A matter of the heart

Part of the Carina Nebula, as captured by the James Webb Space Telescope [NASA/ESA/CSA]

We have become so used to failure in the human journey we sometimes anticipate it before it has happened. But occasionally something comes along that cuts through the mind-boggling complexities of that journey and makes it all seem worthwhile.

The James Webb Space Telescope, launched last December, has been preparing to surprise us since January, when it reached its assigned position in space. If you imagine a line from the centre of the Sun through the centre of Earth, extending another 1.5 million km out from Earth, that’s the sweet spot where it will work until it dies, hopefully decades away.

Webb’s genesis goes back to 1996, when the project’s lead agency NASA, with European and Canadian space agencies, began early design work. This seems a long time, but it took much longer to bring the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb’s immediate predecessor, from conception in the 1960s to full functionality early this century.

Hubble was in Earth orbit and could be serviced by space shuttle; Webb is in a solar orbit beyond the reach of hands-on servicing, and had to be made operational from a distance. Its deployment and observation technologies are breathtaking, testimony to human ingenuity at its highest level.

Tasmanian astronomer Martin George has described better than I can Webb’s technical wizardry, including its ingenious mirror, six times bigger than Hubble’s, and its ability to make images of space objects billions of light years away. That is, billions of years back in time, to when our universe was young.

Webb’s high-definition images of forming stars, exoplanets and those first galaxies owe much to its ability to read faint infrared signals. To do that it must remain extremely cold (no warmer than minus 223C) indefinitely. Its five-layer sunshield prevents it from being warmed by the three dominant “local” heat sources, the Sun, Earth and Moon.

We can reasonably expect many more wondrous visions from Webb, viewed from that exceptional vantage point. It is possible that its life will be cut short by misadventure, but it’s also possible it will continue working for decades. 

The very existence of a functioning Webb telescope is a huge compliment to the nations and organisations that planned, funded and delivered it. If I lived in the US, Canada or Europe I would feel proud to have that association. But its value goes way beyond national boundaries.

Like the Rosetta Stone, whose engraved translations unlocked countless mysteries about our human past, Webb’s images will be pored over for decades, interpreted and reinterpreted in humanity’s endless quest for meaning, until new generations of imaging technology deliver yet deeper insights into the universe. That’s assuming we don’t crash and burn first.

Ever since the Hubble telescope became fully operational 20 years ago, astrophysicists have lined up to explain to the best of their considerable abilities the scientific significance of each image. Their response to the first Webb images was immediate and uniformly positive.

We learned from an image of a planet 1100 light years away that there was water in its atmosphere, and got new, enhanced views of another Milky Way object, the “Southern Ring” nebula, a vast cloud of gas around twin stars 2000 light years away. We got the clearest view yet of an interacting group of galaxies 290 million light years away called Stephan’s Quintet, and of SMACS-0723, a much-studied galaxy cluster over five billion light years away.

Then there is the nebula called Carina. The name comes from Greek mythology, the keel of Jason’s ship Argonaut. In the spirit of that great adventure, Carina encompasses an exceptionally dynamic part of the Milky Way, around 8000 light years away, where old stars are dying and new ones forming in a maelstrom of massively hot explosions and interstellar winds.

That image is a sign of more to come from the Webb telescope in the vein of “Pillars of Creation”, an eye-catching Hubble icon. Gas and dust spectacles like these are rich sources of information for astronomers, but they are even more powerful in the wider world as startling reminders of our universe’s infinite variety.

Long before the Greeks, Australia’s first people created their unique mythologies by reading this land’s spectacular night skies. Webb-Hubble observations, unhindered by our concealing atmosphere, are an opportunity to renew and enrich those ancient traditions, guided but not limited by science.

The gifts from our eyes in space are not just for science but for people everywhere to apply to their own cosmologies. When all’s said and done, they are a matter of the heart.

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The big switch: our last best chance?

In 2007 a humble Oregon physics teacher named Greg Craven, concerned that people were too complacent about climate change, posted online “the most terrifying video you’ll ever see”, consisting mainly of his amiable face, a whiteboard and scribbled lists of options. 

“While we debate whether humans could change the climate or not, we’re at the same time running the experiment,” he said. “The kicker is, no matter what the outcome of the experiment, we’re in the test tube”. Craven’s brilliantly simple risk analysis left us with just one inescapable course: decarbonise as fast as humanly possible. 

While most people and their leaders downplayed or ignored this imperative, one who didn’t was Saul Griffith, Australian engineer, “solutionist” (his word) and writer on technology and climate. His latest book is The Big Switch.

Griffith is having an impact in corridors of power both here and in the US, where he built his career and reputation. Viewers of the ABC’s “Q&A” show on energy policy last month will have been struck by the obvious synergy between him and the rest of the panel, including Chris Bowen, Minister for Climate Change and Energy.

Energy and climate change have driven Griffith’s educational and business choices. Trained in the scientific principles underlying his profession, managing uncertainty and risk is fundamental to his world-view. “I respect the data. I look at the numbers,” he says.

No-one who takes on the subject of climate change – scientists, technologists, policymakers or mere observers like me – can avoid feeling pessimistic about our chances of avoiding massive upheaval locally and globally. It stands to reason that having avoided hard choices for decades we’re kidding ourselves to think everything will sort itself out.

Griffith doesn’t downplay the scale of the problem. Committed carbon – “the carbon we will emit because of the infrastructure we have already built, and the fossil fuels that infrastructure will use as it performs its service life” – already puts us beyond the “safe” warming threshold of 1.5C. 

As he sees it, normal economic rules no longer apply: “We have zero years to begin the ramp-up and production of the solutions we have today, and to implement them at the next replacement opportunity for every car, power plant, rooftop and furnace in the country.”

The resulting jobs – enough to keep people employed for decades, he says – will be high-value because they’ll be local, revolving around homes, cars and regional infrastructure.

“Massive electrification”, says Griffith, will put us well on the way to a fully decarbonised economy, replacing the gas and oil fuelled devices we currently use for heating, cooking and transport with equivalents powered by electricity, the most efficient form of energy. 

Griffith’s plan would have millions of generators (mostly home solar) instead of today’s few dozen, and millions of storage units in the form of off-duty electric vehicles, connected by a massively enhanced nationwide grid able to maintain supply under any and all conditions. 

Industrial-strength transport and industry can both be electrified once renewable generators have been created and connected at sufficient scale. Some surprising benefits are in prospect. For instance, a truck battery-swap system now on offer by an Australian company, Janus Electric, could have an important energy storage role for the national grid.

Griffith thinks on a gargantuan scale. Australia’s renewable potential, especially solar, could make us the world’s biggest producer of energy, enough to power everything we want to do here and to export to Indonesia and mainland Asia, by submarine cable or as green hydrogen. 

He has even come up with the “crazy-sounding” idea of buying all proven reserves from fossil fuel companies – “the industry with experience in massive scale energy systems” – to enable them to reinvest in new energy. “This won’t be solved without getting them to fight alongside us,” he says.

Rewarding fossil fuel companies is not my cup of tea. And while I would gladly move to an electric car if I could afford it, I like my household’s wood fire and gas stove, both of which serve us well when wind, snow, possum or some other act of God takes out our power. 

But personal objections such as mine shouldn’t stand in the way of a national plan to get that emissions graph turning downward, in the handful of years the world has left before the climate arrives in a much more dangerous place.

Greg Craven’s terrifying video notwithstanding, we’re still running that experiment 15 years later. Of all the technology “solutions” that have popped up since, Griffith’s “electrify everything” is by far the best on offer.

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Let’s press pause on water scheme

The most recent national State of the Environment report in 2016 – another was due in 2021 but has yet to appear – drew attention to a lack of information about the state of Australia’s freshwater resources.

It said that in the period since the first SOE report, in 2011, “efforts to analyse, integrate, assess and report holistically on the state of inland waters have generally decreased”.

The report does not explain why this was so, but assuming it wasn’t because scientists and other field workers simply gave up, it could only be because research institutions – and ultimately government – withdrew support for their work. 

Is there any task more necessary than keeping tabs on the flow of water down our rivers? If we want to live in cities and towns, and to grow food while also conserving natural ecosystems, we need a steady supply of water. It’s that fundamental. Any government that reduces support for this work is failing its citizens.

Most of Hobart’s drinking water comes from the Derwent river system. At the end of a warm dry spring in 2019, city users were suddenly faced with the prospect of restrictions, learning in the process that they shared their water supply with irrigators in the Coal River valley. 

While the cause of the shortage wasn’t clear at the time it was speculated that irrigation for high-value water-intensive crops – mainly fruit, nuts and green-leaf vegetables – had a lot to do with it. For their part, the irrigators were told to cut their water use in half. Faced with the loss of expensive crops they were very unhappy.

With summer still ahead, this wasn’t a good look either for the state’s town water administrator, TasWater, or for Tasmanian Irrigation, which manages farm supply. Questions came thick and fast. Why did this happen without warning? And why were irrigators using water that had been treated at ratepayers’ expense for human consumption?

Tasmanian Irrigation set about finding other ways to deliver water to thirsty farms, and 10 days ago announced its solution, to combine three existing schemes into a single “Greater South East” scheme. It will take water from the Derwent’s Meadowbank Dam – above the water treatment plant at Bryn Estyn– for irrigators in the Derwent and Coal valleys.

Water minister Jo Palmer delivered the news. The $408 million scheme, to be Tasmania’s largest, would help future-proof against climate change, she said, while removing the risk to farmers from investing in irrigation.

That’s a brave call. Sure, town users won’t have to share their treated water with irrigators, but there remains the question that no-one in government seems to want to talk about. How can you guarantee a greater water supply to more irrigators from the same river system that caused such grief in 2019? It’s still the same river.

This has a long back-story. In 2002, an intensive government-funded study to determine environmental flows for the lower Derwent found that no additional water should be taken from the river in summer, while specifying minimum daily flows in other months and regular five-day “flushing” events. No such measures have been put in place.  

Since that study, a number of low-flow periods in the Derwent between Meadowbank and the river’s tidal limit at New Norfolk have increased the risk of degraded water quality, algal blooms, contaminated seafood and damaged seagrass beds and wetlands, with consequential impacts on wildlife and humans. 

We don’t know how far this damage has already progressed, nor the impact of taking even more water out of the river system, because there has been no comprehensive follow-up study of lower Derwent water chemistry and flow over the 20 years since 2002. 

Yet Tasmanian Irrigation is putting out for public comment a “preferred option” to build new pump stations pushing water to new and existing irrigators in the districts of Gretna, Jordan River Valley, Brighton, Cambridge, Richmond, Tea Tree, Colebrook, Campania, Sorell, Forcett and Pawleena. It expects to put water entitlements up for sale early next month.

Engineers and farmers can do wonderful things with water, but they’re not miracle-workers. They can move water from one river system to another but they can’t create it from nothing, and they can give no guarantees against bad consequences arising from a radical change in water supply, like degraded water at one end or rising surface salinity at the other.

In the face of past near-misses, and lacking detailed, long-term flow studies or any current, comprehensive investigation of the state of the Derwent catchment to guide them, it is foolhardy in the extreme for the Rockliff government to push ahead with this scheme.

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