outdoor GPS systems, where the satellites are all in a line of sight of the mobile devices, and as such it is much easier to triangulate.

A node. The system works under closed roofs.

A node. The system works under closed roofs.

CSIRO’s WASP system has accuracy down to 20cm (compared to metre accuracy for GPS), has high resistance to multipath interference, long range operation, high update rate and simple deployment, so it’s precise, sensitive and reliable.

Its unique set of features is well suited to a wide range of commercial and industrial applications for which no other solution currently exists.

In addition to tracking, the system also provides direct proximity detection between nodes for safety applications and provides more than 6Mbps data communication between devices.

The new technology opens up a vast range of exciting possibilities for revolutionising the way we organise our lives, ensure safe working environments, optimise factory operations, and support in-home health care.

Outdoor GPS based systems have already penetrated many aspects of our daily lives. Car navigation systems have replaced paper maps, and smartphone electronic maps have ended the need for planning your day’s activities ahead of time.

The Dallas Cowboys using Catapult technology.

The Dallas Cowboys using Catapult technology.

After the final siren

Having solved the basic indoor wireless location problem, the next challenge is to extend the system to be fully integrated with existing cellular and Wi-Fi systems, and free the mobile sensor on the athlete from needing any reference nodes at all.

The future concept is to have all the mobile nodes simply self-referencing off each other. The potential then is for even more flexible use of the technology, extending to applications such as security, occupational safety, emergency response, virtual online gaming and in-home assisted living.

Wireless technology continues to surprise. Sensors and other devices get smaller and more wearable. The data they collect is more detailed and offers smarter analytics.

Having a mobile device that allows seamless location finding, both indoors and outdoors, cannot help but lead us to a truly extraordinary set of possibilities.

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

Aboriginal people – how to misunderstand their science

Painted Aboriginal face

We still have so much to learn about Aboriginal history and culture. Image: Shutterstock / John Austin

By Ray Norris, Chief Research Scientist, Astronomy & Space Science

Just one generation ago Australian schoolkids were taught that Aboriginal people couldn’t count beyond five, wandered the desert scavenging for food, had no civilisation, couldn’t navigate and peacefully acquiesced when Western Civilisation rescued them in 1788.

How did we get it so wrong?

Australian historian Bill Gammage and others have shown that for many years land was carefully managed by Aboriginal people to maximise productivity. This resulted in fantastically fertile soils, now exploited and almost destroyed by intensive agriculture.

In some cases, Aboriginal people had sophisticated number systems, knew bush medicine, and navigated using stars and oral maps to support flourishing trade routes across the country.

They mounted fierce resistance to the British invaders, and sometimes won significant military victories such as the raids by Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy.

Engraving of Galileo

Australian aborigines knew more about tides than Galileo Galilei (engraving from about 1662). Image: Shutterstock / Iryna1

Only now are we starting to understand Aboriginal intellectual and scientific achievements.

The Yolngu people, in north eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, long recognised how the tides are linked to the phases of the moon.

Back in the early 17th century, Italian scientist Galileo Galilei was still proclaiming, incorrectly, that the moon had nothing to do with tides.

Some Aboriginal people had figured out how eclipses work, and knew how the planets moved differently from the stars. They used this knowledge to regulate the cycles of travel from one place to another, maximising the availability of seasonal foods.

Why are we only finding this out now?

We owe much of our knowledge about pre-European contact Aboriginal culture to the great anthropologists of the 20th century. Their massive tomes tell us much about Aboriginal art, songs and spirituality, but are strangely silent about intellectual achievements.

They say very little about Aboriginal understanding of how the world works, or how they navigated. In anthropologist Adolphus Elkin’s 1938 book The Australian Aborigines: How to Understand Them he appears to have heard at least one songline (an oral map) without noting its significance.

[…] its cycle of the hero’s experiences as he journeyed from the north coast south and then back again north […] now in that country, then in another place, and so on, ever coming nearer until at last it was just where we were making the recording.

How could these giants of anthropology not recognise the significance of what they had been told?

The answer dawned on me when I gave a talk on Aboriginal navigation at the National Library of Australia, and posed this same question to the audience.

Afterwards, one of Elkin’s PhD students told me that Elkin worked within fixed ideas about what constituted Aboriginal culture. I realised she was describing what the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn referred to when he coined the term “paradigm”.

The paradigm problem

According to Kuhn, all of us (even scientists and anthropologists) are fallible. We grow up with a paradigm (such as “Aboriginal culture is primitive”) which we accept as true. Anything that doesn’t fit into that paradigm is dismissed as irrelevant or aberrant.

Only 200 years ago, people discussed whether Aboriginal people were “sub-human”. Ideas change slowly, and the underlying message lingers on, long after it has been falsified.

As late as 1923 Aboriginal Australians were described as “a very primitive race of people”.

Not so primitive

Cave painting

Aboriginal culture is more than just cave painting and artwork. Image: Kitch Bain

The prevailing paradigm in Elkin’s time was that Aboriginal culture was primitive, and Aboriginal people couldn’t possibly say anything useful about how to manage the land, or how to navigate.

So an anthropologist might study the Aboriginal people as objects, just as a biologist might study insects under a microscope, but would learn nothing from Aboriginal people themselves.

Even now, the paradigm lives on. In my experience, well-educated white Australians, trying so hard to be politically correct, often still seem to find it difficult to escape their childhood image of “primitive” Aboriginal people.

We must overcome the intellectual inertia that keeps us in that old paradigm, stopping us from recognising the enormous contribution that Aboriginal culture can make to our understanding of the world, and to our attempts to manage it.

As Thomas Kuhn said:

[…] when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them.

Still to learn

In recent years, it has become clear that traditional Aboriginal people knew a great deal about the sky, knew the cycles of movements of the stars and the complex motions of the sun, moon and planets.

There is even found a sort of “Aboriginal Stonehenge”, that points to the sunset on midsummers day and midwinters day. And I suspect that this is only the tip of the iceberg of Aboriginal astronomy.

So in the debate about whether our schools should include Aboriginal perspectives in their lessons, I argue that kids studying science today could also learn much from the way that pre-contact Aboriginal people used observation to build a picture of the world around them.

This “ethno-science” is similar to modern science in many ways, but is couched in appropriate cultural terms, without expensive telescopes and particle accelerators.

So if you want to learn about the essence of how science works, how people learn to solve practical problems, the answer may be clearer in an Aboriginal community than in a high-tech laboratory.

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


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