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 in the future we can determine what is attributable to natural sources, and what is attributable to CSG activity.

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.


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.


Ghostbusting in the Gulf

By Eamonn Bermingham

scissors cutting turtle net

A rescued turtle off the Northern Australian coast.

The Gulf of Carpentaria off Australia’s northern coast has one of the highest rates of abandoned fishing nets, or so-called ghostnets, anywhere in the world.  In fact, up to three tonnes of netting washes ashore each year for every kilometre of coastline.

Unfortunately, all of these nets can have a big impact on our marine life.  Getting caught in nets is one of the most common causes of death for marine turtles in Australia. Ghostnets have also been known to catch dugongs, sharks, and fish species and cause damage to coral reefs and seabeds. What’s more, they can create shipping lane hazards and introduce alien species into vulnerable ecosystems.

While ghostnets can cause big issues, the good news is that our researchers have found a way to tackle the problem.

Working with Ghostnets Australia and Indigenous rangers, we analysed data from more than 8,000 ghostnets retrieved from the region’s coastline over a seven year period. We found that 5000 to 15000 turtles had been caught in the nets during this time.

According to lead scientist Dr Chris Wilcox, as well as quantifying the problem for the first time, the team was able to find a solution that will allow regulators to manage the issue more effectively.

“Using the data collected and oceanographic modelling we’ve identified a pinch-point at the north-eastern section of the Gulf near Weipa where nets can be intercepted and removed relatively cheaply – before they reach high-density turtle areas,” he said.

Northern Australia map

The Gulf of Carpentaria has one of the highest rates of abandoned fishing nets in the world.

As well as creating a healthier marine environment and a more sustainable fishing industry in the region, the study will improve our understanding of the overall global threat from marine debris. This will inform regulation, enforcement, and conservation action.

If you’re interested in finding out more about marine debris, check out our website.

Ghostnets Australia is an alliance of indigenous communities stretching across Northern Australia from the Torres Strait and the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Kimberleys.


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 simon.torok@csiro.au


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|emily.lehmann@csiro.au

 


Getting water smart, metal by metal

water

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.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,944 other followers