Beneath the waves, a disaster in the making

Marine heatwaves are devastating our coastal ecosystems like nothing we’ve ever seen.

Coral damaged by marine warming. PHOTO The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey, via ABC

Coral damaged by marine warming. PHOTO The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey, via ABC


“The great mother of life” was how Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 environmental classic Silent Spring, described the sea. Today the great mother of life is ailing, with a high fever.

Silent Spring was about bird-killing pesticides on land, but Carson’s main scientific focus was actually the sea. If she were still alive and working now she would be writing a story on a far bigger scale, about how human excess has blighted marine environments from the coast to the deep ocean.

As Carson and many others have pointed out, what happens under the sea’s surface is a mystery to land-dwelling humans. But more sophisticated surveillance tools and more focused and finely-tuned scientific observations are giving us unprecedented insights into its role in the planetary ecosystem.

For the past 20 years or more we’ve been getting some unsettling signals about warming ocean waters and how a rising level of carbon dioxide in the air affects the ocean’s acid-alkaline balance.

Now those signals are so strong as to be undeniable. Marine scientists are uncovering something approaching a horror story, with outcomes that will make no-one happy.

Nowhere on the planet is the damage to our marine environment so painfully clear than off Australia’s shores. From the Pilbara coast to the Coral Sea and south to Tasmania, ocean heatwaves have laid waste to species and habitats, leaving behind dramatically altered assemblages.

One of the world’s most persistent ocean-warming “hot spots” is off south-eastern Australia and Tasmania. Over the past 100 years or so it has been warming at a rate four times the global average.

Redmap, a national citizen science website for unusual sightings of marine species operated by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Hobart, is now regularly recording marine creatures previously found only rarely in Tasmanian waters, including tropical species like the snipefish.

Getting a new species on the end of your line can be pleasing, but there’s no pleasure to be got from what some of them are doing. For instance, warm water and an invading sea urchin are together steadily destroying Tasmania’s highly-productive giant kelp forests.

A similar scenario has been playing out off Western Australia, where a marine heatwave event in 2010 wiped out nearly half the kelp forests over more than 100 km of rocky reefs. Recovery has been very patchy, with most of the cold-water kelp being displaced by warm-water seaweed.

In the summer of 2015-16 tropical Australian seas from the North-West Shelf to the Coral Sea warmed by over 2C for nearly four months – the most intense marine heatwave in the region in nearly 40 years of records.

The devastating impact of that event and a weaker warming the following summer is still being felt. The booming tourist trade across tropical Australia, but especially in north-east Queensland, is suddenly feeling threatened by unprecedented coral bleaching caused by warm waters.

A study published in the science journal Nature in April found that the event had permanently transformed the ecology of the reef. Most tellingly, it was severe enough to “cook” some northern Reef corals, which will never recover.

Another bleaching event in 2016-17 saw yet more severe bleaching in the Cairns-Townsville region and as far south as the waters off Mackay. That spells more trouble ahead for the tourism trade.

While that poses a big problem for the Queensland and Australian economies, from an ecological perspective that’s the least of our worries. A Nature Communications paper published last month shows that marine heatwaves are becoming both more frequent and more extreme.

The study, led by Eric Oliver of Canada’s Dalhousie University, looked at ocean surface temperature records dating back to 1925. It found that since then, the average number of marine heatwave days in a year has increased by 54 per cent, and that the trend has accelerated since 1982.

That finding, said Oliver, means that a marine ecosystem which 90 years ago would average 30 days of extreme heat each year is now experiencing around 45 heatwave days per year.

Senior Tasmanian marine biologist Alistair Hobday points out that such exposure to heatwave conditions causes extensive damage to ecosystems, with impacts on both biodiversity and economic activities including fisheries and aquaculture.

It’s the speed of change that has Hobday and his colleagues worried. He is surprised and dismayed that changes which just 10 years ago scientists thought we would take the best part of a century to reach are already being observed.

The Turnbull government’s fix for the Great Barrier Reef, addressing agricultural run-off and developing resilient corals, is a side issue, and tour operators on the Reef and elsewhere should understand that.

We have a full-blown crisis on our hands which can only be stopped at its source, which means an all-out, sustained effort to eliminate fossil-fuel emissions, here and everywhere.

Posted in Australian politics, biodiversity, biological resources, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, economic threat from climate, extreme events, fossil fuels, future climate, marine organisms, marine sciences, oceanography, science | Leave a comment

Bruny shows the way to an all-renewable future

The Hodgman government should take some credit, but doing the same for zero net emissions is a step too far.

South Bruny from the Neck. PHOTO Discover Tasmania

South Bruny from the Neck. PHOTO Discover Tasmania


Slowly – too slowly – the ruckus over coal-fired electricity is dying as Australians come to see what renewable power coupled with advanced information technology can achieve.

We understood such a possibility here in Tasmania once, when we had a fully-renewable power grid. That ended when the 1967 drought led us to supplement hydro with fossil fuels – oil and gas.

For the past 12 years – minus the months it’s been inoperative, including now – we’ve also had Basslink, touted by government as a means of selling clean hydro energy interstate but used more often to import brown coal power from Victoria.

Even on this island, having lived with hydro for over a century, we’ve been subjected to the false notion that without thermal power stations we’re doomed, and that big blackouts have been caused entirely by not enough coal-fired power to fill the gaps left by intermittent wind and solar.

This is a political line, not shared by professionals in the power business, who know there are many ways of dealing with the fact that wind and sunshine are not a continuous resource. One indicator of how this might play out comes from an island community in south-east Tasmania.

The Bruny Island battery trial, led by the Australian National University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, involves a network administrator (TasNetworks), teams from the universities of Sydney and Tasmania and a Canberra software business called Reposit Power.

At the end of a single power supply cable from mainland Tasmania, Bruny Islanders suffer more than most from blackouts. This was a logical choice for a trial seeking to know how a community could benefit from local generation and battery storage managed by a smart network.

With $2.9 million in funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), the consortium began its work in 2016 by installing household solar and battery storage systems in 40 Bruny Island homes.

But it’s how these systems are managed that sets this scheme apart. ANU scientists have developed a technology they call Network Aware Coordination, or NAC, which allows the Bruny homes’ solar-battery systems to work seamlessly with the electricity grid to help manage electricity supplies at times of peak demand.

The Bruny trial has shown what can be achieved with a higher level of distributed generation – household solar and computer-controlled storage – to make the grid both more efficient and more reliable.

Sociological and psychological data gathered by the other universities in the group helped fine-tune the NAC technology to allow each customer to easily discover what was happening to the energy their homes produced and how they could get maximum financial return from the network.

The NAC is tailor-made for distributed generation. Its algorithm can deal with demands of any scale, from individual homes to all of Australia if needed, while still retaining ease of use and complete privacy for each customer.

Batteries represent a new paradigm for the National Electricity Market, which so far does not have arrangements in place to fully utilise the responsiveness of battery power. The market’s regulatory framework has to be updated before it can accommodate the likes of the NAC.

When that happens, and when the Bruny Island technology or a future iteration of it is rolled out more widely to take advantage of existing and new household storage, the potential of intelligent network management and a truly distributed power network will begin to be realised.

The scheme’s potential to deliver huge long-term benefits Australia-wide, including lower network costs and power prices, were recognised a few weeks ago when it was named the 2018 Australian Energy Project of the Year by the Electrical Energy Society of Australia.

Tasmania should take pride in the Bruny success just as it should be proud of its hydro network, which with the potential of pumped hydro using solar and wind power has given us a huge head-start over the rest of the country in minimising carbon emissions.

The Hodgman government should share in that pride. But its boast last week to have led Tasmania to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions in 2015-16 – 35 years ahead of its 2050 target – demands an explanation.

Figure from Tasmanian Greenhouse Gas Accounts Report 2015-16: Tasmania's greenhouse gas emissions by sector from 1989-90 to 2015-16

Figure from Tasmanian Greenhouse Gas Accounts Report 2015-16: Tasmania’s greenhouse gas emissions by sector from 1989-90 to 2015-16

I’ve said before that a government intent on effective climate action would seek to cut fossil-fuel emissions and severely limit land clearing, and wouldn’t even contemplate native forest logging.

The world leadership claim rests on a logging industry downturn and the success of the 2012 Forest Agreement – which the government seeks to expunge from history – and to a lesser extent on not having to include emissions from imported brown coal power, which go on to Victoria’s books.

I’ll add my congratulations to the Hodgman government when it finds the courage to ban logging in native forests and gives these priceless carbon stores the protection of permanent reservation.

Posted in batteries, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, energy, forests and forestry, fossil fuels, hydro, land use, solar, Tasmanian politics | Leave a comment

The changing face of Anzac Day

It’s time we stopped patriotic posturing by globe-trotting politicians and returned Anzac Day to its community roots.

Fifty years on: How we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in 1965. PHOTO Australian War Memorial

Fifty years on: How we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in 1965. PHOTO Australian War Memorial


Another Anzac Day is almost upon us, with its reminders of ultimate sacrifices on Gallipoli beaches and Flanders fields, and choruses of “we will remember them” and “lest we forget”.

Setting aside the mild irony about our use of these words, taken from patriotic poems written not for Australia but for Mother England, Anzac Day is a serious business. For many Australians, remembering our war dead each April 25 is a solemn and deeply personal matter.

About 60,000 young Australians were killed in four horrific years from 1914 to 1918, equivalent to over 300,000 today as a proportion of the national population. A far greater number were wounded, and an incalculable but undoubtedly huge number of young men came back traumatised.

That enormous casualty count had a devastating impact on lives back home. Farms, towns, regions – the whole country – were deprived of fathers, brothers and sons, stretching human resources to their limit and placing a near-intolerable burden on our women.

We need to acknowledge this, as we need to recognise war anywhere and at any time as a scourge. The best Anzac Day speeches, such as that of the late Tasmanian governor Peter Underwood in 2014, remind us of this undeniable truth.

The solemnity of Anzac Day was what Alan Seymour set out to get across in The One Day of the Year, a play first performed in 1960 looking at how Australians view our big day.

The play’s depiction of drunk veterans was said to show disrespect for the Anzac tradition. Seymour and the theatre companies brave enough to put it on had to endure a bomb threat in Sydney, and in Adelaide to have a police guard at the theatre door.

Opponents missed the point of the play. Far from attacking veterans, it recognises their sacrifices and evokes compassion for them and their families. But it does shine a spotlight on the futility of war and the complexity of our national response to it.

As a boy scout around that time, I marched on one or two occasions with the veterans in our town’s Anzac Day street parade. I had heard stories from an elderly uncle about trench life in France, but they were for a child’s ears. I learned nothing of its horrors.

For me at that time, Anzac Day was a simple affair – a very local event around our town’s cenotaph, in which politicians kept a low profile.

You get the same sense of simplicity from the typewritten list issued by then-prime minister Robert Menzies to mark the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in 1965 – a landmark Anzac Day by any measure.

Menzies’ program simply listed the main capital city events along with an MP or senator to represent the federal government at each, including a service at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra attended by Menzies himself.

There’s nothing to show whether Menzies made a speech; the website for official prime ministerial statements and speeches has no such record. It’s perfectly possible that he simply laid a wreath, which would fit with my own recollection of Anzac Day in those times.

Except for the odd address to troops on service, prime ministerial speeches at Anzac Day events were almost unheard of until 1990, when Bob Hawke travelled to Gallipoli to mark the 75th anniversary of the Anzac landings there.

That was also the first time a prime minister marked Anzac Day in a foreign land. Two years later, a recently-installed Paul Keating repeated the exercise in Port Moresby, in keeping with Keating’s preferred emphasis on the 1941-45 defence of Australia. He gave no other Anzac Day speeches.

Such restraint went out the window under John Howard. He delivered an Anzac Day speech for all but two of his 12 years as prime minister, mostly in Australia. He also gave Anzac Day speeches in Thailand in 1998, Iraq in 2004 and Gallipoli in 2000 and 2005.

Kevin Rudd gave two long Anzac Day speeches, in 2008 and 2010, both domestic. Julia Gillard spoke in Seoul in 2011 and Tony Abbott at Gallipoli for the 100th anniversary event in 2015.

Whatever else it represents, Anzac Day is now a televised platform for politicians who want to look like a leader. Tonight this will reach a zenith when prime minister Malcolm Turnbull opens the $100 million Sir John Monash Centre near Villers-Bretonneux in France.

As the multi-year centennial extravaganza winds down, we need to ask ourselves, where is all this heading? Other countries lost millions of soldiers on the Western Front, many times more than we did, but Australia alone invests this sort of money in national memorials there.

I feel uneasy about the way our Anzac traditions have been politicised and exported. I vote we refocus our attention back home, back where all this began in our local high streets and cenotaphs. And at our watering holes, with pokies ditched in favour of two-up games. Regulated, of course.

Posted in Australian politics, leadership | Leave a comment