Imagine an environmental crisis caused by a colourless, odourless gas, in minute concentrations, building up in the atmosphere. There is no expert consensus, but in the face of considerable uncertainty and strong resistance to the science, global regulation of these emissions succeeds.
Subsequently, the science is established and the damage, though already apparent, begins to be mitigated.
No, this is not fantasy. It’s history. We’re talking about the ozone hole.
In two or three weeks the Antarctic’s seasonal ozone hole will close for the year. The ozone hole has formed every spring since the 1970s. This year’s is among the smaller ones over the past 20 years — since ozone-depleting substances began declining.
The United Nations Environment Program and World Meteorological Organisation’s Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2014 states that global total column ozone has shown a small increase in recent years.
However, it may take another few years before we can definitively say the Antarctic ozone hole has recovered, and several decades until full recovery to pre-1980 conditions.
Atmospheric ozone isn’t a single layer at a certain altitude above the Earth’s surface; it’s dispersed — there is even a significant amount of ozone at the Earth’s surface.
Even the stratospheric ozone known as “the ozone layer” is not a single layer of pure ozone, but a region where ozone is more abundant than it is at other altitudes. Satellite sensors and other ozone-measuring devices monitor the total ozone concentration for an entire column of the atmosphere, and whether there is more or less than normal.
Throughout the 1970s, scientists began to observe two separate but related phenomena: the total amount of ozone in the stratosphere — the region 10 to 50 kilometres above the earth’s surface — was declining steadily at about 4% every ten years. And in spring there was a much larger decrease in stratospheric ozone over the polar regions.
By the mid-1980s, they reached the conclusion that the cause was a chemical reaction between ozone and halogen (chlorine and bromine). This halogen came from man-made substances: chlorine/bromine-containing refrigerants, solvents, propellants and foam-blowing agents (chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, halons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons or HCFCs).
When exposed to UV light and in the presence of polar stratospheric clouds, these molecules break down, releasing radical chemicals that destroy ozone atoms at an alarming rate.
CFCs, one of the most prominent culprits, were first synthesised in the 1890s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that they began to be widely used as refrigerants.
The most unfortunate scientist
Thomas Midgely, the chemical engineer who improved their synthesis and demonstrated their potential uses, was probably the most unfortunate scientist ever to rise to an influential position.
In 1921, he discovered that adding tetra-ethyl lead to fuel improved the efficiency of internal combustion engines. Unfortunately, this discovery was commercialised. Lead persists in the atmosphere today. It also accumulates in animals, sometimes to toxic levels, particularly those at the top of food chains.
Subsequently, Midgely set himself to solving the problem of the refrigerants in use in the earlier part of the 20th century. These were uniformly dangerous — either flammable, explosive or toxic. CFCs weren’t and were soon widely adopted, not only as refrigerants but also later as propellants and blowing agents.
The best thing about CFCs – their low reactivity – is also the worst. Because they’re so unreactive, they’re very long-lived (often in excess of 100 years). This gives them time to get into the stratosphere. One of the components of CFCs is chlorine. Very little chlorine exists naturally in the stratosphere, but CFCs are a very effective way of introducing significant amounts of chlorine into the ozone layer.
Midgely’s efforts to do good had dire unintended consequences: he’s been described as having had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.
Recognising the threat
By the late 1960s, scientists had detected growth in the level of CFCs in the atmosphere. By 1974 researchers published the first paper predicting that the increase in CFCs would cause significant ozone loss.
The ozone hole hypothesis was strongly disputed by some industry representatives.
Nonetheless, the reality of a possible depleted ozone layer and the threat to human health it implied so alarmed the international community that by 1985 the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer was agreed on, even before the significant ozone depletion was detected. The convention came into force in 1988 and was ratified over subsequent decades by 197 nations, making it one of the most successful treaties of all time.
The following year (1989), the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (which falls under the Vienna Convention) also came into force. This treaty was designed to enact the spirit of the Vienna Convention – i.e. to protect the ozone layer – and achieved it by phasing out the production and consumption of numerous substances that are responsible for ozone depletion.
Long time to recovery
Repairing the ozone hole is a long-term process. CSIRO has been monitoring the hole over Antarctica since the late 1970s. The ozone hole first appeared in spring over Antarctica and subsequently over the Arctic, as the ozone-destroying chemical processes require very cold conditions and the onset of sunlight (following the polar winter).
In Antarctica, the hole lasts for two to three months before breaking up and mixing with ozone–richer air from mid-latitudes. It’s not constant in size — except in the sense that it’s consistently very large — although it waxes and wanes. The record so far is 29.5 million square kilometres, set in 2006.
For comparison, the land mass of Australia (including Tasmania) is 7.7 million square kilometres.
Although some reports claim that the ozone layer over Antarctica is recovering, it’s too early to make a definitive call. Measurements at surface monitoring stations show that the amount of ozone-destroying chemicals at the surface has been dropping since about 1994-1995. The amount is now about 10-15% down on that peak.
The stratosphere lags behind the surface, and the effects of this will take some time to play out. However, satellite measurements show that the decline in ozone amount in the stratosphere has stopped, and perhaps begun recovery.
The size and depth of the ozone hole each year shows quite large variability due to different meteorological conditions, in particular stratospheric temperatures.
How the 2014 hole measures up
Overall, out of the 35 years of satellite data analysed, the 2014 ozone hole is one of the smaller ones since the late 1980s. It ranks as the 18th largest in daily area; 16th largest for daily ozone deficit; and 21st lowest for minimum ozone.
The 2014 ozone hole appeared in the first week of August and grew rapidly in size from mid-August through to the second week of September, reaching 23.5 million square kilometres on September 15.
During the third and fourth weeks of September the ozone hole area decreased to 17.5 million square kilometres. Then, in a final flurry, the daily ozone hole area grew sharply again during the last days of September to peak at 23.9 million square kilometres on October 1.
This is the peak daily ozone hole area for 2014, larger than in 2010, 2012 and 2013, about the same as 2009, and smaller than in 2011.
The ozone hole is now in the recovery phase, and had shrunk to about 9 million square kilometres by November 14. It is expected to recover this year in two to three weeks.
You can find the full details on the 2014 ozone hole here.
Paul Krummel receives funding from MIT, NASA, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Department of the Environment, & Refrigerant Reclaim Australia.
Paul Fraser receives funding from receives funding from MIT, NASA, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Department of the Environment, & Refrigerant Reclaim Australia.
By Lou Morrissey
ABC’s Tony Jones once described her as ‘Australia’s Chief Nerd’, and we tend to agree. Our Chief Executive Dr Megan Clark has had an invaluable impact on our organisation in the six years she’s been with us.
But now, a farewell is in order.
This morning it was announced that Megan would be taking on a board role at Rio Tinto and finishing up with us. We wish Megan all the best in this endeavour.
But before we let her walk out the door, we asked Megan one final, and crucial, question; why is CSIRO critical to Australia and the world?
Here are her seven reasons.
- People’s lives are better because of CSIRO. CSIRO is Australia’s largest patent holder and can boast more than 728 inventions that help people at work and at home.
- It’s the secret weapon for Australian business. CSIRO partners with more than 1800 Australian companies every year to help them solve problems, create new products and services, and save money.
- Science is different from what it was. It’s not the individual in a white coat and a Eureka moment anymore. It’s big, multidisciplinary collaborative teams that are answering questions for society today. In Australia, the answers to our water resource challenges will come from experts across a range of fields, including mathematicians, chemists, engineers and biologists.
- CSIRO is one of Australia’s greatest exports. CSIRO collaborates with more than 440 overseas companies every year to help companies innovate and develop new techniques and approaches to solving their business challenges – from aviation to biomedical fields.
- The world will need to feed 10 billion people by 2100 with constrained resources. CSIRO’s research on food production, biosecurity, land management and disease prevention will be critical if we’re to meet this need.
- CSIRO’s research breakthroughs in Australia are breakthroughs for the world. For example, our 3D-printing technology used to print a heel bone and save a man from leg amputation has the potential to be used around the world – the possibilities are mind-boggling.
- The next Wi-Fi could be just around the corner. CSIRO scientists invented the technology that underpins Wi-Fi that is now in more than 5 billion devices around the world. We’ve earned more than $440 million in royalties from this work, which originally started in our astronomy field. Who knows where our current astronomy work, which includes extraordinary new receivers on the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder project, could take us?
Indeed, who knows what the future holds when it’s in the hands of great science?
It’s a big place, the Murray-Darling Basin. Over a million km2 – about one-seventh of the whole of Australia. There’s a lot to know about it, and we’re helping students find out more for themselves, using a novel CSIRO innovation.
The National Museum of Australia and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority have teamed up to let students learn about this vast area, taking students on an interactive, customised tour of the Museum’s Murray-Darling Basin exhibits. But the really cool part? The students never have to leave their classrooms.
Using our Telepresence robot technology, museum staff are able to broadcast real-time images, video and audio back to students in their classrooms. Students can learn about how the Basin’s water movement and volume has varied over the past 300 000 years, and the importance of water quality and its role in determining where human settlements develop and whether they survive and prosper.
This is a new departure for the robots. In the past, they’ve mainly been used to give a taste of the museum to people in remote areas who can’t easily travel there. Now they’re letting students get an understanding of the broader Murray-Darling picture.
It works this way. The museum robot (accompanied by education staff) takes the remote visitors on a virtual tour of the museum.
The robot has a high speed broadband connection, so remote visitors can interact with a human educator in the museum. The human educator leads the robot, while the remote visitors use a panoramic camera to look around and explore.
In an ultimate case of ‘look but don’t touch’ students can see and interact with information about each of the objects on display.
The best thing is that it’s a conversation, not a monologue with pictures. The museum educator can engage and challenge the students by posing multiple-choice questions, polling and viewing the student’s responses in real-time.
We’re doing a lot of work on digital immersive learning. Apart from the Telepresence robots, we’re working with science education experts to develop learning environments that mirror real-life places. These 3D models of real places will be created using our award winning laser mapping technology Zebedee and panoramic video to create the immersive environment. We’ve already taken students through Jenolan Caves from the safety of their own classrooms.
Almost makes you wish you were back at school again …
A company more traditionally associated with energy drinks has been busy making waves in the world of sports science. Red Bull recently took two top professional surfers and a team of scientists to Mexico to test a range of new performance-enhancing technologies in one of the harshest arenas possible: an overhead, barreling wave breaking only a few feet over a bed of sand and rock.
We’re all for trying out new technologies in novel conditions, but this was a particularly impressive feat – the surfers were hooked up with all sorts of electronic equipment before paddling out into the lineup and doing their thing. At one point, surfer Jake Marshall even managed to ride some amazing waves with a laptop strapped to his back.
Surfing is a sport that is usually described in terms of instinct, intuition and unpredictability – so studies like this are providing scientists with amazing insights into areas of surfing that have previously held an almost mystical status. As well as hooking up the surfers with wi-fi headsets for instant feedback from coaches on land, and pressure-sensing feet ‘booties’ to analyse and optimise how they controlled their boards, the scientists were even able to measure surfer ‘stoke’ levels using a waterproof EEG.
You can watch the video here:
We’ve done a fair bit of sports science ourselves, too. Most recently, we partnered with Melbourne company Catapult Sports to deliver a new wireless athlete tracking device using our Wireless Ad-hoc System for Positioning (WASP) technology. The device, called ClearSky, gives coaches the ability to monitor their athletes more accurately in indoor and GPS-poor environments.
It works much like a GPS, but instead of using satellites in space, ClearSky uses fixed reference nodes that are located either within or just outside of a building. You can read more about the benefits of it here.
Of course, it doesn’t take a scientist to figure out how useful this technology could be on a cloudy day at a Melbourne AFL match when traditional GPS coverage is low. But it also has great applications for other (editor’s note: wussier) sports that are played undercover, like American football, basketball and soccer.
Indeed, the Catapult client list is a veritable who’s who of the international sporting world: the New York Giants (NFL), Orlando Magic (NBA), AC Milan (soccer), the Socceroos (soccer), Brisbane Broncos (rugby league), New Zealand Silver Ferns (basketball) and dozens of others. Many of these organisations are either already using ClearSky, or are preparing to do so.
Obviously, this is a winning technology that can be applied across a diverse range of sports. Who knows, maybe one day ClearSky will even be used to track the performance of professional surfers in a wave pool in the middle of Melbourne?
But in the meantime, some mysteries of surfing – like why the waves were always better yesterday, who stole my wax, and where surfing commentators get their t-shirts from – will forever remain unanswered.
Today is World Usability Day (WUD). WUD celebrates the technologies, products and services that improve our lives by doing what they’re designed to do in a way that engages and assists us. And more importantly, it’s a day for encouraging creators, designers and manufacturers to put usability at the forefront when they’re making products.
We’re pretty proud of some of our useable technology – like our smartphone apps. We’re leveraging a technology that’s well on the way from being popular to being ubiquitous, and creating applications and services that can make a big difference to a wide range of people.
Take people who’ve had heart attacks, for instance. Nowadays, a lot more people survive heart attacks than in the past, but post-heart attack rehab remains a problem. It used to involve travelling to an outpatient clinic or similar centre, and there was a considerable dropout rate from the program. This is a problem, because patients who successfully complete cardiac rehab following a heart attack have much better health outcomes.
They are less likely to have another cardiac event, be readmitted to hospital or die from their condition. So we developed a smartphone home care delivery model – known as the Care Assessment Platform. A clinical trial found that people were almost 30 per cent more likely to take part in their rehab program at home using the app than those who had to travel to a clinic.
What’s more, people using the app were 40 per cent more likely to stick to the program and almost 70 per cent more likely to see it through to completion. That’s REAL usability.
Of course, the best treatment for heart attacks is not having one in the first place. As we all know, weight is a factor in heart disease. And certainly, keeping your weight down is a very, very good thing to do after a heart attack. We’re hoping we can help there too.
We’re currently working with Bupa Health Foundation on a trial of smartphone apps to assist with dieters’ mood and motivation. Face-to-face support is often the best way to succeed on a diet, but this is not always possible, and it can get expensive.
So you’ve survived a heart attack and done the rehab using an app. And you’ve lost weight. That means you’ve got more chance of living to be old. We’ve been working on apps to help with that, too.
Our Smarter, Safer Homes project is looking at ways to keep older people living safely in their own homes for longer. This not only takes pressure off the aged care home sector, but also improves older people’s health and wellbeing.
Our app involves placing simple sensors such as motion detectors and energy sensors placed around the home. These monitor the person as they go about their day and report the data back to family members or carers.
For example, motion sensors can detect whether a person got up at the usual time, put the kettle on, regularly cooked food for themselves, and even if they left the oven on.
The data is also reported to a tablet device owned by the elderly person, who retains full control over what data gets reported to others and what stays private.
Not all our work on apps is in human health. There’s one for soil health too. SoilMapp is designed to make soil information more accessible for Australian farmers, consultants, planners, natural resource managers, researchers and people
interested in soil. It provides direct access to the best national soil data and information from several sources.
With SoilMapp, users can find information on soil depth, acidity, salinity, soil carbon, soil water holding capacity and other attributes in a matter of minutes, anywhere there’s a wireless or internet connection.
We’ve also counted koalas using an app, and we’re looking at doing many more things with this technology.
Even the first version of the iPhone had more computing power than all of NASA had for the Apollo 11 mission, so there’s plenty of opportunity to make use of the potential of smartphones. That very usable thing in your pocket just keeps on getting more so.
Meet Yogi Kanagasingam. Yogi works at our Australian e-Health Research Centre and his vision is to change the way eye care is delivered around the world to prevent needless blindness.
A ‘serial inventor’, Yogi has developed a number of low-cost diagnostic technologies that are used to take images of our eyes. These devices are helping in the early detection of serious conditions, ranging from those that directly threaten sight, through to stroke and Alzheimer’s Disease.
By focusing on affordable, mobile solutions, he is bringing quality eye care to thousands of patients who might otherwise have gone without.
Recognising this passion and dedication, Yogi has been named as a WA finalist in the 2015 Australian of the Year Awards. Here are just some of the sight-saving (and often life-saving) projects he’s working on:
Saving sight in remote communities
However due to the remoteness of some Australian communities, it can be very difficult for people to access this type of specialist care.
That’s why we’ve been working with our partners in Western Australia (Gold Fields and Great Southern) and Queensland (Torres Strait Islands) to set up remote eye screening – giving hundreds of people access to eye testing services.
This is possible thanks to technology Yogi has developed called Remote-I.
Using Remote-I, local clinicians are able to conduct routine retinal screenings, often as part of scheduled health clinic visits. The system then sends hi-res retinal images to a city-based specialist ophthalmologist via satellite broadband – allowing them to accurately diagnose and refer patients who need immediate treatment.
A global vision for eye care
Now Yogi and his team are taking Remote-I to the world. For the past year, they’ve been working with the Zhongshan Ophthalmic Centre in China’s Guangdong Province to introduce the technology throughout a network of ten hospitals.
With a population of over 100 million people in Guangdong, local health professionals are now using the technology to screen up to 1000 patients per week. That’s a lot of eye tests.
As well as giving patients access to specialist care, this project is also providing the research team with valuable data about blood vessel patterns in retinas. This will allow them to design algorithms that could be used to automatically detect particular eye diseases, aiding diagnosis in routine screenings.
Early detection of Alzheimer’s
Using curcumin (a compound in the spice turmeric), Yogi and his team have also developed a spice-infused eye test for Alzheimer’s disease.
Patients ingest the curcumin which binds to beta-amyloid plaques (the sticky proteins that indicate Alzheimer’s) showing up in retinal scans as bright spots which can be counted and measured.
Early results show the amount of plaque in the retina closely mirrors the amount in the brain. If confirmed, this could be the beginnings of an easy, non-invasive test for early detection of Alzheimer’s – maybe up to 20 years before cognitive symptoms appear.
We’re proud as punch of Yogi. As well as the groundbreaking work he is doing with us here at CSIRO, he is also giving back to the community in his personal time. Yogi is actively involved with local Rotary Clubs, including Freshwater Bay Rotary in WA where he helps promote regular eye screening for primary school children. This can make a big difference to students, as early detection of vision abnormalities can improve both academic and sports performances.
We wish Yogi all the best this Saturday when the WA Australian of the Year will be announced at Government House. WA’s winner will then join recipients from other States and Territories as finalists for the National Awards, to be announced on Australia Day 2015.
Read more about our eHealth research on our website.