Climate models – why they’re not just hot air

We rely a lot on climate models. They not only help us understand our present climate, but also allow us to understand possible future conditions and how different regions of our planet are likely to be impacted by climate change.

Having access to this information is vital for the community, government and industries to make informed decisions – sectors like tourism, farming and transportation to name a few.

As useful as these tools are, the reality is that the Earth’s climate system is incredibly complicated. It is affected by an infinite number of variations in the atmosphere, land surface, oceans, ice, and biosphere.  How these factors interact with one another, and our socio-economic decisions, further complicates the issue.

Our climate system is affected by variations in the atmosphere, land surface, oceans, ice and biosphere.

Our climate system is affected by variations in the atmosphere, land surface, oceans, ice and biosphere.

In the absence of a twin Earth to use as an experimental control, simulations are the only method we have to understand the future.

Using observed data, advanced algorithms and software systems, scientists have been developing and refining these valuable climate models for years. However in recent times, there has been conjecture about a key aspect of the reliability of these models; whether they are accurately predicting temperature trends?

A new study, published today in Nature Climate Change, shows that yes in fact, they are.

According to the study’s lead author Dr James Risbey, the key to evaluating decadal climate variations  is recognising the difference between climate forecasts and climate projections.

He explains that climate forecasts track the detailed evolution of a range of factors, including natural variations like El Niño and La Niña (which put simply is, warm water sloshing around the ocean). This is important because in El Niño and La Niña dominated periods, temperature trends will naturally speed up and slow down.

climate model

A visualisation of temperature projections for a mid-level greenhouse gas emission scenario (ACCESS)

“Climate projections, on the other hand, capture natural variations, but have no information on their sequence and timing. Since these can impact the climate on a short timescale as much as human activities, their omission from projections creates a mismatch with observed trends. In other words, comparing the two wouldn’t pass the old ‘apples with apples’ test,” he said.

For this latest study, James and his colleagues looked at a range of different climate models that were in phase with natural variability. In doing so, they were able to make meaningful comparisons between model projections and observed trends.

Their analysis showed that in these instances climate models have been very accurate in predicting trends in our climate over the past half century. In other words, climate change models are a lot more than hot air.

Fine out more about our research into climate in our recent report State of the Climate: 2014.

Media Contact: Simon Torok +61 409 844 302 or

Going with the throughflow

Hose spraying water

The backyard experiment any hose-owner can try. Image: Flickr / Scott Akerman

By Simon Torok

Here’s a simple backyard science experiment for you to try, which has global implications.

Grab a garden hose, turn it on, and then put your thumb over the end of it. The flow of water thins, while its power intensifies.

Okay, now multiply that by a few million and you have some idea of the impact of recent La Niña conditions on a major ocean current north of Australia.

The Indonesian Throughflow is a series of ocean currents linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It carries water from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean through the passages and straits of the Indonesian Archipelago.

Schematic of the ITF. Values of the flow and the major passages are indicated by red. Water enters the ITF from the western Pacific and exits into the Indian Ocean.

Schematic of the ITF. Values of the flow and the major passages are indicated by red. Water enters the ITF from the western Pacific and exits into the Indian Ocean. Image: Wikipedia.

Researchers – led by Janet Sprintall at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the United States, and including Susan Wijffels from CSIRO in Hobart – have found that the flow of water in the Indonesian Throughflow has become more shallow and intense since the late 2000s due to La Niña conditions, just as the water flow thinned and intensified while you played with that garden hose.

The paper, The Indonesian seas and their role in the coupled ocean-climate system appears in today’s online publication of the journal Nature Geoscience.

The Indonesian Throughflow is the only place in the world where warm equatorial waters flow from one ocean to another; consequently, the throughflow is an important chokepoint in the flow of heat in the climate system.

The paper suggests that human-caused climate change could make this shallowing and intensification a more dominant feature of the Indonesian Throughflow, even under El Niño conditions.

Changes in how much warm water is carried by the Indonesian Throughflow will affect the sea surface temperature, and in turn the patterns of rainfall in our region.

So you may need to think a bit more about how you use that garden hose.

Turning mining wastewater into rainwater

By Emily Lehmann

Mining is a big player in our economy so it’s important we use the most innovative and sustainable practices where possible. This is where we come in.

We’ve created a new environmentally-friendly treatment to turn mining wastewater into rainwater at a Queensland mine site – one that can dramatically reduce sludge by up to 90 per cent.

No sludge in sight. Well, up to 90 per cent less.

No sludge in sight. Well, up to 90 per cent less.

Sludge is an oozy, mud-like material and is a by-product of many conventional wastewater processes.

In large volumes sludge is problematic because it needs to be moved and stored in pits or landfill for long-term disposal. This is timely, expensive and can impact on the environment.

As the Australian mining industry is estimated to generate hundreds of millions of tonnes of wastewater each year, reducing sludge will have huge economic and environmental benefits.

When we applied the new technology, called Virtual Curtain, at the first commercial minesite recently, the treatment effectively removed a range of metal contaminants and the equivalent of around 20 Olympic swimming pools of rainwater-quality water was safely released into the environment.

The CSIRO-developed treatment utilises hydrotalcites, which are minerals sometimes found in stomach antacids, to simultaneously trap a variety of contaminants – including arsenic, cadmium, and iron – in one step.

The Virtual Curtain treatment is more cost-effective than traditional lime-based methods used by the mining industry and reduces the steps involved.

It doesn’t require complex infrastructure or chemistry to apply it and the small amount of material that’s leftover is often high in metal value which can be re-mined to partially offset treatment costs.

The licensed technology, which can be applied to a range of industrial applications, is available through Australian company Virtual Curtain Limited.

Hear from our expert, Dr Grant Douglas, in the video below.

For more info read the media release.

Media enquiries: Emily Lehmann|+61 39545 8746|


Getting water smart, metal by metal


Water is a key ingredient in metal production.


By Emily Lehmann

In an arid country like Australia, we need to make sure we do our best to conserve water and we’ve come up with a way that will help industry do just that.

It involves life cycle analysis, and it can calculate the amount of water used – both directly and indirectly – in the production of metals.

To give you an idea, we calculated that it takes 1600 litres of water to make the 19 kilograms of copper in an average medium-sized car. Add up the water required to make all of the other metals found in your car and you’re practically driving around a swimming pool!

Water is an essential ingredient in a metal’s transformation from an impure mineral ore to a pure metal product. The more impurities, or the lower the grade of the ore, the more water it takes to process it.

In Australia many of our high grade ores have been depleted, so industry is increasingly mining these lower-grade ores. Mines are also often located in remote Australia where water is a scarce resource so as you can imagine, the interest in reducing water use is high.

While the minerals industry already makes good use of water recycling opportunities, this in itself is not always the best way to improve sustainability.

There's more copper (and water) in your car than you might think.

There’s more copper (and water) in your car than you might think.

“Recycling water is not always a straightforward task,” says lead researcher, Dr Nawshad Haque.

“Water may be degraded or contaminated during mineral extraction and production processes, and in order for it to be reused it must be treated to meet the specifications required for plant operations.”

Our research team focussed on the most water intensive metals including nickel, copper and gold. By providing information on water usage and comparisons to other industrial processes, the tool will enable better water management.

You can read the full story in the latest issue of resourceful, released this week.

Mega-pest worms its way into Brazil

Helicoverpa armigera_5

By Wee Tek Tay, Research Scientist, CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship

We often speak of the risks of new invasions in our increasingly interconnected world, and stress the need for a strong and reliable biosecurity system to safeguard our borders.

As global trading and markets increase, it’s essential to develop our ability to detect incursions using new and innovative surveillance techniques combined with rapid identification capabilities.  This is important because Incursions by exotic pests and diseases have the potential to seriously impact Australia’s people, agricultural industries and unique environment.

And right now, a team of Australian and international scientists are working closely with colleagues in Brazil as one of the most destructive pests known to agriculture – the cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) – worms its way into Brazilian agricultural fields.

Helicoverpa armigera has long been recognised as a serious biosecurity threat to the Americas, where it has the potential to establish across the South and North American continent with far greater anticipated potential economic loss to corn and cotton than the closely related Helicoverpa zea which is endemic to the Americas.

Incredibly, despite being intercepted at US Ports of Entry a staggering 4431 times since 1985, this mega-pest had not been previously reported to take hold on the American continents.

In Australia, Asia, Africa and Europe, where cotton bollworm is considered native, the damage it causes is estimated to cost $US 2 billion each year. In the last two growing seasons, high infestations of Helicoverpa species larvae were found in different regions of Brazil, resulting in substantial economic losses of up to 10 billion Brazilian Reals ($US 4.4 billion).

A cotton bollworm larvae decimating a cob of corn

A cotton bollworm larvae decimating a cob of corn

At first it was assumed that the damage was being caused by Helicoverpa zea, because the cotton bollworm had never previously been detected within the country. However, as the scale of spread and destruction was monitored, the Brazilian scientists knew that something was different and suspected that maybe the dreaded incursion of Helicoverpa armigera had indeed begun. At this point, Brazilian scientists from the Mato Grosso Cotton Institute approached CSIRO researchers to assist in the careful identification of the species attacking their crops.

Our scientists, together with French and Indian colleagues from CIRAD and IRD in France and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research used evolutionary and population genetics to confirm that the cotton bollworm has now successfully invaded Brazil.

Along with the confirmation that the Brazilians are indeed dealing with a new incursion of a serious exotic pest, the international team led by scientists from the CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship and Matto Grosso Cotton Institute is providing further vital data that will assist Brazil to manage this new menace.

The next steps for the research team are to investigate where the moth originated, where they are currently distributed, its spread across the South American continent, and the incidence of resistance to key pesticides. This information, coupled with CSIRO’s extensive expertise in insecticide resistance management will assist Brazil to develop effective strategies to manage this mega-pest.

You can read the full research paper at PLOS ONE.

For media enquiries contact Emma Pyers: +61 3 5227 5123,

Putting a stop to the rot

Queensland Fruit Fly

The Queensland Fruit Fly

Flies aren’t only a nuisance for beach goers, some species can cause havoc for Australia’s agricultural industries and threaten the production and export opportunities of our fresh fruit and vegetable produce.

Queensland Fruit Fly (Q-fly) is one of these species. It’s the highest priority pest for a broad range of horticultural industries and can inflict significant costs on producers through management costs, lost production and reduced export opportunities, and on government and industries through eradication campaigns in areas where fruit fly does not regularly occur. These costs all eventually flow through to consumers and taxpayers.

An outbreak of Q-fly in a major fruit or vegetable production area, such as the Riverland in South Australia, has the potential to impact Australia’s export and domestic horticulture markets.

CSIRO’s Biosecurity Flagship together with Horticulture Australia Ltd, Plant & Food Research Australia and the Department of Primary Industries and Regions South Australia are joining forces to find a solution to this Q-fly problem.

Today marks the beginning of this partnership with the South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announcing the establishment of a $3 million facility to breed male-only sterile Q-flies for use in Sterile Insect Technology (SIT) programs.

SIT is a scientifically proven method for suppressing or eradicating fruit fly populations and managing their potential impacts in horticulture production areas.

The $3 million State investment is in addition to a collaborative $15 million research and development consortium which will focus on new technologies to produce the male-only sterile Q-flies, and then the most effective release strategies and monitoring technologies needed to underpin effective area-wide control of Q-fly.

Boy biting into peach with blue sky in the background

Image: iStock

SIT approaches have already been used with great success around the world and in South Australia to combat Mediterranean fruit fly. However, the development of male-only sterile Q-fly will be a world first and will significantly enhance the cost effectiveness of SIT.

SIT is environmentally friendly and can be used in orchards, urban and environmentally sensitive areas, where application of conventional chemical treatments isn’t possible or is intrusive.

For media enquiries contact Emma Pyers: +61 3 5227 5123,

The time has come: a continent-wide system for monitoring for our biodiversity

Here in Australia we have a wide range of fantastic continental scale systems for monitoring elements of our environment, from the climate, atmosphere, water and oceans, to earthquakes and tremors, and vegetation and land cover.

Rainfall radar image

Bureau of Meteorology weather monitoring systems, such as their rainfall radar, aid decision-making – like knowing when it’s safe to take your hairdo outside.

Historically, these environmental domains have been well served. Most people would be familiar with the Bureau of Meteorology’s (BoM) weather and climate monitoring, for example.

(Their rainfall radars have saved my hairdo on more than one occasion)

Operated by the likes of BoM and Geoscience Australia, environmental monitoring systems have allowed the Australian Government to make informed continental-scale decisions, and they are also put to good use by countless others, not least our maritime, aviation and agriculture industries.

What we haven’t had on a continental scale though is consistent information about Australian biodiversity that can support national decision-making. There has been no system in place that spans the continent and can tell us how the diversity of species is changing over time and over geographic space.

To address this deficit, a collaboration of BoM, CSIRO and the Atlas of Living Australia have looked into how such a system might work and released their findings in a new report‑ Biodiversity Profiling: Components of a continental biodiversity information capability.

Importantly, they found that it would be possible to put a biodiversity assessment system in place using existing capability, such as data stores, environmental modelling tools and spatial information.

The team found that the Atlas of Living Australia, an online database of Australian biodiversity that has brought information from our natural history collections, state and territory conservation agencies, biodiversity interest groups and individuals, together with related environmental and mapping data, provides a unique opportunity to establish a continental-scale biodiversity assessment system.

An applied case study in the report shows that data contained within the Atlas can be combined with environmental data to derive models of biodiversity patterns, which can then be combined with satellite imagery, such as that acquired by the National Carbon Accounting System, to infer patterns of biodiversity loss or retention in individual regions. The authors say this demonstrates the potential for data and models to be linked for continent-wide monitoring.

Further development of the Atlas and the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network, which champion consistent ecological research, monitoring and data sharing across the continent, are rapidly improving our nation’s ability to monitor the landscape.

By integrating data collection and modelling capabilities with the monitoring systems of BoM, Geoscience Australia and other government agencies, there will be new opportunities to understand ecological change and support the Australian Government’s continental-scale decision-making.

Download the full report

Map of Australia and Antartica with biological data represented in colour

An indication of the spatial data held by the Atlas of Living Australia. This map is a snapshot in time showing the occurrence density of biological records on the Atlas.

The turbulent times ahead for airborne pests

Boy on beach playing with sand

Image: Shutterstock

By Emma Pyers

Picture this – it’s a windy day in Northern Australia; in fact it’s a northerly wind. What are your initial thoughts?  Maybe heading to the beach with the family, hosting a BBQ or spending time outside with your canine friend?  But did you think about the risks these winds pose to our country’s biosecurity status?

If not, that’s OK because that’s what our scientists are here for – to help find solutions to protecting our environment and people from nasty pest and disease threats.

Currently the biggest biosecurity threat to Australia comes from the import of animals, plants, seeds and food that carry pests or pathogens.

So it makes sense that most of our surveillance effort goes into detecting these potential biosecurity threats at air and marine ports, and using our quarantine system for imported animals, although this still leaves open another ‘pathway’ for these nasties to use.

It’s on the wind.

It’s not as common as the direct import pathway, but it’s more concerning as it’s out of our immediate control.

So, we’re turning to mathematics and computer modelling to develop surveillance systems that can predict when and where pests and pathogens might be blown into, and from, Australia.

Yellow hot air balloon in the sky

Been hot air ballooning? Then you’ve experienced travelling with air layers and currents. Image: Zurijeta/Shutterstock

Traditionally wind trajectories have been used to show wind direction, but transport on the wind is more complex, as the pests and pathogens are also taken vertically.  The higher they are taken, the further they can travel.

Fortunately this is an area of great significance to atmospheric physicists, as they are interested in predicting things like how pollutants are dispersed in the air by chimneys, and how radiation might disperse following a nuclear accident.

This has led them to use a combination of mathematics and computer simulation to represent transport of particles in the atmosphere. There are now a number of computer applications that can do the hard work of combining the climate and weather data with the maths and physics of wind dispersion.

Infographic including maps detailing the dispersal of culicoides midges blowing into northern Australia

However, pest or pathogen dispersion is different to dust or pollutant dispersions, as living organisms respond differently within the atmosphere.  They might die if it’s too hot or cold, if the wind is too turbulent, or even if they’re susceptible to ultra-violet light.  All these organism-specific parameters need to be taken into account on top of standard dispersion modelling approaches to establish if there is a biosecurity risk or not.

It’s a challenge to bring these important elements together and make optimal decisions about when and where to do surveillance for wind-borne threats, even allowing for a high performance computer to analyse the data.

We’re working to solve this problem for all the relevant biosecurity domains interested in wind-borne spread, for example plant, animal and human health.

We are in the process of building a web-based tool that will link to the Bureau of Meteorology’s high-performance computing.  This new application is called the Tool for Assessing Pest or Pathogen Airborne Spread, also known as TAPPAS (sorry, it’s not Spanish cuisine). 

We expect TAPPAS to be ready for government, industry and research agencies interested in predicting and responding to airborne biosecurity threats for a ‘user acceptance testing” workshop in around 12-18 months time.

Our very own Peter Durr is presenting a talk on TAPPAS at the Biosecurity and Bioinvasion workshop tomorrow at CSIRO Discovery in Canberra.  CSIRO is co-hosting this event, which is part of the International Year of the Mathematics of Planet Earth, with AMSI, ANU and DAFF.

Requiescat in pace – FFT

Nearly three years after Friday Fish Time was spawned, the time has come to kill it off. FFT served us well, but now the blog has caught on (and everyone wants to get on board) there is little room left for little fish tales. Time to cast them off, throw them back, reject the best, and recast. So, goodbye my scaly friends.

Nearly three years after Friday Fish Time was spawned, the time has come to kill it off.
FFT served us well, but now the blog has caught on (and everyone wants to get on board) there is little room left for little fish tales. Time to cast them off, throw them back, reject the best, and recast.
So, goodbye my scaly friends.

Controlling ‘those pesky wabbits’ on land and in water

Part of the Biosecurity Series

By Michelle Beltrame, Ken McColl and Tanja Strive

‘Shhh. Be vewy vewy quiet, we’re wesearching viruses’.

If Elmer Fudd is the arch-enemy of Bugs Bunny, then it’s safe to say that we’re not only the arch-enemy of the European rabbit, but the fish known as the ‘rabbit of the waterways’ – the European carp.

We’re arming ourselves with viruses with the aim of keeping these two invasive species in check and to help protect Australia’s economy and environment. This strategy is called biological control (‘biocontrol’ for short) – using disease to tackle invasive pests.

The battle of the rabbit

Black and white photo of rabbits clustering around a small waterhole

This photo was taken under controlled conditions during myxoma virus trials on Wardang Island off South Australia in 1938 (click for full size image). Photo: M W Mules/CSIRO.

The European rabbit is a serious threat to agriculture and biodiversity in Australia. Myxoma virus, released in 1950 and Rabbit Calicivirus Disease (RCD), released in 1996, have proven the only effective means to significantly reduce rabbit numbers. The benefits to the agricultural industries of these two biocontrol viruses are estimated at $70 billion.

The European rabbit was brought to Australia onboard the First Fleet in 1788, but only became a major pest in 1859 when 24 wild rabbits were released by a wealthy Victorian grazier keen on the sport of hunting, and, …well… they bred like wild rabbits! Soon millions of rabbits were competing with Australia’s livestock for feed and were damaging the environment and threatening our native animals.

Our predecessor, CSIR, conducted initial trials of myxomatosis that ultimately resulted in the release of the virus in 1950. It was the world’s first successful biocontrol program of a mammalian pest, taming a scourge that had threatened Australian agriculture and environment.

Lionel Bull, Chief of the CSIR Division of Animal Health and Nutition, releasing the first infected rabbits as part of the myxoma virus trial. (click for full size image)

Lionel Bull, Chief of the CSIR Division of Animal Health and Nutition, releasing the first infected rabbits as part of the myxoma virus trial. (click for full size image)

The initial release of myxoma virus led to a dramatic reduction of Australia’s rabbit population – killing 99.8 per cent of rabbits that caught the infection in some areas. Because the virus is spread by mosquitoes, it had its greatest impact in the highest rainfall areas but didn’t work as well in arid zones where mosquitoes can’t survive.

By the late 1950s, resistance to the myxoma virus was starting to build up in Australia’s rabbits. The virus became less effective and rabbit numbers increased, but not to pre-1950 levels.

RDC was first discovered in China in 1984 and soon after in other countries in Asia, Europe and in Mexico. The viral disease affects only European rabbits, and its discovery offshore alerted scientists to a potential new biocontrol for wild rabbits in Australia.

The introduction of calicivirus in Australia in 1996 again reduced rabbit numbers drastically, but it had greater impact in the arid zones and least impact in the higher rainfall areas. A few years ago we discovered that Australian rabbits in the higher rainfall areas actually carry a native calicivirus that may provide some immunity to the disease. This benign form of the virus is very similar, so we suspect it’s acting as an imperfect natural vaccine against the more virulent strain.

Calicivirus and myxomatosis are still having an impact, but over the years their effectiveness has declined. As a result, we’re currently researching different caliciviruses in Australian wild rabbits, and their interactions with RCD to help determine potential future implementations for rabbit biocontrol.

Curbing our carp numbers

Photo of carp jumping out of water

A European Carp. Image: Dirk-Jan Kraan/Flickr

Carp is a pest associated with the poor health of our rivers and wetlands. The fish was first introduced to Australia more than 100 years ago and is now rampant in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Image: sophietica/Flickr.

Koi Carp. Image: sophietica/Flickr.

We’re currently investigating a disease called cyprinid herpesvirus-3, also known as koi herpesvirus (or KHV), as a potential new biocontrol agent to help eradicate carp from Australia. The virus first appeared in Israel in 1998, and spread rapidly throughout much of the world, although not to Australia or New Zealand. It causes high death rates in common carp and in the ornamental variety of carp known as koi carp. No other species of fish, including goldfish, are known to be affected by it.

We’re conducting our research within the world’s most sophisticated high containment facility within the CSIRO-Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL), where we’re undertaking rigorous tests to determine the virus’ suitability for controlling carp.

We’ve identified that CyHV-3 does kill Australian carp, and it kills them quickly, and current research has shown that the virus doesn’t affect native Australian or any other introduced species of fish.

Over the next few years we’ll continue to test the susceptibility of other fish species to CyHV-3 and address questions regarding the safety of possible widespread distribution of the virus, both for humans and for other animal species

Join the Conversation: #bflaunch

About the Authors

Photo of Ken MccollDr Ken McColl, Research Scientist at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory, Geelong.

Ken is a veterinary virologist and pathologist specialising in the research and diagnosis of diseases of aquatic animals. For the past few years, Dr McColl’s major interest has centred on the possible use of koi herpesvirus (KHV) as a biological control agent for carp in Australia.

Photo of Tanja StriveDr Tanja Strive, Research Team Leader, CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences.

Tanja is a molecular virologist, and her current research focuses on various aspects of the biological control of vertebrate pest species, in particular rabbits. Key projects investigate: a) the interactions of different co-occurring rabbit pathogens in the field and the implications for rabbit control, b) the molecular virulence mechanisms of rabbit calicivirus, c) the selection of suitable virus strains for successive and ongoing field releases, and d) The evolution of rabbit caliciviruses as a model system for emerging diseases.

Battling pests by the numbers

Biosecurity Series

By Simon Barry



Effective biosecurity protects Australia’s environment and industries, but managing risk is an uncertain business. That’s why we need statistics.

Australia’s physical isolation has fostered the development of an amazing diversity of unique plants and animals, and has protected us from many serious pests and diseases that circulate around the world.

But we’re also a nation of traders — our prosperity is built on the import and export of goods and services.

With trade, however, can come exotic pests and diseases that have significant impacts on agriculture, the environment and economy.

In Australia’s history, a number of iconic examples are etched in the national psyche.

Rabbits were introduced into Australia several times, beginning with the First Fleet in 1788.  Once established, they multiplied rapidly reaching plague proportions last century.  They, in combination with introduced red fox and feral cat populations they support, are suspected of being the main cause of species loss in Australia.

The cactus prickly pear (Opuntia sp.) was introduced to Australia to start a cochineal dye industry.  It spread quickly and at its height infested 24 million hectares of farmland with severe impacts on our agriculture.

A prickly pear site before treatment with Cactoblastis cactorum (click for a comparison of before and after)

A prickly pear site before treatment with Cactoblastis cactorum (View a comparison of before and after)

While the community narrative is often framed around fear of invasion and potentially catastrophic consequences, the policy challenges are more complex and diffuse.

Decision makers need to assess risks of importation of different goods and materials against their possible benefits.  They need to design surveillance systems to manage unacceptable risks; to certify that our exports are pest free; to predict their spread and impact when incursions of pests occur.

All of this is done against a backdrop of uncertainty.

Which species will successfully establish can be difficult to predict – impacts of exotic pests in agricultural systems may be predictable in some circumstances, but their environmental impacts are more uncertain.  The linkage between biosecurity, trade and market access means that stakeholders may have a vested interest in the process. And the data required to predict accurately how successfully pest species establish here are limited or in most cases thankfully non-existent, so secondary sources, such as observations in other countries need to be used.

This is where statistics helps inform our decisions.

Statistics deals naturally with uncertainty and explicitly considers one of the most fundamental scientific questions: What can we logically infer about the world based on limited data?

It can support the development of established methodologies, such as assessing biological control agents, but it also opens up the possibility of using other existing and new data streams such as citizen-science collected data and genomics.

When these are combined with new algorithms and high performance computing, a range of exciting new opportunities arise that mean we’re better placed to tackle these issues than ever before.

For example, we are using these new computational informatics approaches to analyse whether or not red foxes have been eradicated in Tasmania.

Photo of red fox

European red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Image: Liz Poon/CSIRO

Hard data is limited to a handful of fox carcasses discovered by members of the public, some footprints, a skull, DNA extracted from fox scats (poo) and blood found at the site of a chook pen raid from an unsighted predator.

As of 2010, the distribution of fox DNA-positive scats suggested a widespread fox population.

We’ve analysed the fox sighting data using a new statistical method known as approximate Bayesian computation, which uses computers to simulate millions of different plausible scenarios for the introduction and growth of the fox population.

Our analysis of the data up until 2013 provides different conclusions — that the introduced fox population is most likely extinct, or small and probably demographically weak.

Rather than worry us, the conflict between this result and the analysis based on scats is a healthy one and will drive research efforts to reconcile these differences.

We’re also using statistic to monitor the risk of pests and diseases which threaten Australia’s honeybee industry and many horticultural industries that rely on bees for pollination.

Australia is one of the only countries free of the mite Varroa destructor.  Varroa has had a huge impact on global beekeeping as bee populations overseas have been decimated. Thankfully, it has yet to reach Australia and here is a need for early detection so that eradication could begin.

A European honey bee prepupa with varroa mites

A European honey bee prepupa with varroa mites

We are using shipping data from the Lloyds registry and interception data on exotic bees and bee pests from Australian quarantine officers to resolve the relative risk of different overseas locations and the reduction of this risk due to journey duration.

Effective biosecurity will continue to be important in maintaining the efficiency of Australian agricultural industries and to protect the environment.

These two examples demonstrate how mathematical and statistical sciences play a key role and Australia is well placed to innovate in this area.

Join the Conversation: #bflaunch

We’re hosting  A Planet at Risk: Bioinvasion and Biosecurity workshop in Canberra in September. Visit the website for more details.

About the Author

Photo of Simon BarryDr Simon Barry is Program Leader of Environmental Informatics, CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship.

Simon uses his expertise in modelling and monitoring methodologies to lead research projects with the aim of helping environmental resource managers and stakeholders understand what resources we have, their quality and how to manage them for sustainability.

Using national pride to protect our environment

Our environment is an important part of Australia’s national identity. Image: Shawn Smith.

Our environment is an important part of Australia’s national identity. Image: Shawn Smith.

By Nadine Marshall, Senior Social Scientist and Jeremy Goldberg, PhD Student at James Cook University.

Australia’s natural resources are reaching a crisis point as they struggle to support and sustain our lifestyles. But while degradation of these systems continues, research suggests the level of concern for the environment is falling. So could encouraging some national pride in our natural resources help improve the environment’s outlook?

Not our concern

Australia’s environment is under stress from increased salinity, erosion, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity and climate change. While in 2007, 78% of Australians were seriously concerned about environmental problems such as these, by March 2013, only 59% of Australians reported similar unease.

It is not just concern that is wavering. Australians are exerting less personal effort in their daily lives in order to protect the environment. Indeed, in 2007 about 25% of Australians made effectively no effort to purchase “green” products. In March 2013 this figure rose dramatically to 41%.

These findings do not only pertain to Australia. Concern for the environment has decreased markedly across the globe during the last two decades. Polls continue to reveal widespread denial of environmental problems as well as resistance to adopting behaviours to sustain natural resources.

This recent decline in environmental concern could have a critical impact on public policy. With an indifferent population, governments are likely to face substantial difficulty securing public support for implementing environmental protection measures.

If we cannot rely on individuals to strategically manage private or public natural resources themselves, then there may be a need for increased regulation. But with regulation comes intense conflict; proposed policies are often opposed, goals are frequently contested, public dissatisfaction spills over, people refuse to participate or comply, animosity and distrust toward the government grows, appeals and litigation increase, and occasionally even physical threats and violence occur.

We know the decline in environmental concern is lower in countries with improving economic conditions, suggesting that economic growth helps to maintain higher levels of environmental concern. We also know that people with a poor understanding of environmental realities are less committed to environmental action. Poor environmental education and developing economies may explain environmental attitudes in other parts of the world but in Australia the reasons for the decline in concern are harder to pinpoint.

In America, conservation behaviour among young people has declined, as they appear to attribute responsibility for the environment to the government and to consumer behaviour rather than to themselves. The findings are similar in Australia, particularly in relation to climate change.

But recent studies suggest the public do not think that the government is acting adequately to protect natural resources. As a case in point, only 2% of Australians think that the Great Barrier Reef is looked after well enough to give a 10 out of 10 score for reef management.

Pride in our environment

Imagine if Australians believed that the greatness of our country depended on the condition of its environment.

Recent research suggests that people who identify strongly with their country and are more invested in its success, are likely to accept the socioeconomic system of that country and recognise when things aren’t quite right.

This may be important when we consider how environmental realities are perceived. If people can recognise the actual state of our natural resources, then they may be more interested in their management.

Perhaps a focus where the environment is associated with patriotic qualities could motivate those who are inclined to dismiss environmental problems. Through tying together national identity and environmental condition we might encourage Australians to recognise the realities of the state of our natural resources and how this reflects who we are as a nation.

Our research shows Australians still have a connection with many of our natural places. In particular, almost 90% of Australians recognise the Great Barrier Reef as integral to their identity and the majority believe it to be Australia’s most inspiring national icon.

In fact, 53% of Australians believe they would be personally affected if the health of the Great Barrier Reef declined.

Perhaps these are the sorts of relationships we ought to be encouraging government to focus upon, as a way to generate support for environmental policies. When weighed against the shorter term economic benefits that our resources provide, surely our national identity needs to be considered?

Australians might be losing interest in the condition of the environment – but not in the environment itself. It is important to remember that our environment is a part of who we are, and to show concern.

Concern for the environment and the constructive conservation action that accompanies it may be able to save our natural resources – reinforcing their integral value to our nation.

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

Rebirth of Country for Mungalla Wetlands

In 1999 the Nywaigi people, through the Nywaigi Aboriginal Land Corporation, purchased Mungalla Station, an 880 Ha cattle property that represents a small part of their ancestral lands and waters. Sitting adjacent to the World Heritage Great Barrier Reef lagoon and the IUCN-listed Halifax Bay Wetlands National Park, Mungalla is an enchanted bit of country.

Once the Nywaigi were back on that country though, they found there were some issues.

Unfortunately, in the years before the Nywaigi took back control of Mungalla, the wetlands on the station had become degraded by weed invasion, agricultural run-off and modifications that were made to the natural water flows in the area.

The Nywaigi are looking to turn the condition of the station around and restore Mungalla to a state that meets the cultural, environmental and financial needs of the Nywaigi owners and the broader community. To this end they have developed the Mungalla Wetlands Management Strategy.

Men on 4 wheel motorbike and buggy

Nywaigi managers surveying the wetlands. Image: Mike Nicholas

CSIRO has been working with the station managers since 2006 as a trusted adviser to help carry out this vision and establish a resilient ecosystem that supports diverse native species. Together they secured funding through the Australian Government’s Biodiversity Fund in 2012 for a five year project that will restore natural water flows, manage invasive plant species and revegetate important riparian corridors.

A crucial aspect of the recovery effort is to remove an artificial bund that prevents water movement between freshwater and saline environments. This will restore natural tidal flows and water exchanges to the wetland system and will allow for the recovery of a fish passage into and out of the wetlands. The tidal flows of brackish water will also help with the control of salt intolerant invasive plant species. CSIRO will manage this process and will be monitoring vegetation and water quality using novel aerial image capture techniques, before and after saline intrusions into the wetland.

On the weed front, the main offender is Hymenachne, a noxious Weed of National Signficance. It was first introduced to the area in the 1980s as a forage plant for cattle but it went feral, choking out the waterways and out-competing native vegetation. The station managers are making progress on managing this weed and others through a regime of herbicide spraying and burning. It is hoped that reducing weed abundance will allow diverse native plant species to return.

Revegetation is being helped along by the strategic planting of locally-sourced native plants. By involving young people in the revegetation work, the Nywaigi are ensuring knowledge about their country is passed down to younger generations. These activities are re-establishing important habitats and wildlife corridors throughout the wetlands, which will benefit native fauna, particularly birds. Diverse wetland plant communities could provide ideal habitats for nationally threatened and migratory bird species such as jabiru, brolga and magpie goose.

Man and girl planting tree

The revegetation work provides an opportunity to pass on knowledge to the younger generations. Image: Jacob Cassady

This work ensures that the cattle and tourism enterprises run by the Nywaigi owners on the station are sustainable and meet their cultural and economic aspirations. In turn, these enterprises support the ongoing management of this precious wetland.


On 27 May 2014 Mungalla Aboriginal Business Corporation and CSIRO won the Queensland Reconciliation Award in the Partnership category for the Mungalla Wetlands Biodiversity Project.

Four men with award

(L-r) CSIRO’s Tony Grice and Mike Nicholas, Qld Premier Campbell Newman, Jacob Cassidy from Mungalla Aboriginal Business Corporation. Credit: Roslyn Budd

Friday Fish Time

Common name: Blue Marlin. Scientific name: Makaira nigricans. Family: Istiophoridae.

Common name: Blue Marlin. Scientific name: Makaira nigricans.
Family: Istiophoridae.

Blue Marlin: This week a blue marlin washed up on a suburban Adelaide beach. It is thought this is the first time a marlin has been found in the cool waters of Gulf St Vincent where Adelaide sits.

Scientists from the South Australian Research and Development Institute think the fish took a wrong turn at Kangaroo Island and ended up in the Gulf.

They also think that the 3.2m long, 250kg marlin swan along the WA and SA coasts in the warm Leeuwin Current which at this time of year flows down the WA coast and around into the Great Australian Bight.

Below is a picture of the current (red turning to yellow and green as it cools) whipping around the bottom of WA. The second image shows the SA coast with the relatively warm water flowing around Kangaroo Island.

More images of the ocean currents around Australia can be found at the Bureau of Meteorology site which gets the information through the Bluelink program  run by CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans Flagship in collaboration with the Bureau of Meteorology and the Royal Australian Navy.



Anyway, back to the blue marlin. There is a debate going on about the classification of the Atlantic blue marlin and the

Indo-Pacific blue marlin (Makaira mazara) as separate species. Genetic data seems to show that although the two groups are isolated from each other they are both the same.

The blue marlin spends most of its life in the open sea far from land and preys on a wide variety of marine life and often uses its long bill to stun or injure its prey.

Females can grow up to four times the weight of males and the maximum published weight is 818kg and 5m long.

Blue marlin, like other billfish can rapidly change color, an effect created by pigment-containing iridophores and light-reflecting skin cells. Mostly they have a blue-black body on top with a silvery white underside.

Females can spawn up to four times in one season and release over seven million eggs at once. Males may live for 18 years, and females up to 27.

National Parks and Wildlife officer Josh Edwards and PIRSA aquatic health officer Dr Shane Roberts help to transport the blue marlin found on Carrickalinga beach. Pic: SARDI

National Parks and Wildlife officer Josh Edwards and PIRSA aquatic health officer Dr Shane Roberts help to transport the blue marlin found on Carrickalinga beach this week.

Designing a future Earth

By Chris Johnson

Today, the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council (ISSC) named Dr Mark Stafford Smith, the Science Director of our Climate Adaptation Flagship, as their inaugural Chair of the scientific committee of Future Earth.

What might the future of the Earth look like?

What does the future hold for our Earth?

Future Earth is a new 10-year international research initiative that will develop the knowledge for responding effectively to the risks and opportunities of global environmental change and for supporting transformation towards global sustainability in the coming decades. It will mobilize thousands of scientists while strengthening partnerships with policy-makers and other stakeholders to provide sustainability options and solutions in the wake of Rio+20.

The scientific committee is made up of 18 members from around the globe. It includes a broad range of disciplines and expertise needed to address global environmental change in all its dimensions, including natural and social sciences, humanities and engineering.

“Future Earth is going to change the way we do science globally. It represents a unique opportunity to provide the research needed to address the biggest challenges of our time on global sustainability, and to do so in partnership with decision-makers,” says Dr Stafford Smith.

Here he is discussing Future Earth in more detail.

Research by Future Earth will address fundamental questions, such as:

  • What risks are humanity facing?
  • Can we adapt to a warmer world?
  • How does global environmental change affect poverty and development?
  • How can the world eradicate poverty while achieving global sustainability?

Learn more about the vision behind Future Earth below.


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