The big day is here: RV Investigator’s Welcome to Port

Nicholas Kachel:

The sun’s out and the champagne’s been smashed(… It’s the RV Investigator’s Welcome to Port day! There’s a shipload of activity taking place in Hobart for this event today, but let’s step back for a second and take a look at just why the Investigator is worth all this fuss. Dive on in and explore below!

Originally posted on Investigator @ CSIRO:

RV Investigator

RV Investigator will be formally commissioned in Hobart today.

The day has finally arrived: our new 94 metre, A$120 million research vessel (RV) Investigator will be commissioned in Hobart today.

This marks Investigator’s transition  from being a CSIRO  ship building and commissioning project to being Australia’s new Marine National Facility ship, ready to embark on its maiden voyage in March 2015.

You may have noticed we’ve been making quite a bit of fuss about the Investigator recently. Here’s three* good reasons why.

First of all, she’s good news for Tasmania. Between them, Investigator and the Marine National Facility pump somewhere between $7 million and $11 million a year into the local economy. In the last ten years Hobart has become a marine and Antarctic science hub. CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship and the University of Tasmania’s $45 million Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) headquarters are located there, along with a large…

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A different kind of show and tell

Science partnership between Marnie Sparrow from Sandringham College (Vic) and Felix Lipkin, CSIRO Land and Water Flagship

Science partnership between Marnie Sparrow from Sandringham College (Vic) and Felix Lipkin, CSIRO Land and Water Flagship

Imagine you’re back at school, and one day the teacher has something for show and tell. Someone, actually. A real live scientist, or mathematician, or ICT specialist. And not just the once.

It’s been happening regularly in Australian schools since 2007. All levels of schools, from kindy to Year 12. In the only program in the world of its size and scope, Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools (SMiS) puts practicing STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) professionals into school classrooms. We also do the same thing with ICT professionals.

The program was a response to the decline in the numbers of students electing to study STEM subjects. It seemed that a promising strategy for arresting this would be to find a way for students to see the relevance of their science courses, and see that people working in science aren’t the caricature nerds represented in the media. But how to get them into the classroom? One way was to combine two kinds of outreach, and get involved with teachers’ professional development.

So we started a program to mentor teachers – and by doing so, provide students with a positive image of people working in the STEM sector. Seven years later, there have been more than 4000 partnerships between teachers and STEM professionals in schools. At the moment there are more than 1600 active partnerships.

It’s not just CSIRO scientists who are involved. Scientists in Schools volunteers can be research scientists and engineers, science and engineering postgrads, and applied science professionals like doctors, vets, and park rangers. Mathematicians in Schools wants to hear from anyone who did a degree with a maths focus and works in a job that uses maths: economists, accountants, surveyors and mathematical scientists, among others. If you’re an ICT professional working in research; a postgraduate ICT student or you’re involved in ICT in industry, like programmers, ICT security specialists, and systems analysts, you’re suitable for ICT in Schools.     Mathematician-microchip-focus-web

When teachers ask for a mentor to be paired with them, we select appropriate matches very carefully. We’re a bit like the Blood Bank: we have to find suitable partners for the procedure to be a success. And we don’t think any of our volunteers are the equivalent of Type O.

Teachers might be looking for someone with expertise in a particular topic. We also have to consider time constraints – some volunteers might only be available at particular times, and there are logistical considerations such as transport availability to take into account as well.

But this doesn’t mean that areas that aren’t readily accessible miss out. We can arrange long-distance partnerships too – Skype, email and block visits are our friends here. Some of the partnerships can be surprising – at present we have a scientist from the Australian Antarctic Division paired with a teacher in Townsville, based on common expertise and interests. And we cherish the pictures from a previous partnership between a teacher in a Northern Territory school and another Australian Antarctic Division scientist. When she visited the school, she took her polar suit with her, and the photos of her all rugged up in the NT heat just to show the kids are incongruous and charming.

It’s not all feel-good and cute pictures though. It provides a valuable resource for teachers, and gives them far greater confidence in their teaching. It enables the volunteer scientists to brush up on their communication skills – something which is ever more important in science careers. As one of our volunteer scientists from Tasmania says, ‘There is no room for jargon and big words when you talk to kids. I think it helps me understand better what I’m saying when I have to explain it in words an 8-year old can follow’. And our volunteers also say it re-enthuses them about their science – the kids’ enthusiasm reignites their own.

The students also get to practice some real science, and learn about experimental design, as this story shows. And yes, that’s a professor from the University of NSW mentoring a Year 7 teacher. An ACT school gets a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. CSIRO CEO Megan Clark was also a volunteer.

Maths partnership between Stephen Robey from Gungahlin College (ACT) and Billie Ganendran of University of NSW, Canberra (ADFA)

Maths partnership between Stephen Robey from Gungahlin College (ACT) and Billie Ganendran of University of NSW, Canberra (ADFA)

We see this combination of results as a win-win-win. And the three evaluations the program has had so far agreed with us. More importantly, so did parents, teachers and students. A parent from NSW says, ‘It’s fantastic that individuals are willing to offer their time to help facilitate the learning of our children. Please pass on a big thank you for being an inspiration for my son’.

While a teacher from SA tells us that ‘Our mathematician really is terrific in the way he volunteers his time to work with the kids. They love his knowledge, teaching skills and mathematical challenges’.

But this one … This comment, from a student in the NT, brings it all home: ‘The opportunity that we had to work with you was one of the greatest ones in my life. You made science fun for us and getting us involved in the science was a great experience’.

We think this is a pretty special program.

Waking Up to New Horizons

Nicholas Kachel:

Our Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex just received a signal, sent at the speed of light, from 4.8 billion kilometres away. Who was it from? What was it about? Find out below…

Originally posted on Universe @ CSIRO:

New Horizons' flies past Pluto in this artists' rendition. Image: NASA/JHUAPL

New Horizons’ flies past Pluto in this artists’ rendition. Image: NASA/JHUAPL

I guess we all love to sleep in on a Sunday morning, maybe just snoozing under the doona, laying there for a few hours before getting up for a late brunch. Ah! Luxury.

On Sunday 7th December 2014, the New Horizons spacecraft, 5 billion kilometres away from the warmth of Earth, had little time to sleep in. It was ‘wake up’ day. The final awakening from hibernation for the next 2 years until well after its encounter with rapidly approaching dwarf planet, Pluto, set for the 14th July 2015.

Waiting back on Earth to hear the spacecraft’s morning ‘alarm’ go off was the giant 70 metre antenna dish at the CSIRO-managed, Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex – Deep Space Station 43 (DSS43).

Deep Space Station 43 in Canberra receiving the 'wake up' call from the New Horizons spacecraft. Image: CDSCC/CSIRO Deep Space Station 43 in Canberra receiving the ‘wake up’ call from the New…

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What do termites, cuckoos, and salamanderfish get up to over Christmas?

The channel-billed cuckoo has some other bird look after her child while she absconds to Indonesia. Don't be jealous, it's a long flight.

Over Christmas the channel-billed cuckoo has some other bird look after her child while she absconds to Indonesia. Don’t be jealous, it’s a long flight.

This is our first of three Christmas-themed posts – enjoy!

The holiday period can seem like a month-long headache for us humans. As a species we go into overdrive: preparing our offices for hibernation while we hurriedly fossick for gifts and forage for Christmas feasts. Many of us also dedicate time gathering our familial herds – for better or for worse – while a lucky few are even able to migrate north (or south or east or west) for the summer.

But we’re not the only ones that get busy at this time of year. There are countless thousands more animals and plants that are saddled with similar chores to us (albeit without the seafood dishes and Christmas crackers). They too must weather the blistering heats, and keep themselves and their relatives cool, fed, and hydrated.

Here’s a brief low-down on what the holiday season means for Australia’s non-human residents.


Running a kingdom is tough work: workers and soldiers must be kept inline, and young, vulnerable individuals must be cared for and nourished. And when the population grows into the thousands or millions, the exposed Australian landscape is no place for such an empire.

Termites build their colonies in locations where they can moderate the temperature and humidity with organic air-conditioning. All-year round, colonies are maintained at a consistently high temperature and humidity, sometimes as high as 36oC. Since these conditions are critical to survival, termites scarcely expose themselves.

As our year closes to an end, the summer sun heats up our country, releasing water into the air, thus bringing our above-ground climate to the temperature and humidity loved by termites. The termites use this climatic window as an opportunity to expand their empires.

flickr  (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

With his or her chances of success, there’s no point in even bothering. Moayed Bahajjaj/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Starting in November when the conditions are just right, sexually active termites grow ephemeral wings and leave the nest. The air becomes filled with pioneering couples, searching for the ideal log or mound to start the next generation. 95% of couples will not survive their first week, likely ending up in ponds, pockets, and ear canals.

Steve Garvie/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Family reunion for some unfortunate termites. Steve Garvie/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

For the few lucky couples that make it, they will begin their new colony and reign for up to 45 years together, as king and queen, producing offspring to take flight each Christmas.

Christmas Beetles

The journey of the “Christmas beetles, the quintessential insect of the summer festive season…” is also one of patience and timing, with the insects spending their lives underground as grubs before metamorphosing as those brilliant, clumsy creatures we know and love. Their full story has already been covered by us, here.


You’ve probably heard enough from these birds to last you a lifetime, but, after reading their plights, their cacophonous calls might seem slightly more bearable. If you are on the eastern or northern coast, the two birds you’re likely to hear this time of year are both cuckoos: the Pacific koel and the channel-billed cuckoo.

Left: male koel. Right: female koel  Steve Garvie/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Pacific koel, also known as the eastern koel, stormbird or rainbird. Left: male koel. Right: female koel. Steve Garvie/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The koel’s characteristic calls (found here and here) can be heard before or during storms, and about 3 hours before your alarm’s set to go off.

The channel-billed cuckoo is an enormous bird with a very distinct and coarse ‘hoink’. The channel-bill can often be heard hoinking as it flies gracefully overhead.

James Niland/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A nest parasite with a horrendous voice that only a mother could love (but she left anyway). Imagine feed James Niland/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

For both of these species, ’tis the season to be breeding. In spring and summer the birds fly to northern and eastern Australia all the way from Indonesia and New Guinea. And over the holiday period they meet up on our shores and seek out a nest. Since they are cuckoos, they make their living off the backs of others. They don’t make their own nests but take advantage of the onerous nest making of other species.

An ‘eggnant’ cuckoo will seek out the nest of a host bird species, such as a wattle bird for the koel and a currawong for the channel-bill. To salt the wound, some cuckoos will destroy any already-present host eggs.

Upon hatching, the cuckoo chick squawks incessantly to the host mother for food. And since the mother and child are different species, a parasitic cuckoo chick can be many times larger than the host, forcing the host mother’s beak to the grindstone to gather enough food for her gargantuan faux-spring:

The offspring is raised until its large enough to make the flight back up north to Indonesia early the next year.

These birds can survive in urban environments, so if you keep out a sharp ear and eye, you may be able to spot one.

These cuckoos, the koel and the channel-bill, are obligate parasites – meaning they cannot complete their lifecycle on their own and without the manipulation of their host. So don’t be angry at those slacker cuckoos, they’re simply doing what has worked for them for myriad generations, what is best for their kids.


If, every summer, your oxygen supply were to disappear for a few months, how would you cope? Not well, we imagine. For aquatic animals who live in temporary billabongs in Australia, this is exactly what happens each holiday season or dry spell. Under such extreme pressures, natural selection has generated wonders, wonders like our salamanderfish:

Two Salamanderfish. Photo: Natasha Khardina

One alarmed and one dismissive salamanderfish. Photo: Natasha Khardina

Salamanderfish are difficult to find – especially over Christmas. They are just 7 cm long and only exist in the southern-most, western-most corner of our country in freshwater pools only present for part of the year.

When there is water for the salamander fish, it is highly acidic and tannin-rich. Tannins are the chemicals that leach from leaves, giving tea its characteristic colour and flavour. And speaking of tea, salamanderfish live in water that is so acidic, its pH is somewhere between that of a cup of tea and lemon juice.

Over summer they have an interesting…what’s the opposite of a ‘sea change’? For salamanderfish, the holiday season is an upheaval of their fishy lifestyles. When their ponds dry up, they bury half a metre underground, create a membranous cocoon, and chillax under the sand for months at a time, waiting out rains and summer’s end.

Other animals

Taking a quick summer tour around the rest of the country, on the Western Australian, Northern Territory and Queensland coast, green, flatback, and loggerhead sea turtles are coming ashore to lay their eggs, and some earlier laid hatchlings are digging free and making the treacherous trip back to the ocean.

All around the country male frogs such as the corroboree and motorbike frogs are preparing their nests and vocal chords to catch the attention of female suitors to produce offspring in the new year.

On the south eastern tip of Australia, male brown fur seals are competing fiercely for territory. Female fur seals are arriving to pick suitors with territory close to the water’s edge. Many fur seals are breeding, and many are giving birth, since their gestation period is around a year.

On the Great Barrier Reef, corals of all shapes and sizes are releasing clouds of eggs and sperm into the waters, a gambit that relies on the currents for fertilisation.

Yum, yum, yum, forest floor detritus. John Tann/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Yum, yum, yum, forest floor detritus. John Tann/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The wet season on Christmas Island means a lot for one species of crab. Since crabs use their gills to breathe, the humid summer air allows the Christmas Island red crabs to make their annual migration from the forest to the coastline to meet and breed.

And along the eastern coast, the blue blubber jellyfish (Catostylus mosaicus) or ‘jelly blubber’ populations are blooming with the increase in temperatures and prey: fish larvae, plankton, and crustacean larvae.

So over the next few weeks when you are stressing out at the bustling shopping centre, or fussing over a stove with four occupied hot plates, remember those starry-eyed termite couples with a miniscule chance of survival, the cuckoos using their wrists to fly here from Indonesia, and the salamanderfish lying underneath kilos of mud awaiting the next storm cell.

World Soil Day: a chance to worship the ground we walk on

By Leon Braun

It’s downtrodden, underfoot and often under appreciated, yet so crucial to our existence that one of our scientists describes it as “the complex natural medium that supports all life on Earth”. It holds our crops, stores and purifies our water, and provides habitat for amazing creatures like the giant Gippsland earthworm, which can reach up to 3 m in length. But most of us only think about it when we’re trying to get it out of footy socks on laundry day.

It’s soil – and today (and all next year) it gets a bit of long-overdue recognition. December 5 is World Soil Day, and the United Nations has declared 2015 to be International Year of Soils. That’s a good thing, because globally, soils are under threat: from erosion, poor land management and urbanisation. At the same time, we need soils more than ever to produce the food we need for a growing population, to help manage climate change and to ensure ecosystem health.

Cracked soil at Chowilla, South Australia.

Cracked soil at Chowilla, South Australia.

Luckily for Australia’s soils, they have CSIRO looking out for them. We started researching soils in 1929, published the first soil map of Australia in 1944, and have been working hard ever since to improve our understanding and management of soils. We’re looking at ways to make agricultural soils more productive and to ensure they’re used sustainably, so future generations can continue to reap their bounty. And we’re working internationally too, so it’s not just Australia that benefits.

Our latest achievement (with allies from around the country) is the Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia, a digital map of Australia’s soils with two billion ‘pixels’ of about 90 by 90 metres, down to a depth of two metres below the surface. It contains information such as water holding capacity, nutrients and clay, and has applications for everyone from farmers deciding where to plant their crops to conservationists looking for habitats for endangered native species. You can read more about it here.

We’re also home to the Australian National Soil Archive, which has just gotten a new home in Canberra. The archive contains about 70,000 samples from almost 10,000 sites across Australia, the oldest dating back to 1924. Each sample represents a time capsule of the Australian landscape at the time it was collected, so we can measure things like caesium dispersal from the British nuclear tests at Maralinga and the impact of phosphate-based fertilisers on agricultural land. The archive is a vital national asset for soil researchers and industry, and has even been used by the Australian Federal Police to examine the potential of new forensic methods. Finally, data from the archive powers our first official app, SoilMapp, which puts information about Australian soils at your fingertips. This is incredibly useful, whether you’re growing canola on a farm in Western Australia or planning a major roads project in Victoria.

So as you go through your day today, eat your lunch, wipe your shoes, just remember: it takes 2000 years to form 10 centimetres of fertile soil suitable for growing our food, but just moments for that soil to blow away or get covered in a layer of asphalt. Something to think about next time you sit down to a meal – or do your laundry.

Global and Australian warming continues


By Dr Helen Cleugh, Science Director, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship

The World Meteorological Organization reports that 2014 is on track to be possibly the world’s hottest year on record. Meanwhile, there’s been a lot of public commentary lately about the so-called “hiatus” in global surface temperature over the past 18 years, recent sea-level rise, and what it all means.

So what do CSIRO’s research and observations tell us?

They show that average surface air temperatures have continued to rise during the past two decades, but not as fast as in preceding decades. In other words, while the rate of temperature increase is lower, the temperatures themselves are not lower.

It is also important to note that when climate scientists use the term “global-mean surface temperature” they refer to near-surface air temperatures. Surface air temperature is an incomplete measure of warming of the planet; oceans store huge amounts of heat, with about 93 per cent of the extra heat stored by the Earth over the past 50 years being found in the oceans.

 Changes in the global climate system indicating a world experiencing a consistent pattern of warming. Note (1) net increase in glacier volumes have regional variation (almost all glaciers worldwide losing mass but some gaining) but overall net loss; and (2) net decrease in global sea-ice extent has regional variation (over the period 1979–2012 it is very likely that the annual mean Arctic sea-ice extent decreased 3.5 to 4.1% per decade, and it is very likely that the annual mean Antarctic sea ice extent increased by 1.2 to 1.8% per decade) but overall net loss. Source: CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology.

Changes in the global climate system indicating a world experiencing a consistent pattern of warming.*

The ocean today is warmer, and sea levels higher, than at any time since the instrumental record began. As the oceans warm, they expand and sea levels rise. Using a combination of coastal tide-gauge and satellite-altimeter data, CSIRO and others have shown that, globally, sea level has been rising since the late 1800s. Global-averaged sea level rose at an average rate of about 1.6 mm per year over the 20th Century, but this rate has accelerated to about 3 mm per year as measured by satellite altimetry and tide gauges since 1993. So the rate of sea-level rise has not slowed; it has increased.

Our measurements across the land, atmosphere and oceans show that warming has continued unabated throughout the past 18 years.

Last year was Australia’s warmest year on record, followed by 2005 and 2009. For global land and ocean temperatures, 2013 tied with 2003 as the fourth warmest year globally; and 13 of the 14 warmest years ever measured occurred in the 21st Century. As reported by the World Meteorological Organization, this year is shaping up to be the world’s warmest year – the year to the end of October is the planet’s warmest on record.

It is not unusual to see changes in the rate of surface warming. Over the past 120 years, there have been decades where global-mean air temperature has warmed more rapidly, and decades where relative cooling has occurred.

Increases in greenhouse gases provide a warming effect but, due to natural variability, climate trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates, and do not reflect long-term climate trends.

The rate of warming in any shorter period fluctuates because of factors such as short-term natural variability, ocean absorption of heat from the atmosphere, volcanic eruptions, changes in the 11-year solar cycle, and so on. This does not change any conclusion about the long-term trend of warming due to human activities, which have increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

CSIRO research has shown that there is less than 1 chance in 100,000 that global mean air temperature over the past 60 years would have been as high without human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. That is, the probability of global temperature increases being due to human activity exceeds 99 per cent.

The world is not cooling.

*Note (1) net increase in glacier volumes have regional variation (almost all glaciers worldwide losing mass but some gaining) but overall net loss; and (2) net decrease in global sea-ice extent has regional variation (over the period 1979–2012 it is very likely that the annual mean Arctic sea-ice extent decreased 3.5 to 4.1% per decade, and it is very likely that the annual mean Antarctic sea ice extent increased by 1.2 to 1.8% per decade) but overall net loss. Source: CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology.

This article was originally published in The Canberra Times.

From a summer with telescopes, to getting your sea legs the hard way

selfieBy Mikayla Keen

I love my job. As a CSIRO communication advisor I get to work with amazing scientists, hear fantastic stories of discovery and innovation, learn new things… and get paid to do it.

I began my CSIRO adventure in 2009 as a summer student working at the Parkes Radio Telescope. At the final seminar I asked ‘how do I get a job here?’ and four months later I was a communication advisor supporting agricultural scientists working across the country.


Ah, back in the day. My first job at CSIRO was summer intern at ‘The Dish’.

That physics degree didn’t help me understand the work they were doing, but then the job isn’t about becoming an expert in the science. Being a communicator is all about listening, asking those silly questions and helping the scientist tell their story. The only trouble is there aren’t enough hours in the day to tell them all.

I love my job, last week more than most, because last week I got to go on the new Investigator marine research vessel. I’ve never been to Tassie before so it was a week of firsts; first time visiting Hobart, first time on a research vessel and first time throwing my guts up on a piddling four metre swell.

Don’t ask me how I managed it but I scored a berth on one of Investigator’s sea trials. I have to admit my heart went badaboom when I first saw her sitting across the bay as I drove over the Tasman Bridge. Investigator is one fine lookin’ Sheila, even her aft-side looks good.

Once on board, the first thing I noticed was how quiet the ship is once you’re off the main deck. There was only a quiet hum from the engines and the occasional lapping of waves against the hull to disturb the peace.

I was lucky enough to score a cabin on the first platform deck (one below the main deck) with a porthole. It was bliss waking up to the reflection of the sun shimmering off the surface of the Derwent.

View from porthole

‘Views from a porthole’.

I’ve cruised before, but nothing is quite like the Investigator. I’m pretty sure it’s the biggest cabin I’ve ever had on a ship, although I had to make my bed. Oh, the horror.

You have to be really conscious of sound too; the crew works to 12 hour shifts which means your neighbour might be just getting to bed when you get up in the morning and you don’t want to disturb your neighbour. They might be responsible for steering the ship, or feeding you.

Yes, there are chefs on board, and what joy they bring to the voyage. Food is available 24 hours a day and I can personally vouch for how darn good it is. That’s a feat considering no one can pop in to the local supermarket.The ship’s pantries and cool rooms are substantial in size and sturdiness. Not only do they store enough food to feed up to 60 people (most of them burly men working long hours) for up to 60 days, they also have to keep the food stuff safe during rough seas.

While the food was delicious going down it was not so lovely coming back up. Turns out my guts of steel were not so steely. As we sailed over the continental shelf Investigator was tracking back and forth, mapping the sea floor. This meant changing the angle of the ship to the swell, from calm to rough and all that choppiness in between. Hello, lovely new bathroom.

I wasn’t much better the next day when the team were practicing deploying the big Southern Ocean Flux System (SOFS) mooring. These moorings have to survive the southern ocean for over a year at a time so they’re big and sturdy. The big float sits on the surface bobbing up and down with a long chain of instruments hanging beneath it. The four metre swell was perfect conditions to test deploying the mooring before the real thing in the southern ocean next year.

SOFS float

Southern Ocean Flux System (SOFS) mooring.

It was not so perfect (or mild) on my stomach. I’ve been in worse conditions and been fine but then in the past I’ve had the advantage of being on holiday; sitting on deck, eyeballing the horizon, drinking ginger tea. Investigator is not a holiday destination; it’s a research vessel and there’s work to be done .

The third day of the voyage dawned clear and calm (sigh). I ate a wonderful full breakfast to make up for what I had missed. Hat’s off to those who can do this for months at a time. Although, the views really aren’t so bad.

There is joy to being on the water.

There is a joy to being on the water.

CSIRO has been darn good to me over the years. I thought it might be difficult to top starting off at the most beautiful radio telescope in the world, but CSIRO is just one of those places where no matter which way you turn, you can’t help but trip over an amazing story.


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