Even Australia, where over half of the energy comes from coal, is starting to wave goodbye to the polluting fossil fuel. The country’s largest coal plant will now close seven years earlier than planned, as its operator claims it can’t compete with the expansion and lower costs of renewable energy sources — mainly solar and wind.
The massive 2.8 GW Eraring plant is located north of Sidney and is operated by Origin Energy. It will now close in 2025, after functioning for over 35 years. Eraring is the largest of the 16 coal-fired power plants in Australia, with seven scheduled to close by 2035 and the last one by 2051 as part of a transition to lower the country’s emissions.
Last year, Eraring alone was responsible for about 2% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, based on emissions data and calculations from the energy market. This makes the early closure of the plant a particularly big deal in the ongoing climate crisis, especially considering the recent early closure of other coal plants such as Bayswater and Yallourn.
New South Wales Energy Minister Matt Kean told reporters the decision to closer Eraring was months in the making, creating a plan to make it happen.
“That plan will involve making sure that we focus on keeping the reliability of the system and that we put downward pressure on prices,” he added, dismissing any energy security risks.
Frank Calabria, Origin’s CEO, said the energy market is now very different from when Eraring opened up decades ago. The economics of coal-fired power stations are “under increasing, unsustainable pressure” by non-conventional renewable sources, such as wind and solar, which are cleaner and cheaper, Calabria said in a press statement.
The company now plans to build a massive battery of up to 700MW at the power station site, which it aims to have mostly done before the plant shuts. At the same time, the state government of NSW said it’s working on a complementary project to build a second 700MW battery to free up capacity on the state transmission system.
Australia’s climate challenges
An analysis of the electricity market from last year found that Eraring was the coal plant most exposed to the growth of renewables and likely to lose money by 2025. Last year, the market share of renewable energy increased to over 30%, according to official data. In particular, rooftop solar and solar farms have expanded in Australia.
When international climate negotiations come up, Australia is usually labeled as a “laggard” on climate change, although it’s one of the countries that also suffer most due to climate change. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a prime example of the country’s love affair with coal — especially considering that in 2017. he brought a lump of coal to the parliament and said: “This is coal, don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you.” But the story goes beyond that specific anecdote.
The country’s climate target and policies are classified as “highly insufficient” by Climate Action Tracker (CAT), a think-tank that reviews countries’ commitments. If all countries would follow Australia’s climate action, the world would be on track for global warming of 4ºC, with no hint at the country’s emissions going down any time soon.
At the recent COP26 climate summit in the UK, the Australian government pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Nevertheless, the plan didn’t set more ambitious targets for 2030 and didn’t include a phase-out for the country’s fossil fuels. This led to wide criticism, with NGOs saying the plan had the strength of a wet paper bag.
Australia’s largest city was meant to exit its five-week lockdown on July 30, but it seems it wasn’t meant to be. Citing a growing number of cases and still-low vaccination rates, local authorities have announced this Wednesday that the lockdown will be extended for one more month.
This June, a driver for an international flight crew in Sydney contracted the coronavirus — thus plunging the city again into quarantine. After announcing 177 new cases, local authorities have announced an extension of lockdown measures. They urged those living in infection hotspots to not leave their neighborhoods, although those living alone will be allowed a “singles bubble” with another person, a move that I’m sure many interaction-starved Sydneyites will be very thankful for.
The lockdown will remain in effect until August 28, according to French news outlet AFP.
Locked Down Under — the extended cut
“I appreciate personally what we’re asking people do for the next four weeks but it is because we want to keep our community safe and want to make sure we can bounce back as quickly as possible,” New South Wales state premier Gladys Berejiklian said.
While lockdown measures remain in effect, Sydney residents can leave their homes only for exercise, essential work, to shop for necessities such as food, and for medical reasons. Local police have been issuing fines to those violating the restrictions, and Berejiklian said compliance efforts will be increased moving forward. He also asked residents to report those breaking the rules.
While Sydney is still grappling with the virus, Melbourne has just finished its fifth lockdown after beating the Delta variant of the coronavirus for the second time. Roughly eight million people in Victoria and South Australia states have also exited lockdown measures after outbreaks of the virus were deemed contained.
While Australia did move quickly against the virus in the early stages of the pandemic, it has struggled with the follow-through. It maintains a high percentage of unvaccinated citizens (roughly 76%), which left it vulnerable to the newer Delta variant. Its cities have been repeatedly going in and out of lockdown, and while Australians have been dutifully respecting these, in general, the frequent shutdowns are starting to take a toll on businesses and the general public.
Low supplies of Pfizer-BioNTech doses of the vaccine, and a wide distrust of the AstraZeneca shots are frustrating vaccination efforts. So far, Australia has officially recorded 33,000 infections and 921 COVID-related deaths.
A newly-identified titanosaurus, christened Australotitan cooperensis, is one of the 15 largest dino species we’ve ever found. And, so far, it seems to be the largest one ever uncovered in Australia.
According to estimations from experts, this “southern titan” could likely grow up to 6.5m (21ft) tall and 30m (98.5ft) long, which Google tells me is just a tad longer than a basketball court. Its fossil was discovered on a farm in southwest Queensland almost one decade ago, and paleontologists spent all that time trying to distinguish it from other known species, mostly by comparing scans of it to the bones of known sauropods.
Big-boned down under
The sauropods were a lineage of plant-eating dinosaurs that grew to awesome proportions. Their bulky bodies were fleshed out with very long necks and tails, thin, somewhat stumpy legs, and quite small heads (relative to their overall size). They lived during the Cretaceous period, between 92 to 96 million years ago, and were probably the largest animals to ever walk on dry land.
The new species was christened Cooper (cooperensis means ‘of/from Cooper’ in Latin) for the area where it was unearthed: Cooper Creek. The remote location of this site, as well as the impressive size of the fossils themselves and their condition, made the identification process that much longer. They were unearthed in 2007 on a family farm near Cooper Creek, Eromanga, Australia, on a family farm owned by two of the authors of this paper, Robyn and Stuart Mackenzie.
However, enough of the bones were found intact for researchers at the Queensland Museum and the Eromanga Natural History Museum to study and reliably identify.
It is closely related to three known sauropod species: the Wintonotitan, Diamantinasaurus, and Savannasaurus. This would mean that Australia’s largest dinosaur is, appropriately, part of one big family of big animals.
“It’s amazing to think from the first bones discovered by our son, the first digs with the Queensland Museum, through to the development of a not-for-profit museum that runs annual dinosaur digs, all have helped us to get to this point, it’s a real privilege,” Stuart Mackenzie said.
“Australia is one of the last frontiers for dinosaur discovery and Queensland is quickly cementing itself as the palaeo-capital of the nation – there is still plenty more to discover,” said Dr Jim Thompson, chief executive of the Queensland Museum Network.
The paper “A new giant sauropod, Australotitan cooperensis gen. et sp. nov., from the mid-Cretaceous of Australia” has been published in the journal PeerJ.
Construction workers were busy erecting a new building at the Mount Cotton State School, located in the Redland Shire in the southeast of Australia when they were greeted by an unexpected visitor: a giant wood moth with a 10-inch (25 cm) wingspan.
Giant wood moths are native to the region spanning Queensland and New South Wales. Unlike most other sexually dimorphic species, the female is about twice as large as the male.
These giant moths are rarely seen by people due to their extremely short life cycle. Adults live for only a few days, during which they have to quickly make and lay eggs.
The fuzzy-looking gray moth was found on the side of the new building. “This moth was something that we had not seen before,” said Meagan Steward, the elementary school’s principal.
Although they may be huge, these moths are harmless. In fact, everyone was delighted by this amazing find, children included. Steward said that school children wrote fictional stories based on the moth, including a short story where one of the teachers is devoured by the giant insect. Yeah… of course.
Giant wood moths (Endoxyla cinereus) have very short lives as adults, but they can live up to three years as larvae inside eucalyptus trees, where they feed off the plant tissue. The larvae, known as witchetty grubs, at some point lower themselves to the ground to feed on the tree’s roots. When they’re close to maturing, the grubs undergo a fantastic metamorphosis, emerging as giant moths that can weigh as much as an ounce (30 grams).
While the grubs are voracious eaters, the adult moths don’t eat at all. During their metamorphosis, the moth loses all its functional feeding organs. Instead, huge fat stores provide the energy they need to mate and lay thousands of eggs over the few days of life they have left.
While the giant moth’s wingspan of 10 inches (25 cm) is staggering, it does not have the widest one. That distinction belongs to the white witch moth, another species of moth found in Mexico and South America, whose wingspan can grow up to 12 inches (30 cm).
Australia’s bushfires set a record for the largest smoke cloud generated by a wildfire, a new paper reports. The plume was at least three times larger than any previously recorded one.
Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan’s (USask) Institute of Space and Atmospheric Studies say that last winter’s Australian wildfires created a smoke cloud that pushed all the way to the stratosphere, some 35 kilometers above the surface, and reached incredible sizes. At its largest, it measured 1,000 kilometers across. The cloud remained intact for three months and traveled over 66,000 kilometers.
“When I saw the satellite measurement of the smoke plume at 35 kilometres, it was jaw dropping. I never would have expected that,” said Adam Bourassa, professor of physics and engineering physics, who led the USask group which played a key role in analyzing NASA satellite data.
The fires seen in Australia this year were so devastating that the summer of 2020 has been nicknamed the “Black Summer“. It’s an apt name — the blazes claimed over 5.8 million hectares of forest in the continent’s southeast and bellowed massive amounts of smoke.
An international research team led by Sergey Khaykin from Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales (LATMOS) in France. The findings, they hope, will help us better understand how wildfires interact with and affect our planet’s atmosphere.
“We’re seeing records broken in terms of the impact on the atmosphere from these fires,” said Bourassa. “Knowing that they’re likely to strike more frequently and with more intensity due to climate change, we could end up with a pretty dramatically changed atmosphere.”
Bourassa’s team has experience in a specific type of satellite measurement that can pick up on smoke in the upper layers of the atmosphere. He explains that wildfires such as those in Australia and Western Canada (in 2017, the world’s second-largest to date) got so big that they generated their own clouds, Pyrocumulonimbus, and their own thunderstorms.
These thunderstorms create powerful updrafts that propel smoke and air all the way to the stratosphere, which is higher than the altitudes that commercial jets typically fly at.
The team used a satellite-mounted device called a spectrometer to analyze the plumes. In essence, they measured how much sunlight was scattered (reflected) from the atmosphere back to the satellite, which gave them a detailed layer-by-layer look at the atmosphere.
One finding, that Bourassa calls “amazing” is that this smoke starts absorbing sunlight and heating up. When it gets hot enough, it starts “to rise in a swirling vortex ‘bubble’, and it just rose and rose higher and higher through the atmosphere.”
Another finding was that the smoke from Australia’s wildfires blocked sunlight from reaching the surface to an extent never seen before. The issue was compounded by the fact that the stratosphere is typically quite stable, meaning aerosol particles such as those in smoke can remain in suspension here for months on end, having a disproportionately-high effect on climate.
The paper “The 2019/20 Australian wildfires generated a persistent smoke-charged vortex rising up to 35 km altitude” has been published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment.
Threatened by bushfires and ongoing habitat destruction, the koala is being officially considered for listing as endangered by the Australian government. The species is now seen as ‘vulnerable’ according to local environmental laws but this could soon change as the number of koalas keeps dropping.
The government is also considering upgrading the status of the greater glider to endangered, as 30% of its habitat range was affected by bushfires. Several frog and fish species, such as the Blue Mountains perch and Pugh’s frog, are also being considered for critically endangered listing, as well as some species of kangaroo.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley asked the threatened species scientific committee to complete its assessments by October next year. The koala assessment will consider the combined populations of New South Wales, Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory. The species is under multiple sources of pressure such as drought, wildfire, and habitat destruction.
Environmental groups nominated the species for re-listing as endangered and welcome the government’s move but asked for further measures. “We welcome prioritization for the koala but also hope the process can be sped up and the koala listed as endangered before October 2021,” Nicola Beynon of Humane Society International, told The Guardian.
The Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a wildlife conservation organization, said that at least 5,000 koalas have died to the wildfires seen in 2019 and 2020. That’s about 12% of the population of koalas in the New South Wales area, which the NGO said is an intentionally low calculation.
If further measures aren’t implemented to prevent habitat loss, koalas could become extinct in New South Wales before 2050, according to a recent parliamentary inquiry. The findings concluded that the government estimate that there are 36,000 koalas in the state is outdated and unreliable.
The report also found habitat loss remains the largest threat to the species’ survival and yet logging and clearing of habitat has continued. It said this habitat loss had been compounded by the 2019-20 bushfires, with an estimated 24% of koala habitat on public land affected. In some areas, as much as 81% of habitat had been burnt.
“Given the scale of loss as a result of the fires to many significant local populations, the committee believes the koala will become extinct in New South Wales well before 2050 and that urgent government intervention is required to protect their habitat and address all other threats to their ongoing survival,” the report said.
But concerns go much beyond just the koalas. Australia’s environment is in an unsustainable state of decline and laws set up to protect unique species and habitats are ineffective, according to a recent review of the country’s environmental framework. The report suggested massive changes such as a new set of legally enforceable national standards and creating a new environmental regulator.
Australia is currently reviewing the status of 108 species, which could move to endangered or critically endangered, including reptiles, frogs, fish, mammals, and birds. After making it to the list, the species will now be assessed by a scientific committee, which will have to make a recommendation to the minister regarding its status.
Over the past two decades, the impact of high temperatures on hospitalizations due to cardiovascular diseases has increased in Queensland, Australia, a new study concludes.
If this is any indication, the world can expect more climate-induced health problems in the near future.
Cardiovascular diseases are the main cause of mortality and morbidity worldwide. Extreme temperatures, both hot and cold, are a well-established risk factor for this type of disease, and climate change is already increasing the duration and intensity of such extreme temperatures.
Previous studies have reported a temporal decline in the association between hot temperatures and cardiovascular mortality, suggesting that people may be adapting to a warmer climate. But this process is still not well understood, and there may also be non-lethal cardiovascular problems accentuated by climate change. For instance, not much is known about the change in the association between ambient temperatures and cardiovascular hospitalization.
Researchers Shanshan Li and Yuming Guo of Monash University, Australia, and their colleagues studied this association, looking at data on 1,855,717 cardiovascular hospitalizations in Queensland, Australia between 1995 and 2016.
In that period, the daily mean temperature in Queensland increased from 20.9°C (69 Fahrenheit) to 21.7°C (71 Fahrenheit), while the annual number of cardiovascular hospitalizations increased from 46,730 to 123,477. The impact of high temperatures on hospitalizations rose, while it decreased in the case of cold temperatures. But the overall impact was still negative, and as temperatures continue to increase, it can be expected to worsen.
This was applicable to all ages, sexes and climate zones, but with differences between subgroups. The increasing magnitude of heat impacts was larger in men than in women and larger in people aged less than 70 years compared to people aged 70 years and over.
“Given the increased associations between hot temperatures and cardiovascular hospitalization and the acceleration of global warming, we highlight a worrying trend that the burden of cardiovascular healthcare facilities is to increase over time on high temperature days,” the authors wrote.
The researchers highlighted that under the present climate-changing scenario, Australia would be exposed to more extreme heat in the future, which will pose more burden to the healthcare system, especially the circulation-related healthcare facilities during hot days.
This suggests a potentially worrying increase in vulnerability to health-related cardiovascular morbidity in the context of global warming, the researchers said. The findings are also relevant for climate change adaptation, they argued, as reducing outdoor activity and outdoor work during high-temperature days could the most vulnerable population.
“From the government level, they should take action to reduce greenhouse emissions to mitigate climate change and make public health policies to reduce the health impacts of hot temperatures. From an individual level, people should protect themselves from hot temperatures through drinking more water and using air conditioning,” Yuming Guo told ZME News.
However, the study also has a few limitations. Among these, the fact that there was no control for pollution — the negative impacts observed in the study could be, at least in part, owed to the pollution. This warrants further investigation, the researchers admit.
Researchers have uncovered a trove of Aboriginal artifacts in two underwater archaeological sites off the Pilbara coast in Western Australia. The site represents the oldest known underwater archaeology in Australia.
The discovery of the sites, known as Cape Bruguieres and Flying Foam Passage, sheds new light on the Aboriginal way of life. Thousands of years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, today’s submerged landscape was dry land due to lower sea levels at the time.
The Land Down Water
Even to this day, the submerged sites are part of an area known as Sea Country to indigenous Australians — a testament to the deep historical and cultural connections to these underwater sites.
“Australia is a massive continent but few people realise that more than 30% of its land mass was drowned by sea-level rise after the last ice age. This means that a huge amount of the archaeological evidence documenting the lives of Aboriginal people is now underwater,” Jonathan Benjamin, Associate Professor of Maritime Archaeology at Flinders University, said in a statement.
“Now we finally have the first proof that at least some of this archaeological evidence survived the process of sea level rise. The ancient coastal archaeology is not lost for good; we just haven’t found it yet. These new discoveries are a first step toward exploring the last real frontier of Australian archaeology,” he added.
The researchers employed geophysical surveys that mapped the area around the Dampier Archipelago, and conducted archaeological investigations with a team of divers on-site between 2017-2019.
A total of 269 artifacts were identified at Cape Bruguieres at depths down to 2.4 meters below modern sea levels. The site is believed to be at least 7,000 years old, judging from radiocarbon dating.
At the 8,500-year-old Flying Foam Passage site, divers found an underwater freshwater spring 14 meters below sea level.
What’s fascinating is that hundreds, if not thousands, of such sites may exist further out into the ocean. At one point, dry land stretched out 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the current shoreline.
Although it’s difficult to imagine what the landscape was like more than 8,000 years ago, it’s likely that there were plenty of resources to support many ancient Aboriginal communities, the researchers believe.
“These territories that are now underwater harboured favourable environments for Indigenous settlements including freshwater, ecological diversity and opportunities to exploit marine resources which would have supported relatively high population densities” says Dr. Michael O’Leary, a marine geomorphologist at The University of Western Australia.
The two sites might just be the tip of the iceberg, with many more waiting to be discovered, underscoring the urgency of stronger legislation meant to protect and manage these underwater heritage sites.
“Managing, investigating, and understanding the archaelogy of the Australian continental shelf in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional owners and custodians is one of the last frontiers in Australian archaeology” said Benjamin.
“Our results represent the first step in a journey of discovery to explore the potential of archaeology on the continental shelves which can fill a major gap in the human history of the continent,” he said.
The findings were described in the journal PLOS ONE.
The number of people that reject climate change in Australia is more than double the global average, according to a global study that looked at news consumers.
The findings made Australia one of the top three countries in the world in terms of the percentage of people who just don’t believe the science — and guess who else is on that list?
The Canberra University published the “Digital News Report: Australia 2020”, an online survey that was part of a global study looking at news consumption in 40 countries. More than 2,000 Australians were surveyed and 8% said climate change is “not at all serious”, placing Australia only behind Sweden (9%) and the US (12%).
This means Australia has almost three times as many climate change deniers as the global worldwide average, estimated at 3%.
Meanwhile, on the other end, 58% of Australians said climate change is a very or extremely serious problem — significantly less than the global average of 69%. Only ten countries in the survey were less concerned about the issue than Australia.
The survey also showed that the level of concern about climate change is highly influenced by age, gender, place of residence, and the type of news consumed. Young people were more concerned than older generations, women were more concerned than men and people living in the city tended to think it was a more serious issue than those living in regional and rural Australia.
About 15% of Australians said not to pay attention to news regarding climate change, which is more than double the global average (7%). Right-wing news consumers were more likely to ignore news about climate change than left-wing consumers, and less likely to trust the accuracy of the reporting. Only 36% of Australians described climate change reporting as accurate.
Many factors can explain the figures, Caroline Fisher, co-author of the report and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Canberra, told VICE – including the fact that Australia’s economy heavily relies on fossil fuels, the national government’s climate denialism and the many right-wing voices in media outlets in the country.
“We [also] have an aging population, and older people are much less concerned about climate change than young people. [Plus] there are conservative voices in the media and the debate is very partisan along the left and right—and we see that in news consumption,” she added.
Fisher, along with her colleague and lead author Sora Park, identified “a strong connection between the brands’ people use and whether they think climate change is serious.” For example, more than a third of the people who watch Sky News or Fox News (two conservative networks owned by the Murdoch family, known for their climate change denial) see climate change as “not at all” or “not very” serious.
University of Canberra journalism lecturer and Guardian columnist Greg Jericho questioned news organizations that “devote large space and time” to climate deniers. “They should reconsider how they are telling the stories, and think more about how to reach those who are not currently listening,” he added.
The survey was conducted during the late stages of Australia’s unprecedented 2019/20 bushfire season. Fires rapidly spread across all states to become some of the most devastating on record. An area about the size of South Korea, roughly 25.5 million acres, has burned. At least 33 people died and around 3,000 homes were destroyed. The events also highlighted Australia’s major climate divide, and how the country’s climate change deniers have adapted their tactics in recent years.
A tiny fossil insect found near the city of Kamloops, British Columbia, points to a possible land connection between Canada and Australia.
Current relatives of this species live exclusively in Australia, the team explains, suggesting the possibility of a former connection between the two landmasses. The fossil, which the team describes as an insect from the “split-footed lacewing” family, is estimated to be 50 million years old.
“These fossils are rare,” says Vladimir Makarkin of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok, corresponding author of the study describing the fossil. “This is only the fourth one found from this time-span world-wide, and it’s the most completely preserved. It adds important information to our knowledge of how they became modern.”
The discovery is the latest in a series of fossil finds that are pointing to a Canada-Australia connection, the team explains. Furthermore, it raises some interesting questions regarding the global movement of animals and how it is impacted by shifts in climate and the position of continents over time
The split-footed lacewing family is very poorly documented, although we do know that it survived for at least 66 million years after the dinosaurs went extinct. The fossil’s identity — a new genus and species, Epinesydrion falklandensis — was determined as belonging to the split-footed family from the hallmark network of veins covering its wings.
Previous fossil insects of comparable age found in British Columbia and Washington have ties to families that currently inhabit Pacific-coastal Russia to the west and Europe, as these northern continents all used to be connected.
“Fifty million years ago, sea levels were lower, exposing more land between North America and Asia, and the Atlantic Ocean had not widened, leaving Europe and North America still joined across high latitudes,” says lead author Bruce Archibald.
However, we don’t know of any ancient land route between British Columbia and Australia. Compared to its position today, the land down under was closer to Antarctica and farther from Asia, meaning that any migrating animals needed to travel over vast stretches of ocean to reach Canada’s west coast.
Archibald says that “a pattern is emerging that we don’t quite understand yet, but has interesting implications”. They hypothesize that the issue might be tied to climate. The forests of the ancient British Columbian temperate upland (when this lacewing lived) had mild winters, probably without frost days. The climate of modern Australia shares these mild winters even in temperate regions.
“It could be that these insect groups are today restricted to regions of the world where climates in key ways resemble those 50 million years ago in the far western Canadian mountains,” says Archibald.
The team explains that understanding this species’ life and how it ended up on both of these modern continents can help us better piece together the history of our climate and continents.
The paper “A new genus and species of split-footed lacewings (Neuroptera) from the early Eocene of western Canada and revision of the subfamily affinities of Mesozoic Nymphidae” has been published in the journal The Canadian Entomologist.
Australia has always been home to some weird looking creatures. The kangaroo, duck-billed platypus, koala and echidna come to mind. Now to what should be no surprise, one of the strangest dinosaurs has also been discovered Down Under.
Called the Victorian elaphrosaur, this member of the theropod family roamed Australia around 110 million years ago. Researchers found the fossil in 2015 during an annual dig near Cape Otway in Victoria at a site dubbed Eric the Red West site. At five centimeters long, the bone was later identified as a vertebra at the Melbourne Museum. It was initially believed to be from a flying reptile called a pterosaur.
“We soon realized that the neck bone we were studying was from a theropod: a meat-eating dinosaur, related to Tyrannosaurus rex, Velociraptor and modern birds,” says Swineburne University paleontologist Dr. Stephen Poropat.
“The only catch – this ‘meat-eating dinosaur’ probably didn’t eat meat!”
While no Victorian elaphrosaur skulls have yet been found, from the few that are known to exist, paleontologists believe that the young dinos had teeth, which were lost and replaced by a beak as they get older.
“As dinosaurs go, they were rather bizarre,” says Poropat. “The few known skulls of elaphrosaurs show that the youngsters had teeth, but that the adults lost their teeth and replaced them with a horny beak. We don’t know if this is true for the Victorian elaphrosaur yet — but we might find out if we ever discover a skull.”
Most of the Victorian elaphrosaur’s known relatives — like Elaphrosaurus from Tanzania, and Limusaurus from China — lived near the end of the Jurassic Period, around 160–145 million years ago. By contrast, the new Victorian elaphrosaur dates to almost 40 million years later, from the Early Cretaceous Period. At around two meters long, it was also rather small for an elaphrosaur.
Paleontologists writing in Gondwana Research say it is the first evidence of an elaphrosaur reported in Australia and only the second from the Cretaceous period worldwide.
The dinosaur graveyard at the Eric the Red West site awaits further exploration. Proposed digs this year have been postponed twice because of the bushfire season and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Only a few months have passed since the devastating bushfires in Australia, with the images of burned forests, displaced people, and dead animals still fresh in the public awareness.
For researchers, now it’s the time to get some answers on what actually caused the bushfires and made them so extensive compared to previous years.
An international group of researchers looked at Australia’s historical and contemporary land-use and found that logging of native forests can increase the risk and severity of fires — likely having a profound effect on the recent bushfires.
“Logging causes a rise in fuel loads, increases potential drying of wet forests and causes a decrease in forest height,” Professor James Watson said in a statement. “It can leave up to 450 tones of combustible fuel per hectare close to the ground—by any measure, that’s an incredibly dangerous level of combustible material in seasonally dry landscapes.”
The scientists said much of the conversation in the aftermath of the spring and summer bushfires had rightly focused on climate change, but the impact of land management and forestry on fire risk was often left out from these discussions.
They highlighted this as a concern because land management policy was “well within the control of Australians” and because the fires had been used by some sectors of the industry to call for increased logging in some areas. Industry data showed that some 161 million cubic meters of native forest were logged in the period from 1996 to 2018.
“Beyond the direct and immediate impacts on biodiversity of disturbance and proximity to disturbed forest, there is compelling evidence that Australia’s historical and contemporary logging regimes have made many Australian forests more fire prone and contributed to increased fire severity and flammability,” the scientists wrote.
This happens, the researchers argued, because logging leaves debris at ground level that increases the fuel load in logged forests. It also changes forest composition and leaves these areas of forest both hotter and drier. During the bushfire season, fires had spread from logged areas adjacent to old-growth eucalypts and rainforests.
The team suggested a number of responses to reduce the risk of further catastrophic fire seasons, including the “removal of logging from areas where it adds considerably to fuel loads and creates forest structures that increase fire severity and risks to human safety”.
“We urge policy makers to recognise and account for the critical values of intact, undisturbed native forests, not only for the protection of biodiversity, but for human safety,” researcher Michelle Ward said. “Let’s act strongly and swiftly for the sake of our communities, the species they house, our climate and Australia’s wild heritage.”
Australia faced a devastating start to its fire season in late 2019, and things swiftly got worse before rains helped contain much of the fires in February this year. Dozens of blazes erupted in New South Wales, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency.
Fires rapidly spread across all states to become some of the most devastating on record. An area about the size of South Korea, roughly 25.5 million acres, has burned. At least 33 people died and around 3,000 homes were destroyed. More than 1 billion mammals, birds, and reptiles likely lost their lives in the blazes.
A team led by researchers at UC Riversidereports finding the oldest known ancestor of most animals today, humans included. It’s quite tiny.
The new species has been christened Ikaria wariootia in honor of Australia’s original inhabitants. The genus name comes from Ikara (“meeting place”) in the Adnyamathanha language, and it’s their name for a group of mountains known in English as Wilpena Pound. The species name comes from the Warioota Creek.
All in all, the organism is a tiny wormlike creature, but it is the earliest one we’ve found that has a front and a back side (‘bilaterianism’), two symmetrical sides (left and right), and a gut connected to openings at the front and back. In essence, this organism set the blueprint for how most animals are structured today.
“This is what evolutionary biologists predicted,” said Mary Droser, a professor of geology and co-author of the paper. “It’s really exciting that what we have found lines up so neatly with their prediction.”
The first multicellular organisms to spawn on Earth, such as sponges and algae, are collectively known as the Ediacaran Biota. While it was undoubtedly rich, very few animals living today can find their roots in these animals. One which can is a lily pad-shaped creature known as Dickinsonia — it lacks basic features we associate with animals today, such as a mouth or gut.
Most animals today employ bilateral symmetry, i.e. they have a right and a left side that are mirrored. This property was first developed after the Ediacaran Biota, and the blueprint it set down has been in use ever since, from worms to dinosaurs to humans.
Scientists have suspected that burrows found in 555 million-year-old Ediacaran Period deposits in Nilpena, South Australia, were made by bilaterian animals, perhaps even the first ones. Since no sign of any of their fossils could be seen, it remained just a hypothesis.
But Scott Evans , a recent doctoral graduate from UC Riverside and Prof. Droser noticed tiny, oval impressions near some of the burrows. With funding from a NASA exobiology grant, they analyzed them using a three-dimensional laser scanner, finding the shape of a cylindrical body with a distinct head and tail and faintly grooved musculature. Based on the impressions, the animals ranged between 2-7 millimeters long and about 1-2.5 millimeters wide, being roughly the size of a grain of rice.
“We thought these animals should have existed during this interval, but always understood they would be difficult to recognize,” Evans said. “Once we had the 3D scans, we knew that we had made an important discovery.”
“Burrows of Ikaria occur lower than anything else. It’s the oldest fossil we get with this type of complexity,” Droser adds. “Dickinsonia and other big things were probably evolutionary dead ends.”
The tiny animal was very complex by the standards of its day, the team explains. It likely lived by burrowing between layers of well-oxygenated sand on the seafloor where it would use its rudimentary sensory organs to find food. They have distinct front and rear ends, as indicated by a sloping body that helps direct movement. V-shaped ridges in the burrows suggest that the animal moved by contracting muscles across its body like a worm
The paper “Discovery of the oldest bilaterian from the Ediacaran of South Australia” has been published in the journal PNAS.
The forest fires in Australia have been extinguished and citizens across the country are trying to go back to normal, but the disaster and its consequences for wildlife are far from over. Many animals have been severely affected such as koalas, which are even facing the possibility of extinction, according to a report.
The Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a wildlife conservation organization, said that at least 5,000 koalas have died because of the wildfires. That’s about 12% of the population of koalas in the New South Wales area, which the NGO said it’s an intentionally low calculation.
The real figures are probably much worse.
“Koalas are particularly vulnerable to bushfires as they are slow-moving and live in eucalyptus trees that burn quickly and intensely,” campaigner Josey Sharrad told CNN. “When fires sweep through their homes, they often don’t have time to escape, particularly in intense crown fires that rage through the treetops where they live.”
Last year, the Australian Koala Foundation said “koalas may be functionally extinct,” meaning that the current generation of adults is insufficient to produce a new, functional generation. This was questioned by experts across-the-board, but the questions about the koalas’ fate remain standing.
New South Wales was the area most affected by the forest fires, with over 12 million acres of land burned out of the 45 million nationwide. This has essentially left koalas without a suitable habitat to live in, with the NGO suggesting to list the animals as an endangered species.
The red list of endangered species, managed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has kept the koala in the category of “vulnerable” since 2014, but the impact of the fires can justify to move it to the immediately superior category of “endangered.”
Placing the koalas on that category would help them recover from the devastating blow from the forest fires, according to IFAW’s report. At the same time, it would mean stronger penalties for any offenses that could harm them. “Our koalas only stand a chance if we help,” Sharrad said.
But the forest fires weren’t the first threat for koalas. They are highly vulnerable to climate change, food degradation, droughts, and deforestation, which have led to losing almost two-thirds of its population over the last three generations, according to a 2016 study.
“This rapid destruction of koala habitat, combined with climate change, is inflicting substantial stress and pushing the species towards extinction,” Sharrad said. “Reduction and fragmentation of koala habitat expose koalas to the added threats of vehicle strikes, dog attacks, stress and disease,” she added.
A team from the University of Newcastle (Australia) led by Ryan Witt has pointed out the need to launch a program to freeze koalas’ genetic material. The conservation of tissues and germ cells of koalas from various areas of the country would facilitate to study their diseases and carry out captive-assisted reproduction initiatives if needed.
If the loss of the koala population continues at the pace set by the latest fires, and climate models indicate that it will be this way or even worse, a significant genetic diversity could be lost, the researchers argued in an article in The Conversation.
The problem is not only that the fires caused a significant loss of the number of koalas, but also that the surviving populations will be more fragmented and isolated, with the danger of greater of the proliferation of hereditary diseases, Witt’s team said.
Australia collectively breathed a sigh of relief as widespread rain has put out a third of the country’s wildfires.
But while this almost seems godsent, it can also cause some other problems. Many parts of the country have not seen this much rain in over a year, and authorities are on alert for flooding.
The 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season commenced early, in June 2019. Several uncontrolled fires were reported. Amplified by drought, the fires continued to spread, and by January 2020, fires had burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres). For comparison, the California wildfires burnt 800,000 hectares (2,000,000 acres) and the 2019 Amazon rainforest wildfires burnt 900,000 hectares (2,200,000 acres) of land.
It was the worst bushfire season on record.
Authorities and firemen (both professional and volunteers) put up a tremendous effort to limit the fire, but this was no easy feat. Much of the affected areas had been in drought for three years. The lack of water transformed green plants into perfect fuel for the fire, helping spread the damage. As Australian researchers had predicted for over a decade, higher temperatures were taking a toll.
But after months and months of struggle, there is finally good news. Authorities welcomed what seem to be the strongest rains in over a year.
“This is that constant, steady, decent rainfall that we’ve been praying for for so long,” said NSW Rural Fire Service (NSWRFS) spokeswoman Angela Burford.
While some areas are still burning, some of the largest fires have now been put out. Without sustained rain, firefighters were always fighting an uphill battle — now, as areas become increasingly soaked and plants absorb water, there will be increasingly less fuel for the fires, in addition to the direct effect the rain has on wildfires. Torrential rain is rarely appreciated, but in this case, it works great.
A double-edged sword
The rain will bring a welcome improvement in dam water levels, and can also help farmers’ yields. The forecast shows continued rain in much of the country over the coming week.
However, although this is undisputedly good news, meteorologists also warn that some areas are now exposed to a risk of flood.
“For our fire grounds where the landscape is so vulnerable right now, this means the risk of falling trees and landslides, and large volumes of runoff containing debris, including ash, soil, trees and rocks,” BOM meteorologist Adam Morgan said in a video update around midday local time on Friday.
Sydney and the New South Wales Central Coast are set to receive more rainfall in 24 hours than they have received in an entire year. There are already reports of fallen trees and flooding evacuation orders.
This type of intense rain is unusual for this time of year and offers yet another reminder of how much the weather has changed recently.
Woes seem to keep piling onto poor Australia: new research shows that the continent’s iconic and unique platypus is at risk of extinction.
The intense and prolonged drought plaguing the land down under is placing enormous strain on the platypus, a new study reports. The rivers and waterways that make up this species’ natural habitat are drying up, leaving the animals stranded, the researchers explain.
Going through a lot
Although not much is known about their natural distribution or abundance (the species is nocturnal and quite shy), platypuses were once considered widespread throughout eastern Australia and Tasmania. However, new research led by members from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in collaboration with the Taronga Conservation Society showcases that the species is in dire need of help. It is experiencing heavy pressure from both natural and man-made factors including severe drought, water resource development, land clearing, and changing climate. The team warns that action is urgently needed to save the platypus from potential extinction.
Lead author Dr Gilad Bino, a researcher at the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science, said action must be taken now to prevent the platypus from disappearing from our waterways.
“There is an urgent need for a national risk assessment for the platypus to assess its conservation status, evaluate risks and impacts, and prioritise management in order to minimise any risk of extinction,” says Dr. Bino.
“These dangers further expose the platypus to even worse local extinctions with no capacity to repopulate areas.”
The species is most impacted by current climate conditions and habitat destruction through land clearing and fragmentation from dams and weirs, the team reports. They further explain that platypus numbers have almost halved since European colonists first settled Australia, with local populations going extinct across 40% of the species’ range. Considering the current drought and the likely increase in drought frequency and duration in the future (due to climate change), things are only going to get worse for the platypus.
While the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently downgraded the platypus’ conservation status to “Near Threatened”, it remains entirely unlisted under most local jurisdictions except in South Australia, where it is considered endangered.
Apart from climate change and its associated extremes in weather and precipitation patterns, the chief threat to platypus’ long-term viability is humans, the team explains. The animals live or have traditionally lived in areas that are still experiencing extensive human development.
“These include dams that stop their movements, agriculture which can destroy their burrows, fishing gear and yabby traps which can drown them and invasive foxes which can kill them,” says study co-author Professor Richard Kingsford, also from the UNSW Sydney Centre for Ecosystem Science.
Luckily for the strange mammal, it’s not yet extinct. If preventative measures are taken now, says Professor Brendan Wintle, a study co-author from The University of Melbourne, we can turn their fortunes around. He explains that mitigating or stopping new threats (such as new dams) from impacting the species’ range can help “even a presumed ‘safe’ species such as the platypus”.
Still, the paper highlights the “urgent need” for national conservation efforts focusing on the platypus. However, they add that many other native Australian species are also threatened with extinction.
“[Preventive measures are] likely to be more effective than waiting for the risk of extinction to increase and possible failure,” Prof Wintle said. “We should learn from the peril facing the koala to understand what happens when we ignore the warning signs.”
Such measures include “increasing monitoring, tracking trends, mitigating threats, and protecting and improving management of freshwater habitats.”
Meanwhile, the team plans to continue researching the ecology and possible conservation practices for the platypus to help guide effective policy and management programs in the future.
The paper “A stitch in time – Synergistic impacts to platypus metapopulation extinction risk” has been published in the journal Biological Conservation.
Australia’s road to recovery may be long: Here’s a developing list of how the fires are affecting glaciers, wildlife, water supplies, and global carbon emissions.
The bushfires in Australia are a never-ending story of loss, tragedy, and record-setting moments.
The fires have claimed the lives of at least 27 people and countless animals and destroyed 2,000 homes—and bushfire season still has 2 months to go.
Even as the fires rage on, the smoke is beginning to clear around the long-lasting environmental impacts of the blazes. Here’s a (nonexhaustive) list of their short- and long-term effects on the environment.
1. Scientists fear an immediate loss of biodiversity in Australia, because many species are endemic to the continent.
The fires are proving deadly for Australian wildlife.
An estimated 1 billion animals have been killed so far, according to scientist Chris Dickman at the University of Sydney. But this number doesn’t include frogs, invertebrates, or bats. Invertebrates, which include insects, earthworms, snails, could be dying by the trillions, according to Science News.
Relief efforts have just begun after fires on Kangaroo Island, whose landscape was called “apocalyptic” by the Humane Society International. The organization said that in a particularly hard-hit portion of the island, they found one living koala among thousands of carcasses of koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, and birds, according to the Guardian.
Many species call Australia their only home, making the threat to their habitat particularly worrisome.
The Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo was rebounding from near extinction in Australia, up from about 150 individuals in 1995 to nearly 400 in 2019. But the fire on Kangaroo Island destroyed the majority of the bird’s habitat and singular food source, seeds from the drooping she-oak.
An endemic species of velvet worm may also be threatened. The New York Times reports that their home in one of Australia’s national parks has been badly affected by the fires. Ecologist Tanya Latty told the Times that she may use the specimens she has in her lab to begin a captive breeding program to save the species. “As an ecologist,” Latty said, “it’s a very tragic thing to find yourself having to think about, ‘What if my species is now extinct?’”
A team of scientists said that the fires have pushed at least 20 threatened species closer to extinction. Threatened species in Australia sometimes number in the hundreds, and areas that rarely burn went up in flames this year.
Researchers are turning to GoFundMe to pay for lost survey equipment and other costs.
2. Debris from the fires could threaten water supplies.
Cheers broke out in Sydney last week as rain fell lightly on the capital. Rain and cooler temperatures could help tamp down the blazes.
But too much rain, falling too heavily, could spell disaster for Australia’s water supplies.
Ash, soot, and charred vegetation could clog up streams, dams, and beaches, leading to blooms of algae and threatening water quality.
Given the severity of the fires, pretty much everything [in burned landscapes] is gone, so one of the big issues is that when we do get some rain, a lot of that ash and crap, nothing is going to stop it running in our catchments,” conservationist and ecologist Ricky Spencer at Western Sydney University in New South Wales (NSW) told National Geographic. The effects could be felt for up to a decade because forests take years to grow back.
Warragamba Dam outside of Sydney is one cause for concern: The dam supplies water for 3.7 million people, but 80%–90% of the catchment area has burned, National Geographic reports. If heavy rains wash off burned forests in the areas, a torrent of sooty material could choke up its waters and lead to blooms of cyanobacteria.
Although public health won’t likely be at risk, the blooms may turn water in the Warragamba musty or earthy and exacerbate low water supplies that are already at less than half the dam’s capacity, according to Gizmodo Australia. Melinda Pavey, NSW’s minister for water, property and housing, announced in December that officials would try to intercept or isolate sooty flows headed into Warragamba by using booms and curtains.
Fish and other aquatic life will be more at the mercy of the rains, however. A massive influx of nutrients from runoff could bring algal blooms to rivers and beaches. Blooms suck up oxygen available in the water column, strangling fish and other life. Particles of ash could also lodge themselves in the gills of fish or gag filter feeders like mussels.
3. Animals are hungry and ecosystems may grow back differently.
Many animals couldn’t outrun the blazes because the wildfires moved quickly and burned hotter than normal. Drought and high temperatures fanned the flames.
The lucky animals that did survive face a new reality: Their food sources have gone up in smoke. As fire eradicated vegetation on the rocky habitat of brush-tailed rock wallabies in New South Wales, the government air-dropped thousands of carrots and sweet potatoes to supplement the marsupials’ diet.
Operation Rock Wallaby – #NPWS staff today dropped thousands of kgs of food (Mostly sweet potato and carrots) for our Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby colonies across NSW #bushfires
Hungry predators are also a risk to survivors: Cats can travel 20–30 kilometers to “mop up all the native animals that are left there over the next few months,” ecologist Sarah Legge told Vice.
Plant opportunists may take root in the burned landscape as well. As Wired reports, faster-growing and weedier species may dominate landscapes previously forested, and invasive species could move in. Although only time can tell what will appear in the scorched terrain, entomologist Nigel Andrew told Wired that “the diversity of our natural environments is going to change.”
4. Smoke from the fires is circumnavigating the planet and ratcheting up carbon dioxide emissions.
Smoke billowing from the fires is making its way around the planet, injecting aerosols in the upper atmosphere and increasing carbon dioxide emissions.
Measurements of the ultraviolet aerosol index by NASA satellites last week showed aerosol values at some of the highest levels ever recorded. Larger aerosol values indicate that the smoke is sitting high up in the atmosphere in a layer called the stratosphere. Large pyrocumulonimbus storms above the fires in Australia are acting like chimneys, shooting smoke high into the air as if they were volcanic eruptions or nuclear explosions.
Atmospheric scientist Neil Lareau at the University of Nevada, Reno, told the Washington Post that the sheer number of aerosols reaching the stratosphere is remarkable. Apart from two large-scale events—one in Canada in 2017 and one in Australia in 2009—“I don’t think I’ve seen anything on this scale in the stratosphere caused by wildfires in the past 20 years as an atmospheric scientist,” Lareau said.
It’s not clear how the carbon-rich aerosols released by the fires could impact climate. The Washington Post reports that recent studies may indicate that it can lead to a warming effect.
Meanwhile, the fires are also spitting out vast amounts of carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases responsible for global climate change.
The fires have already released enough carbon dioxide to rival Australia’s annual human-caused emissions: An estimated 400 million tons of carbon have been released from the fires, according to NPR. Last year, Australia emitted roughly 540 million tons from human sources.
But all the carbon dioxide emitted from the fires may not stay in the atmosphere: Fires are thought to be carbon neutral because forests suck in carbon to regrow. But climate change may limit how well forests can grow back.
5. The fires are raining soot on New Zealand’s glaciers, which could speed up melt.
A view of the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand revealed another consequence of the fires: “caramelized” snow darkened by soot. One Twitter post said that the snow was white just 1 day earlier.
White snow has a high albedo and reflects sunlight at a relatively high rate. The darker the color the snow is, however, the lower the albedo will dip, and the more heat the glacier absorbs.
The Australian reported ashy snowfields in New Zealand in early December. The country is in the middle of summer, so although the high glaciers may get a new coat of snow soon, the lower glaciers might not get one until March.
New Zealand’s glaciers are already dwindling because of warming temperatures: Last year, more than half of the largest glaciers in the country lost snow from the previous winter and previous years, in some cases. The glaciers have lost a third of their snow and ice volume since the 1970s.
Andrew Mackintosh, a researcher at Monash University in Melbourne, told the Guardian that the ash could increase glacier melt this season by 20%–30%, though he cautioned that the numbers were estimates. Fortunately, he said, the effects won’t last much longer than a year.
—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), News Writing and Production Fellow at Eos.
This article was originally published by Eos Magazine and re-posted here under a creative commons license.
The camels are reportedly being shot because they are tormenting remote communities in their search for water.
The cull, Australian officials say, will be carried out “in accordance with the highest standards of animal welfare”.
In a story that seems almost too surreal to believe, the Australian government and indigenous communities have agreed to kill approximately ten thousand camels because they are drinking too much water. The initiative, which is set to happen in the state of South Australia, will be the first major cull of feral animals in the area. The plan was received with mixed responses, although most communities were in favor of the cull.
However, local government (APY) said that the economic, natural, and cultural advantages brought by killing the camels outweigh the downsides, which include a spiritual conflict for some indigenous groups.
“The dire situation is compounded by dry conditions, animal welfare issues, threats to communities, scarce water supplies, health and environmental impacts, the destruction of country, loss of food supplies and endangerment of travelers on the Stuart Highway and across the APY Lands. Given ongoing dry conditions and the large camel congregations threatening all of the main APY communities and infrastructure, immediate camel control is needed,” said Richard King, APY’s general manager. King added that the number of culled camels might be lower than 10,000, but will likely measure in the thousands.
While camels can have a negative environmental impact, it’s the impact on communities that motivated this decision. Camels can smell water from up to 5 km away, and they are attracted to taps, pumps, toilets, and even air conditioners. They tend to stay away from larger settlements and cities in general, but don’t always shy away from more isolated communities, which are often aboriginal.
Groups have started hunting camels and consuming their meat, but this has not proved sufficient in limiting their numbers, officials add.
“For many years traditional owners in the west of the APY Lands have mustered feral camels for sale, but this has been unable to manage the scale and number of camels that congregate in dry conditions,” a spokesperson for the SA Department of Environment and Water told news.com.au.
The issue is amplified by Australia’s current heat and drought situation. The drought has been ongoing since 2017, and is also a factor in the country’s ongoing devastating bushfires.
This is also a climate emergency — climate heating has been shown time and time again to accentuate drought, and researchers have predicted these effects decades ago.
Camels are not native to Australia. They were brought in the 1860s, mostly by Afghan cameleers and expeditioners. Camels were brought to Australia because they were thought to be good transport animals in dry, hot environments that were unsuitable for horses. They played an important role in the early development of modern Australia but were quickly discarded at the start of the 20th century as motorized vehicles became more common.
Most cameleers abandoned or slaughtered their camels — but there were ones that managed to survive and thrive. This was an unexpected boon for some aboriginal groups, which quickly learned how to use and incorporate them into trading routes. Camels became a lifeblood for some communities, as in parallel, a feral population continued to grow. As a result, although not originally from Australia, camels have an almost spiritual role in some indigenous groups, regularly appearing as a motif in Indigenous Australian art.
However, the feral population has grown dramatically. Although they do not pose as much of an environmental threat as other animals brought into Australia, their numbers have grown dramatically. As early expedition groups successfully guessed, camels are well adapted to the Australian environment — perhaps too well, if you’d ask the Australian government.
By 2008, it was feared that Central Australia’s feral camel population had grown to about one million, with the potential of doubling every 10 years. As a result, an AU$19 million management program was set into place, culminating with the largest camel cull in history. Hundreds of thousands of animals were killed, and the feral population was reduced to about 300,000 individuals.
It’s also important to note that while the damage done by camels is significant, it pales in comparison to that done by intensive agriculture — especially animal agriculture. Possibly Australia’s biggest environmental problem, which cascades into many other issues, is land degradation, an issue mostly caused by clearance of land for agriculture and overgrazing by sheep.
No doubt, camels are invasive species. No doubt, they can cause problems to both the environment and communities. Yet somehow, the idea of shooting animals from helicopters and claiming this is in accordance with welfare standards convinces few people. The response from the international community has been quick and sharp — but then again, it’s not the international community that has to deal with the camels.
In between climate change, invasive species, and agriculture, the effect of modern humans in Australia has been devastating. As it so often happened in the past, and will no doubt continue to happen in the future, the solutions for these environmental disasters are not yet in sight.
Australia is going through one of its most severe heat events so far, feeding the bushfire season. The country has already broken records for peak temperatures and this could be just the start, as weather forecast estimates the heatwave to continue.
The nationally averaged maximum temperature on December 18 was 107.4 degrees Fahrenheit (41.9 Celsius), according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. This broke the previous record of 105.6 degrees (40.9 Celsius) which was set just the day before.
Before the current heat event, the hottest temperature the country had seen was on January 7, 2013, with 104.5 degrees (40.3 Celsius). Now a combination of drought, fires and two-record hottest days has created a problematic scenario.
The forecast anticipates “catastrophic” fire conditions, the most severe category, in South Australia, as the rising temperatures are combined with a wind shift that complicates firefighting actions. The possibility of a new national record to be broken again is also on the table.
Usually, temperature records in Australia were broken just by fractions of a degree. This made this week’s records quote unusually. At the same time, having consecutive records broken in the same week is also rare. All this has been possible due to the severe and longer-lasting heatwave.
The heat started over the weekend in Western Australia. Now it has already reached southeastern areas of the country. These areas have also been affected by some of the massive bushfires that had been happening in the country since the beginning of the spring.
Two volunteer firefighters died while trying to stop the expansion of the Green Wattle Creek fire in southwestern Sidney, as the vehicle rolled over. Emergency warnings have already been issued for the Gospers Mountain Fire, which has been called a mega-fire because of its size.
Several businesses and government areas have even stopped working outside due to concerns over smoke pollution. Workers mainly stay indoors to avoid smoke. Sports fields, municipal pools, and daycare centers in Sidney were shut down. Smoke from a bush fire can worsen asthma and other respiratory conditions.
While the country experiences this crisis, Prime Minister Scott Morrison decided to take a one-week family vacation to an undisclosed destination – a move questioned by environmental activists and opposition leaders. There was a climate protest outside Morrison’s residence, which the police broke down.
The environment is the second most important issue for Australians, right behind the economy, according to a survey done by the Scanlon Foundation in July and August before the heatwave started.
The temperature has increased in Australia one degree Celsius since 1910, with most of the warming concentrated since 1950. There has been an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events and the severity of drought conditions. Of the 10 warmest years on record in the country, nine have happened since 2005.
This week, Australia has experienced its hottest day on record. Authorities expect the current heatwave to worsen, however, and further feed the bushfire season — which is already unprecedented as well.
With a nationwide average temperature of 40.9 degrees Celsius (105.6 degrees Fahrenheit), this Tuesday set a new record for the land down under. The previous record of 40.3 degrees Celsius was recorded in January 2013.
The heat is on
This year, Australia’s summer bushfire season has experienced a very early and intense start. Hundreds of fires have been roaring across the nation for months now, including a “mega-blaze” north of Sydney, the country’s largest city. Smoke from this blaze has led to increased levels of air pollution in Sydney, prompting authorities to declare the event a public health emergency.
All in all, over three million hectares (7.4 million acres) of land has been burned across Australia so far. Six people have lost their lives to the blaze, and about 700 homes have been destroyed.
Global warming is likely fanning the flames higher and earlier than usual. Australia has also experienced a prolonged drought, leaving a lot of dry plant matter in the bush, and leaving several towns out of water. The fires have sparked climate protests targeting the conservative government, which has resisted calls to address the root causes of global warming — in favor of the country’s lucrative coal export industry.
The heatwave started in the country’s western reaches, where firefighters were engaging thousands of bushfires earlier this week. It has since crept across central Australia and is spreading to the heavily populated eastern states. Weather forecasts for parts of New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital estimate temperatures in the mid-40s Celsius (around 110 Fahrenheit) for the end of the week. On Saturday parts of Sydney are expected to reach over 46 degrees celsius (115 Fahrenheit).
Most bushfires so far have been recorded in Australia’s eastern states. Turbulent winds of up to 100 kilometres (60 miles) an hour are expected in the area later this week, which may further stoke the fires. Embers from the fires can travel up to 30 kilometers (around 18.5 miles) by strong winds, authorities explained, which further increases the risks during this time.
“Over the next few days we are going to see firefighters, the emergency services and all those communities close to fires […] challenged with a new threat,” New South Wales fire commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, police officers evacuated residents from dozens of homes in the Peregian area (northeastern Queensland) as out-of-control bushfires threatened the properties.
“Fire crews and waterbombing aircraft are working to contain the fire but firefighters may not be able to protect every property,” Queensland Fire and Emergency services said. “You should not expect a firefighter at your door. Queensland Police Service are door knocking in the area. Power, water, and mobile phone service may be lost.”
While Prime Minister Scott Morrison is on holiday at an undisclosed, overseas location, climate protesters plan to march in Sydney this week to demand change and highlight his absence as vast stretches of Australia burn. Recently, Mr. Morrison has acknowledged climate change as one of “many other factors” driving the bushfires.