Wednesday, 13 March 2019

“Get Out” and don’t “Get Big”

As recent weeks clearly reveal a tipping point in Australia’s climate – with only 33 millimetres of rain in three months in Melbourne and none forecast for the next week – the revelation that the Murray-Darling Basin is drying out is not unexpected but shocking nonetheless.

The carcass of a kangaroo is seen by the side of the road in Wilcannia in March. Livestock and wildlife are dying as a result of the extended drought. Picture: Mark Evans/Getty Images Source: Getty Images
Jed Smith of vice.com and Maryanne Slattery of The Australia Institute have demonstrated in their recent article ‘“These weren’t mistakes”: “Dodgy” policies to blame for Murray Darling’s downfall’ that an Australian National University study demonstrating that vastly less water had been returned to the river system than claimed by the government. Maryanne also revealed large-scale water theft by the factory-scale irrigators in the basin’s upper reaches, who grow the water-intensive crops of rice, tobacco and cotton on a landmass whose rivers lack baseflow during below-average or even average rainfall. Water that in other continents creates baseflow is in Australia absorbed by dense proteoid root systems necessary to absorb scarce nutrients. In other extant continents these nutrients have been enriched by orders of magnitude via mountain building and aeolian glacial tills. There, lower rooting densities and much smaller threshold rainfalls to activate runoff are not only possible but essential.

What they show a a requisite is that irrigators – politically powerful due to their unrivalled profits on Australia’s abundant land in wet years – to be absolutely forbidden from extracting purchased water. What has actually happened is irrigators simply buying the water purchased by government, eliminating supposed additional flows. These flows are required to preserve ecosystems 13,000 times more ancient and comparably more specialised that the typical 10,000-year-old ecosystem of Europe, North America or New Zealand. Australian aquatic flora and fauna are adapted to flows three times more variable than those of Europe, North America, New Zealand, East Asia or South America, and lose out when flows are modified to fit farming practices tested in the fleetingly young Enriched World. In fact, as Mary E. White showed in Running Down: Water in a Changing Land, the entire Murray-Darling and Lake Eyre Basins – and indeed most of the higher Western Plateau – constitutes one ephemeral floodplain adapted to extremely irregular floods. This is utterly different not only from the fast-flowing streams in U-shaped valleys of most of the Enriched World, but even from the permanent slow-flowing streams of the Amazon Basin or the bayou country of the Southern United States. In almost all of Australia, runoff occurs only ephemerally following abnormal rainfall, and when rivers do flow, they can cover the whole land area – as in the famous 1990 floods when Nyngan was completely evacuated.

Such environments are simply not designed for annual crops. In the natural state of the MDB, such crops would fail in the vast majority of years, and reservoirs six times those of Europe, North America or New Zealand are needed to maintain the same reliability of supply even ignoring higher evaporation.

Instead of “getting big”, Australia needs a plan for its farmers to get out – and get out as soon as possible. A “get out” plan would involve restoring the rivers of inland Australia to their naturally uniquely variable flows and specially adapted endemic species, and restoring farmland to native flora. This plan was proposed on a smaller scale for uneconomic less large farms two decades ago by Tyrone Thomas in his My Environmental Exposé, but contradicts a free market that locates agriculture where land is cheapest. However, where land is cheapest is precisely where farming does by far the greatest ecological harm. This is why a large-scale, long-term plan to take control of Australia’s rivers from Australian and foreign agribusinesses, and return our climatically vulnerable rainfed farmland to specially adapted native flora and fauna, is one of the most critical steps for reversing the ecological crisis. Benefits of mass revegetation will accrue not only to Australia but globally in terms of reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increased economic profitability on other continents incomparably better suited to agriculture.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Most Australians are unaware of DFAT travel warnings

For a long time – ever since, being always obsessed with lists, I looked at which countries were viewed as extremely dangerous to travel by DFAT and various other national travel advisories.

Almost all the “developed” nations now issues travel advisories to their citizens, but my brother has said that the basic purpose of travel warnings is not to helm travellers know what places are safe to visit. Rather, my brother says that the purpose of travel warnings is to help travel insurance companies to decide whether to insure visitors to various countries or regions. Almost all Australian travel insurance companies will without exception refuse to insure travel to a DFAT “Do Not Travel” area, and many will refuse to insure travel to a DFAT “Reconsider Your Need To Travel” area.

With the information available today, I have possessed no doubt that potential travellers to “Do Not Travel” destinations – even those with significant interest therein – would stand able to recognise that the Saharan countries, Yemen, Syria and Iraq are extremely dangerous due to ongoing wars.

However, it is still interesting to know that most Australians have no actual knowledge of the travel warnings. According to recent research by ‘Insure and Go’ only two Australians in five know of DFAT’s travel warnings at all. I do not believe this means most Australians are unaware of the risks of travelling to most destinations in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Whilst a large number of destinations in sub-Saharan Africa are very rarely visited by Australians – to visit many sub-Saharan nations requires you to travel to a third country for a visa – I know very few people would randomly be interested in visiting a country that happens to be out-of-the-way. Those who would want to if they could would almost certainly research these places themselves so they would know what places are either:
  1. unsafe to visit due to war or other violent conflicts, or drug crime
  2. impossible to visit for reasons of internal policy
    • this second state of affairs is practically unknown today, but was widespread before Stalinism fell in Europe in:
      1. Stalinist nations of Asia and to some extent Eastern Europe
      2. the Arab Gulf States – of which only Baḥrain issued tourist visas before 1990
      3. many nations in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in its arid Saharan fringe (e.g. Chad and Said Barre’s Somalia)
Government travel warnings, whilst widespread, are by no means necessary or essential to international travel, even if there might be more cases akin to Wyatt Roy’s trip to Iraq – largely motivated by his political interests – if governments did not offer this advice.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Tales of origin of Petroica’s “red” breasts

Male Scarlet Robin (Petroica boodang)
Whilst red-breasted “robins” are not unique to Australia, I though I might put a brief post on Aboriginal tales of their origins as I found it interesting when emailed today:


  1. Along the Murray River, the Yorta Yorta people say that the robin was once a young boy who was fed by his big sister when her husband was away hunting. However, she could only feed him by withholding some food from her own children. When her husband returned from a hunting trip and found the boy eating meat, he was enraged, and in a fury he threw glowing hot coals from the fire at the boy. They landed on his chest, scalding him, and the red scars persist to this day.
  2. In the Gippsland region of eastern Victoria, people of the Kurnai/Gunnai nation say that once, during a long and severe drought, the robin found a supply of water in a tree, but instead of telling others about it, he selfishly kept it for himself. One day when he was splashing about in the water, a Tawny Frogmouth passed by and heard the splashing sound coming from a hollow in the tree. The frogmouth quickly blocked up the entrance to the hollow, trapping the robin inside. Pleading to be released, the robin eventually agreed to share his water. However, when the frogmouth cut a new hole in the tree, he accidentally cut the robin’s breast, which bled profusely.
  3. Similarly, blood is the cause of the robin’s red breast in south-western Australia, where the Noongar people say that the robin got into a fight with a feisty Willie Wagtail. During the altercation, the Willie struck the robin on the nose (or was it his beak?), causing it to bleed, and the blood spilled all down his front.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

What Peter Mailler is doing must be encouraged generally

With Melbourne yesterday receiving no rainfall despite a predicted 90 percent chance of showers and a practical certainty of:
  1. a rainless October, with the previous record low 7 millimetres in 1914 easily smashed
  2. a record dry spring, with the previous record low of 68 millimetres from 1967 cut to a third of that figure or less
  3. a record dry three months, beating 23.9 millimetres from February to April 1923
  4. a record dry October to December, beating 52 millimetres from 2006 and 67.7 millimetres under natural climate cycles from 1896
  5. much more critically, a radical shift in the Hadley circulation producing a reduction of between 50 and 80 percent under the virgin mean annual rainfall of around 660 millimetres or 26 inches
In corresponding latitudes of South America, the entire region of Central Chile between Santiago and Concepción has seen a reduction of 40 percent in mean annual rainfall since 2009, on top of past reductions since 1967. This is almost certainly entirely a product of due to man-made greenhouse pollution shifting the descending limb of the Hadley Cell into the region during its former winter rainy season (e.g. Hochman et.al 2017, Liu et.al 2012, Seidel et.al 2008). Because extreme positive IOD events that have caused the droughts in 2002, 2006 to 2008, 2014 to 2015 and 2018 are likely to become vastly more frequent (Ng et.al., 2015; Chie et. al 2004), a 50 to 80 percent reduction in annual rainfall over Southern Australia vis-à-vis virgin means is an entirely reasonable prediction for 2019 and beyond. With continuing increases in greenhouse gas concentrations, one needs to err on the dry side, as it is known that during the Mesozoic with CO2 concentrations over 1,000ppmv the Hadley Cell extended to at least 45˚ from the equator (vis-à-vis 25˚ preindustrially).

In this context, the admission by former farmer Peter Mailler of Goondiwindi on the Darling downs on yesterday’s 7:30 Report that:
“You can’t keep arguing that this is just a cycle,”
“Yes, there are dry periods and, yes, there are wetter periods, yes, there are warm periods, yes, there are cool periods, but we have shifted the averages.”
 “The baselines have moved to the point now where we are unable to manage the impacts of those extreme events in that set.”
“We’re running out of tricks”

 “Agriculture is a gamble and every time temperatures rise and the impacts of climate change rolls down, the odds keep moving in favour of the house. My bet is that high temperatures are here to stay and that is a serious threat to how we farm and how we manage that lack of rainfall.”
What Mr. Mailler is doing is to build a solar farm on his property and sell the electricity. According to the 7:30 Report, Mailler is producing enough electricity for the entire town of Goondiwindi. The report said that, despite the government’s inaction and deep ties to the fossil fuel industry, Mailler is actually making money.

There is a deep lesson here. Mailler’s work possesses simple logic, yet I had never previously thought of solar power stations as an alternative use for the vast majority of Australian farmland that is unsustainable both in terms of biodiversity loss and runaway expansion of the Hadley circulation.

If, in an area which lies near the boundary of the humid western side of the subtropical anticyclone and is not nearly so vulnerable to runaway poleward spread of the Hadley Cell, farmers are nonetheless struggling, what could be done if we could cut Australia’s politicians’ subservience to the coal industry and pay farmers in the former winter rainfall zone to make a change to solar power and large-scale revegetation of their properties?? Large-scale power for communities much larger than Goondiwindi is certainly not implausible with the certainty of Melbourne’s rainfall and cloudiness from 2019 being consistently below historical averages in Tibooburra. Changing farming to native flora and solar power constitutes a double jackpot is reducing Australia’s uniquely bad greenhouse emissions via:
  1. reversing large-scale emissions of greenhouse gases from extensive and continuing clearing of native vegetation by agribusiness
  2. vastly reducing, even eliminating emissions from coal-fired power stations
What Mailler is doing needs to be demanded of all Australian farmers.

References:

  • Hochman, Zvi; Gobbett, David L.; and Horan, Heidi; ‘Climate trends account for stalled wheat yields in Australia since 1990’; Global Change Biology (2017); published by CSIRO Agriculture and Food
  • Chie Ihara; Yochana Kushnir and Mark A. Cane; ‘Warming Trend of the Indian Ocean SST and Indian Ocean Dipole from 1880 to 2004’; Journal of Climate, vol. 21 (2008), pp. 2035-2046
  • J. Liu, M. Song, Y. Hu and X. Ren; ‘Changes in the strength and width of the Hadley Circulation since 1871’; Climates of the Past; vol. 8 (2012); pp. 1169-1175
  • Ng, Benjamin; Cai, Wenju; Walsh, Kevin and Santoso, Agus; ‘Nonlinear processes reinforce extreme Indian Ocean Dipole events’; Scientific Reports; volume 5, Article 11697 (2015)
  • Seidel, Dian J. Qiang Fu; Randel, William J. and Reichler, Thomas J.; ‘Widening of the tropical belt in a changing climate’; Nature Geoscience, vol. 1 (January 2008), pp. 21-24

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Why Coles’ drought levy is a con job

On the radio during September one would frequently see advertisements for a “drought levy” established by Coles on milk since the beginning of September, and for Coles aiding drought-stricken farmers.

With a record-dry year likely now from Melbourne into northern Victoria and possibly parts of New South Wales, the drought levy is understandable but in terms of environmental ethics – regardless of its good intentions to help farmers – it must be judged wrong.

The reality is that we – as Tim Flannery noted during the 2006 drought – are not seeing a drought at all, but a new climate. Scientific studies (Seidel et. al. 2007, Kidder et. al. 2004, Liu et. al. 2012) suggest the southern Hadley cell – which marks the limits of the outer tropical and subtropical arid belt – has shifted poleward by seven degrees of latitude since the 1960s. This is equivalent to 780 kilometres, or to Melbourne experiencing the climate of Moree or Walgett from before anthropogenic global warming, and can be seen in the intense anticyclonic circulation during the winter half-year below:
Winter half-year 850 millibar streamfunction over Australia since 2010 vis-à-vis before 1974 (courtesy of Earth System Research Laboratory’s NCEP NCAR R1)
These climatic changes have been uniform over the southern hemisphere, although the mapping at ESRL did not allow me to show a decent graph. Also, the intensity of the Hadley Cell in the southern hemisphere has increased steadily since the 1920s – and the increase since 2010 has been very large vis-à-vis the graph below:
Strength of Southern Hemisphere Hadley circulation, taken from J. Liu, M. Song, Y. Hu and X. Ren; ‘Changes in the strength and width of the Hadley Circulation since 1871’; Climates of the Past; vol. 8 (2012); pp. 1169–1175
In this context, the levies of Coles and Woolworths serve no other long-term purpose except to prop up dairy farmers who are already clearly unsustainable and likely to suffer even more as the Hadkey Cell spreads in the future. Models from the extremely hot Mesozoic (Chander et. al. 1992; Kidder et. al. 2004) suggest that the rapid poleward movement of winter storms away from the subtropics will continue with increasing global warming. This aridification must make the possibility of southern Australian farmers continuing to farm without causing mass extinctions of unique, ancient species remote. Indeed Hochman et.al. (2016) have suggested that poleward shifts of the Hadley Cell will inevitably stall and reverse technological grain crop yield increases in Australia during the 21st century.

There is, in my view, a much more sustainable alternative to propping up unsustainable land uses. Those concerned abut helping Australia’s farmers should aim not to prop them up, but to permit them make a radical transition via (at least partial and preferably complete) revegetation of their farms to ecotourism based land uses which mitigate rather than exacerbate man-made climate changes. A transition from unprofitable or erratically profitable farming to ecotourism would also reduce the risk of extinction for extremely ancient species that – unlike the rapidly speciating northern and western hemispheres – have roles that are irreplaceable if lost. For instance, lyrebirds play a critical role mitigating the intense fires caused by scarcity of catabolic chalcophile elements in southern Australia (Orians and Milewski, 2007)

Whilst a transition from farming to ecotourism stands costly and difficult over the vast areas where the threats noted by Hochman et. al. are severe, certainly on a small scale conversion of struggling farmers to sustainable ecotourism – especially with currently underutilised public and private promotion of the unique characteristics of Australian ecosystems (Orians and Milewski, 2007; Flannery 1994; McMahon and Finlayson 1991) – would be a much more sustainable use of “relief” levies from sales of food in chain stores, and would mitigate the risks of future climate change that see drying possibly as extreme as 80 percent of virgin mean rainfalls by 2100.

References:

  • Chandler, Mark A., Rind, David and Ruedy, Reto; ‘Pangaean climate during the Early Jurassic: GCM simulations and the sedimentary record of paleoclimate’; Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 104, pp. 543-559, 9 figs., 3 tables (May 1992)
  • Flannery, Tim; The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australian Lands and People; ISBN 0730104222
  • Kidder, David L. and Worsley, Thomas R.; ‘Causes and consequences of extreme Permo-Triassic warming to globally equable climate and relation to the Permo-Triassic extinction and recovery’; Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, vol. 203 (2004); pp. 207-237
  • Hochman, Zvi; Gobbett, David L.; and Horan, Heidi; ‘Climate trends account for stalled wheat yields in Australia since 1990’; Global Change Biology (2017); published by CSIRO Agriculture and Food
  • J. Liu, M. Song, Y. Hu and X. Ren; ‘Changes in the strength and width of the Hadley Circulation since 1871’; Climates of the Past; vol. 8 (2012); pp. 1169–1175
  • McMahon, T.A. and Finlayson, B.L.; Global Runoff: Continental Comparisons of Annual Flows and Peak Discharges. ISBN 3-923381-27-1
  • Orians, Gordon H. and Milewski, Antoni V. (2007). ‘Ecology of Australia: the effects of nutrient-poor soils and intense fires’ Biological Reviews, 82 (3): pp. 393–423
  • Seidel, Dian J. Qiang Fu; Randel, William J. and Reichler, Thomas J.; ‘Widening of the tropical belt in a changing climate’; Nature Geoscience, vol. 1 (January 2008), pp. 21-24