Extreme fire weather forecast for Australia and the Mediterranean

From Cosmos Magazine, February 7, 2017 (Image: bertknot via Flickr)

Extreme wildfires are set to surge as the number of days that foster these catastrophic events climbs from 20% to 50% in disaster-prone regions, a new study warns.

David Bowman, a fire ecologist from the University of Tasmania in Australia, and colleagues examined temperature data recorded by instruments onboard NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites and found population distribution also affected the development of disastrous wildfires.

The work, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, presents a “real wake-up call”, Bowman says. Read more…

“Climate change is about to smash us in the face.”

Solar cooling systems take heat out of summer’s hottest days

solar-collector-allanjderFrom The Guardian, December 20, 2016. (Image: allanjder via Flickr)

As Australia settles in for another long hot summer, the demand for air-conditioning is set to surge. In fact, with the World Meteorological Organisation stating that 2016 is likely to be the hottest year on record, it’s no surprise an estimated 1.6bn new air conditioners are likely to be installed globally by 2050.

Powering all these units will be a challenge, especially on summer’s hottest days. In Australia, peak demand days can drive electricity usage to almost double and upgrading infrastructure to meet the increased demand can cost more than four times what each additional air-conditioning unit costs.

Yet an emerging sector of the solar industry is turning the searing heat of summer into cooling by using solar heat or electricity. Read more…

Will the internet of things sacrifice or save the environment?

From the Guardian, December 12, 2016. (Image: Kevin Dooley via Flickr)

The internet of things (IoT) – that ever-expanding ecosystem of digital sensors, home appliances and wearable smart devices – attracts its fair share of attention. Speculation is rife on how the 23bn-odd (and counting) “things” will improve quality of life, streamline business operations and ultimately fuel economic benefits to the tune of up to $11tn per year by 2025.

Less often considered is the cost to the environment of such a vast network of devices. With the full extent of the IoT far from being realised, even experts are divided on whether it will spell doom or salvation for the environment. Read more… 

Assisted colonisation of Australian tortoise sets controversial precedent

From ScienceInsider, August 11, 2016 (Photo credit: Gerald Kuchling)

As long as it has been known to science, the diminutive western swamp tortoise has been in peril. By the time it was formally named in 1901—using a decades-old museum specimen—Pseudemydura umbrina was presumed extinct. And since it was rediscovered in the 1950s, biologists have struggled to protect it from the twin threats of habitat loss and introduced predators, which drove its numbers to bottom out at just 30 individuals in the 1980s. Now that climate change poses an even more urgent threat to the endangered tortoise, biologists have a controversial plan to safeguard its future—by moving it to new sites outside of its known historical range. The translocation, which took place today, makes the tortoise the first vertebrate to be deliberately relocated because of climate change. Read more…

Is this tiny Australian bird an ecosystem engineer?

(Forty-spotted Pardalote photo by Francesco Veronesi via Flickr)

The Forty-spotted Pardalote is tiny – the endangered songbird measures just a palm’s width from head to tail. Yet its daily activities could be having a big impact in the Manna gum canopies where they forage, a recent study suggests.

Manna gums (Eucalyptus viminalis), along with a limited number of other species, secrete sap that crystallises into a fluffy white substance called manna. The sugary floss is a staple for canopy-dwellers – from birds like the Pardalote, to sugar gliders, possums and ants.

Now, research by Samuel Case and Amanda Edworthy at the Australian National University, suggests that the Pardalotes might not be simply collecting the manna they find, but actively ‘mining’ it from the trees. Previously, manna production was thought to be due to damage inflicted by insects. Continue reading “Is this tiny Australian bird an ecosystem engineer?”

Small mammals vanish in Northern Australia

Captive breeding of Northern Quolls could be a last resort (Photo credit: Dyani Lewis)
Captive breeding of Northern Quolls could be a last resort (Photo credit: Dyani Lewis)

A couple of months ago I travelled to Kakadu National Park in Australia’s top end to join a team of ecologists monitoring mammal numbers in the park. I was there to report for Science [paywall] on why many of northern Australia’s small mammals are in precipitous decline, despite being in an area of largely intact tracts of vegetation. Tellingly, in the time I was there, and the 2 weeks that followed, just 3 small mammals were trapped. In the late 1980s, 30-40 per night would have been the norm.

The declines aren’t just occurring in Kakadu — right across Australia’s north, quolls, bandicoots, and native rodents are facing almost inevitable extinction unless the causes for their falling numbers are identified and addressed. The key culprits, it turns out, are feral cats and poor fire management.

Here’s the summary [full article is behind paywall]:

In northern Australia, mammal populations are in free fall. Over the past 2 decades, scientists have documented sharp declines in quolls, bandicoots, and other native fauna. The plight of these animals has grown so desperate that in July, the Australian government appointed the nation’s first threatened species commissioner, Gregory Andrews, a Department of the Environment staffer now tasked with devising broad approaches to stem the tide of extinctions. The solutions are not obvious, but mounting evidence points to the arch villain: feral cats, aided and abetted by fire. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy estimates that every day in Australia, an astounding 75 million animals fall prey to roughly 15 million feral cats.

Natural value: Pricing ecosystems, and its implications for conservation policy

How do we decide who to protect? (photo credit: Rupert Ganzer via Flickr)
How do we decide who to protect? (photo credit: Rupert Ganzer via Flickr)

You don’t have to look far to find stories of species or ecosystems under threat. Whether it’s the critically endangered black rhinoceros in Africa, or the local wetlands under threat from urban sprawl, our collective failure to protect the world’s natural heritage can seem exasperating.

But in a world where resources to put toward protection are limited, making decisions about where to direct our efforts, or how to prioritise our donations, can be equally as frustrating. And it’s not just individuals who struggle with these choices — governments too are often faced with difficult decisions.

So how do we go about placing a value on our natural heritage? Should we even try to weigh the relative merits of saving one species or one ecosystem over another? And how can government policies help to guide us through the murky waters of environmental decision making?

To answers some of these questions, I was joined on Up Close recently by Brendan Wintle, a conservation ecologist who has been working with economists and policy makers to improve environmental decision making. Brendan is based at the School of Botany, at the University of Melbourne, and he’s also Deputy Director of the National Environmental Research Program Environmental Decisions Hub.