Taking a measured approach to CSG

CSIRO through the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA) is undertaking a comprehensive study of methane seeps in the Surat basin.

By Tsuey Cham

Our scientists are taking to the sky above the Surat basin in south-west Queensland to answer a big question – is coal seam gas (CSG) green?

Not literally green, of course: CSG is invisible to the naked eye. What we’re actually looking to determine is the CSG industry’s greenhouse gas footprint. The industry is set to increase production in Australia in coming years, so it’s important to be able to adequately monitor current and future CSG developments and provide information that will help limit any potential environmental impact.

One way to determine the CSG industry’s greenhouse gas footprint is by measuring methane seeps. Methane seeps occur naturally from underground, as well as in soils, swamps and rivers. Another key component is measuring fugitive methane – methane that leaks from CSG well heads, pipes and other infrastructure.  Initial findings show that fugitive methane emissions are lower in Australia than the US.

In south-west Queensland, the Surat basin is where CSG activities are in full swing, with its network of production wells, pipelines, access tracks and warning signs. With CSG development in the basin increasing over the next few years, we are trying to establish the amount – and source – of methane emissions now, so that we can set a baseline for future monitoring.

Taking CSG measurements.

A four wheel drive-mounted methane detector, with onlookers.

To do this, our scientist are using airborne sensors aboard helicopters to measure natural methane emissions. With this data in hand, they then calibrate and validate it with land-based sensors to identify how much methane naturally occurs from the ground.

Findings from this research will provide a methane emissions data set that can be used to compare against changes in methane emission as CSG production increases; and will add to the bigger picture of assessing the industry’s whole-of-life-cycle greenhouse gas footprint.

For more information, visit GISERA or our website.

We still don’t know if domestic animals can spread Ebola


Man holding dog

It’s unclear whether Spanish dog Excalibur, pictured here with owner Javier Limon (husband of Ebola-infected nurse Teresa Ramos), was infected. EFE/PACMA

By Michelle Baker, CSIRO

Spanish authorities have euthanised the dog of Madrid nurse Teresa Romero Ramos, who contracted Ebola. The 12-year-old dog, Excalibur, was not showing symptoms and was not tested for Ebola. But he lived with Romero Ramos when she became ill and was destroyed as a precaution, despite widespread protests.

This has raised questions about the role domestic animals might play in the spread of Ebola. But before we get to dogs and cats, we need to start with bats – the natural host of Ebola and a number of other viruses including Hendra virus, rabies, SARS (sudden acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrom).

African fruit bats were established as the host of Zaire Ebola virus after antibodies were detected in a number of species. Though interestingly, bats are not affected by the virus.

Intermediate hosts in viral transmission

For many of the viruses carried by bats, there is no evidence of direct bat-to-human transmission. More often than not, an intermediate host – or spillover host – gets infected following contact with infected bat material.

Spillover hosts generally develop severe disease and are capable of shedding the virus in large quantities, which can pass to people who come in close contact with secretions from the infected animals.

Image by jomilo75/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Ebola originated in African fruit bats.
jomilo75/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Intermediate hosts can include horses in the case of Hendra virus, pigs for Nipah virus and palm civets in the case of SARS.

For Ebola, it is believed that contact with wild animals including gorillas, chimpanzees and antelope have been the source of human infection.

Although the intermediate host is known for many bat-borne viruses, the role that other domestic animals play in the transmission cycle is largely unknown.

Are domestic animals a risk?

During previous Ebola outbreaks, scientists have found virus specific antibodies in dogs. But the canines showed no symptoms. It’s still unclear whether dog-to-human transmission is possible, as is the mechanism by which dogs and other domestic animals become infected.

A similar situation occurred in Australia in 2011 when Hendra virus specific antibodies were detected in a dog from a property where Hendra virus-infected horses were located. Again, we know little about the infection dynamics of this virus in dogs.

While cats are not resistant to Hendra virus disease, natural transmission from infected bats or horses to cats has not been demonstrated.

A complicating factor is that people who recover from infection with Hendra virus can experience a subsequent relapse in disease. Whether viruses such as Ebola or Hendra virus can also lie dormant in domestic animals and reactivate at a later time point remains to be investigated.

Opportunities for transmission

While research is underway, the mechanisms involved in the transmission of Ebola and other bat-borne viruses to intermediate hosts is currently poorly understood. It seems to occur as a result of contact with bat secretions or partially eaten fruit which the bats chew and drop to the ground.

But the transmission of viruses from bats to other species depends, to a large extent, on opportunity.

Palm civets can be intermediate hosts of SARS.  Kabacchi/Flickr, CC BY

Palm civets can be intermediate hosts of SARS.
Kabacchi/Flickr, CC BY

Bats and viruses have long coexisted but interactions between bats and other species including humans have occurred only relatively recently. Urbanisation and deforestation has resulted in increased encroachment of humans and domestic animals into bat habitats.

Similarly, live animal markets such as those in Southern China, where SARS was detected in palm civets, are associated with close contact between a variety of different species and provide an ideal melting pot for spillover to take place.

Social and cultural practices also play a role in viral transmission including the consumption of “bush meat” from wild animals including non-human primates and bats.

In each of these situations, humans have provided the opportunity for interspecies contacts which would not have otherwise occurred.

Bats have an important place in our ecosystem, and there is so much we can learn from them. To help manage and prevent future outbreaks, we need a more comprehensive, science-based understanding of risks associated with the increased interaction of people and animals with wildlife.

The Conversation

Michelle Baker receives funding from The Australian Research Council.

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

Electric cars: ugly as charged?

It is an odd thing, but whenever a new electric car or a ‘car of the future’ is unveiled it ends up looking kind of ugly. For some reason throwing a battery under the bonnet, solar cells on the roof or a new type of fuel in the tank seems to send designers down an interesting creative path. Or at least one where they feel the need to let the world know the car is electric or hybrid, just by the look of it.

Recently a new solar call ‘for the whole family’ was unveiled in the US. Known as Stella, the car is designed for traditional roads and can operate on a single electric charge for up to 500 miles. There is no doubt that it is an incredible feat of engineering, but would you buy one? 

Looking back, history is littered with odd looking electric cars. The 1973 GM Urban Electric Car looked a little bit like a pram, the first Honda Insight was curiously curvy, and most solar cars have a ‘table top’ look (including Stella), which is always handy if you’re on a picnic. In 2012, Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson got a slap on the wrist for comparing the Toyota Prius wagon to the elephant man.

Naturally, there are comprises that need to be made to minimise weight and increase surface area, especially if you are using solar cells. There are also design challenges in accommodating battery technologies.

Personal taste also comes into play, but thanks to companies like Tesla and Fiat, electric cars are getting their sexy back. They are not just using cutting edge battery technology, but matching it with some serious curves. Yesterday, Tesla launched its D model (a new version of the Tesla S) which looks like an Aston Martin and Fiat’s 500e carries the same good looks as its petrol-based brother. The Fisker Karma was also definitely desirable, but the makers went bankrupt. Fortunately, the new owners of the company are planning to begin production again.

At CSIRO, we’ve been working on batteries that power electric and hybrid vehicles for some time. In 2008, our UltraBattery set a new standard for hybrid and electric cars when it powered a car 100,000 miles. Most recently, the UltraBattery was unveiled in the new Honda Odyssey at the Tokyo Motor Show.

As the old saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it is definitely not just electric cars that have been hit with the ugly stick over the years. Just feast your eyes on the Pontiac Aztec, which made the Daily Telegraph’s 10 of the world’s ugliest cars list.

Note about the blogger: Simon Hunter drives an average-looking VW Golf and is pretty keen on cars, but is not a scientist, engineer or car expert. His favourite car is a Lotus Esprit Turbo, which many people would say is a little bit ugly.

Voting in swarms is all the buzz

By Emily Lehmann

There’s been a buzz around town about our bee research this year, and for good reason.

In a world first, we’ve been microchipping thousands of bees with tiny sensors in Australia and South America to monitor their activity and the way they interact with the environment.

Bee with backpack/

A bee. With a backpack. What of it?

We’ve called this ‘swarm sensing’ and it could help gather the information we need to find a solution to the mysterious and devastating decline of bees around the world.

While we’ve been buzzily strapping these tiny sensors on bees in the Amazon in collaboration with Vale Institute of Technology, there has been a swarm of attention around our work back home.

Swarm sensing hit the polls earlier this week, as one of five finalists in The Australian Innovation Challenge’s category for Environment, Agriculture and Food. And, it’s up to the people – that means you – to decide which one of these innovations deserves to win $5000.

Bee hive

These guys are an important link in the global food chain – and they need our help!

Now, if cute honey bees wearing mini, colour-coordinated ‘backpacks’, isn’t enough to sway your vote, then we’ve gathered a few hot facts about why this work is so critical to get you over the line:

  1. Around one third of the food we eat relies on bees for pollination. If bees are in danger, so is our global food supply.
  1. By aiding agriculture, honey bees earn an estimated $4-6 billion for Australia every year.
  1. Wild honey bee populations are dropping drastically or vanishing all together around the world. There are two major problems causing their decline: the varroa mite and the little understood Colony Collapse Disorder
  1. While there is a real risk, bees in Australia have not been affected by the Varroa mite or Colony Collapse Disorder.
  1. Parasites, pollution and pesticides are potential factors in the decline of honey bee populations.

To vote CSIRO, visit The Australian Innovation Challenge article and select ‘swarm sensing’ in the poll at the bottom of the page. Go on, #voteCSIRO and do it for the bees!

Under a blood red moon … or not

We asked, and you surely delivered. We put out a call for your photos of the lunar eclipse, and got so many that for a moment we were afraid we might break Facebook. Here are some of our favourites.

It was a little cloudy in Melbourne, but Rhonda Baum still managed to sneak a shot through the gloom.

Eclipse through clouds

Image by Rhonda Baum

Clear skies in Port Lincoln helped Peter Knife get this.

Lunar eclipse Port Lincoln

Image by Peter Knife

Meanwhile, in Albury, the eclipse really turned it on for Petra de Ruyter.

Eclipse from Albury

Image by Petra de Ruyter

And Tamworth lived up to its claim to be Big Sky Country.

Lunar eclipse from Tamworth

Image by Ekiama Apalisok-Brice

Some managed to catch the purple tones.

Purple moon

Image by Lisa Belgrave

Lunar eclipse purple

Image by Samantha Bright

Others managed to catch tones we found a little surprising. There’s always one, isn’t there, Peter Feeney?

Green moon

Image by Peter Feeney

We got images from Japan.

Lunar eclipse Japan

Image by Ivy B Ueama

And Indonesia.

Lunar eclipse Indonesia

Image by Muhammad Hasbi Alfarizi

We got spectacular montages.

Lunar eclipse montage

Image by Kelly Wilson

But for some of us, the weather didn’t co-operate at all. Kim Cook was able to remind those of us who missed out that clouds can be beautiful too.

Sunset clouds

Image by Kim Cook

But if we’re honest, we have to admit that Ali Ceyhan spoke for all of us who didn’t get to see it.

Lunar eclipse meme

Image by Ali Ceyhan

Next time, next time … And our sincere thanks to all of you for your photos.

The other CO₂ problem

By Eamonn Bermingham 

Where would we be without the ocean? Swimming, surfing, snorkelling would be tough, not to mention all the yummy food we’d miss. But it has also played a more important role in all of our lives; fulfilling the noblest of causes.

For many years the ocean has been on the front line in the fight to slow down climate change, absorbing around a quarter of the carbon dioxide we produce. The problem is that the scars of this attack are beginning to show.

Ocean acidification is often referred to as the “other CO₂ problem”, and is a chemical response to the dissolving of carbon dioxide into seawater.

The equation is simple: as CO₂ in the atmosphere goes up (and there was a record-breaking increase in 2013), the pH of the ocean falls, with negative impacts on marine biodiversity, ecosystems and society.

Many species of fish - and the ecosystems that support them - could be threatened by ocean acidification.

Many species of fish – and the ecosystems that support them – could be threatened by ocean acidification. Image: flickr.com/psykedelic61/

But how bad is it?

For the past two years we’ve been working as part of an international team brought together by the United Nations to investigate the impacts of ocean acidification, and our findings have been released today.

The rate of acidification since pre-industrial times and its projected continuation are unparalleled in the last 300 million years, and are likely to have a severe impact on marine species and ecosystems, with flow-on effects to various industries, communities and food security.

We’ve estimated that the loss of tropical coral reef alone – such as the Great Barrier Reef – could end up costing a trillion US dollars a year.

A groundswell of scientific studies are providing us with more information than ever about the effects of ocean acidification.

A groundswell of scientific studies on the effects of ocean acidification are developing our understanding of the issue.

What does the future hold?

Ten years ago, only a handful of researchers were investigating the biological impacts of ocean acidification. Around a thousand published studies later, our understanding of ocean acidification and its consequences has increased tremendously.

Experimental studies show the variability of organisms’ responses to simulated future conditions: some are impacted negatively, some positively, and others are apparently unaffected.

If we are to truly understand the future impacts of ocean acidification, more research is needed to reduce the uncertainties, reduce emissions, and reduce the problem.

Read the full report: “An updated synthesis of the impacts of ocean acidification on marine biodiversity” 

The report was compiled by the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity, an international team of 30 scientists.

Explainer: how ‘biocontrol’ fights invasive species

A picture of rabbits.

Rabbit numbers have been considerably reduced by the introduction of two viruses – Rabbit calicivirus and myxoma

By Louise Morin, CSIRO; Andy Sheppard, CSIRO; Tanja Strive, CSIRO.

Australia’s “ferals” — invasive alien plants, pests and diseases — are the largest bioeconomic threats to Australian agriculture. They also harm our natural ecosystems and biodiversity. Some, such as mosquitoes, also act as carriers of human diseases.

These invasive species cost Australian agriculture more than A$10 billion a year — more or less what states and territories spend on roads every year.

One method of controlling invasive plants and pests — known as biological control, or “biocontrol”— is to use their own enemies against them. These “biocontrol agents” can be bacteria, fungi, viruses, or parasitic or predatory organisms, such as insects.

To find biocontrol agents, we travel to the native home of invasive species and search for suitable natural enemies. After extensive safety testing, they are introduced into Australia.

But do they work?

Learning from the cane toad catastrophe

Cane toads, which were introduced in 1935 to control cane beetles in Queensland’s sugar cane crops, are probably the most infamous example of biocontrol going wrong in Australia.

But Australia’s borders were more open back then. To protect against such harmful mistakes, Australia now has world-leading biosecurity import regulations and an effective quarantine system.

To be allowed entry into Australia, a candidate biocontrol agent must be assessed using internationally-recognised protocols. This demonstrates that it will not pose unacceptable risks to domestic, agricultural, and native species.

A cost-effective solution

Other control methods, such as the use of poisons and mechanical removal, require continued reapplication. Many biocontrol agents of plants and insects, once established, are self-sustaining and don’t have to be reapplied.

Prickly pear is a perfect success story of biocontrol. The plant was introduced into Australia in the late 1770s and grown in a few areas of NSW and Queensland until it became invasive after rapidly spreading following the flood of 1893. Biocontrol was initiated in the early 1900s and the prickly pear moth, Cactoblastis cactorum, was introduced in 1926 from the pear’s native home in the Americas. Cactoblastis has been keeping prickly pear under control almost by itself to this day.

Cactoblastis moth larvae eating prickly pear

Cactoblastis moth larvae eating prickly pear

Since then, many more biocontrol agents have been introduced to control invasive plants. These include mimosa in our top end, bridal creeper in southern Australia, parthenium in Queensland and ragwort in Tasmania.

A series of cost-benefit analyses in 2006 revealed that for every dollar spent on biocontrol of invasive plants, agricultural industries and society benefited by A$23. This was due to increases in production, multi-billion dollar savings in control costs and benefits to human health.

Biocontrol has also proven to be the only effective way to significantly reduce European rabbits across Australia. Myxoma virus was released in 1950, followed by rabbit calicivirus in 1995, causing regular disease outbreaks in wild rabbits. Together, they have kept rabbit numbers well below the devastating pre-1950s levels.

It’s estimated that the benefit of rabbit biocontrol to agriculture is worth more than A$70 billion. This is the only example of a successful large-scale biocontrol program against a vertebrate pest anywhere in the world.

Bridal creeper.

The invasive plant bridal creeper affected by its rust fungus

The initial costs of biocontrol programs are generally high. That’s because we have to find suitable candidate agents overseas, test them for safety in quarantine, and comply with regulations around release.

But once biocontrol agents are released and affect the invasive species across its range, follow up control costs are greatly reduced.

Biocontrol is not a ‘silver bullet’

Biocontrol will not solve all problems to do with invasive species.

Weather and climate can affect biocontrol agents, like all living organisms. These two factors can slow and even stop the agents building-up to sufficient levels to control the invasive species.

In the case of the two rabbit viruses, virus-host co-evolution has led to a decline in effectiveness of the viruses over time as they lost virulence and rabbits developed resistance to them. This is similar to how bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics. As a result, we must continue to search for ways to counteract these effects.

Like a multi-drug cocktail, biocontrol agents must often be used together to knock out an invasive species. And while biocontrol rarely completely eradicates an invasive species on its own, it may control it enough to be able to use other methods at a lower cost.

Picture of Crofton weed.

Crofton weed has overtaken hillsides of Lord Howe Island, but a new fungal disease will help control it.

And just because we use biocontrol, it doesn’t mean we don’t need good farm practices and land management, such as bush restoration, to ensure the recovery of ecosystems affected by invasive species.

Biocontrol is unlikely to be the solution where invasive species are very closely related to species that we value — cats, for instance. Feral cats have recently been in the media as the greatest threat to Australia’s mammals. But because they are the same species as the cherished family moggy, a biocontrol program would be highly controversial.

New biocontrol programs

The historic successes of biocontrol in Australia justify continued investment. For widespread invasive species, there are no alternatives as cost-effective that work across the vast landscapes where feral species roam.

For example, the European carp pest makes up 90% of the fish biomass in the Murray Darling river system. The most promising option being developed for large-scale control is the carp-specific koi-herpes virus that is in the final stages of testing (to make sure the virus only targets carp). Its proposed release in Australia will soon be open for public debate.

A picture of Carp fish

CSIRO has been testing in quarantine a new virus to control invasive carp.

Another case is the recent release of a rust fungus from Mexico for the biocontrol of crofton weed in eastern Australia. This invasive plant smothers grazing systems and natural ecosystems, including on the hillsides of Lord Howe Island, a World Heritage Area. The expectation is that this new highly-specific rust fungus will significantly contribute to control of this plant, the way other rust fungi have successfully done in the past against other invasive plants.

After 100 years of history in Australia, biocontrol should continue to have a bright future given it is the only approach that is environmentally-friendly, cheap and effective.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


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