Australia pisses away the little water it has

9 05 2016

cow_drinking_australia_dryWater, water nowhere, with little left to drink.

Australians are superlative natural resource wasters, but living in the driest inhabited continent on the planet, you’d think we’d be precious about our water use.

You’d be wrong.

On the contrary, Australia has a huge water footprint (defined as “the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the people of the nation”). For internal domestic use (i.e., not including agricultural and industrial uses, or water imported directly or within other goods), Australians use about 341000 litres per person per year (data from 1997–2001), which is six times the global average of 57000 litres per person per year (1).

Agricultural production is one of the chief consumers of freshwater around the world. For example, the global average virtual water content of rice (paddy) is 2.29 million litres/tonne produced, and for wheat it is 1.33 litres/tonne. Growing crops for biofuel in particular has a huge water footprint — depending on the crop in question, it takes an average of 1400–20000 litres of water to produce just one litre of biofuel (2). If an agricultural product comes from livestock — say, meat, leather, or wool — the water content is typically much higher because of the feed required to keep the animal alive. For example, it takes about three years to raise beef cattle to slaughtering age, with an average of 200 kg of boneless beef produced per animal. This requires about 1,300 kg of grains, 7200 kg of pasture or hay, and 31000 litres of water for drinking and cleaning. This means that the total amount of water required to produce 1 kg of beef is about 15340 litres (1). For Australia, which has over 20 million or so cattle at any one moment, the water footprint alone should at least be cause for concern the next time you tuck into a steak dinner. Read the rest of this entry »

One-two carbon punch of defaunation

30 04 2016

1-2 punchI’ve just read a well-planned and lateral-thinking paper in Nature Communications that I think readers of ought to appreciate. The study is a simulation of a complex ecosystem service that would be nigh impossible to examine experimentally. Being a self-diagnosed fanatic of simulation studies for just such purposes, I took particular delight in the results.

In many ways, the results of the paper by Osuri and colleagues are intuitive, but that should never be a reason to avoid empirical demonstration of a suspected phenomenon because intuition rarely equals fact. The idea itself is straightforward, but takes more than a few logical steps to describe: Read the rest of this entry »

Shadow of ignorance veiling society despite more science communication

19 04 2016

imagesI’ve been thinking about this post for a while, but it wasn’t until having some long, deep chats today with staff and students at Simon Fraser University‘s Department of Biological Sciences (with a particular hat-tip to the lovely Nick Dulvy, Isabelle Côté & John Reynolds) that the full idea began to take shape in my brain. It seems my presentation was a two-way street: I think I taught a few people some things, and they taught me something back. Nice.

There’s no question at all that science communication has never before been so widespread and of such high quality. More and more scientists and science students are now blogging, tweeting and generally engaging the world about their science findings. There is also an increasing number of professional science communication associations out there, and a growing population of professional science communicators. It is possibly the best time in history to be involved in the generation and/or communication of scientific results.

Why then is the public appreciation, acceptance and understanding of science declining? It really doesn’t make much sense if you merely consider that there has never been more good science ‘out there’ in the media — both social and traditional. For the source literature itself, there has never before been as many scientific journals, articles and even scientists writing. Read the rest of this entry »

Higher biodiversity imparts greater disease resistance

12 03 2016

fungal infection

Is biodiversity good for us? In many ways, this is a stupid question because at some point, losing species that we use directly will obviously impact us negatively — think of food crops, pollination and carbon uptake.

But how much can we afford to lose before we notice anything bad is happening? Is the sort of biodiversity erosion we’re seeing today really such a big deal?

One area of research experiencing a surge in popularity is examining how variation in biodiversity (biowealth1) affects the severity of infectious diseases, and it is particularly controversial with respect to the evidence for a direct effect on human pathogens (e.g., see a recent paper here, a critique of it, and a reply).

Controversy surrounding the biodiversity-disease relationship among non-human species is less intense, but there are still arguments about the main mechanisms involved. The amplification hypothesis asserts that a community with more species has a greater pool of potential hosts for pathogens, so pathogens increase as biodiversity increases. On the contrary, the dilution hypothesis asserts that disease prevalence decreases with increasing host species diversity via several possible mechanisms, such as more host species reducing the chance that a given pathogen will ‘encounter’ a suitable host, and that in highly biodiverse communities, an infected individual is less likely to be surrounded by the same species, so the pathogen cannot easily be transmitted to a new host (the so-called transmission interference hypothesis).

So I’ve joined the ecological bandwagon and teamed up yet again with some very clever Chinese collaborators to test these hypotheses in — if I can be so bold to claim — a rather novel and exciting way.

Our new paper was just published online in EcologyWarming and fertilization alter the dilution effect of host diversity on disease severity2. Read the rest of this entry »


24 02 2016

frogWhile I’ve blogged about this before in general terms (here and here), I thought it wise to reproduce the (open-access) chapter of the same name published in late 2013 in the unfortunately rather obscure book The Curious Country produced by the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia. I think it deserves a little more limelight.

As I stepped off the helicopter’s pontoon and into the swamp’s chest-deep, tepid and opaque water, I experienced for the first time what it must feel like to be some other life form’s dinner. As the helicopter flittered away, the last vestiges of that protective blanket of human technological innovation flew away with it.

Two other similarly susceptible, hairless, clawless and fangless Homo sapiens and I were now in the middle of one of the Northern Territory’s largest swamps at the height of the crocodile-nesting season. We were there to collect crocodile eggs for a local crocodile farm that, ironically, has assisted the amazing recovery of the species since its near-extinction in the 1960s. Removing the commercial incentive to hunt wild crocodiles by flooding the international market with scar-free, farmed skins gave the dwindling population a chance to recover.

redwoodConservation scientists like me rejoice at these rare recoveries, while many of our fellow humans ponder why we want to encourage the proliferation of animals that can easily kill and eat us. The problem is, once people put a value on a species, it is usually consigned to one of two states. It either flourishes as do domestic crops, dogs, cats and livestock, or dwindles towards or to extinction. Consider bison, passenger pigeons, crocodiles and caviar sturgeon.

As a conservation scientist, it’s my job not only to document these declines, but to find ways to prevent them. Through careful measurement and experiments, we provide evidence to support smart policy decisions on land and in the sea. We advise on the best way to protect species in reserves, inform hunters and fishers on how to avoid over-harvesting, and demonstrate the ways in which humans benefit from maintaining healthy ecosystems. Read the rest of this entry »

How things have (not) changed

13 04 2015

The other night I had the pleasure of dining with the former Australian Democrats leader and senator, Dr John Coulter, at the home of Dr Paul Willis (Director of the Royal Institution of Australia). It was an enlightening evening.

While we discussed many things, the 84 year-old Dr Coulter showed me a rather amazing advert that he and several hundred other scientists, technologists and economists constructed to alert the leaders of Australia that it was heading down the wrong path. It was amazing for three reasons: (i) it was written in 1971, (ii) it was published in The Australian, and (iii) it could have, with a few modifications, been written for today’s Australia.

If you’re an Australian and have even a modicum of environmental understanding, you’ll know that The Australian is a Murdochian rag infamous for its war on science and reason. Even I have had a run-in with its outdated, consumerist and blinkered editorial board. You certainly wouldn’t find an article like Dr Coulter’s in today’s Australian.

More importantly, this 44 year-old article has a lot today that is still relevant. While the language is a little outdated (and sexist), the grammar could use a few updates, and there are some predictions that clearly never came true, it’s telling that scientists and others have been worrying about the same things for quite some time.

In reading the article (reproduced below), one could challenge the authors for being naïve about how society can survive and even prosper despite a declining ecological life-support system. As I once queried Paul Ehrlich about some of his particularly doomerist predictions from over 50 years ago, he politely pointed out that much of what he predicted did, in fact, come true. There are over 1 billion people today that are starving, and another billion or so that are malnourished; combined, this is greater than the entire world population when Paul was born.

So while we might have delayed the crises, we certainly haven’t averted them. Technology does potentially play a positive role, but it can also increase our short-term carrying capacity and buffer the system against shocks. We then tend to ignore the indirect causes of failures like wars, famines and political instability because we do not recognise the real drivers: resource scarcity and ecosystem malfunction.

Australia has yet to learn its lesson.

To Those Who Shape Australia’s Destiny

We believe that western technological society has ignored two vital facts: Read the rest of this entry »

Earth’s second lung has emphysema

19 02 2015


Many consider forests as the ‘lungs’ of the planet – the idea that trees and other plants take up carbon and produce oxygen (the carbon and oxygen cycles). If we are to be fair though, the oceans store about 93% of the Earth’s carbon pool (excluding the lithosphere and fossil fuels) and oceanic phytoplankton produces between 50 and 80% of the oxygen in the atmosphere. For comparison, the terrestrial biosphere – including forests – stores only about 5% of the Earth’s carbon, and produces most of the remainder of atmospheric oxygen.

So there’s no denying that the biggest player in these cycles is the ocean, but that’s not the topic of today’s post. Instead, I’m going to focus on the terrestrial biosphere, and in particular, the carbon storage and flux of forests.

Now it’s pretty well established that tropical forests are major players in the terrestrial carbon cycle, with the most accepted estimates of about 55% the terrestrial carbon stock stored therein. The extensive boreal forest, covering most of the northern half of North America, most of Scandinavia and a huge chunk of Russia, comes in globally at about 33%, and temperate forests store most of the remainder.

That is, until now. Read the rest of this entry »


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